All men in Pakistan between the ages of 20 and 40 are potential targets for a U.S. drone strike, says former Ambassador Cameron Munter. And all "military-age-men" - unofficially called MAMs by U.S. soldiers, dating back to Vietnam - are assumed to have been lawful targets if they're found dead after a U.S. strike, unidentified U.S. officials have told the New York Times.
Both statements suggest the United States may be committing war crimes. Yet curiously, the U.S. government has not publicly disavowed them.
As a U.S. citizen, I'd like to believe my government isn't committing war crimes by targeting men based purely on their age and gender in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan or in the parts of Yemen where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is active, or in any other zone the U.S. considers so "lawless" as to require remote-controlled killing of suspected terrorists rather than helping local governments arrest them. Killing known terrorists we're at war with or who pose an imminent threat wouldn't necessarily be illegal, but U.S. drone operators would need to know a lot more about the people they're killing than their age and gender.
Still, for all the disclosures over the last year from high-level U.S. officials about the United States' covert drone program, none have explained clearly what the U.S. believes it must know about the target for killing him to be lawful. And the statements they have made only create more cause for concern.
In April, for example, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan announced that all those who are "part of al Qaeda or its associated forces are legitimate military targets." But how does the U.S. define who's "part of" al Qaeda and which are its "associated forces"? Brennan didn't say.
Under international law, only members of the armed forces of an enemy, or civilians directly participating in hostilities, are lawful targets. An al Qaeda cook or financier who hasn't taken up arms wouldn't qualify. And an "enemy" isn't anyone associated with an organization that engages in terrorism. For the US to be entitled to kill them without any judicial process, these forces must be actually involved in an ongoing and sustained armed conflict against us - not a handful of sporadic acts of violence over years. It's not at all clear that AQAP in Yemen, for example, is at war with the United States. And if it's not a war, then the U.S. can only lawfully target an individual who poses an actual imminent threat to human lives, and where killing that person is the only way to stop him.
That's the law, but does the United States follow it? If it's targeting all 20 - 40-year-old men in a conflict zone, then clearly not.
James Traub in Foreign Policy last week made the point that all this secrecy around who we're trying to kill leaves Pakistanis to believe the worst and so undermines our aims by making the local population hate us. This "post-election, pre-Inaugural period" offers an opportunity for the president to "level with the American people about what it is that drones should and should not do," Traub writes, "who they do and do not target, where they should and should not be used."
It's also time for the president to respond to critics around the world who claim we're targeting indiscriminately. I have to believe the US government isn't targeting just any man between the age of 20 and 40 who's unlucky enough to find himself in a terrorist-infiltrated conflict zone. But it's time for the US government to assure us all of that - and to provide some basic facts to back it up.