Drones and Targeted Killing, the Protagonists of America’s Modern Warfare

By Nathalie Van Raemdonck

On 10 January 2012, a predator drone killed five presumed terrorists in Pakistan’s North-Waziristan region on the border with Afghanistan. This attack signalled the resumption of drone strikes in Pakistan for the first time since late November 2011, when such actions were curtailed following a misguided NATO airstrike which resulted in the deaths of at least 24 Pakistani soldiers in the country’s north-east.

The face of modern warfare is swiftly changing. Whereas wars used to be fought between states, starting with a formal declaration of war and followed by combatants confronting each other on an open battlefield, this straightforward international showdown is gradually transforming. War has become covert, official combatants are little more than joystick soldiers, and the involvement of states is minimised to the point that neither side is fully aware of the details of its operations.

Targeted killing is the act of targeting a single individual without due process, an action which often results in collateral casualties. Israel has made targeted killing operations in the Palestinian Occupied Territories an official policy, whereas the US’s operations are shrouded in secrecy. Over the last decade, the US has mostly employed this technique to target suspected terrorists, using UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), also known as drones.

More and more, the secret use of predator drones to carry out targeted killing operations has come to replace existing means of warfare. While such tactics were sporadically used under the Bush Administration, amounting to an estimated 34 attacks during his entire presidency, the counter under President Obama is ticking towards 270 and is steadily increasing. Since 2004, it is estimated that drone strikes have resulted in between 1,717 and  2,680 casualties. Drone attacks have been carried out in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the latter being the most targeted country. The use of drone strikes in Pakistan has become so frequent we can no longer speak of individual operations, but of an entire war strategy.

Multiple problems arise with the regular occurrence of these targeted killings. For starters, the US is not officially at war with Pakistan. Hereby Pakistan’s sovereign rights have been repeatedly violated, with the US frequently flying into the country to drop bombs on both its citizens and suspected militants. Without Pakistani permission (which the US unofficially has, but in the public discourse Pakistan has not given its consent) America is legally only allowed to penetrate or strike at the country on accounts of self-defense. This right to self-defense is highly debatable in the case of preemptive self-defense. The militants who are generally targeted in these attacks are the military equivalent of foot-soldiers, which makes their alleged status of a legitimate military threat to the US very questionable.

Whether or not the drone strikes are effective in battling terrorism generates a lot of discussion. It is confirmed they have their tactical advantages, but within a larger counterterrorist and counterinsurgency strategy, they are considered counterproductive. With civilians dying in the attacks, they create huge animosity against the US and spur militant recruitment among those affected.

Furthermore, it is difficult to determine who may be targeted, since international humanitarian law stipulates that combatants may be targeted without due process, but civilians cannot. Terrorists’ fall in the legal grey  area in between the status of combatants and civilians, a debate that has generated a lot of discussion in academic  circles. In general it is agreed that terrorists cannot be considered combatants, since they do not comply with the laws of war, but constitute civilians directly participating in hostilities (DPH) and may be targeted as long as they are directly participating in battle. While it is unknown what criteria the US  uses to determine when a terrorist is in fact directly participating in hostilities, international humanitarian law does leave this choice up to the states themselves.Does the US regard all terrorists as DPH, even if they have not committed an attack before? Is mere membership or support of a terrorist organisation  enough to be considered a legitimate military threat?

Much about the US  procedures to determine who may be targeted is unknown. It is said that targeting operations are based on information coming from spy-drones and informants on the ground, yet the reliability of the latter is questionable. There have been reported incidents of civilians being targeted by the US who turned out to be the personal enemies of the informants, thus these actions can get tangled up in personal feuds.

This lack of information on the exact processes behind the targeting is essentially the biggest problem with such actions. Without transparency, these operations do not gain legitimate democratic control and become dangerously unmonitored. With the majority of operations executed by the CIA, their legitimacy is further called into question,  since the CIA is not governed by the laws of war and can also not be considered as combatants, like armed troops are. The attacks do not have Congressional approval in advance, and the US Congress, which is minimally informed, does not have much to say in general on the policy. It is the agency that makes all the decisions in the shadow of warfare.

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union requested more transparency on the use of drones by the CIA, but was blown off with a response that neither confirmed nor denied the use of drones by the CIA. Only very recently have the US confirmed the existence of drone attacks on Pakistani soil, yet no further details have been given. In May 2009 Leon Panetta, former CIA chief, also said in an unguarded moment that the drones are “the only game in town”, hereby also confirming  fondness for  the tactic. Currently new permanent bases capable of launching drone strikes are being built on the Arabian Peninsula, Ethiopia, and the Seychelles Islands.

With the US  constantly expanding the use and scope of its targeted killing operations, the cries for more transparency will only grow louder. The US will need to start governing its operations by laws that are democratic, transparent, and respectful of international humanitarian law and human rights. We find ourselves in the unknown territory of modern warfare without clear rules governing this new tactic, so it is important to pull in the straps and supervise these actions in order not to make this moral black hole any larger.


Nathalie Van Raemdonck holds a BA and MA in Political Sciences from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. She is currently researching the EU’s stance on targeted killing at the Instituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome.


22 February 2012