Did you feel safer yesterday? That’s the question Robert Wright asked in a searing post published on The Atlantic’s site concerning Monday’s death-by-drone-strike of al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, the guy you see at right. Wright disagrees with the New America Foundation’s Peter Bergen, who thinks al-Libi’s death is a pretty big deal. Says Bergen:
…the terrorist group that launched the 9/11 attacks is now more or less out of business.
al-Libi died in Pakistan, one of the principal locations to which the Obama administration has been sending American drones to bomb terrorist leaders (and those unfortunate enough to be anywhere near them) off the face of the earth for years now. Actually, “terrorist leaders” is a bit of a lazy media shorthand, considering the diversity of targets being considered. From the heavily-discussed May 29 New York Times report about the administration’s drone-strike policy, and its “kill list”:
This was the enemy, served up in the latest chart from the intelligence agencies: 15 Qaeda suspects in Yemen with Western ties. The mug shots and brief biographies resembled a high school yearbook layout. Several were Americans. Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.
“We have never before heard anything quite like the idea that if you have to be in a certain place and you happen to be of a certain age, that in and of itself can make you targetable,” said a human rights activist and legal director interviewed by ProPublica’s Justin Elliott. His assessment of the Obama doctrine on drone warfare, Elliott admits, is limited since we don’t really know all that much about it. (Update: tweeter @dvnix points out that the Times here.)
All this is to say that as little as we do know, we’ve always known that drone warfare meant that, well, we’re at war in Pakistan. Whether it’s for a lack of political will, or because the President wants to be depicted as a “tough guy,” or because America is stretched too thin in other land wars in Asia and Americans simply don’t want to hear anything about a third one, we’re allowed to know about the drones – but not that America is waging war with the robot planes on an ally’s soil. That is, until today.
“We are fighting a war in the FATA, we are fighting a war against terrorism,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said today. As this report notes, he FATA is the abbreviation used to refer to Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas, in which a lot of people who the American military is targeting with drones happen to live. Wired’s Spencer Ackerman wonders, “Was that so hard to admit?” He adds:
In case you’re wondering, there aren’t many legal implications or obligations prompted by Panetta’s admission. The 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, the legal wellspring of the war on terrorism, clearly authorizes attacking the perpetrator organization of 9/11 unbounded by geographic limits. Besides that, the short document is vague enough to fly a Predator through. There is little upside and much risk for any politician arguing it’s time to end the 9/11 Era. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, the life of the war has not been law; it has been politics.
It’s hard to imagine the reverberations Panetta’s comment will have amongst Pakistanis: polls indicate most don’t realize there’s a drone war going on at all. Americans are understandably preoccupied with domestic economic anxiety. The U.S. government, in other words, might have obscured its shadow war for nothing.
So begun this clone drone war has, semi-officially, largely unnoticed here and abroad – except by those whose lives abroad it throws into upheaval, or simply ends. Wright, in his Atlantic post, compares this war to the “war on drugs,” both in its perpetuity and ineffectiveness. To read his argument that drones simply create more terrorists in different places than the ones we’re bombing, it’s chilling – just a little more so than the notion that our country commits war and takes this long to admit it.
Update: Secretary Panetta arrived in Afghanistan Thursday morning, the day after a NATO airstrike which Afghan officials claim has killed 18 women and children. (NATO reports no civilians killed.) Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai harshly condemned the attack, saying in a statement that “NATO cannot justify any airstrike which causes harms to the lives and property of civilians.”