Easier to kill than to capture

One of the starker figures to emerge from a new report on US drone strikes in Pakistan is that in the three-and-a-half years of the Obama administration, 292 strikes have been carried out – compared to 45 during over the entire span of the Bush administration. It speaks of the Obama administration’s dramatic turn to drones to conduct its version of the ‘war against terror’ in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen – but it also speaks, in a deeply unsettling way, about its preference to kill rather than detain and capture. In other words, the US’ current solution to dealing with suspected al-Qaeda militants seems to be not to capture, and then question, interrogate, or imprison – but to kill them outright.

A recent discussion at Political Violence At A Glance highlights the legal complexities of dealing with detainees that have raised the political costs of capture-and-question as opposed to death-by-drone. As a result, as Micah Zenko points out, the US’ professed preference to capture suspected terrorists rings pretty hollow:

According to Daniel Klaidman in his book, Kill or Capture, “The inability to detain terror suspects was creating perverse incentives that favored killing or releasing suspected terrorists over capturing them.” And in the words of an anonymous “top counterterrorism adviser”: “We never talked about this openly, but it was always a back-of-the-mind thing for us.… Anyone who says it wasn’t is not being straight.”

“This reality was recently echoed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, who serves on the Armed Services and Judiciary committees: “We lack, as a nation, a place to put terrorists if we catch them.… I can tell you that the operators are in a bad spot out there. They know that if they capture a guy, it creates a nightmare. And it’s just easier to kill ’em.” This perverse incentive remains in place today and largely explains why around 3,000 suspected terrorists and militants have been killed by drone strikes under Obama and only a handful have been captured.”

Somehow, it has come to this: that drones strikes are simply easier than capture and detention. No more worries about the legal niceties, ‘extraordinary rendition’, torture, or Guantanamo Bay.

Similarly, for whatever the horrors of the Bush administration’s cavalier approach to suspected terrorists and the humiliations endured by detainees, at least they weren’t dead at the end of it.

The inhumanity of this preference to kill, rather than capture, is intensified given the rather relaxed approach adopted by the Obama administration to establishing who a legitimate target is, as the report points out. Firstly, a ‘militant’ is defined by the US as “being a male of military age in an area where “militant” organizations are believed to operate”. Secondly, Obama-era drone strikes have been marked by a turn to ‘pattern of life’ attacks (and not just going after high-profile individuals, as I wrote about last year). Attacks seem to be justified based on whether a proposed target fits a particular profile without much regard for individual specifics: “According to US authorities, these strikes target “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.” Just what those “defining characteristics” are has never been made public.”

As a pair of legal scholars write, “expanded notions of legitimate target…introduce greater flexibility with regard to collateral damage – both in terms of who constitutes collateral damage and how much collateral damage is justified in the course of targeting a particular threat.” No wonder the US can claim that civilian casualties are virtually nonexistent.

This rather expansive method of identifying legitimate targets seems to be little less than being charged guilty by association. When the likely consequence of being on the receiving end of a drone-launched missile is death, what is on display is effectively an indiscriminate disregard for human life.

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