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Targeted killings

Edward Campbell

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Here, reproduced under the Fair Dealing provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act from today’s Ottawa Citizen is an interesting and somewhat provocative article by Prof. Paul Robinson:

http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/opinion/story.html?id=51a2efd0-76cb-4523-8240-0f88f70892da
We can't just take them out
It's tempting to simply fire a missile or sniper bullet and be done with suspected terrorist leaders -- but it's a lot more complicated than that

Paul Robinson, Citizen Special

Published: Tuesday, May 27, 2008

According to the United Nations, death squads acting on orders from, and with the direct support of, NATO forces are carrying out "gratuitous civilian killings" in Afghanistan today. In a preliminary report issued this week, the UN special rapporteur on illegal killings, Philip Alston, complains that foreign forces "are wandering around conducting dangerous raids that too often result in killings without anyone taking responsibility." His examples include an attack by U.S. special forces that killed two brothers whom Afghan officials say had no links to the Taliban, and a "botched raid" by British soldiers who slit the throat of an Afghan man.

At a meeting I attended in April in Ottawa, the new commander of Canada's forces in Afghanistan, Brig.-Gen. Dennis Thompson, announced that he could not say what Canadian special forces are doing in that country, but whatever it is, it is "very precise."

Outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. Rick Hillier, later amplified, telling Legion magazine, "What we want to do is take out the commanders who are engaged in orchestrating, facilitating, paying, leading, planning and driving folks to attack us or attack the Afghans or attack the innocent. And our special forces are focused very much on that. ... I said, during a recent speech, that we had removed from the battlefield six commanders who were responsible for the deaths of 21 Canadian soldiers. Well that's changed. We've removed seven commanders who have been responsible for the deaths of 27 soldiers."

As they say in the British Army, you don't need the brains of an archbishop to work out what the generals' words mean. The only logical interpretation would seem to be that the Canadian Joint Task Force (JTF-2) is carrying out a campaign of targeted killings in Afghanistan, assassinating Taliban officers in their homes or elsewhere.

If this is the case, it is a policy which has gone unnoticed by the media. Yet such methods are legally and ethically controversial, and their effectiveness is unproven.

The practice of assassinating suspected insurgents or terrorists whom it is too difficult to capture or put on trial is nothing new. During the War on Terror, the United States has assassinated numerous alleged enemies, most recently with the killing on May 1 of the Somali militia leader Aden Hashi Ayro, along with 10 other Somalis.

The first problem with this tactic is that the people being killed have not been convicted of any crime. Justifying the killing requires accepting that one is operating not in a law-enforcement environment, but rather in a state of war. That, however, carries it with a whole series of legal ramifications, such as the granting of prisoner of war status to captured enemies, which, to date, no NATO members have been willing to accept.

The second problem is an ethical one. Targeted killings fail the test of the categorical imperative: Is this an activity one would wish to be universally practised? Let us imagine that during the 1980s the Indian government had decided that it wished to eliminate Sikh terrorists based in Canada, and had chosen to slit the throats of suspects living in Vancouver. Or let us imagine that the current Sri Lankan government were to launch missiles at Canadians in Toronto suspected of links to Tamil terrorists. Would we consider this acceptable, especially if other Canadians were killed as "collateral damage"? Surely not. Since, then, the principle is one that we do not wish to see universally applied, we should not adhere to it ourselves.

The only way of overriding this objection is by recourse to consequentialist reasoning, and the argument that the consequences of targeted killing are so positive that they take priority in moral reasoning. This is a difficult case to make, as there appear to be no reliable data to support the proposition that targeted killing is an effective method of defeating insurgents.

(Some academics have examined the use of targeted killings by the Israelis, but their work is primarily impressionistic in nature, and they do not for the most part use verifiable statistics to correlate the assassinations to rises and falls in terrorist activity.)

There is, however, a heavy political price. As any student of counter-insurgency will know, in this type of conflict the primary battle is political, not military, in nature. The aim of all action must be to enhance the legitimacy of the government. Thus, the primary question one must ask about everything NATO does in Afghanistan is, "does it enhance the legitimacy of the Afghan government?"

Targeted killings do not. On the contrary, they underline the fact that the indigenous government is incapable of arresting and trying suspected criminals using due process. Worse still, the fact that these killings are being conducted by foreigners strengthens the impression that the regime lacks real power. The practice is therefore more likely to undermine support for the state than to reinforce it.

This has certainly been the result elsewhere. For instance, so-called "shoot-to-kill" policies pursued in Northern Ireland in the 1970s by British security forces, and later by Protestant paramilitaries, reinforced impressions among Catholics that the British state's authority was illegitimate. The tactic thereby strengthened support for Catholic terrorist organizations.

