Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say the U.S. may be guilty of war crimes for accidentally killing hundreds of innocent civilians in drone attacks, mainly in Pakistan and Yemen, and they questioned whether the strategy is doing more harm than good to America’s long-term interests.
The two groups cited evidence of women and children being killed in drone attacks that were intended for terrorists. At the very least, they said, more oversight, public disclosure and compensation for victims is needed.
These are valid ideas, but the suggestion America is breaking international law is problematic.
The Americans were attacked on 9/11 by the al-Qaida terrorist group then headquartered in Afghanistan and protected by the Taliban regime. Since then, al-Qaida has morphed into several sub-groups in Yemen, Pakistan and other places.
Each organization is still engaged in planning attacks against Americans. In the case of the Taliban in Pakistan, they have used their sanctuary to train and organize terrorist assaults against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
It’s completely defensible American drones would launch pre-emptive attacks against groups planning to attack them and other western nations, providing they are proportional and carried out in self-defence.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said the drone incursions into Pakistan will decline once American troops leave Afghanistan next year. It’s unlikely, however, they will stop completely if the Americans have evidence of a pending terrorist attack against the West.
The president also said earlier this year the global war on terror must come to an end, but what he meant is the U.S. had to be more selective and judicious in the use of force and selection of targets.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch believe the drone attacks are creating new enemies, but Obama says they are preferable to deploying large armies, which are more disruptive and violent.
He has acknowledged they are an ethical dilemma, and he promised to introduce more oversight, which has yet to be done.
Drone attacks are planned to avoid civilian casualties and they generally have been more surgical than other forms of warfare.
As part of its withdrawal from conventional warfare, America has expanded its special forces dramatically and it relies on them when drones are considered inappropriate.
Irregular warfare is a grey area because it usually involves violating another country's sovereignty, but it’s also unavoidable so long as terrorists use sovereign terrain as bases.
It should not be forgotten the United States is at war with al-Qaida, the Taliban and other groups, which only they can end.
Until then, America can seek the moral high ground by releasing more information about its drone operations, including the number of militants and civilians killed. The public has a right to know the scale of the war being fought and its consequences.
» A version of this editorial ran recently in the Winnipeg Free Press.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 4, 2013