Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the first ever CIA drone strike in Pakistan was not aimed at an al-Qaeda operative plotting to attack the US or US forces in Afghanistan, but rather targeted a man the Pakistani government didn’t like.
Mr. [Nek] Muhammad and his followers had been killed by the C.I.A., the first time it had deployed a Predator drone in Pakistan to carry out a “targeted killing.” The target was not a top operative of Al Qaeda, but a Pakistani ally of the Taliban who led a tribal rebellion and was marked by Pakistan as an enemy of the state. In a secret deal, the C.I.A. had agreed to kill him in exchange for access to airspace it had long sought so it could use drones to hunt down its own enemies.
The bombing killed Nek Muhammad “and several others, including two boys, ages 10 and 16.”
This account serves as further proof that the US rarely knows who it kills in the drone war. Targets are often chosen through a shoddy process of human intelligence and frequently reflect local animosities as opposed to actual threats to the US.
Killing enemies of the state also happens in Yemen. Last year, The Los Angeles Times reported that “the distinction may be blurring between operations targeting militants who want to attack Americans and those aimed at fighters seeking to overthrow the Yemeni government.”
For drone war advocates, the legitimacy of the targeted killing program rests on the notion that those targets pose a threat to America and its forces in neighboring Afghanistan. Careful observers have known for a very long time that this standard is not met.
“Signature strikes” allow the CIA to bomb groups of people exhibiting “suspicious behavior,” a loosely-defined judgement that gives the agency carte blanche to kill whoever it pleases. And once the victims are dead, all military-age males are automatically considered terrorists unless posthumously proven innocent.
According to the leaked Justice Department legal memo, the Obama administration dropped the requirement of “imminence” to justify the use of force.
“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.
And all that’s necessary to decide on a target is for high-level US officials to say the targets are “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaeda or “an associated force.” And we know in at least some cases, like when the CIA does Islamabad a favor, not even this standard is met.