At present, Prof. Alston notes, "the level of complacency in response to these killings is staggeringly high ... they (international military forces) have not taken the steps which are necessary to ensure a degree of transparency and accountability." He calls the deaths "completely unacceptable" and "outside the law."

Let us hope that Brig.-Gen. Thompson's "precise" operations are more carefully calibrated, and will not feature in Prof. Alston's full report, which will be released this autumn.

Paul Robinson is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. A former army officer, he is the author of numerous works on military ethics and defence policy.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

The ethical issue, the business of “the test of the categorical imperative” and “consequentialist reasoning,” is interesting and, for some individuals, maybe be mightily important.

There is another issue, one that Prof. Robinson is trying to ‘drive’: public opinion. Canadians are, at best, edgy about combat in Afghanistan. There is a well entrenched, albeit historically unjustified, national mythology about Canada being a ‘kinder, gentler’ nation of peacekeepers. A substantial minority of Canadians will, almost certainly, choke on the idea that their soldiers are assassinating Afghan militants.

Finally, Prof Robinson asks: "does it [the targeted killing programme] enhance the legitimacy of the Afghan government?" He concludes, categorically, that it does not. I’m not so sure. I cannot see how the legitimacy of the Afghan government is enhanced by a Taliban led insurgency; I also cannot see how the aggressive, even murderous prosecution of a counterinsurgency campaign weakens the legitimacy of he government. Is the Israeli government less legitimate because it uses targeted assassinations against terrorists?

I dispute Prof. Robinson’s assertion that the “shoot to kill” policy made some Irish Catholics doubt the legitimacy of British rule in Ulster: they had doubted that legitimacy for centuries, that’s why the IRA had so much support.


 

Old Sweat

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Presumably he would be equally outraged by insurgent attempts to kill government officials, senior army officers and police chiefs as has happened in the recent past. While I can see and accept the moral issues involved in targeting political and tribal/band leadership, military and paramilitary leaders are by the very nature of their role legitimate targets. The challenge is to identify and target them. Gee, maybe a humint organization would help here.
 

MedTechStudent

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See here is the peace keeping stereotype again causing misguided assumptions and opinions of the Canadian Military.  :mad:
 

Greymatters

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His comparison between Afghanistan and a city in Canada is provocative and misplaced.   There's a great difference between actions in a town that has a lawless environment (where local LEO's are inactive, paralyzed or corrupt), and a town where the local LEO's are active, supported by a legal system, and the majority of the local population supports policing efforts.

The professer has also lumped together 'death squads' and 'special forces', which is particularily offensive.  There is a great difference between the two.

This is not to say targeted assassinations are happening or not happening.  Its a theory he put together with no direct evidence at this time.  But if it were happening, it wouldn't be random.  The person(s) would be watched and observed and activities noted, and their efforts to make bombs and collect weapons would be recorded.  However, if local authorities refused to arrest or interdict the persons involved (for whatever reason), and an attack on a Canadian/NATO facility were imminent, what do you do?  Let them attack and take solace in the fact that you know who did it and you can arrest them afterwards?  Or take action?  It would be a moral and ethical dilemna for all involved, not some random raid.

All he's done in his article is raised the traditional moral dilemna thats been around for over fifty years - would you commit a 'crime' in order to prevent a 'greater crime'.  e.g. if you could go back in time, would you kill Hitler before he came to power?  Maybe he should read Stephen King's 'Dead Zone'...

   

 

dglad

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It's an interesting ethical question for sure.  During war, killing leaders is a recognized and effective tactic; when I did my sniper course way back when, it was pretty clear that snipers had a clear role in killing specific individuals on the battlefield, including leaders (i.e. those conspicuously leading opposing forces, as well as things like radio operators, heavy weapons crews, vehicle drivers or crew commanders, etc.   Detail's depended on the assigned target priorities).  This is clearly targeted killing; is it "assassination"?  I don't think so.  When a state of declared war exists, concepts like "murder" and "assassination" become generally subjegated by the need to conduct effective military operations (within limits expressed by things like the CF Code of Conduct, of course).

The fact that there's an unwillingness, to at least some extent, to treat captured combatants as PWs is what's blurring the matter, more than perceptions of Canadian soldiers as "peacekeepers".  Frankly, based on my (admittedly anecdotal) interactions with the public, the "peacekeeping myth" is just that...only a small number of (admittedly vocal) Canadians are really clinging to the idea because it suits their ideological view of how they would like the world to work.  Most Canadians actually seem to be reasonably smart people who realize that there's a time to be peacekeepers, and a time to be warfighters.
 

