Kudos to the Washington Post for acknowledging on Friday that the U.S. presidential campaign has skirted some key questions of U.S. policy -- in particular, the accelerating U.S. drone war that's become a cornerstone of our national counterterrorism strategy. As a recent Post news story pointed out: "The number of militants and civilians killed in the drone campaign over the past 10 years will soon exceed 3,000 by certain estimates, surpassing the number of people al Qaeda killed in the Sept. 11 attacks."
While it is indeed a virtue of drones that they "do not put the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk," as the Post's editorial acknowledges, whether they are really a "humane" way to fight an "irregular enemy," as the Post asserts, is an open question. White House Senior Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan encouraged this narrative by claiming last year that "there hasn't been a single collateral [civilian] death" from drones in Pakistan since August 2010; other unnamed senior administration officials told the New York Times that civilian deaths were "in the single digits."
In fact, independent investigators have concluded that up to 885 civilians have been reported killed by U.S. drones, and many more wounded.
Much as U.S. officials like to call these "surgical strikes," no one performs surgery with missiles. Bombs dropped from drones in the sky necessarily destroy much more than just their intended target. A recent report from law school clinics at New York University and Stanford explained, for example, that the "blast radius from a Hellfire missile can extend anywhere from 15-20 meters; shrapnel may also be projected significant distances from the blast." Missiles fired from drones therefore may incinerate or slice through their victims with shrapnel, or release such powerful blasts that they simply crush humans' internal organs. Survivors may suffer severe burns and wounds, and lose limbs, hearing and vision. The tactic can hardly be called "humane."
Part of the problem with reliance on drones strikes is that when U.S. soldiers aren't anywhere near the target site, as the Center for Civilians in Conflict and Columbia University recently documented,they're far less likely to know what the so-called "collateral damage" is -- that is, how many innocent civilians were killed or maimed. They're also in a far worse position to know whether the people they've killed were actually fighters battling the United States, local insurgents fighting their own government, or merely innocent civilians, many of whom may look on a video monitor like fighters -- perhaps because they're carrying a weapon for self-defense, or because they were wrongly labeled an insurgent by an unreliable local informant.
Melbourne law professor Kevin Jon Heller in a new article provides a harrowing example of the first "signature strike" by the CIA against three men standing in an abandoned mujahideen complex in Afghanistan, killed by a Predator drone because the CIA hoped that the tallest of the men was Osama bin Laden. (He wasn't.)
The Post glides over the fact that not only will other nations "inevitably acquire and use armed drones, just as they have adopted all previous advances in military technology," but they will rely on U.S. actions to justify using them covertly and perhaps unlawfully, beyond the bounds of a legitimate armed conflict and against individuals who may not actually be fighting their governments or threatening them with imminent harm.
That's one reason why it's so important that the U.S. not only provide more information about its drone war but provide information that ensures the world that it's operating within the bounds of the law. As I've explained before, targeted killings by drones may be justified if the U.S. government is killing members of enemy armed forces it's at war with, others who are directly participating in hostilities or who pose an imminent threat to American lives. Outside of that, targeted killings are unlawful assassinations.
The Post, while making the case for more transparency, too easily assumes "the strikes meet tests for domestic and international legality," simply because in 2001 Congress authorized armed force against the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us and the Taliban, who harbored them. But Congress did not authorize a war against any al Qaeda affiliate that might invent itself anytime after those attacks anywhere in the world, most of which are not fighting the United States. That al Qaeda-related forces such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, in Yemen were allegedly behind three failed attempts to attack the United States over the last decade does not mean we are at war with AQAP, and it does not mean we can launch missiles to kill anyone who affiliates himself with the group in Yemen. Such tactics will surely, and likely already have, enhanced rather than reduced the threat of anti-U.S. terrorism. The Post acknowledges that the further the drone war moves "from the original al Qaeda target in Afghanistan, the less validity it has under the 2001 congressional authorization," noting that "most of the world is unlikely to accept an argument that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks justify drone strikes more than a decade later in Northern Africa."
Exactly. Unfortunately, the Post at the same time insists that "the continuing fight against al Qaeda and other Islamic jihadists targeting the United States must be considered a war and conducted as such."
That, too, assumes too much.
Eleven men were arrested last weekend in Indonesia for planning to bomb the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, among other targets. News reports indicate they may be tied to al Qaeda in Indonesia. Under the Post's logic, the U.S. government should consider itself at war with that group and can use drones to kill those suspected of planning the attack, so long as the U.S. military, rather than the CIA, is the one to do it. That's not only far beyond the bounds of international law, but it would surely inflame anti-American sentiment, exacerbate the local terrorism problem and likely undermine the local government's efforts to deal with it.
Ultimately, as even Mitt Romney has acknowledged, "we can't kill our way out of this." The appropriate response to terrorism is, as the Post writes, "to encourage stable and representative governments and economic development in countries such Pakistan and Afghanistan" -- and other places where terrorism provides better opportunities for young unemployed men than does their current failing economy. The United States is already trying to do this to some extent, but those are long-term solutions that require multilateral efforts and won't provide immediate, obvious results. (They also don't make for winning soundbites in a presidential campaign.)
Killing suspected terrorists and their assistants aren't quick solutions either, though. More likely, they'll provoke more violence and undermine more productive counterterrorism efforts.
The Washington Post is right that the drone war needs to come out of the shadows; but it's wrong to suggest we should be waging an endless war. It's time to stop thinking about U.S. counterterrorism strategy as a war and start thinking about it as a long-term problem that demands a consistent commitment to a sustainable solution.