US Drone Killings of Western Aid Workers Highlight Problems of Nebulous War

President Obama’s apology for the accidental killings of two innocent hostages by US drones in Pakistan has led to understandable criticism of the United States’ secret drone program and charges that Obama has not fulfilled his own promises never to launch a lethal drone strike without “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

But we’ve known all along that the president’s statement in his 2013 speech was just a policy preference. It was never an actual limitation on the use of drones, or more importantly, on the use of lethal weapons to kill suspected terrorists.

In fact, the accidental killings of the two hostages, and of the two other al-Qaeda-affiliated Americans who weren’t specifically targeted, is the logical consequence not simply of the US drone program, but of the murky definition of a war against an ever-changing terrorist organization and its ever-growing and shifting affiliates. These deaths and their rare acknowledgment by the US government underscore why, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, it matters very much whether, where and how we classify the fight against terrorism a war.

While I’m sympathetic to the claims we need more transparency in the drone war, states kill people in wars all the time without publicly identifying all of the dead. That’s partly because killing is lawful in war, so long as it’s proportionate to the strategic military advantage expected and the state takes all feasible precautions to prevent and minimize civilian deaths. (Arguably, at least, the months-long surveillance of an al-Qaeda site in Pakistan constituted such a precaution.) But outside of war, the rules are much more stringent: a state may only kill to prevent an imminent loss of human life. We have no indication whatsoever that the alleged al-Qaeda compound targeted was about to conduct a lethal attack. 

Commentators such as Rosa Brooks have argued it’s time to drop these technical distinctions between war and peace and come to accept that we’re in a state of perpetual war, noting that “it has become virtually impossible to draw a clear distinction between war and not-war — not just because of bad-faith legal and political arguments made by U.S. officials (though we’ve seen plenty of those), but because of genuine and significant changes to the global geopolitical landscape.”

While there have indeed been changes to the geopolitical landscape over the past decade or more, that landscape has never been exactly static: the purpose of international law, both the laws of war and human rights law, are intended, for good reason, to withstand and transcend those changes. The problem isn’t that our notions of war and peace are outmoded, but that we’ve come too quickly to assume that, particularly when technology reduces the risk to our own soldiers, war is the way to go, even when the purpose and parameters of that war are unclear.

One consequence of the heavy reliance on drones in places like Pakistan and Yemen, where the US is apparently conducting a war but not really admitting it, is that we’ve seen a complete abdication of responsibility by Americans for the consequences of the wars we’re fighting. The President isn’t talking about those wars, except in the rare instance when verifiably innocent Westerners are inadvertently killed, and Congress has abdicated its responsibility to oversee them.

But is war the best option? More than a decade of bombing in the tribal areas of Pakistan as a kind of secret extension of the US war in Afghanistan has not gotten the United States any closer to its goal of stability in that region. On the contrary, the US has had to extend its involvement in Afghanistan to keep fighting its enemies far longer than originally intended.

And what the US just a year ago touted as a “success story” of US counterterrorism strategy in Yemen has come to be seen as a complete mess: not only has the United States-supported president had to flee, but al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based there, appears to be stronger than ever, despite the US killing most of the organization’s leadership. Now that the United States has had to withdraw its Special Operations forces from Yemen, it’s even less able to gather any useful intelligence against the terrorist group, considered to be the al-Qaeda affiliate most threatening to Americans.

None of this proves that the ongoing chaos in these regions is due to American drone strikes, but it certainly doesn’t support the assumption the American public and US lawmakers seem to make that picking off suspected terrorists with targeted attacks — which, as we’ve long known, kill hundreds if not thousands of innocent civilians — is doing anything to restore order or reduce the terrorist threat to the United States. On the contrary, we know that US drone strikes and their constant threat have sparked strong anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and Yemen, and terrorists have repeatedly claimed they’re targeting Americans because of them. Drone strikes have also complicated US relations and intelligence-gathering from allies.

The tragedy President Obama revealed yesterday is one of many in this ongoing more-than-13-year war, and it should spark not just a re-thinking of how the United States uses drones, but how it uses war itself.

There are now two different ongoing authorizations for the use of military force that the Obama administration claims justify its ongoing military operations — in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and possibly elsewhere. Neither of those authorizations — neither the 2001 AUMF that authorized US military action in Afghanistan, nor the 2002 AUMF that authorized the US invasion of Iraq — has a clear end. Indeed, the administration has interpreted them both to have no logical end at all, other than, perhaps, the end of terrorism possibly linked to al-Qaeda or its successors. As Department of Defense General Counsel Stephen Preston said in a recent speech at the American Society of International Law, the administration believes both the 2001 and 2002 laws authorize all current US military operations. While the president has proposed a new, additional authorization specific to the conflict against the Islamic State, or ISIL, it doesn’t set an end for the previous authorizations, and instead expands the breadth of the armed conflict. Indeed, the administration has presented its proposal as purely a symbolic sign of support for our troops, not any limitation on the United States use of force.

That’s the bigger tragedy here. So long as the president and Congress leave in place the legal authorization for a worldwide war against an uncertain and ill-defined enemy, there will be innocent civilians killed. To be sure, most of them won’t be Americans or even Westerners, and we therefore won’t hear much about them, if at all. We certainly won’t hear many more apologies. But equally innocent people will continue to be killed, without a clear connection to a specific goal. There will be little accountability for lethal strikes gone wrong, little recompense for victims, and virtually no assessment of the strikes’ effectiveness; meanwhile, the lack of specificity of who we’re fighting or for what purpose will set a dangerous precedent for what the United States believes is lawful.

This is not a wise course. 

About the Author(s)

Daphne Eviatar

Director of the Security with Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA She advocates for US compliance with international law in US national security policy. Follow her on Twitter (@deviatar).