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Targeted killings

Posted by Richard on February 24, 2010

They told me that if I voted Republican, the U.S. government would escalate its use of CIA hit teams and Predator UAVs to conduct assassinations without regard for collateral damage or international humanitarian law, and they were right:

The Obama administration has stepped up these kinds of remote-control bombardments, launching at least 64 drone strikes within Pakistan in its first 13 months; in its last three years, the Bush administration unleashed 41, according to an analysis by the New America Foundation.

The U.S. doesn’t like to think of itself as being in the assassination business, which is why the preferred term is “targeted killings.” Either way, this growing practice involves large legal and moral questions that should loom large, but don’t — not compared with the outcry over coercive interrogation or extraordinary renditions.

In fact, the Obama administration has gone well beyond the Bush administration not just in the number of targeted killings, but in their scope. Today, many such hits take place deep inside Pakistan, far from the theater of war. Richard Fernandez, quoting extensively from a paper by Professor Kenneth Anderson and a post at Anderson's Law of War blog, discussed the thorny problems the Obama administration is creating for itself by trying to have it both ways (emphasis added): 

Professor Kenneth Anderson says that President Obama has failed to lay the legal groundwork for acts of targeted killing of “non-state enemies of the United States” and thereby risks impaling itself on the horns of a dilemma of his own making. By relying on “international humanitarian law” instead of asserting its own legal doctrine, the Obama administration will eventually find that it cannot defend the United States without condemning itself by the legal standard it has embraced.

The really interesting thing about the administration’s increase in the use of targeted hits, its unwillingness to take custody of prisoners and indeed to hand them over to people like the Pakistani military; and indeed its declining ability to take any enemy combatant alive at all is that it is rooted not in what Anderson called Dick Cheney’s “brutish, simplistic” determination to defend America, but in President Obama’s desire to live up to the highest standards of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). And although Anderson has no fondness for Cheney’s approach he correctly appreciates that sooner or later the public is going to discover the rank hypocrisy of Obama’s approach. “But journalistic sentiment will swing back again, particularly as the NGO community seeks to peel the CIA from the uniformed military in its use of drones and targeted killing.” An Obama deprived of his Teflon may find himself unable to simultaneously justify the actions needed to suppress the enemy (which he must do to avoid an electoral backlash) and maintain his purity in the eyes of his ideological supporters. He has to square the circle. Faced with the prospect of following the urgings of the Left which don’t work, and following the urgings of his political enemies which do work, his plan is apparently to graft the two halves together. But sooner or later, as Anderson notes, someone will notice.

Some elements of the left have already noticed. See, for instance, here, here, here, and here.

I have no problem with targeting al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. They're monstrous barbarians — "enemies of humanity" under the principle of international law applied to pirates, and fair game for anyone. I worry a bit about the "collateral damage," especially when the enterprise is shrouded in secrecy and the targeting information allegedly often comes from the Pakistanis — perhaps not the most reliable or fastidious source. But it's likely that many of the "civilian casualties" reported by Pakistani villagers are in fact the friends, family, and comrades of the terrorist targets — as are the villagers doing the reporting. 

Frankly, I confess to finding it all somewhat amusing, in a dark-humor sort of way. The Obama administration still hasn't closed Gitmo, has established a "High Value Interrogation Group," has decided military tribunals might be a good idea after all, and has dramatically escalated the CIA's campaign of targeted killings, things that 98.3% of the members of that administration once denounced as contrary to U.S. and/or international law.

Yet the mainstream media and liberal establishment (but I repeat myself), when they do criticize these things, do so mildly and cautiously. Everyone knows that this administration has good intentions, so when it does these things, it's a mistake or unfortunate lapse in judgment. Whereas the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Halliburton cabal was evil, and they did these things because they wanted to make people suffer and die.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

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3 Responses to “Targeted killings”

  1. David Bryant said

    With respect to your lead sentence, Richard, whom did they tell? ;^>

    On the whole subject of “International Humanitarian Law”, did anyone seriously think that was anything besides hyperbole? I’m sure that was how Obama and his campaign team saw it. There was a sizable crowd of leftists (and even some strict constitutionalists) denouncing the Bush administration’s disregard of America’s treaty obligations, and team Obama needed their votes.

    I think a major reason for the increasing frequency of drone hits inside Pakistan is the change in the Pakistani administration itself. Musharraf is out, and the new government is growing more confident by the day. The situation in the Swat valley has mostly been resolved to the satisfaction of the residents, and more and more mainstream Pakistani thinkers are willing to identify the Taliban as “the enemy”.

    This does open up one ugly possibility that hasn’t been widely discussed of late. A few years ago there was much concern about ties between ISIL and the Taliban. Now that we’re getting lots of intelligence about targets to strike, we should be asking ourselves “Are we really fighting our enemies? Or are elements within ISIL just using the CIA as a tool?”

  2. David Bryant said

    Did I say ISIL? Oops! I meant ISI — the Pakistani inter-service intelligence agency.

  3. rgcombs said

    ”With respect to your lead sentence, Richard, whom did they tell? ;^> ”

    Oops, brain ahead of fingers again. πŸ™‚ Fixed, thanks.

    ”Did I say ISIL? Oops! I meant ISI — the Pakistani inter-service intelligence agency. ”

    Fingers ahead of brain? πŸ˜‰ I doubt that the International Society for Individual Liberty is using the CIA.

    But your concern about ISI is what I was thinking of regarding the targeting information. Pro-Taliban elements in the ISI (or other parts of the Pakistani government) might want to maximize civilian casualties to promote anti-Americanism. Or they could use the CIA to target rival warlords — who knows. My level of confidence in the CIA’s competence and sophistication in such matters is pretty low.

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