U.S.’s extra-judicial killings in Pakistan

Joshua Foust had a really thoughtful post at Registan today, in which he started to assess the “effectiveness” of the drone-implemented, extra-judicial killings that the U.S. military has undertaken against hundreds of claimed “militant leaders” in northwest Pakistan over the past six years.
His conclusion:

    The end result of this incessant drone war against militant leadership is that the leadership itself is far more radical and far less willing to negotiate an end to their insurgency than they were in 2004. While the drones could be called a stunning success in going after al Qaeda, they’ve also been used for years to go after the Pakistani Taliban—and in both cases the men who replaced the dead commanders were more vicious and less amenable to overtures from governments to discuss an end to the violence.
    While a (very) brief look at the leadership of these organizations cannot really say much about their success or failure in aggregate, it can highlight some of the second order consequences of a somewhat overly narrow focus on degrading leadership. Successful though it may be—and if [the figures presented here by researchers at the New America Foundation are] to be believed, then a large majority of drone targets are actual bad guys—the drone war still carries with it serious consequences. Even within the insurgency in Northwest Pakistan, we cannot conclusively say that drones have had a major effect on operations, considering how much worse the area has gotten as strike frequency increased (we cannot draw anything more than a correlation on this front). Al Qaeda’s expeditionary reach may have been curtailed, but it seems to have been at the cost of vast swaths of Pakistan… and even Afghanistan. Have we been shooting ourselves in the foot?

So Foust is identifying two significant negatives that, he says, either did follow, or may have followed, from the U.S. military’s launching of the “drone war” in Pakistan:

    1. “The leadership itself is far more radical and far less willing to negotiate an end to their insurgency than they were in 2004.” Foust describes this as unequivocally an “end result” of the drone war.
    2. The situation in Northwest Pakistan– I’m assuming he’s referring to the political situation, the socioeconomic situation and the general conditions in which the area’s people live– have gotten worse. Foust describes this only as an observable “correlation”, without claiming to establish any actual responsibility of the drone war for having caused it.

But still. Given how much respect I have for Foust’s grasp of the dynamics in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I think we have to take seriously his argument that the net geostrategic effect of the drone war has probably been that it has been counter-productive.
To understand the scale of this “extra-judicial killing” phenomenon, go look at the NAF tables, which tell us that from 2004 until now, the U.S. military has launched 117 killer-drone strikes in Pakistan, killing somewhere between 846 and 1,238 people in Northwest Pakistan, of whom between 561 and 866 were described as “militants”.
Of the 117 killer-drone attacks, 21 have been launched in just the nine weeks of this year to date; and reportedly, a total of 55 since Pres. Obama’s inauguration.
I am very glad Foust has brought his thoughtful, public-policy form of cost-benefit analysis to the question of drone-based killings. But there is another form of analysis that should be applied, too, that I think is even more important: that is, an analysis of the validity/justifiability of these kinds of operations under international law.
I shall leave aside for the moment the issue of Pakistan’s national sovereignty. Not because I think it’s unimportant, but because I believe, as Foust does, that the strikes are carried out with the Pakistani government’s full knowledge and therefore, at some level with its acquiescence, or possibly cooperation.
Rather, I want to look at the whole ethics and legal situation of a policy whereby a network of U.S. military officers that spans several continents undertakes a process whereby a person is determined to be a “valid target for killing”; he is then located; and then, a series of steps are undertaken that send that inanimate killing machine, the drone, somewhere into his vicinity, and it targets and kills him.
Okay, first of all, this is not a precision, “one-bullet” type of killing. You can see from the NAF figures that if 117 strikes were reported, resulting in a minimum of 846 deaths, then each strike killed, on average, around seven people. Or perhaps, more than ten people.
Second, scroll down the NAF report through the incident-by-incident reporting for 2010. In 21 drone-killing strikes so far this year, between 112 and 186 people were reported killed. But the same local and global media reporting that arrived at those death tolls were able to name only ten actual identified “Al Qaeda/Taliban leaders” who were killed! Four of those named leaders were killed in one strike. In the majority of strikes, no named “leaders” were identified, at all. Thus, the drone killings seem not to be used only for killing known individuals identified (through some very opaque process) to be “leaders”, but also, very frequently, for killing anyone participating in what may look from a distance like a “gathering” of “Al Qaeda/Taliban militants”.
At the time of their being killed, are these alleged “militants” engaged in combat against the U.S. military? It would be hard to make such a claim, since the U.S. military has no publicly identified military units engaged in combat on Pakistani soil.
Therefore, it would seem to me that for the U.S. military to be going out at proactively hunting down and killing people, even allegedly “militant” people, who are located outside any zone of combat, is extra-judicial killing, not lawful combat.
The fact that the members of the U.S. military who “pull the trigger” on the drone are sitting in secure circumstances many hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the battlefield makes these killings feel even more dishonorable.
And then, let us look at the whole, presumed “information stream” on which the relevant commanders make their decisions to kill or not to kill. In a judicial killing (an execution), such as we have far too many of here in the U.S., the person to be killed is at least clearly identified by name, and the accusations against him or her have been extensively presented and tested in a court of law.
In the case of these killings carried out by our government in distant Pakistan, we have in most cases absolutely no idea what the “evidence” against any of the targets might be– or even, in most cases, who they are. They are simply individuals judged by some body or grouping inside the U.S. military to be “suspicious”, a “a threat”, or “possible militant leaders”, or whatever.
Where are the criteria? Where is the process that tests these accusations– that makes certain that a gathering, say, of men with guns in some corner of Waziristan is not simply a group going to accompany a groom to his wedding?
Nobody knows.
That is what makes this whole process of distance-killing so eery, so unaccountable and Star Chamber-like.
And it comes as no surprise that it really upsets the people on the ground, in Northwest Pakistan, a lot.
The U.S. military clearly seemed to “learn” a lot in this realm from the Israelis, who have used extra-judicial killings against distant enemies a lot, over the course of many decades, but most especially since the 1990s, in Gaza. It was the Israelis, too, who pioneered the use of airborne drones to execute those killings.
The Israelis’ use of extra-judicial killings (= assassinations) was never judged legal under international law, by anyone else. And nor should the U.S. military’s increasingly frequent use of this tactic– in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In addition, in Gaza, over the many years the Israelis used drone-based assassinations, they were never “effective” in terms of decapitating the leaderships of Hamas and its allied groups and leaving them in operational disarray. Instead, Israel’s repeated use of the tactic led Hamas to adapt in numerous ways, including by placing heavy stress on constantly raising up and testing new generations of successor leaders, by dispersing its assets, and so on.
In Pakistan, guess what, the militants have been doing the same thing. Indeed, it’s quite possible that the popular resentment aroused by the Americans’ use of the drone-based killings may result in the building of a well-entrenched popular movement where none was before.
Tragic. It’s like humankind has learned nothing over the last 200 years. Except now it is grown-up American boys in military uniforms, with video-games, who are sowing havoc many thousands of miles away from our shores.

