Predator strikes are ‘more like police work’?

Last week, at Foreign Policy‘s The Best Defense blog, Tom Ricks made the stunning claim that US Predator airstrikes are more like police work than war:

Back in the old days, air strikes were considered an act of war. But the Obama Administration sez no — and here I am beginning to change my mind. Maybe they are onto something. The drone strikes being conducted in those three countries are not being done to challenge those states, but to supplement the power of those states, to act when they cannot or will not. More importantly, these are precise strikes against certain individuals, making them more like police work than like classic military action. Police work involves small arms used precisely. Drones aren’t pistols, but firing one Hellfire at a Land Rover is more like a police action than it is like a large-scale military offensive with artillery barrages, armored columns, and infantry assaults. (Yes, I am shifting my position a bit from what I wrote recently about Libya.)

While there is an argument to be made that sortieing unmanned aircraft against terrorists in ungoverned spaces may be something less than total war, comparing the strikes to “police work” is patently absurd. Police do not conduct raids to kill criminals, they do so with the intent to capture.

Also, the police work analogy is inaccurate with reference to the US air campaign in Pakistan, in that a police relationship involves sponsorship by a host entity. In Pakistan, on the other hand, the government protests the strikes, threatens to close our bases, and tips off our targets. Moreover, using a blanket term such as ‘police work’ to describe the US’ Predator campaigns in Pakistan and elsewhere seems to set a bad precedent of refusing to acknowledge who the enemy is and why we are doing what we are doing.

And in Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of Predators is irrelevant with respect to the ‘police work’ analogy, as these are active war zones (the fetishizing of the use of unmanned vs. manned, or cruise missiles, or long-range rockets, etc., is a separate discussion).

Let’s not mince words. If you don’t want to call the Predator (or drone, if you prefer) strikes an act of war, then call them what they really are: targeted assassinations. But with respect to Pakistan at least, the sheer volume of the strikes makes even the term ‘targeted assassinations’ problematic. Since 2006, US airstrikes in Pakistan have killed 2,018 leaders and operatives from Taliban, al Qaeda, and allied extremist groups, along with 138 civilians, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal.

But if you view the strikes as an attempt to decapitate al Qaeda and allied groups in Somalia and Yemen (in Pakistan it is more than that, but we’ll cede the point for the sake of argument), then ‘targeted assassinations’ is the best description available.

Calling the Predator strikes targeted assassinations no doubt opens up a can of legal worms, however, that politicos have no interest in dealing with, which is why you get ridiculous analogies that compare the Predator strikes to police work.

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  • KaneKaizer says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’m fine with simply referring to them as drone strikes.

  • Sashland says:

    Well, it is patently absurd, unless you give the author the leeway to include ‘good old fashioned police work’ like the Rampart Division assassinating a gang-banger.
    Otherwise, I am stunned that any professional analyst would not be ashamed to drool such drivel.
    OK, OK, I know the Korean War was not really a War but just a Police Action; under that logic the Iraq and Afghan WAR are not really wars… give me a break.

  • gerald says:

    Drone strikes are like police actions in one sense. They are used to protect the innocent from unwarranted attack.

  • Chris says:

    I think the desire to rationalize these drone strikes as “police work” comes as the people who wish to “end” the GWOT by us “stopping” these wars would try to rationalize the continued violence against Al Qaeda and its affiliates if that scenario were to ever occur.
    In other words it’s politics.

  • SAS fan says:

    Ricks is always carrying water for Obama. This interpretation’s subtext is right of the Obama playbook. Stay tuned while he endorses another $400 billion to defense.

  • Mr T says:

    Its police work until they fire the missile, then its kinda more like..well.. war.
    Maybe he should say its more like Whack-A-Mole.

  • tom ricks says:

    Good discussion, except for Mr. SAS, who accuses me of always carrying water for Obama. That’s the lazy type of charge made by people lacking facts. So, here they are, from my blog. See how much water you see here:

  • Caratacus10ad says:

    OK, so if not ‘police’ work, then how about a modern interpretation of a transnational US Marshall type service being enforced willingly or unwillingly in specific territories for the benefit and the protection of civilians and their representative govts? (where applicable)

  • Caratacus10ad says:

    Surely a conflict can only be a real WAR if the parties involved are actually state actors?
    If they are not, (and I dont believe Pakistan is fully owning up to responsibilty for AQ premium and lite, plus its numerous affiliated Islamic transnational terror groups…Yet!)
    So in other words the conflict is a state dealing with non-state illegals whom are global fugitives and as such have no protection under International Law.
    Thats my take and if the ‘legals’ and assorted whingers dont like it… TOUGH!

  • popseal says:

    HVTs are so broke they can’t be fixed. Given that they are set on killing anyone not them, the only recourse is death from above, in the most accurate way. Fill the sky with those wonderful, deadly toys!

