The Problem With Assassination

by Joshua Foust on 3/18/2008 · 4 comments

Yesterday, I expressed skepticism about the “decapitation” strikes the U.S. military carries out in Pakistan (and also Somalia, Yemen, and so on). One issue I skirted around was the messy problem of sovereignty: in a very real sense, we don’t have the right, no matter who is there, to launch an attack on Pakistani soil. It is an act of war. And I’m certain most Americans would feel uncomfortable about us being at war in Somalia and Pakistan.

The problem, however, is much worse: such strikes, almost by their nature, cannot have reliable intelligence behind them. An AP reporter went to the strike site and found only a man traumatized by the violent death of his family amidst the rubble. Tom Englehardt—granted, no dispassionate voice in the matter—wonders about a very important point:

There are still limits of sorts on such actions. These put bluntly — though no one is likely to say this — are the limits imposed, in part, by racism, by gradations, however unspoken, in the global value given to a human life.

The Bush administration has, so far, only been willing to carry out “decapitation” strikes in countries where human life is, by implication, of less or little value. It has yet to carry one out in London or Hamburg or Tokyo or Moscow or the Chinese countryside, even though “terrorist suspects” abound everywhere, even (as with the anthrax attacks of 2001) in our own country…

When the deeper principle behind such global strikes is mentioned in our papers, in some passing paragraph, it’s done — as in a recent Washington Post article about a Predator strike, piloted from Nevada, that killed a suspected “senior al-Qaeda commander” in Pakistan — in this polite way: “Independent actions by U.S. military forces on another country’s sovereign territory are always controversial…” (Imagine the language that the Washington Post would use, if that had been a Pakistani drone strike in Utah.)

(Emphasis mine). Indeed, it is a curious double standard: we assert the right to behave as judge, jury, and executioner on soil that is not our own, while freaking out over the loss of sovereignty something like the ICC would represent. It is hypocrisy of the worst sort—either sovereignty matters, or it does not. We cannot have it both ways, and only in ways that favor us.

David Case, writing in Mother Jones, says these kinds of actions are “generally regarded as warfare’s answer to laser surgery: clean and accurate, cheaper than waging a protracted ground battle, and less risky for American troops.” He also notes, however, that of an estimated 19 such strikes since 9/11 (the exact number is unknown, since their existence is classified and thus information about them is limited), there are only two confirmed examples of success—the rest have resulted in lots of damage, lots of innocent people killed.

Is that worth it? In a war of ideas and perceptions as much as bombs and guns, can we afford to ruin so many lives in the pursuit of individually nasty men? Let’s take it further: if there is, in fact, concrete evidence that, say, some senior Al-Qaeda is hiding out in a small village just over the border from a FOB in Paktika… is a “surgical strike” by a Predator actually less risky than a snatch-and-grab by a small special forces team? I can’t see how: if we grab him, we can interrogate him for information; we also spare his surroundings from certain destruction—thus lowering the likelihood that everyone who lost a family member in the explosion would then turn into insurgent supporters.

But the problem of sovereignty remains. At the moment, we conduct strikes in Pakistan, and only after inform Pakistani officials. While that may be pragmatic—there are almost certainly ISI agents who would pass the word if we asked for permission—it also is, in a very real sense, illegal. Asserting the right to murder men in other countries regardless of other factors is a dangerous precedent to set—just as we would never want Iran to launch “surgical” strikes against targets in the U.S.

Of course, this would require a far more sophisticated diplomatic effort—something the Bush Administration, and Congress, has so far refused to fund or support. It is troubling. The State Department is systematically crippled, de-funded, and de-populated (each year there are fewer and fewer new diplomats hired due to funding cuts)… right when State should be the lead agency in the GWOT: how else could the world get an image of the U.S. as a non-military, non-imperialist power? I don’t buy into the America As Empire meme… but at the same time I’m dismayed at how often we seem to confirm just that idea by our poorly-thought out actions.

Update: Buried in this hyperventilating piece on Counterpunch is a disturbing statistic: at the Battle of Musa Qala this past December, when Coalition forces wrested the town back from 10 months of Taliban rule, NATO was proudly claiming hundreds of dead insurgents and no dead civilians—a truly remarkable achievement considering the intensity of the fighting. However, the body of only one insurgent was ever produced, and locals claim 40 innocents died.

While it was vital the town be taken back, there surely is a better way of doing it than simply calling in the B-1s. What good is victory if we leave nothing but rubble in our wake?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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M. Barnish March 19, 2008 at 6:20 am

“Imagine the language that the Washington Post would use, if that had been a Pakistani drone strike in Utah.” that analogy is ludicrous. Pakistan is a soveriegn country but they don’t even have control over that region. that makes the border as drawn on a map meaningless. Turkey is attacking terrorists in iraq. Do you feel the same way about them?

Joshua Foust March 19, 2008 at 6:24 am

Actually, no. The equivalent in Pakistan would be if Afghanistan were responding to cross-border attacks, not the U.S. There is a very good reason Russia never attacked Pakistan during the 80s, and that was because they didn’t have even the shallow excuse of a friendly government “inviting” them to.

Sage March 19, 2008 at 7:24 am

Joshua, you’re assuming a whole heck of a lot about what Islamabad does and doesn’t know. Also there’s this:

“is a ‘surgical strike’ by a Predator actually less risky than a snatch-and-grab by a small special forces team? I can’t see how…”

Really? You see no greater risk in sending in troops who could be killed, ambushed, caught, paraded in front of cameras, etc.? Those kidnapping operations are a lot more dangerous and prone to snafu than you seem to think they are, and they’re obviously no less a violation of sovereignty. It also might occur to you to ask whether the preference for zero boots op’s is ours, or Islamabad’s, or both.

In principle, though, your main point is unassailable–we need to have iron-clad respect for sovereignty where it exists. The simple fact is that Pakistan exercises virtually no effective sovereignty in many of the places you’re talking about. Obviously, Yemen is a different case, and there’s no arguing–to my way of thinking, and yours, apparently–that these kinds of missile attacks are very dirty, hypocritical business where there is de jure sovereignty and we have been granted no explicit permission.

But when the soveriegn authorities don’t issue anything more than a limp, formal protest in the local newspaper, you should probably bury a few assumptions about what did and didn’t get said behind closed doors in the hours before the attack.

Sage March 19, 2008 at 7:29 am

In one sense, the US can’t win. If we insist that Pakistan enforce its border, the area studies types stare down their noses disdainfully, and scoff that Americans have such a primitive understanding of the complexities of the situation–that border is more imginary than real, it’s all an artifice of Westphalian assumptions that do not apply, the locals do not recognize those borders in the first place, Islamabad can’t control it, and so forth. All of which is basically true, of course. But if the US behaves–or appears to behave–as though all of that is the case, it is excoriated for violating the involable. What to do?

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