5 thoughts on “U.S.’s extra-judicial killings in Pakistan

  1. bevin

    You are most unfair to the Star Chamber.
    What is involved here is cold blooded murder. I am not sure that getting into the details, which clearly show the majority of those killed to be so incapable of offense that they cannot even be labelled, post mortem, as ‘militants’, is not counter productive.
    The onus of proof must be on the killers, who, in an operation of this kind are all agents of the President, acting with the approval of Congress.
    My guess is that the Pentagon estimate from last year, that 3% or so of the casualties can actually be calumniated by name, and that most of the 97% are simply accidental victims is close to the mark.
    With this caveat: this is a campaign of terror designed to intimidate a wide population and to convey to the world the message that the United States is the nastiest actor on the planet. The pretence of aiming to win ‘hearts and minds’is pretty threadbare, it serves only to salve the consciences of those without the integrity or the courage to point out that the government is killing people simply to show that it can.
    There are no two ways about it: these actions are indefensible. And those responsible for them are war criminals against whom the evidence is a deal more compelling than that which was on offer when Milosevic was in the dock at The Hague.

  2. Don Bacon

    it’s quite possible that the popular resentment aroused by the Americans’ use of the drone-based killings may result in the building of a well-entrenched popular movement where none was before.
    It’s beyond “quite possible.” Like, what is the normal human reaction to wanton killing by a foreign power? Pakistanis are people too, not simply collateral targets.
    This US terror campaign (h/t bevin) is not only immoral and illegal, it is counter-productive. Like all the other current US military activities it creates enemies.
    The Times
    March 10, 2010
    US drone strikes in Pakistan tribal areas boost support for Taleban
    . . .the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank, concluded that 32 per cent of the 830 to 1,210 people killed in 114 drone strikes from 2004 until February this year were civilian. . .The Pakistani military appears to agree, to some extent. A senior officer told The Times that he believed that a third of the dead were militants, a third sympathisers and a third innocent civilians.
    “One cannot deny the effect of the drones in taking out senior leadership, the militancy’s centre of gravity,” a Pakistani army officer admitted. “It has had a huge impact. But at the same time it has become a huge motivation to fight against the Government and the army because of the perception that it is a breach of sovereignty and is killing civilians. All combined, it creates a very negative impact.”

  3. Jack

    Having visited there, I can say that Israel appears to be, as many Israelis say, a military organization attached to a country. With our aping of the Israeli remote-controlled, terror assassinations, we are headed in the same direction. Obama has been totally coopted by the military-industrial complex. Just like Hillary Clinton, he has been told that “real men” bomb and kill their enemies anywhere, anytime, and only liberal wimps believe in all that “due process” nonesense; and he drank the kool-aid. Obama clearly knows better, but being so gutless on other issues, he thinks that this will increase his “toughness” score with “the guys.”

  4. pmr9

    The US and Israel seem oblivious to the precedent they’re setting, and to the probability that before long their enemies will have cheap drones capable of carrying out assassinations from the air in Israel or even the continental US.
    There’s no reason why drones the size of birds, with jamming-resistant radio control, and capable of diving like a falcon on their target, can’t be made cheaply using mass-produced electronics. This should be well within the capabilities of a country like Iran. If they’re small and numerous, air forces won’t be able to intercept them. Just as British forces adopted the machine gun at the end of the 19th century to win colonial wars by easy massacre, only to be mown down by it in the fields of Flanders fifteen years later, drone warfare may be turned on its initiators.

  5. Crimson Ghost

    The US has long been involved with extra judicial killings — but usually via proxies operating “death squads. The massacre of tens of thousands of people by US supported “death squads in Central America during the 1980s comes to mind as does “Operation Phoenix” during the Vietnam War.
    The idea that the US was a paragon of virtue on these matters before the intoduction of the drones is a big lie.
    And does anyone doubt that our ruling elites would not hesitate to kill Americans right here at home (and not just so-called militants”) if serious civil unrest were ever to break out.

Comments are closed.