Washington - The United States must prepare for a time when it no longer is at war with al-Qaeda, and when sweeping federal powers ushered in after the September 11, 2001 attacks come to an end, the Pentagon's top lawyer said.
The address by Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson marked the first time a senior US official publicly raised the possibility of an end to the so-called "war on terror," launched by former president George W Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
With the US military campaign against al-Qaeda now entering its 12th year, "we must also ask ourselves: how will this conflict end?" Johnson said on Thursday in remarks delivered at the Oxford Union in Britain.
The terror network, which is under steady pressure, eventually will become so weak that it would no longer will make sense to maintain a legal framework for all-out war, Johnson said, according to a text released by the Pentagon.
"I do believe that on the present course, there will come a tipping point - a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda as we know it, the organisation that our Congress authorised the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed," he said.
It would then fall to law enforcement and intelligence agencies to go after al-Qaeda's remnants, said Johnson, a long-time political ally of President Barack Obama.
"At that point, we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an 'armed conflict' against al-Qaeda and its associated forces," he said.
Instead, the government would pursue "a counter-terrorism effort against individuals who are the scattered remnants of al-Qaeda... with our military assets available in reserve to address continuing and imminent terrorist threats."
The war against al-Qaeda has been cited to justify covert intelligence operations and unilateral military action around the world against suspected militants, including a major drone bombing campaign in Pakistan and the indefinite detention of alleged Qaeda members at a US-run prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The US administration chose to address the issue before an audience in Britain, where the government has harboured misgivings about the legality of the drone bombing raids.
The drone air war dramatically increased since Obama entered the White House in 2009, causing an unknown number of civilian casualties.
US officials, however, reportedly are examining stricter rules that would limit the open-ended, ambiguous nature of the drone raids.
With al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden dead and other senior figures killed however, US officials reportedly are examining stricter rules that would limit the open-ended, ambiguous nature of the drone raids.
Johnson's speech also signalled a possible path to closing the controversial prison at Guantanamo, since the legal rationale for holding detainees would no longer apply once the war was declared over.
"At that point we will also need to face the question of what to do with any members of al-Qaeda who still remain in US military detention without a criminal conviction and sentence," Johnson said, noting that after World War II, the release of some Nazi prisoners of war was delayed.
Johnson, considered a possible candidate to become the next US attorney general, warned that the country must not accept the idea of a permanent state of war with no end in sight.
"'War must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs," he said.
"War violates the natural order of things in which children bury their parents. In war, parents bury their children," he said.
"In its 12th year, we must not accept the current conflict, and all that it entails, as the 'new normal'," he added.
"Peace must be regarded as the norm toward which the human race continually strives."