Can Obama End the 'Forever War'?

Ahead of Thursday's speech, the president is trying to narrow the use of drones.

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Workers prepare an MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle for static display at Michael Army Airfield, Dugway Proving Ground in Utah on September 15, 2011. (Reuters)

In what is being billed as a major speech Thursday, President Obama is expected to lay out the "next phase" in America's nearly 12-year-old war against al-Qaida, possibly including a plan to clear out the Guantanamo Bay prison by trying or repatriating detainees there. What Obama is less likely to spell out is exactly how he's going to end what the State Department's former legal counsel, Harold Koh, recently called "the forever war."

Nonetheless, the administration is actively seeking to narrow its criteria for enemy combatants, all in an effort to bring America closer to the end of its longest war, according to sources inside and outside the administration who are privy to the discussions about its "targeted killing" and detention programs.

The issue of defining down the enemy has become a topic of intense discussion inside the Obama administration as critics in Congress and elsewhere have been increasingly questioning how long U.S. presidents can continue to use the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Act, which was passed one week after 9/11 and set no temporal or geographic boundaries for killing terrorists.

Administration officials admit that the blowback from Obama's intensive use of drone strikes--including new waves of anti-Americanism in Pakistan and the Arab world--have caught them somewhat by surprise, galvanizing the president's desire to restrain the program and rein in his successors in the White House. Beyond that, the Obama administration genuinely believes it has removed most of "core al-Qaida" from its central home in Pakistan, and at the same time it's no longer quite as clear that "associated" groups or individuals will seek to target the U.S. homeland or U.S. interests the way Osama bin Laden did. Therefore they do not fall under the AUMF as military enemies. "We're really entering a new phase because al-Qaida in Pakistan is basically gone," said a former administration official intimately involved in formulating the policy. "The guys on the list are mostly lower-level guys in places such as North Africa, and there is the continuing threat of the lone wolf."

In a series of speeches dating back to last fall, administration officials have sought to lay the groundwork by distinguishing "core al-Qaida" or "associated groups" that are "organized" and specifically target Americans--the true enemy in the "war," in other words--from other threats. Among the latter are "lone wolves" along the lines of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers or new extremist elements emerging in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which may be locally or regionally focused in their aims, rather than organized to target America.

Koh, in a speech at the Oxford Union earlier this month, sketched out a course that specifically excluded lone terrorists. "To be clear, the United States is not at war with any idea or religion, with mere propagandists or journalists, or even with sad individuals--like the recent Boston bombers--who may become radicalized, inspired by al-Qaida's ideology, but never actually join or become part of al-Qaida," Koh said. "As we have seen, such persons may be exceedingly dangerous, but they should be dealt with through tools of civilian law enforcement, not military action."

Koh and other administration officials cite a speech last November by Jeh Johnson, then the Pentagon's general counsel, who set out the clearest criteria yet for how the war will eventually end. "We have publicly stated that our enemy consists of those persons who are part of the Taliban, al-Qaida, or associated forces," Johnson said, also at the Oxford Union. "We have publicly defined an 'associated force' as having two characteristics: (1) an organized, armed group that has entered the fight alongside al-Qaida, and (2) is a cobelligerent with al-Qaida in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners."

Then, in a passage that Koh approvingly quoted last week, Johnson said that "there will come a tipping point ... at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al-Qaida and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al-Qaida as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed." And the war would be expected to end.

What remains utterly unclear is how such a broad criterion should be defined. What does "effectively destroyed" mean? And the administration has been sending out mixed signals on how long this might take, as well as who the enemy is. At a congressional hearing last week, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said U.S. military operations against al-Qaida and associated forces are "going to go on for quite a while ... beyond the second term of the president.... I think it's at least 10 to 20 years." The United States is almost certainly going to have a drone base in post-2014 Afghanistan, and it is setting up another one in North Africa--though that may be part of an effort to shift drone operations from the CIA, which is believed to operate such a base in Saudi Arabia, to the military.

The test will come in how the administration defines the dangers emerging from newer groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or from post-Arab Spring Islamist militants such as those who killed Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens last fall. Despite their lethality, if these groups do not focus their attacks on the U.S. interests or the U.S. homeland, they may fall short of the criteria Obama wants to set for his drone war as well.

Above all, targeting them--with the possibility of "collateral damage" that kills civilians--may not be worth the long-term strategic cost of America becoming known as the "drone superpower."