Targeted killings in Pakistan and elsewhere : official U.S. policy now ?

November 2, 2009

One of the things U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ran into last week during her trip to Pakistan was anger over attacks by unmanned “drone” aircraft inside Pakistan and along the border with Afghanistan.

 One questioner during an interaction with members of the public said the missile strikes by Predator aircraft amounted to “executions without trial” for those killed.  Another asked Clinton to define terrorism and whether she considered the drone attacks to be an act of terrorim like the car bomb that ripped through Peshawar that same week killing more than 100 people.

The people of Pakistan aren’t the only ones asking that question.  A top UN rights expert has swung the attention back on the drone programme, saying that the United States may be violating international law with the missile strikes.

Philip Aston, the Special Rapporteur on extradjudicial, summary or arbitary executions, said there could be circumstances under which the use of such techniques could be justified in international law, but Washington would have to show it followed appropriate precautions and accountability mechanisms.

The United States will have to be more upfront about its Predator war. “Otherwise you have the really problematic bottom line, which is that the Central Intelligence Agency is running a programme that is killing a significant number of people, and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international law.”

There is little doubt now that targeted killing is official U.S. policy,  Jane Meyer argues in a detailed piece for the New Yorker.  What is worrying is that the embrace of the Predator programme has occurred with remarkably little public discussion, given that it represents a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force. “And because of the CIA program’s secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war,” Meyer writes.The drone programme, for all its successes, has stirred deep ethical concerns. Meyers quotes Michael Walzer, a political philosopher and author of the book “Just and Unjust Wars” that he is unsettled by the notion of an intelligence agency wielding such lethal power in secret. “Under what code does the CIA operate ?” he asks. “I don’t know. The military operates under a legal code, and it has judicial mechanisms. ”

He said of the CIA’s drone programe, “there should be a limited, finite group of people who are targets , and that list should be publicly defensible and available. Instead, it’s not being publicy defended. People are being killed, and we generally require some public justification when we go about killing people.”

The article is worth reading in full, but here some other parts that I found interesting :

- It took the CIA 16 missile strikes and 14 months before it killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistan Taliban. During this hunt, between 207 and 321 additional people were killed, depending on which news accounts you rely upon.

-  During his first nine and half months in office, President Barack Obama has authorised as many CIA aerial attacks in Pakistan as George W. Bush did in his final three years, according to a study done by the New America Foundation. So far this year, the administration has sanctioned at least 41 CIA missile strikes inside Pakistan – a rate of approximately one bombing a week.

- At any given moment, the CIA has multiple drones flying over Pakistan, scounting for targets, according to a White House counter-terrorism official. There are actually so many drones in the area that sometimes arguments have broken out over which remote operators can claim which targets, provoking “command and control issues.”

- Only six of the 41 CIA drone strikes conducted by the Obama administration in Pakistan have targeted al Qaeda members. Eighteen were directed at Taliban targets in Pakistan and 15 were aimed specifically at Mehsud.  The tactical shift in the U.S. strikes has quieted some of the Pakistani criticism of the air strikes, although the bombings are still seen as undermining the country’s sovereignty.

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