To strike or not to strike?

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Supporters of the administration’s targeted killing policy often point out that armed drones are far more precise than other means of air warfare. In a particularly weak defense of the policy, Amitai Etzioni writes:

Most important, critics often conflate two distinct issues: Should we kill terrorists that cannot be captured and — should drones be employed? I contend that once one agrees that kill we must, critics should acknowledge that drones are the much-preferred tool of warfare.

The critics of the expanding drone wars that I know and read are not objecting to the technology itself, happy to target alleged terrorists anywhere and everywhere as long as we do it with fighter jets. We have not in fact agreed that “kill we must,” and defenders of the policy who focus on the superiority of the technology are ignoring the real issues.

As with most American wars, alternatives to the policy, and questioning its underpinnings, are too often ignored. It’s difficult to know for sure because of the extreme secrecy surrounding targeted killing policy, but the little we do know indicates that the US is killing people who do not pose an immediate danger to the United States. The New America Foundation estimates that only 2% of those killed in drone strikes have been “high-level targets.” The leaked Justice Department white paper on targeting American citizens (and we can only assume that the rules targeted non-citizens are less stringent) uses a definition of imminence that defies common sense and international law. As Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks testified in a recent hearing:

For this reason, it concludes, anyone deemed to be an operational leader of al Qaeda or its “associated forces” presents, by definition, an imminent threat even in the absence of any evidence whatsoever relating to immediate or future attack plans. In effect, the concept of “imminent threat” (part of international law relating to self-defense) becomes conflated with identity or status (a familiar part of the law of armed conflict).

That concept of imminence has been called Orwellian, and although that is an overused epithet, in this context it seems fairly appropriate. According to the Obama administration, “imminent” no longer means “immediate,” and in fact the very absence of clear evidence indicating specific present or future attack plans becomes, paradoxically, the basis for assuming that attack may perpetually be imminent.

Aside from stretching the definition of imminence beyond recognition, the administration has also broadly applied the label “associated forces” of Al Qaeda, the targets they claim the right to pursue under Congress’s Authorization for the Use of Military Force fro 2001. As Brooks notes:

As drone strikes expand beyond Al Qaeda targets (to go after, for instance, suspected members of Somalia’s al Shabaab), it grows increasingly difficult to justify such strikes under the AUMF. Do we believe al Shabaab was in any way culpable for the 9/11 attacks? Do we believe al Shabaab, an organization with primarily local and regional ambitions, has the desire or capability to engage in acts of international terrorism against the United States?

One of the most well-known drone targets, American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, is generally portrayed as posing a serious threat. While many members of Congress and pundits cheered the strike, experts on the region pointed out that he was in fact not an operational leader of AQAP.

It seems safe to assume that the universe of people killed in drone strikes goes well beyond people who were about to do harm to the United States. What of the people who are? Most other countries facing terror attacks have dealt with the problem as a law enforcement and intelligence issue. The CIA has put so much attention on the escalating drone war that it pulls resources from actual on the ground intelligence that could address this problem in a more effective way.

Farea al-Muslimi, a young Yemeni activist whose village was hit a by a drone strike, testified in the same hearing about the target of the strike:

My understanding is that Hameed Meftah, who is also known as Hameed Al-Radmi, was the target of the drone strike. Many people in Wessab know Al-Radmi. Earlier on the night he was killed, he was reportedly in the village meeting with the General Secretary of Local Councilors, the head of the local government. A person in the village told me that Al-Radmi had also met with security and government officials at the security headquarters just three days prior to the drone strike. Yemeni officials easily could have found and arrested Al-Radmi.

After the strike, the farmers in Wessab were afraid and angry. They were upset because they know Al-Radmi but they did not know that he was a target, so they could have potentially been with him during the missile strike. Some of the people that were with Al-Radmi when he was killed were never affiliated with AQAP and only knew Al-Radmi socially.

Is the US investing as much time and energy in building networks on the ground, communicating with people who have contact with targets and building relationships as it is in vetting and taking out suspected terrorists? There does not seem to be much evidence pointing in that direction, and the drone strikes are alienating the potential allies that could aid the US intelligence efforts.

It’s well past time for Congress and the administration to have a full debate on this policy, including alternatives. This is especially true given that there seems to be no clear overarching strategy governing the strikes. When will the “war on terror” be over? For how long will the US continue to target suspected terrorists outside of any recognized battlefield? When will we know if we’ve “won”? To quote Brooks again:

At the moment, there is little evidence that US drone policy—or individual drone strikes—result from a comprehensive assessment of strategic costs and benefits, as opposed to a shortsighted determination to strike targets of opportunity, regardless of long-term impact. As a military acquaintance of mine memorably put it, strikes remain “a tactic in search of a strategy.”

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