March 31, 2010

Legal Justification for Drone-Launched Missile Strikes

I just recently returned from a month in the Caribbean (which explains the paucity of posts in March).

While I was there, I had the opportunity to speak to a variety of audiences, including people in the host nations' media and military. In several instances, the issue of American drone-launched missile strikes in Pakistan and other countries was raised, asking what right the United States has to kill people who have not been found guilty of a crime. Many international human rights organizations and international law specialists consider them to be illegal assassinations.

Coincidentally, the Obama administration has for the first time explained its legal rationale for the strikes. I find it rather ironic that the State Department lawyer, Harold Koh, who now justifies the strikes on behalf of the Obama administration was the dean of the Yale Law School during the Bush presidency and was extremely critical of these same policies.

President Obama has dramatically increased the number of missile strikes against al-Qa'idah terrorists in Pakistan as well as limited strikes in Yemen and Somalia. These strikes have been effective in killing al-Qa'idah members as well as disrupting the group's operations. Nevertheless, the strikes have been criticized as somehow being illegal or unjust.

I am not sure why using a drone to kill the enemy is any different than using a rifle. The argument misses the point - it's okay to kill people using rifles, artillery and air strikes in Afghanistan, but not using a drone in Pakistan? One set of people have rights and another does not? They're the enemy, regardless of venue, and should be hunted down and killed whenever wherever however.

As for the Obama administration's rationale, Koh states, "The U.S. is in armed conflict with al-Qa'idah as well as the Taliban and associated forces in response to the horrific acts of 9/11, and may use force consistent with its right to self-defense under international law." He further explained that a state engaged in armed conflict or legitimate self defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before using lethal force.

Works for me.

Others are not convinced. According to Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O'Connell, "It really is stretching beyond what the law permits for this very extreme action, killing another person without warning, without a basis of near necessity, simply because of their status as a member of al-Qa'idah...."

Why would you give warnings to the enemy? They are the enemy, Professor - remember September 11, 2001? How much warning did the 3000 Americans have that day?

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jameel Jaffer says he will file a lawsuit to obtain the Justice Department document laying out the full legal rationale for these strikes. Rationale for striking the enemy? Or maybe the ACLU does not consider al-Qa'idah the enemy....

They're the enemy. Where they are or how we kill them should not be an issue.

March 30, 2010

President Obama in Afghanistan - why are we there again?

President Barack Obama made a secret six-hour visit to Afghanistan last weekend to lecture Afghan President Hamid Karzai and visit American troops. Both reasons for the trip were absolutely necessary, however, the actual conduct of the trip was poorly handled.

Afghanistan is one of, if not the, most corrupt countries on the planet. It has probably always been that way, but now there are 100,000 American troops present in the country ostensibly helping Karzai establish a representative government by defeating the Taliban. Much American treasure is being expended to develop infrastructure as well as funding combat operations, treasure that we can ill afford given the economic situation at home. It is essential that the money be used effectively and wisely, as opposed to lining the pockets of a few dozen warlords and corrupt government officials.

President Obama was right to stress to his counterpart that American patience has about run out over the corruption in the country. Whether Karzai will take the message to heart, or whether he can do anything about it even if he does get the message, is another issue. In any case, the Afghans are on notice that U.S. largesse is not endless.

While in Afghanistan, the commander in chief met with American troops - certainly the duty of any president, and it appears his visit was well received. The troubling aspects of the visit were the absolute secrecy and the fact that the entire visit was carried out during the hours of darkness.

It is unseemly for the "leader of the free world" to move about in secrecy and darkness like a coward. The President of the United States should be seen exhibiting the same courage as his troops. Of course, the Secret Service calls the shots on security, but at some point, the President needs to stand up and take charge of his image. Scurrying about in the darkness is not the image we need of the commander in chief.

That said, my biggest issue with the President's visit is his insistence that American troops are in Afghanistan fighting al-Qa'idah. Obama has perpetuated this myth since he made the decision to mount a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban rather than focusing on his successful counter terrorism campaign against al-Qa'idah - the real enemy - in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. He gets my criticism for the former and my praise for the latter. His decision to increase the drone-launched missile strikes was exactly the right thing to do.

On Saturday, he said, "We are going to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al-Qaida and its extremist allies."

All well and good, but there are little if any al-Qa'idah remaining in Afghanistan. If the mission is to nation build, starting with the defeat of the Taliban, say so. Continuing to insist that America is confronting al-Qa'idah in Afghanistan is incredulous.

Iyad 'Alawi - the right choice for Iraq

The recent election of Iyad 'Alawi's al-'Iraqiyah bloc is a significant step in Iraq's move to a more representative and hopefully more stable government. It is also a rejection - albeit by the slimmest of margins - of the almost theocratic Shi'a domination of the Iraqi government under current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. 'Alawi's alliance includes both Arab Sunnis and Shi'as.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have ties to Iyad 'Alawi. In 1996, after the United States government began to distance itself from the Iraqi National Congress led by prominent Shi'a banker Ahmad Chalabi, the Central Intelligence Agency started to work closely with Iyad 'Alawi's British-supported Iraq National Accord (the "Wifaq") to try to effect the overthrow of the Saddam Husayn regime. I was part of that effort, codenamed DBACHILLES.

In 1996, I was part of the CIA team that deployed to the region to work with "Dr Iyad," as we called him, and his group of exiled Iraqi military officers and other leaders. In the end, the effort failed, but I developed great respect for the physician turned politician and opposition leader. I think 'Alawi possesses the traits necessary to unify Iraq's Arab population, which up until now has been split into distrusting Sunni and Shi'a camps. This is in stark contrast to the divisive current al-Maliki government which has alienated the Sunnis.

Of course, 'Alawi's first challenge will be to form a government, not an easy task with such a small margin of victory. Al-Maliki will not quietly depart the scene - he is too fond of what he believes is his rightful place in Iraqi politics, and he has allies. Since the adage "politics makes strange bedfellows" certainly applies to Iraq, there are rumors that the third-place group, the Iraq National Alliance, will ally with al-Maliki's party to challenge an 'Alawi government.

There are also supporters of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the INA, once again making al-Sadr a power player in Iraqi politics. Although 'Alawi has expressed a willingness to continue to improve relations with neighboring Iran, Iran would clearly prefer an Iraqi government headed by al-Maliki, or even better, al-Sadr. Al-Sadr has been in Iran studying to acquire the title of ayatollah to better improve his chances to emerge as the future leader of Iraq.

Iyad 'Alawi is the right choice for Iraq at this time. I hope he is able to form a coalition government that does not include the likes of Nuri al-Maliki. It is the only way to bridge the divide between the Sunnis and Shi'a in the country. Unless that happens, the internal dispute will continue and possibly expand. If the Sunnis do not feel invested, they will work against the government, not with it.