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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