WASHINGTON: In a significant shift from his first-term covert counterterrorism policies‚ President Barack Obama Thursday unveiled a new strategy‚ saying civilian casualties in drone strikes haunt him and that Washington is in the process of rebuilding relations with Pakistan.
Obama’s new “comprehensive” strategy sets out clear rules for use of lethal force against suspected terrorists‚ who pose threat to the United States and in a circumstance when they cannot be captured.
However in a speech‚ Obama indicated that in the Afghan theater Washington would continue to wage drone strikes against high-level al-Qaeda targets and those intending to attack U.S. forces deployed in the Afghanistan at least until the American forces are withdrawn from the country.
In a major speech at the National Defense University‚ Obama touched on some controversial aspsects of the US counterterrorism operations. He also renewed his resolve to close down Guantanamo Bay and urged Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO.
Obama also stressed the point that the U.S. is not engaged in a boundless global war on terror.
The U.S. operation against Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad cannot be a norm‚ he said. He also referred to the cost of the action on U.S. relationship with Pakistan‚ and added that Washington is now rebuilding the vital relationship.
“Our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm. The risks in that case were immense; the likelihood of capture‚ although our preference‚ was remote given the certainty of resistance; the fact that we did not find ourselves confronted with civilian casualties‚ or embroiled in an extended firefight‚ was a testament to the meticulous planning and professionalism of our Special Forces but also depended on some luck.
“And even then‚ the cost to our relationship with Pakistan and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership”.
The United States‚ he said‚ is fighting al-Qaeda‚ Taliban and their associated forces.
Obama said Washington will continue to have the need to partner with foreign countries to counter terrorist threats and acknowledged the sacrifices Pakistan has made.
“Already‚ thousands of Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives in fighting terrorists‚” Obama said.
“America is at a crossroads‚” in the fight against terror.
“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle‚ or else it will define us‚ mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare”.
Today‚ he said‚ the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat. “Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.
They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They have not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11. Instead‚ what we have seen is the emergence of various al Qaeda affiliates. From Yemen to Iraq‚ from Somalia to North Africa‚ the threat today is more diffuse‚ with Al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula‚ AQAP‚ the most active in plotting against our homeland. While none of AQAP’s efforts approach the scale of 9/11 they have continued to plot acts of terror‚ like the attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009 “.
On the loss of civilian lives in U.S. counterterrorism actions‚ he said “it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties‚ a risk that exists in all wars”.
“For the families of those civilians‚ no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me‚ and those in my chain of command‚ these deaths will haunt us as long as we live‚ just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq”.
He also stressed the utility of U.S. assistance for foreign countries‚ calling it fundamental to American national security‚ and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism.
“Moreover‚ foreign assistance is a tiny fraction of what we spend fighting wars that our assistance might ultimately prevent. For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war‚ we could be training security forces in Libya‚ maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors‚ feeding the hungry in Yemen‚ building schools in Pakistan‚ and creating reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists”.
Meanwhile‚ the White House released a policy document that Obama okayed ahead of his speech. The document lays out a rigorous process for reviewing and approving operations to capture or employ lethal force against terrorist targets outside the United States and outside areas of active hostilities.
“This document provides information regarding counterterrorism policy standards and procedures that are either already in place or will be transitioned into place over time”.
“As Administration officials have stated publicly on numerous occasions‚ we are continually working to refine‚ clarify‚ and strengthen our standards and processes for using force to keep the nation safe from the terrorist threat. One constant is our commitment to conducting counterterrorism operations lawfully. In addition‚ we consider the separate question of whether force should be used as a matter of policy. The most important policy consideration‚ particularly when the United States contemplates using lethal force‚ is whether our actions protect American lives”.
The strategy underlines preference for capture of suspected terrorists.
“The policy of the United States is not to use lethal force when it is feasible to capture a terrorist suspect‚ because capturing a terrorist offers the best opportunity to gather meaningful intelligence and to mitigate and disrupt terrorist plots. Capture operations are conducted only against suspects who may lawfully be captured or otherwise taken into custody by the United States and only when the operation can be conducted in accordance with all applicable law and consistent with our obligations to other sovereign states”.
On the standards for the use of lethal force‚ it says “any decision to use force abroad‚ even when our adversaries are terrorists dedicated to killing American citizens‚ is a significant one”. “Lethal force will not be proposed or pursued as punishment or as a substitute for prosecuting a terrorist suspect in a civilian court or a military commission.
“Lethal force will be used only to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons‚ and even then‚ only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.
“In particular‚ lethal force will be used outside areas of active hostilities only when the following preconditions are met:
First‚ it emphasizes‚ there must be a legal basis for using lethal force‚ whether it is against a senior operational leader of a terrorist organization or the forces that organization is using or intends to use to conduct terrorist attacks.
Second‚ the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing‚ imminent threat to U.S. persons.
“It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing‚ imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat‚ the United States will not use lethal force”.
Third‚ the criteria must be met before lethal action may be taken including (1) near certainty that the terrorist target is present; (2) Near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed; (3) An assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation;(4) An assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. persons; and (5) An assessment that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat to U.S. persons.
Finally‚ the policy says‚ whenever the United States uses force in foreign territories‚ international legal principles‚ including respect for sovereignty and the law of armed conflict‚ impose important constraints on the ability of the United States to act unilaterally‚ and on the way in which the United States can use force. “The United States respects national sovereignty and international law”.