Obama’s ‘kill-list’ and the drones issue in general
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Obama’s ‘kill-list’ and the drones issue in general

Before you do anything, please make sure to read this NYT report on the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism policy. There are some fascinating and absurd nuggets as they relate to Pakistan and the drones issue. It really is required reading.

The most galling and criminal element of the story is the process by which terrorism suspects are deemed to be worthy of killing by the U.S. government: it’s one man (Barack Obama), a few advisers, a “baseball card”-like biography of the suspect, and up-and-down vote. That’s it. This is the process by which people die in brown countries far away from the U.S. (Glenn Greenwald and Ta-Nehisi Coates have good reactions to this troubling process).

Here’s the thing: I am not against the use of drones in this war per se. I think drones can be beneficial to this war. A combination of difficult terrain, a lack of institutional counter-insurgency experience and memory in the areas in question, and the inability of state forces to blend into the local population without being noticed, means that drones are a useful tool in this war.

It’s worth remembering that we are at war; some, though certainly not all, drone opponents seem to forget this basic fact. Militant groups are not going to politely turn in their weapons and stop threatening Pakistani citizens from Khyber to Karachi upon reaching some sort of accord with the state. We’ve tried that approach repeatedly and it hasn’t worked. I also don’t buy the argument that drones somehow represent a new and dangerous form of warfare, either because they don’t allow the victim to see, or fire back at, his adversary (the same could be said of snipers) or because they’re operated from a location away from the theater (very common in modern war).


Photo: AFP

So the issue for me is not the use of drones per se. It is how drones are being used. Let me list three specific concerns, the last two of which have to do with transparency:

1. You cannot make the claim — as the Obama administration does — that all military-age males in the general vicinity of militants are themselves militants. Legally, morally, and strategically, this is some of the dumbest shit I’ve heard in a long time. I had to read that paragraph in the NYT report three or four times to make sure I hadn’t misread it. Evidently, I had not. Again, this is the key passage:

It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

Well, obviously if you count everyone you kill as a militant, then you can claim that you kill only militants. That’s a bit circular and more than a bit appalling.

2. It has been clear for a while that the human intelligence for drone targets comes from people on the Pakistani side of the border. Obviously the individual identities of these sources cannot be revealed, but I really would like to know at least a little bit about them. Are they intelligence agents? Are they informers? Who are they and who do they work for and what do they do and how do they do it? These are very basic questions that we need the answers to, simply because it is this “humint” that directly leads to drone attacks.

3. Our government needs to be honest with us. Neither the khakis nor the civilians can or should be able to claim they have not supported drones in the past. We know that is a complete lie. The very same characters are today still vociferously demanding an end to drone strikes. Maybe they’ve changed their minds; perhaps they now genuinely think drones are a bad idea. People, after all, are allowed to change their minds.

Unfortunately, we do not know if they’ve changed their minds genuinely, or are still trying to keep up the old pretense of being against drone strikes in public and for them in private. If it’s the latter, it really must stop. A more open, transparent, and honest policy from our government would explicate why we need drones, under what conditions they are to be used, and under what conditions they are not to be used. We cannot have a national debate on this if we keep pretending that up is down and black is white and that our government is against drone strikes.

If they have changed their minds — and I don’t believe they have, but let’s assume for the sake of argument it’s true — then they need to be more honest about why they’ve changed their minds, and what convinced them of the inefficacy of drones relative to an earlier period when they were for it. Admitting their past support for drones will be a costly signal of sorts of their current preferences of not supporting drones.

But the status quo is, while sustainable in the short term, a completely asinine way to organize an important element of this war effort. Normally in wars you lie to the other side and share information with your side; we seem to be doing the opposite.

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