April 2010

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More, More, Drone War

By Thomas Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's Political Blog "Certain Doubt"

The continuation of America’s drone war against targets in Pakistan is a crystal clear demonstration of the complete and utter bankruptcy of United States moral standing in the world. As they are being practiced today, drone attacks are in no way ethical. Under international law, they may not even be legal. But perhaps worst of all they are not even a rational policy for solving the problems posed by extremists in the Middle East.


As Gary Solis of The Washington Post points out, the US government has taken great liberties with ethical convention since the outset of its pronounced war on terror:

Whether in international or non-international armed conflict, we kill terrorists who take a direct part in hostilities because their doing so negates their protection as civilians and renders them lawful targets. If captured, the unlawful acts committed during their direct participation makes them subject to prosecution in civilian courts or military tribunals. They are not entitled to prisoner-of-war status.

However, as Solis goes on to note, the same ethical conveniences we use against those we consider terrorists could be equally applicable to the C.I.A. agents running the drone program.

In terms of international armed conflict, those CIA agents are, unlike their military counterparts but like the fighters they target, unlawful combatants. No less than their insurgent targets, they are fighters without uniforms or insignia, directly participating in hostilities, employing armed force contrary to the laws and customs of war. Even if they are sitting in Langley, the CIA pilots are civilians violating the requirement of distinction, a core concept of armed conflict, as they directly participate in hostilities.

Their unlawful combatants are being killed by our unlawful combatants. Where is the moral high ground here?


Beyond ethics, there are stirrings in the international community questioning the legality of drone attacks. In 2009 NYU law Professor Philip Alston issued a report to the UN General Assembly that states the United States government’s use of unmanned drones or predators to carry out targeted executions – or to use the government euphemism, “extrajudicial killings” – may be violating international law. In addition, the ACLU recently filed a suit against the government:

“In particular, the lawsuit asks for information on when, where and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, the number and rate of civilian casualties and other basic information essential for assessing the wisdom and legality of using armed drones to conduct targeted killings,” the ACLU said in a statement, announcing its action.

Common Sense

Questionable as the ethical and legal considerations are, the use of drones to target Taliban leaders in Pakistan fails as a policy for an even more basic reason: it makes no sense.

Consider the following report by quote from David Sanger of The New York Times:

A strike by an unmanned drone last week killed a senior Qaeda commander...

Sounds clear, right? Bold, definitive, lots of action words like strike and kill. To read this first sentence you’d think the U.S. acted decisively to identify an enemy and take him out. Yay team!

The piece goes on to state Hussein al-Yemeni was: “... a senior Qaeda commander who had played a significant role in planning the killing of Central Intelligence Agency operatives in late December at a base in Afghanistan, according to American officials.”

Again, clear and concise. According to a “US counterterrorism official,” positive identification was made. But then we get:

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described Mr. Yemeni as an “Al Qaeda planner and facilitator” in his late 20s or early 30s, who had established ties with the Haqqani network, which has planned many Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, and with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

His role was described by one American official as a “conduit in Pakistan for funds, messages and recruits, but his real specialty was bombs and suicide operations.”

Okay, I get it. He was a bad guy. A thoroughly dangerous twenty something who liked to blow things up. So we obliged him by dropping a bomb on his head. That seems clear enough – until we read the next sentence:

It was unclear exactly what role Mr. Yemeni might have played in preparing the Jordanian double-agent, Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, also known as Humam Khalil Mohammed, for his meeting in Khost on Dec. 30.

Did I read that correctly? We have an unnamed “American Official” who claims we killed a senior al Qaeda commander who allegedly specialized in bombs and suicide operations and who played a significant role in planning the killing of CIA operatives... but no one knows can say what significant role he “might” have played in the bombing???

This shit drives me crazy.

The drone attacks are part of a covert program... whose existence is an open secret. The attacks are a key element of an effort to put pressure on Al Qaeda and its leadership, but in recent weeks they appear to have been used to kill those believed responsible for the Khost attack. In an unusual statement, a senior intelligence official told reporters the deaths (of the CIA agents) would be “avenged through successful, aggressive counterterrorism operations.”

If I am a Pakistani reading this news report there is no doubt in my mind what this is: vengeance. The CIA got caught with their pants down, were given a good sharp kick in the balls now are sending drones around in angry swarms to fire missiles at anyone who looks like they’re up to no good. This isn’t a war policy. This isn’t even a viable strategy. It’s a vendetta. This is Hatfields and McCoys. You killed some of our guys so we’re going to lob some Hellfires and take out some of your guys.

But wait, it gets better. Another news report said of the incident:

N. WAZIRISTAN: At least five persons were killed and several others were injured when US unmanned drones fired missiles at a house in Miramshah area of North Waziristan on Monday evening. According to media reports, US suspected drones fired five missiles at a house in Manay Khan Saraey area of Miran Shah, killing five persons and injuring several others.

And another:

PESHAWAR: Five people were killed and six others sustained injuries in a US drone attack on a hotel and nearby veterinary hospital near Miramshah bazaar in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) on Monday. The drone fired three missiles, which struck a small hotel, where local tribesmen were staying due to daylong curfew clamped by the authorities in the volatile tribal region.

and this

Peshawar: At least five persons were killed in a US drone attack in the lawless north Waziristan tribal region in northwest

The drone fired five missiles at targets near Miranshah, the main town in north Waziristan Agency. A veterinary hospital was also hit by a missile, sources said.

A veterinary hospital?

As many people have pointed out winning hearts and minds of a people is exceedingly difficult when one is dropping bombs on them. But it doesn't matter. The only important thing here is if we are really serious about wanting to solve the problems of extremists in lawless and volatile tribal areas of Pakistan, the only way it’s ever going to happen is if we bring law and stability to these regions. Blowing up hotels, houses, and hospitals with missiles fired from unmanned drones targeted by C.I.A. agents and piloted by contractors sitting in a trailer in New Mexico is never going to make us more secure. It only one more piece of evidence that the U.S. is not serious about peace. All it proves is that our government doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about the people of Pakistan.

Hell, we don’t even care about their pets!