No, the War on Terror Isn't Ending

We're constraining, but not stopping, the use of targeted drone strikes.

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President Barack Obama speaks at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, May 23, 2013. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

In his speech, President Barack Obama sought to redefine and in many ways "rightsize," the global war on terror.

"Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' - but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America," said the president. "We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war -- through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments -- will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways."

Obama argued to the crowd at National Defense University that, "our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end."

The question seems to come down to the definition of war and how broadly and widely you apply it. By the president's own reckoning, there does not seem to be an end of war up ahead, but rather a shrinking, a targeting and a restructuring of it.

The last decade has seen more than 6,500 American men and women die in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. By some estimates the bill for the two conflicts could reach $4 to $6 trillion when the costs of caring for those who served in battle are included. Earlier this week the Pentagon requested another $80 billion for combat operations in Afghanistan.

Now those conventional wars are scaling back. As, perhaps, is the reliance on the special operations that have captured the nation's imagination. "Our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm," Obama said.

Yet, what exactly replaces them remains the question. The world is growing more complicated, not less. Iraq is unraveling, sliced apart by suicide bombings and sectarian violence. Syria is mired in a civil war the world has lacked the will to help stop. Afghanistan faces violence and a looming threat of insurgents battling an army not yet prepared to rebuff the entirety of its attacks. In West Africa, Mali's future is threatened by al-Qaeda affiliates as well.

The president may want to stop America's endless war, but can he? Or must America simply change tactics in the face of an evolving threat against which we no longer wish to deploy the blood and treasure of our conventional forces? That is really the argument the president seemed to make, though appealing for endless war is far less appealing than calling it abridged war and arguing for its continuation.

The president noted that when it comes to deploying drones, his administration is "insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight, and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance." That is, structure and process will become the new normal when it comes to drones. And in Afghanistan, after 2014, the "progress we have made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes." Reduce, not remove. Outside Afghanistan, "we only target al-Qaeda and its associated forces. Even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained."

So while the president discussed new rules that will govern the evolving war on terror, the pronouncement of its end remains premature. It may be lighter, but it is not leaving.

As the president himself said, "the conflict with al-Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life."

That, for the moment, looks unlikely to change in a war whose wins, as the president noted, "will be measured in parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shores; fans taking in a ballgame."