A Rare Defense of Targeted Killing That is Both Well-Argued and Humble

On a note related to my last post, Kenneth Anderson has written the best defense of drone-heavy targeted killing vs. capture that I’ve read. Anderson takes much more care to defend his position than does Joshua Foust, whose general attitude is “trust the government”:

The irony is that capture operations become most likely to succeed, and most feasible, when they are few and far between, unpredictable, and sufficiently rare that they do not invite the targets to attempt preparations to prepare against an attack aimed at capture.  The more you attempt capture, by contrast, over time the less feasible it will be.

The more likely targets believe that the favored US policy is capture, the more they will prepare against it – increasingly certain that they have something tangible to gain by it, and increasingly correct in that assumption.  Their preparations against a human attack can be made effective and costly in ways not available to them against a drone strike.

Some elaboration after the jump:

Today, people who think they might be targets of drone strikes take some precautions, of course – but they do so at the front end, so to speak, before the drone is able to put them in its sights, ready to fire a missile.  They seek to hide so that they can’t be surveilled, and to stay out of drone surveillance by staying under cover, indoors, in the company of civilians who can’t be targeted, etc.  But short of strapping a baby to one’s back, it is very difficult for anyone who is operational, and whose location is generally known, to remain isolated from a drone strike forever.  Short of using civilians as shields (which, in the case of a drone strike using precise weaponry combined with heavy surveillance, means having women or children highly physically, tightly proximate to you), a terrorist target has few if any ways of defending against the missile strike itself.  It strikes without warning, and unless you have civilians very, very closely surrounding you at all times, it will be difficult to avoid becoming a target.  So while you might try to conceal your location and stay under cover as much as possible, and stay with children generally around you, you can’t really do anything to protect against the actual drone attack itself.  It’s too unpredictable and you don’t have protections against a missile.

US special operators are very smooth and fast, but any human attack requires time – an eternity, by comparison, to the missile strike.  That time gives the target plenty of reasons and opportunities to make that assault costly in terms of civilians.  And where time is longer than a second, and is measured in many minutes at least, it isn’t necessary to strap [a] baby to your back to gain protection.  It’s enough to have civilians in the area – women and children loosely in the area who can be pulled closer to protect the target as the commando assault is launched.  Within the same group of civilians, moreover, fighters can hide and then kick off precisely the sort of firefight that the President warned, in his May 23 NDU address, a drone strike could, and would be used to, avoid.  Which is why, presumably, the SEALs withdrew three weeks ago without making their capture.

The more convinced a terrorist target is that the US will attempt a capture operation, then, the greater the incentive he has to surround himself with civilians, and to prepare a gauntlet that a US special forces team will have to run to carry out the attack.  As terrorist targets of US special operations refine their tactics – as they will – the likelihood of civilian and special forces casualties increases and the likelihood of capturing the target decreases – indeed, killing the target might itself become difficult or infeasible.

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