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.