Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Targeted Killings and Why They're Good...and Bad...And Neither

Imagine being blindfolded, led into a shooting range, and told to hit every target. In some ways, this is exactly what the U.S. could be doing if we refused to use targeted killings as a foreign policy tool. Lets look at the Middle East—where most of the U.S.’ troops are currently stationed—and what our objectives are. The first one on the list is to destroy terrorist and insurgent groups that threaten the stability of the region. Sounds easy right? Well, its not. In traditional warfare, soldiers wear uniforms to distinguish them as a member of a certain armed force group. If they’re wearing the enemy’s uniform, you shoot them. If they’re not, you don’t. Things aren’t quite as simple anymore, and there is rarely any distinguishing aspect that can allow soldiers to determine Taliban members from innocent civilians. In other words, without targeted killings, troops are completely exposed: forced into waiting for an attack in order to deduce who is the enemy.

Why it’s good
Targeted killings are flat out more efficient. Take a look at some numbers. Within Iraq from 2003 to 2008, there occurred 92, 614 civilian deaths from coalition forces, insurgents, or a combination of the two. On the other hand during the same period of time, only 15, 797 Taliban members were killed: meaning that the civilian to Taliban death ratio for 5 years of combat was roughly 6 to 1. On the other hand, from 2000 to 2006, a greater period of time than the previous statistic, 204 named combatants were successfully targeted, while only 115 civilians were killed, a civilian to Taliban death ratio of 1 to 2. Sorry, that’s a lot of numbers, but ultimately, we are looking at targeted killing as the lesser of two evils. Both will result in civilian deaths, but less will come from the use of targeted killings.

Predator drone strikes are a common form of
targeted killing
Not only this, but targeted killings provide a deterrent for Taliban activity in general. It makes it harder to recruit members—understandable, when they realize they’ll be blown to bits by American forces before they can do it themselves—and it decreases the overall effectiveness of their attacks. For instance, the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism reports Israel civilian killings by the Taliban at 21 in 2005. This was a drastic decline from 67, 45, 185, and 75 in previous years. Deaths of Israeli soldiers had a similar declining pattern as targeted killings increased dipping from .98 deaths per attack to .33 to .11 in 2005. Because of these drastic cuts in Taliban effectiveness, Hroub, a Cambridge expert, claims that the terrorists “have been seriously weakened by the decimation of its ranks through assassination and arrest.” Many Palestine terrorists have even demanded a stop to the targeted-killing campaign (the nerve of the United States, attacking them, I ask you?). Coalition forces are also protected as NATO reports that the target is successfully killed or captured 50 to 60 percent of the time, a far greater number than regular troops could attain and with a far smaller number of troops’ lives being sacrificed to do so. Concluding this side of the debate, John Brennan—chief counterterrorism advisor—agrees, stating: “Our best offense won’t always be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us” which are a low cost alternative to “expensive cumbersome conventional forces.”

Why it’s bad
Looking back at the previous statistics, some might notice the lack of current dates. 2005 isn’t that far back, but a lot can change in seven years. Why the lack of data? Honestly, it’s almost impossible to find current information and statistics regarding targeted killings. Simply put, the government doesn’t allow it, which leads us to one of the biggest issues regarding targeted killings: accountability. There is no specific policy in International Law regarding targeted killings, and therefore it’s very loosely regulated. The United States and Israel—the leading practitioners of targeted killings, both have pretty strict regulations that include verifying the target, limiting civilian damage and withdrawing if a less harmful alternative is available. Sounds good right? It would be, if they were obligated to reveal any evidence that these precautions have been followed. The Council of Foreign Relations mentions that these governments have “refused to disclose who has been killed, for what reason, and with what collateral consequences”. Additionally, soon after these guidelines were set down it was discovered that “Israeli forces [had] conducted targeted killings in violation of the Supreme Court’s requirements”. This is a pretty big deal when you consider these countries may be dropping a bomb the size of a small horse and accidentally obliterating a possibly innocent civilian into a small pile of charred ash. And Russia, the third largest user of targeted killings, has no restrictions at all. Carrying out seek and destroy missions, it is widely accepted that “there appears to be no restriction on the use of military force to suppress international terrorist activity”.

The turnover of power from President Saleh to Hadi on
February 27th marked the advent of a new level of
violence in Yemen
Not only is there this sweet bit of news, but it also appears that targeted killings aren’t even helpful. I know the evidence cited above is convincing, but apparently it’s not universal. In Pakistan for instance, targeted killings have caused a dramatic rise in violence and retaliation from insurgents, and for a more recent news story, consider the transition of power in Yemen from President Saleh to President Hadi. With a new round of violence and insurgent attacks days after the transition of power, causing at least 150 deaths, the U.S.’ helpfulness is being called into question. Yemini judge Hamoud Al-Hitar states, “Blood begets blood. Using force only strengthens the logic and rationale of al-Qaeda. If drone strikes were a successful means for eliminating al-Qaeda, would the Americans still be having problems now in Afghanistan and Pakistan?” The actions of the government seem to back him up as well, as in November in 2011, the CIA cut back a substantial portion of its drone program after reports that such strikes on groups of militants were harming relations with Islamaba.

The answer (or lack thereof)           
Essentially, there’s no right answer. The tactic works in some places successfully while in others the repercussions are too great to justify its use, and there’s no rhyme or reason to why it is or isn’t effective in different areas. This being said, probably the next biggest thing we can look to is freedom. With countries being able to exercise this much unchecked power over who they can assassinate, it creates a major accountability gap, suggesting that maybe the world is not ready to hand over this responsibility to individual countries before a standard policy is set forth. It may not seem important now, but the next time the Russian government fails to verify its target and plants a land mine outside your home instead of the terrorist’s next door, you’ll be sorry.

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