Memorial Day weekend brought news of more U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan as The New York Times raises new questions about President Obama's so-called "Kill List" of terrorists targeted for assassination. An extensive report in Tuesday's paper looks at the use of targeted attacks to take out terrorism suspects in other parts of the world, an increasingly important part of the government's anti-terrorism policies that Barack Obama himself has taken personal responsibility for. According to the story, the President approves every name on the list of terrorism targets, reviewing their biographies and the evidence against them, and then authorizing "lethal action without hand-wringing."
As the president has slowly drawn down American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of drone attacks to take out senior leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban has become the primary tactic for fighting terrorism overseas. However, it raises a lot of legal and ethical questions about extra-judicial killings of individuals, particularly those who happen to be American citizens.
And there's no doubt that that strikes are continuing. NATO announced that a "precision air strike" killed Sakhar al-Taifi over the weekend, who is described as al-Qaeda's "second most senior figure in Afghanistan." Then on Monday, three separate strikes by unmanned drones killed 12 people in Pakistan, where air strikes have strained relations between the two nations.
The Times story is a mix of good and bad news for the President, who wants to be seen as tough on national security, but not as one who makes cynical political calculations about bombing raids. It does show the President taking an unusual amount of interest — and personal responsibility for — key life and death decisions made by his administration. However, it also shows a continuation and an increase in many of the policies of the Bush administration that so enraged Obama's most liberal supporters. Trading rendition and indefinite detentions for messy drone strikes and assassinations is made to seem like simply swapping one bad idea for another.
Yet the administration’s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive.
It also suggests that some former members of his staff, like former Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, objected to the reliance on targeted killings in lieu of forming a more comprehensive policy on fighting terrorism. The criticism is that he's sacrificed strategy for tactics, playing “Whack-A-Mole” with terrorists instead of rooting out the cause, with the death of Sakhar al-Taifi becoming just the latest in a long-line of al-Qaeda's "Number Two" guys to be killed and immediately replaced.