The Four Kinds of Drone Strikes
Regrettably, the US government is continuing its shell game of distraction, disinformation, and shifting definitions to thwart any serious attempts to impose transparency on its drone killing campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. A good example is found in the headlines of Monday, May 21, 2012. One news story reported that several anonymous government officials disclosed (off the record) certain new regulations concerning selection of drone strike targets. The new regulations probably mean very little, since, as we shall observe below, targeted strikes of terrorist kingpins are relatively infrequent. But ironically, a second story summarized the latest brief issued by the CIA in its ongoing legal battle with the ACLU (the ACLU is suing, under the Freedom of Information Act, for the government to supply more information about drone strikes, including data on civilian casualties.) The gist of the CIA response is that, even though the existence of drone strikes is common knowledge, and the government informally acknowledges the strikes, it does not officially acknowledge them, and to do so would somehow jeopardize national security. So, in short, on the same day the government is both leaking carefully prepared propaganda about the strikes in an evident move to assuage public opinion; and also refusing to admit that the CIA conducts strikes in Pakistan or elsewhere.
In the face of such contradictory and confusing tactics, we, the American public have only one recourse: to doggedly pursue the truth, and to not cease asking questions until we are entirely satisfied with the answers.
We must begin with clear terms, and that is the purpose of the present article. Drone strikes, that is, the launching of explosive missiles from a remotely operated aerial vehicle, come in four varieties: targeted killings, signature strikes, overt combat operations, and covert combat operations. We shall consider each in turn.
- Targeted killing. This occurs when a drone strike is used to kill a terrorist whose identity is known, and whose name has been placed on a hit list, due to being deemed a ‘direct and immediate threat’ to US security. The government would like people to think this means these strikes target a terrorist literally with his or her hand on a detonator. But, in actuality, the only real criterion is that the government believes the target is sufficiently closely affiliated with terrorist organizations (e.g., a propagandist or financier) to justify assassination. This is likely the rarest form of drone strike. However it receives the most publicity, because the government likes to crow when it kills a high-ranking terrorist.
- Signature strikes. In signature strikes, the target is a person whose name is not known, but whose actions fit the profile (or ‘signature’) of a high-ranking terrorist. There is some ambiguity concerning the meaning of this term. Some use it in the sense just stated — i.e., a strike against an anonymous terrorist leader. Others use it more broadly to include killing of any non-identified militants, whether high-ranking or not. However from the moral standpoint it makes a major difference whether an anonymous targeted victim is a high-level leader, or simply an anonymous combatant. For this reason it is advantageous to restrict the term “signature strike” to the targeting of anonymous high-level leaders, and to assign strikes against anonymous non-leaders to the two further categories below.
- Overt combat operation. This category includes drone strikes conducted as part of regular military operations. These strikes are presumably run by uniformed military personnel according to codes of military conduct, and are, logically and legally, not much different from ordinary air or artillery strikes. As a part of routine warfare, such strikes are subject to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. Three items of the Geneva Conventions are of special interest here: (1) strikes should occur only in the context of a legally declared war; (2) they should be conducted by lawful combatants (which, many experts believe, excludes use of non-uniformed, civilian contractor operators); and (3) standard provisions concerning the need to report casualties, especially civilian casualties, are in effect.
- Covert combat operation. Finally, there are covert combat operations. These, like the former category, are launched against usual military targets – e.g., any hostile militant, not just high-ranking ones. But why should these strikes be covert? The obvious answer is: to mask something shady. Covert combat strikes can evade all those irritating constraints on military tactics imposed by the Geneva Conventions, International Law, public opinion, and basic human decency.
The specific terms used above to distinguish these four kinds of strikes are admittedly arbitrary, and perhaps some other nomenclature would be more advantageous. But we need some fixed set of terms to refer to these fundamentally different kinds of strikes. Without such terms, the US government will continue to have its way by relying on public confusion and terminological sophistry. For example, if there is only a single generic term, the government may issue a claim such as “drone strikes comply with international law.” This is perhaps technically true for, say, overt military drone strikes, but it is not true for signature strikes. With more precise terms, it would be more difficult for the government to mislead the public.
The last two categories of strikes correspond to what (according to the New York Times) the Department of Defense calls TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes. This term is a misleading euphemism, however. It invites the interpretation that such strikes aim to disrupt potential terrorist attacks on the US. But what these strikes actually seek to counter are things like cross-border raids from Pakistan to Afghanistan, attacks on supply lines, militant engagements with US forces, and actions of insurgents within their own countries.
Statistical tabulations compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and other sources show convincingly that most strikes in Pakistan must belong to the last category, covert combat operations. The sheer number (300 strikes, with thousands of casualties) rules out targeted killings and signature strikes: there simply aren’t that many high-level terrorists. What seems much more likely is that the US military feels the need to attack Taliban fighters within Pakistan – both to prevent Afghan Taliban members from hiding in Pakistan, and to counter strikes by the Pakistan Taliban and affiliated groups on NATO supply trains.
This, of course, is completely illegal, inasmuch as the US is not at war with Pakistan, or, for that matter, with the Pakistan Taliban.
“But”, drone strike zealots will plead, “what if we have the permission of the host government to conduct strikes in their territory?” This is bogus logic to begin with. Suppose some brutal dictator gives the US permission to launch drone strikes against innocent civilians in his country? Would that permission somehow make the strikes just and legal? And in any case, what good does such permission mean if it is not public, not acknowledged by the host country?
What really appears to be going on in Pakistan is this: the US military in Afghanistan has a decided military interest in launching combat operations against the Pakistan Taliban. However, this is illegal. Meanwhile, conservative factions of the Pakistani government would love to see the Pakistan Taliban eliminated. Unfortunately, the hands of this faction are tied by an uncooperative and unreliable military, and by other powerful Pakistani factions that are not so interested in seeing the Taliban destroyed, and certainly not at the price of trashing national sovereignty.
The solution is obvious. The Pakistani conservatives give a wink and a nod to the US to do the dirty work. “You launch the strikes, then we’ll officially disapprove of them.” This works until the toll of innocent civilians killed by the strikes becomes too great, and pressure mounts on the Pakistani government to denounce them. But, as modern politicians understand so well, the public has a short attention span. All that need happen is for the strikes to subside for a few weeks until the anger abates, only to begin again.
To summarize, the US government thus far has promoted and capitalized on public confusion about the nature and purpose of drone strikes. Most strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are likely covert combat operations. The government, however, would gladly have the public believe these are targeted killings and signature strikes against high-level terrorists. As covert combat operations, the strikes are illegal under international law, and extremely harmful to US dignity and security. Further, unlike targeted killings or signature strikes, which might potentially prevent a terrorist act, collateral civilian damage of covert combat drone strikes is unacceptable.
John Uebersax is a psychologist, writer and former RAND Corporation military analyst.