Obama has been criticized for backing away from the phrase "war on terror." Thursday, he acknowledged that the nation remains at war, calling it a "war on al-Qaida." - Detroit NewsObama now talks in terms of waging "war" against terrorists. But does this word reflect the president's actual approach to the conflict? Consider:
- Traditionally "war" has entailed some degree of personal risk to the combatants themselves (most acts of terrorism even resemble war in this respect).
- In modern times, unlike terrorism, the conduct of war has been governed by laws of war intended to afford protection to non-combatants.
According to Pakistani* sources, more Pakistani civilians were killed by drone attacks in 2009 than during the balance of the Bush Administration:
- Jan 09 - Dec. 09: 44 drone strikes, 05 dead terrorists, 700 dead civilians***
- Jan 06 - Dec. 08: 46 drone strikes, 14 dead terrorists, 535 dead civilians**
Likelihood of Error
Obama may not be entirely responsible for the increase in the frequency of attacks. What changed? According to Newsweek (here and here):
...in the summer of 2008 George W. Bush approved new, more permissive rules of engagement along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The Pentagon once required "90 percent" confidence on the part of U.S. intelligence that a "high-value target" was present at a particular place at a particular time before approving a Predator strike on Pakistani territory. As a result of the rule change approved by Bush last year, however, U.S. officials need to have only 50 to 60 percent confidence to shoot missiles at compounds suspected of sheltering "foreign fighters."People in this region are bound to judge the United States more by its actions than anything its president says. The routine, indiscriminately deadly, and arguably reckless (50-60% confidence) use of predator drones over Pakistan speaks to the values of America's leaders.
Do predator drone attacks constitute war crimes? Let's imagine how history is likely to answer this question. Recall that chemical weapons were not banned until after they had been used on the battlefields of Europe by major powers. Similarly, nuclear weapons acquired their stigma only after they had been used against Japanese civilians by the United States. I suspect that once the new weapons of aerial assassination start to be deployed by various non-Western countries, these kinds of attacks will come to be classified as a crime against humanity.
Because the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.