Faced with growing criticism of US clandestine counter-terror policies, President Barack Obama on Thursday declared to enforce strict oversight over use of drones as he regretted the loss of civilian lives and observed that Washington was rebuilding ties with Pakistan.
His speech at the NationalDefenceUniversity sought to underscore transparent rules for US counterterrorism actions in his second term and comes at an important time in relationship with Pakistan, where a new democratic government is due to take charge in upcoming weeks.
The new “comprehensive” strategy, espoused by Obama, 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.
But the US president indicated that in the Afghan theatre, Washington would continue to wage drone strikes against high-level al Qaeda targets and those intending to attack US forces deployed in the Afghanistan at least until the American forces are withdrawn from the country.
Addressing some controversial aspects of the US counterterrorism operations, Obama also renewed his resolve to close down GuantanamoBay and urged Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO.
He also made the point that the US was not engaged in a boundless global war on terror.
“The US operation against Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad cannot be a norm,” he said.
He also referred to the cost of the unilateral action on US relationship with Pakistan, and added that Washington was 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 fire fight, 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, was fighting al Qaeda, Taliban and their associated forces.
Obama said Washington would continue to have the need to partner with foreign countries to counter terrorist threats and acknowledged the sacrifices Pakistan had 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, he added.
“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’.”
He said the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan was on 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’ve 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.”
He also stressed the utility of US 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.”
Meanwhile, the White House released a policy document that Obama had approved 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.”
The strategy underlines preference for capture of suspected terrorists.