Drone killings – “legal, ethical, wise and conforming to the principle of humanity” by Boris Volkhonsky…

On the eve of the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s elimination, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan for the first time officially disclosed the open secret that the U.S. is using drone strikes against its enemies. Among other characteristics Mr. Brennan ascribed to the use of drones, most notable are “legal”, “ethical”, “wise” and “conforming to the principle of humanity”.

In fact, Mr. Brennan hardly created any sensation by acknowledging what the rest of the world has known for years. The use of drones has become too commonplace for the Washington strategists to be able to conceal it any longer. But the logic used by the counterterrorist adviser is worth looking at it in detail.

The use of drones is legal, because “the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces…, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense.” Also, “there is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose, or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield.”

Well, maybe the U.S. is at war with its own sibling, Al Qaeda, as well as with the Taliban, whom the U.S. indirectly supported via its allies in the region, namely Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, throughout the 1990s. But what about Pakistan whose territory has become one of the main targets of drone strikes? Or does Mr. Brennan want to say that the U.S. “is in an armed conflict” with Pakistan as well?

“Second, targeted strikes are ethical,” because “individuals who are part of al-Qaeda or its associated forces are legitimate military targets.” Mr. Brennan is probably too shy to mention that much too often innocent civilians, including children, fall prey to the drone “targeted” strikes. Or, maybe this simply conforms to the ethics he is preaching.

“Targeted strikes conform to the principle of humanity, which requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering.” Definitely, what suffering can be inflicted on the operators guiding the strikes from hundreds and thousand miles away as if playing some computer game? As shown above, Mr. Brennan hardly meant the sufferings inflicted on the civilians on the ground.

And this logically brings us to the next thesis. “They (the strikes) can be a wise choice because they dramatically reduce the danger to U.S. personnel, even eliminating the danger altogether.” Indeed, this is a Washington strategist’s golden dream – to be able to eliminate whoever wherever and whenever, while sipping morning coffee somewhere in Bethesda.

The only thing that surprises an outside observer is the fact that not everyone is ready to subscribe to this point of view. The Pakistani leadership has made it a point that the restoration of the strained relationship and reopening of the southern supply route for the NATO coalition in Afghanistan requires an unconditional end to drone strikes on Pakistani territory because they violate Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Mr. Brennan did mention national sovereignty twice in his speech presenting it as an “important check” and “constraint”, and stating that “The United States of America respects national sovereignty and international law.”

And if so, the U.S. authorities seem much more inclined to follow the guidelines presented by Mr. Brennan rather than listen to the objections coming from Islamabad. On Sunday, two weeks after Pakistan’s parliament officially demanded an end to the drone strikes, the U.S. carried out one in North Waziristan, thus prompting a harsh reaction from Pakistani Foreign Ministry which regarded the strikes as being “in total contravention of international law and established norms of interstate relations”.

It remains doubtful, how the U.S. is going to implement the strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan signed during President Obama’s overnight trip to Kabul without Pakistan’s assistance. But since the drone strikes have been classified as “legal, ethical, wise and conforming to the principle of humanity” by a renowned expert, maybe this will give the U.S. additional leverage in trying to persuade Pakistan that its sovereignty is being respected.

by Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.