  • Paul W. Taylor says:

    War with a state and war within a state are two very different things. In WWII, we invaded France, but did not attack the state of France. Was D-Day just police work?
    I think that to say that the targeted killing of an enemy, whether you think it is legitimate or not, should not be confused with anything that the police in any state are allowed to do. Killing without warning or opportunity to surrender is only legitimate police action in the most extreme situations. In war, it is the status quo. The difference should be clear to anyone, and should be kept that way.
    As to whether the enemy must be a state in order to have a war, that question was decided before “states” existed. Even after, the question was resolved with the first civil war. In modern times, we’ve been dealing with non-state actors (often transnational) waging war on states and vice versa for decades. We even have treaties to deal with it. Simply not an issue.

  • davidp says:

    G’day Paul Taylor,
    Thanks for your insightful comments.
    What treaties were you thinking of “dealing with non-state actors (often transnational) waging war on states and vice versa” I’d like to learn more about them to inform my thinking.
    The cases I can think of that push the boundaries are the Red Mosque siege in Islamabad and the response to the Mumbai attack – in each case after violent attacks and violent refusal to surrender, military force was used, and I presume snipers authorised to shoot to kill. Military backup to police forces is the role there.
    The drone strikes seem to be independent of a justice system, so I think they are cross-border military action (war) against trans-national non-state actors. Calling them “acts of war” omits the important qualification “against the Taliban” – they are not acts of war against the Pakistani state or its people in general, and they occur largely because Pakistan is unable (mostly, partially unwilling too) to control the groups on its territory.
    What are the relevant treaties and how do they deal with this?

  • Sashland says:

    Ala Bill Clinton and Oprah, I guess it depends what the meaning of “war” is, and it is a “real” war, like a “real “rape”.
    So, what is “war”? Choose you definition and twist your argument, but I think I know the difference between the Mayberry and Islamistan…
    I’m still not convinced that Targeted Assassinations are like Police Work, at least the legal sort.
    As to the Nation State argument, the Taliban certainly qualified as “de facto” government.

  • Paul W. Taylor says:

    Well, David, you raise a couple of very interesting wrinkles to the problem.
    First, the treaty that is most on point is the Second Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions (1125 U.N.T.S. 609). It doesn’t do much in the way of protecting non-state actors, but it is a clear recognition of the issue of war with non-state actors. The other Geneva Conventions and Protocols do as well, but only in passing or by reference.
    The border issue is much harder, since it is actually legally unrelated to the killing. It is (legally speaking) the sovereign action on the territory of another that is the real legal issue there. It the US/PK case, it’s really up to PK to determine whether we’re at war with them by bombing their soil, or if it just requires an apology.
    The Red Mosque and similar situations (I recall a siege of a theatre in Moscow that went badly) are tempting to consider “military” given the magnitude of force used or the particular sub-state actor who applies it. But I find the best way to think about these is as simply a larger form of the police sniper: Police snipers are inherently lethal once given the “go”, but are used in many hostage situations if arrest is not feasible. This would seem to violate the duties to warn and provide opportunity to surrender, but the police are allowed to use lethal force without a warning before killing if there is no feasible means of warning or the situation does not allow time to warn.
    I have some quibbles with the idea that these attacks are “assassination”, as well, but this treatise must end somewhere.

  • JOEAMERICA says:

    A lot of fascinating insight and commentary on what has long been an enormous festering elephant in the room that no major media and few other analysts have wanted to address – that is – what is the moral and military justification regarding remotely controlled lethal action against non-state, un-uniformed, potential threats, or known enemies, outside of an active combat zone, without immediate threat to allied personnel or assets, and within the loose defines of another sovereign nation sans their official support or permission, AND in areas where we are clearly unwilling to insert uniformed troops of our own to engage in non-remote combat?
    I cannot be the only hawk in the U.S. who has some qualms about the current policy or is struggling to formulate a clear moral directive to guide and justify current policy. I appreciate this debate as it helps me to understand the issue.
    Clearly OBL could have been eliminated via airstrike or drone action – however in that incident we were willing to risk direct insertion of combat forces – was that solely to expedite identification and information retrieval ? or was the incident viewed as different from a standpoint of military propriety?
    Soon other states will have the capability to instigate drone action within other sovereign boundaries for various reasons or justifications. What will be the criteria by which we as a nation decide whether those actions are justifiable or acts of war, aggression, or terror?

  • Hawk says:

    I tend to agree with Mr. Roggio that the Predators are more like an assassin than a police officer (having observed their operations in Afghanistan in 2009). The drone is used to carefully stalk the prey, only to pull the trigger when there is a positive ID and the target is away from potential collateral damage. The impersonal nature of warfare became a clich


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