Drone attacks are a huge threat to peace

by Judy Reynolds, May 9, 2010

"For the first time in history, a civilian intelligence agency is using robots to carry out a military mission, selecting people for killing in a country where the United States is not officially at war" (New York Times, Dec. 4, 2009).

Translation: For the first time in history, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is using drones to carry out a military mission of targeted killings against people in Pakistan. Welcome to the latest chapter of the "war on terror."

A colorful description of this military mission is offered in the Oct. 26, 2009, issue of the New Yorker magazine under the title of "The Predator War." From their base in Langley, Va., CIA operators watched a live video feed being captured by an infrared camera of a Predator drone, a remote unmanned plane that had been launched from hidden airfields abroad that was now hovering 2 miles or so above a house, relaying closeup footage of Baitullah Mehsud, one of the most wanted terrorists in Pakistan.

From this vantage point, the CIA operators remotely launched two Hellfire missiles from the Predator, killing Mehsud as well as 11 others, including Mehsud's wife, father-in-law, mother-in-law, a lieutenant, and seven bodyguards. The operators could then go home for dinner.

As the New Yorker article points out, this program is covert, with the CIA free to decline to provide any information about where it operates, how it selects targets, who is in charge, or how many people have been killed. Nonetheless, various estimates suggest that as of October 2009, under the Obama administration, the CIA attacks killed between 326 and 538 people.

One would think this conduct would be unlawful under executive orders signed by Presidents Ford (No. 11905), Carter (No. 12036) and Reagan (No. 12333), which banned assassinations by the CIA. However, recent presidents have found ways around these prohibitions.

President Clinton targeted Osama bin Laden, relying on the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel's opinions that the ban on assassinations did not apply to military targets such as bin Laden. The assassination ban also was declared not to apply to attacks carried out in pre-emptive self-defense, that is, when the target was planning to strike the United States.

President Bush's administration went further. After the attacks of 9/11, Bush issued a presidential finding providing authority to the CIA to kill terrorist leaders. Officials stated that Bush had not waived the executive order banning assassinations; instead, they contended that "presidential authority to kill terrorists defines operatives of al-Qaida as enemy combatants and thus legitimate targets for lethal force" (New York Times, Dec. 15, 2002).

President Obama has dramatically expanded the CIA's drone program, while the Navy is seeking to develop an even more powerful Predator drone, the X-47B, which is 20 times larger and can attack targets with two tons of guided bombs.

Thus, assassinations by the CIA are acceptable today because of the war on terror. How does this policy serve us as a nation?

If dead militants are the goal, the assassination policy serves us well. There are estimates that since 2006, 500 to 885 militants have been killed in drone strikes (New York Times, Dec. 4, 2009). The New Yorker reports that the militants are being forced to change their tactics, communicating only with elaborate secrecy and emerging only at night.

However, drone casualties include civilians, some estimates of these deaths varying from 20 to 250 (New York Times, Dec. 4, 2009). David Kilcullen, who served in Iraq as a top adviser to U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, testified that since 2006, 700 Pakistani civilians were killed in drone strikes (Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2009). The secrecy of the drone program prohibits an accurate count.

A survey last August by the Pew Research Center in Washington showed that 64 percent of Pakistani respondents viewed the United States as the enemy, while a poll released by the University of Maryland found that 90 percent of Pakistani respondents thought the U.S. has abused its power (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 22, 2010).

If our goal is peace in this volatile area, assassination by drone is not the answer. As history repeatedly has shown, killing Taliban and al-Qaida leaders is a temporary solution, with new leaders and tactics arising to take their place like the mythical serpent Hydra. Public support is crucial for the success of any foreign policy, let alone a war on an amorphous target such as "terror."

Without public support, the Taliban and al-Qaida cannot be defeated. Even the government of Pakistan continues to publicly object to the drone attacks, most likely fearing overthrow should it offer public approval.

The question arises: What else can the United States do to protect itself from those who would plan attacks on American soldiers from the lawless areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan? Aren't we killing fewer civilians using drones than we would if we used conventional bombs against these enemies?

This question offers a Hobson's choice: killing people by drone or by conventional weapons. Ending the war in Afghanistan through negotiations would eliminate the need for such a choice. Peace negotiations with the Taliban have been pursued by the United Nations, Western European countries, Saudi Arabia and the Karzai government (New York Times, March 19, 2010).

We would do well to urge the Obama administration to diligently pursue the path of negotiations to stop the war with its endless cycle of killing, and to reverse our policy of assassination by drones. Peace demands no less.

--- Judy Reynolds is a member of the Davis Peace Coalition; this column appears monthly.