On Killing the Right People

12/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reports in The New York Times have revealed the existence of a hitherto secret counterterrorism campaign conducted by U. S. troops in Pakistan, Syria, and other countries. The campaign reputedly dates from 2004 and has included nearly a dozen raids conducted by special operations forces that swoop into a target area, wield death and destruction, and then as quickly make their escape.

We can safely assume that the governments of Syria and Pakistan, not to mention the organizations targeted by these attacks, have known about these activities for some time. In other words, "secret" in this context means keeping the American people in the dark about actions taken in their name. We can only speculate about various sources, whether acting independently or at the behest of high authorities, have chosen at this juncture to spill the beans.

In truth, the existence of such a program, fully consistent with the Bush administration's penchant for using force and for defining executive authority in the widest terms, hardly qualifies as surprising. True, these raids, which have regularly trampled on the principle of national sovereignty, makes all the more laughable the Bush administration's condemnation of Russia for violating the sacred sovereignty of Georgia. Yet at this point no one pays much attention when the United States claims to stand on principle.

More germane is the question of who exactly we are killing. Having learned about this secret war being conducted on their behalf, Americans now have an obligation to find out more. That obligation is both moral and political. The moral obligation is to ascertain whether or not the people we are killing are in fact terrorists, that is, members of organizations engaged in actively plotting attacks against the United States. If we are killing people who are not terrorists, then these special operations attacks are profoundly wrong. Indeed, in that case, they amount to little more than state-sponsored terrorism of the sort that Washington quickly and rightly condemns in others.

The political obligation is of a different sort. The issue here becomes one of effectiveness: even if these operations are actually netting some bad guys, are we in fact reducing the overall terrorist threat as a consequence? Or are the attacks merely creating propaganda opportunities that Islamists exploit to promote anti-Americanism, while recruiting new jihadists to replace those just eliminated? Can we be certain, in other words, that we are not simply engaging in an endless game of whack-a-mole?

In this regard, recent U.S. operations not directly related to this program of secret raids should set off alarm bells. In Afghanistan, site of an overt war that has taken a turn for the worse of late, U.S. and NATO forces have been involved in a series of incidents in which they have killed not Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters, but innocent civilians. No reasonable observer is accusing coalition forces of intentionally targeting non-combatants. Yet whether attributable to incompetence or negligence or simply the fog and friction of war, the evidence that we are routinely killing the wrong people in Afghanistan is becoming difficult to refute. In the most recent example, earlier this week a U.S. combat aircraft assaulted what turned out to be an Afghan wedding party, killing nearly forty civilians.

In Pakistan, site of a semi-covert war conducted mostly by remotely-controlled, missile-firing drones, U. S. officials insist that we are indeed killing terrorists even as Pakistani officials tell another story. Who is telling the truth -- whether the truth is even fully knowable -- is anyone's guess. What cannot be disputed is that the chief observable result of these Predator attacks has been to bring Pakistan perceptibly closer to the brink of internal collapse. In short, even if every accusation of killing innocent Pakistanis is false, the attacks are producing results that are the inverse of what they are intended to do.

Americans should not rush to render an adverse judgment of this program of secret attacks. Yet neither should they accept at face value official U. S. explanations or what they get from leakers offering a partial and selective version of the story. There is a need here for sober stock-taking, which must begin with a thorough-going, no-holds-barred investigation. There are two key questions. Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing the smart thing? Alas, don't look for the Pentagon, the Congress, or the media to provide answers to these questions.

Instead, add another item to President-elect Obama's already crowded agenda.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.