Washington: US President Barack Obama on Sunday strongly defended the controversial drone strikes as "legal, effective" and necessary in a "just war" of self-defence as he announced a new counter-terrorism doctrine that include setting new limits on their use in countries like Pakistan.
In a major speech on his counter-terrorism policy at the National Defence University here, Obama said he would curtail the use of drones, shut the prison at Guantanamo Bay and seek new limits on his own war power.
Obama, who for the first time personally acknowledged that drones have killed several Americans overseas, justified the use of unmanned armed aircraft as "legal" and a highly "effective" tool in self-defence, indicating that he would continue to use it as a key asset in war against terrorism.
"We are at war with an organisation that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first... So this is a just war - a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defence," Obama said.
Obama confirmed that, a day earlier, he signed a directive setting guidelines to the strikes - the attack will only be authorised against terrorists who pose a "continuing and imminent threat" to Americans, and when there is a "near-certainty" that civilians will not be killed or hurt.
The President said that civilian casualties from drone strikes "haunt" him, but added that risk must be balanced against the threat from terrorist groups that are specifically targeting civilians. "Doing nothing is not an option."
American officials maintain that the drones only target al-Qaeda and Taliban elements. However, the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan claim hundreds of civilians, including women and children, have been killed by CIA operated drones. In Pakistan alone, up to 3,336 people have been killed by drones since 2003, according to the New America Foundation.
Obama asserted that the US respects the sovereignty of other countries, noting that a commando operation like the one that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden cannot be a norm.
"Our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm. The risks in that case were immense. The likelihood of capture, although that was our preference, was remote, given the certainty that our folks would confront resistance," Obama said.
"The fact that we did not find ourselves confronted with civilian casualties or embroiled in a extended firefight was a testament to the meticulous planning and professionalism of our special forces, but it also depended on some luck. And it was supported by massive infrastructure in Afghanistan." Pakistan`s Prime Minister-designate Nawaz Sharif has said that the CIA`s controversial drone attacks must end as it pose a "challenge" to national sovereignty.
Declaring that "America is at a crossroads", Obama sought to reframe his counter-terrorism strategy in war on terror.
"...As our fight enters a new phase, America`s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance, for the same progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power, or risk abusing it," Obama said.
"That`s why, over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists - insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in presidential policy guidance that I signed on Saturday."
The armed drone has become a signature weapon in American "war on terror". But their use raises a variety of complex legal and ethical issues, quite apart from practical arguments as to whether the drone strikes themselves are effective.
"In the Afghan war theater we must, and will continue to, support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. And that means we will continue to take strikes against high-value al-Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces," said the US President.
"America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists. Our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute them," he said.
"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. In many cases, this will involve partnerships with other countries."
Obama reiterated his commitment to shut down the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, which houses 166 detainees, arguing that it has become a symbol around the world that America flouts the rule of law.
He was disrupted several times by a woman during his hour long speech, before the heckler identified as Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the Code Pink, a group that has long protested the US wars and counter-terrorism policies, was escorted out.
Obama said he is lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen that he imposed in 2010 after it was revealed that Detroit `underwear bomber` Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab was trained in Yemen. He had pledged to close the facility during his first year in office.
Some detainees at the prison, meanwhile, are in the midst of a hunger strike, protesting their conditions.