A United Nations report last week that criticized the CIA’s targeted killings warned that officials involved in coordinating these attacks might be subject to legal prosecution. That includes the people involved in approving the missions, those flying the drones and even those manning the camera and weapons systems.
The report was issued shortly after al-Qaeda’s third-in-command, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, was confirmed dead by the terrorist organization after a Predator drone strike reportedly killed him in Pakistan on May 21.
The news of al-Yazid’s death coupled with the UN’s criticism reveals the conundrum facing the international community:
Clearly the UN does not trust the United States (or other nations that use drone strikes like Russia and Israel) to be judge, jury and executioner of those they consider to be a threat to domestic or global security. But by using these unmanned aerial vehicles, the U.S. has been able to take out terrorist leaders without putting much of its own personnel at risk (though some still carry out missions inside hostile territory).
From a moral and strategic standpoint, which intertwine in some circumstances, the use of drones brings up myriad questions. For instance, are these strikes worth the death of civilians who are accidentally targeted by drones, which can spur the recruitment of the affected population into terrorist organizations?
Reports vary widely on how many civilians have been killed by unmanned aerial vehicles. According to the UN, the number in Pakistan ranges from 20 to several hundred. Peter Singer, the author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century” and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said some Pakistani newspapers have claimed the number to be closer to 2,000.
Regardless of the exact figure, of which Singer is unsure, he said that public perception is key to the whole process, which can work to either help or hurt terrorist organizations in recruiting new personnel, depending upon the circumstances.
“There is a truth somewhere in (those numbers), but that actually is different from what the perception of the public in the two places is,” he said. “Essentially we may be operating with great care and precision, and I actually think that is a fact, but the reality 7,000 miles away is perceived as something different.”
“We’ve killed a lot of bad guys. The concern is are we getting into a cycle of ‘Whack-a-Mole,’ the carnival game where you’re knocking one guy down and another one pops up,” Singer said.
There are potential legal ramifications to the CIA drone strikes as well. According to a Washington Post opinion piece written by Gary Solis, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center:
“It makes no difference that CIA civilians are employed by, or in the service of, the U.S. government or its armed forces. They are civilians; they wear no distinguishing uniform or sign, and if they input target data or pilot armed drones in the combat zone, they directly participate in hostilities — which means they may be lawfully targeted.”
The UN report echoed Solis’ sentiment that the strikes may be unlawful. It said that targeted killings are only legal if they aim for civilians who “directly participate in hostilities,” which does not include individuals who only provide “financial support, advocacy or non-combat aid.”
Robert Young Pelton, a filmmaker and author who travels to conflict zones all over the world, said the use of drones for targeted killings is troubling in a different sense.
“These are probably the coldest executions created by mankind,” he said. “Lawyers, spies, all sorts of people make this the most lethal, most specific, most sanitized version of political assassination that I’ve seen.”
Despite the cold nature of the targetings, Pelton said the “drone strikes are the single most effective tool against al-Qaeda.”
With all the perspectives through which to view this controversy, there is one question that stands out above the rest: Will the drone strikes help bring an end to terrorism?
Civilian casualties, legal issues and moral dilemmas are all important issues to weigh, but the ability to fight terrorists without risking the lives of American troops, and without waging another messy land war is critical.
In this sense, Peter Singer has identified the biggest challenge of all: “The danger of the technology is that it’s very seductive,” he said. “The policy challenge is figuring out when it’s worth that blowback effect. It may be worth it for the No. 3 (terrorist in al-Qaeda), it may not be worth it for the (average terrorist) you can’t identify.