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Three Questions on U.S. Targeted Killings



Photo by Debra Sweet; some rights reserved.

The US government policy of killing suspected terrorists, whether by means of pilotless drones or Special Forces strikes, is now at least 10 years old. Estimates of how many have died because of this policy vary, but a conservative estimate is that roughly 2,000 people have been killed to date. Most of these targeted killings have taken place in Pakistan, but they have also occurred in Yemen and Somalia. The killings date back at least to November 2002, when President George W. Bush's administration used a drone to kill six people in Yemen. The number of targeted killings has significantly increased under President Barack Obama's administration. With Obama's reelection, the killing policy will presumably continue (although the policy would also likely have continued had Mitt Romney become president in 2013). [1]

This policy should concern all those who wish to prevent violence and foster peace. To pacifists, any killing is inherently wrong; but even non-pacifists (of which I am one) should be troubled by a government policy of killing people who do not belong to the armed forces of any recognized state, who live in countries with which the United States is not at war, and who have not been convicted of wrong-doing in a court of law. Three serious questions about this policy should be pondered.

1. What is the policy's cost in civilian lives?

As with estimates of the total number of people killed, estimates of civilian deaths vary: within Pakistan, the number may be as low as about 150 or as high as almost 900. The Obama administration's determination of targeted killings' cost in civilian lives might underestimate the number by considering all military-age men within a strike zone to be combatants, according to a New York Times report, "unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." [2] Whatever the precise numbers, however, people who are not terrorists or other militants have definitely died because of the targeted killing policy.

A principle of Just War theory is that lethal violence in war must be limited to combatants, with civilians being spared. Positions may vary among Just-War-theory adherents on whether military operations that unintentionally kill civilians as well as combatants can be justified; what is likely less controversial, however, is the notion that at least some precautions should be taken to avoid even unintentional civilian deaths. Whether the United States' targeted killing policy takes adequate precautions is open to question.

One disturbing aspect of the policy is the category of targeted killings used in Pakistan known as "signature" strikes. In contrast to operations aimed at killing a particular, named person, such as Osama bin Laden, signature strikes apparently aim to kill people whose location and characteristics or behavior identify them as enemy combatants, even if their identities are not known. [3] This raises the possibility of an overly lax targeting policy: a gathering of male civilians in an area known to be under the Taliban's or another hostile group's control might be hit with a drone strike because they are suspected of being terrorists plotting together. Even if other criteria are included -- "suspicious" behavior or clothing identified with militants -- the possibility of mistakes might exist.

Another aspect of the targeted killing policy, also used in Pakistan, that might create excessive risk to civilians is the "double tap" tactic, in which a targeted area is bombed several times in a relatively short period of time. One effect of this policy might be to kill or injure civilians who attempt to rescue or aid those hurt in the first bomb attack. This has the added effect of discouraging people from aiding victims of strikes. One victim of a drone attack, Faheem Qureshi, says that often "when a drone strikes and people die, nobody comes near the bodies for half an hour because they fear another missile will strike." [4]

Even those who accept the legitimacy of targeting terrorists for death would do well to consider the costs this policy has in civilian lives and whether the rules by which targeted killings are conducted take sufficient care to avoid civilian casualties.

2. Is this policy encouraging anti-Americanism?

While killing terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda or affiliated groups probably does reduce, to some extent, the danger of terrorist attacks on Americans, the targeted killing policy has significant negative consequences for US security. Lethal strikes that kill civilians along with terrorists can provoke popular anti-American backlash. Compromising other nations' sovereignty through targeted killings can provoke governmental anti-American backlash.

Pakistan provides the most vivid example of this negative response to the targeted killing policy. A 2012 Pew Research Center poll indicates that roughly 80 percent of Pakistanis have a negative view of the United States, with almost 75 percent viewing the United States as an "enemy" -- both percentages having increased, from already-high levels, in the past few years. Meanwhile, the same poll indicates Pakistani support for drone strikes stands at merely 17 percent. [5] One particularly dramatic manifestation of anti-drone sentiment came in June 2011, when a deadly drone strike prompted hundreds of Pakistanis to stage a protest in which they blocked a road and chanted anti-American slogans. [6]

Osama bin Laden's killing involved perhaps the most dangerous potential confrontation with Pakistan. The raid prompted denunciations after the fact by Pakistani politicians and the Pakistani intelligence agency's head. [7] More disturbing, however, is an aspect of US preparations for the bin Laden killing: US forces engaged in the killing planned to fight Pakistani military forces, if that was necessary to make their escape from the bin Laden compound. [8] That is, the US government was willing to risk open combat with the troops of a populous, unstable, nuclear-armed nation in order to kill a single terrorist.

Another very important consequence of the targeted killing backlash is that it may be spawning new terrorists to replace those killed. Two of the more notable terrorist plots in recent years were Najibullah Zazi's attempt to bomb the New York subway system and Faisal Shahzad's attempt to bomb Times Square; both men cited anger over American drone strikes as a motivation for their plots. [9] In an op-ed, two military veterans, including counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen, argued that "every one of these dead noncombatants represents an