McG

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Paul Robinson said:
The first problem with this tactic is that the people being killed have not been convicted of any crime. Justifying the killing requires accepting that one is operating not in a law-enforcement environment, but rather in a state of war. That, however, carries it with a whole series of legal ramifications, such as the granting of prisoner of war status to captured enemies, which, to date, no NATO members have been willing to accept.
I'd say this is more a legal question (as opposed to tactical).  Are we legally at war or not?  My take is that yes we are.

Paul Robinson said:
The second problem is an ethical one. Targeted killings fail the test of the categorical imperative: Is this an activity one would wish to be universally practised?
This purely rule-deontological approach to ethics has its limitations.  Consider: One could conclude that a categorical imperative would be to never kill.  Now imagine the driver of a bus loaded with 50 pers has brakes fail on a BC mountain road.  If the driver does nothing, the bus will launch of the cliff ahead and kill everyone inside, but the driver could turn the bus onto a run-away lane and come to a safe stop.  Unfortunately, there is a pedestrian blocking the run-away lane.  Playing purely to the rule of categorical imperative, the bus driver would allow the 50 people to be die before deliberately killing the one pedestrian. 

Most reasonable people do not subscribe to hard & pure deontological or utilitarian ethics.  Most people will see a logical middle ground between the two.

Paul Robinson said:
Let us imagine that during the 1980s the Indian government had decided that it wished to eliminate Sikh terrorists based in Canada, and had chosen to slit the throats of suspects living in Vancouver. Or let us imagine that the current Sri Lankan government were to launch missiles at Canadians in Toronto suspected of links to Tamil terrorists.
These analogies are extreme and fall short for a number of reasons.  Both suggest a foreign nation seeing to its own interests without Canadian consent and neither one suggests another nation in Canada at the request of the Canadian government to fight an overwhelming problem to our nation.  Yet, that is exactly how we find ourselves in Afghanistan.  We are there at the request of the democratically elected government's request and we are supporting the Afghans in the resolution of a problem.  In the case of the second example "launch missiles" seems intended to conjure images of blunt indescriminate force while our operations in Afghanistan both precise and targeted.
 

Fusaki

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I've always felt that "targeted killings" were the more ethical option in a time of war.

Back in the days when armies lined up in nice neat rows, traded volley fire, then fixed bayonets it was considred bad form to kill the officers. Then western armies realized that we'd be much more effective if we tried to avoid the fighting the sharp end whenever possile, instead going to cut off enemy supply lines and command and control. I've never been to war college, but this seems to be the jist of what manuever warfare is.

In a modern counter insurgency, the line between military command and control has been blurred with politics. The Strategic Corporal, the 3D approach, 4th Gen Warfare, Terrorism, and geurilla warfare are all concepts that recognize the need for a holistic approach to warfighting. Its no longer about just killing the bad guys, it's about doing it in a way that wins hearts and minds so that we can achieve long term goals.  Shifting public opinion to our side is just as important as taking out IED factories.  Preventing public opinion from leaning towards our enemies is just as important as force protection. This is why neutralizing enemy political leaders is important to our cause - whether this be through discrediting them, arresting them, or targeted killings. There is a big difference between neutralizing political leaders in a country at war and curbing democracy in a stable state. Targeted killings are no lesss moral then bombing a military command post.

Targeted killings are a way to cut off the insurgent's supply lines. An guerilla or terrorist leader doesn't look for strength in bullets and beans. He gets his strength by inciting the population against us. Propaghanda, misinformation, and undermining our will to fight is how he intends to win. But if we can cut off the source of that propaghanda, we enhance our own efforts to win hearts and minds.

The alternative to this is a war of attrition. By restricting ourselves to driving around and getting IEDed, lighting up the countryside as we push through ambushes, and causing mayhem in the name of self defence we'll never get the populace onto our side. We can dig wells, build schools, and take on all the humanitarian projects in the world, but as long as the insurgent is twisting words as he speaks into the people's ear we'll never accomplish lasting peace. Well, maybe we will, but it will draw the war out much longer then it needs to.

So in a time of war, what is the more ethical option? A long drawn out war of attrition causing widespread death and chaos among the population, or a bullet in the head of an insurgent leader? In my mind, it's pretty clear. "Targeted killings" trade the lives of a handfull of insurgent leaders in order to save the lives of the grunts on the front and innocents that are caught in the crossfire.
 

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Wonderbread said:
Back in the days when armies lined up in nice neat rows, traded volley fire, then fixed bayonets it was considred bad form to kill the officers.

Mhmm back in the days when warfare was a "gentleman's pursuit."   ;D
And the officers were the sons of rich land owners off to "win" battles for the good of the family name.  Oh Red Coats.   ::)

Can you imagine if war was still fought volley style?

"Pte BLoggins, we won the coin toss and get to shoot first, bring up that AA-12"

Be over a lot faster thats for sure.  ::)

Haven't target killings been going on for decades?  From the American Revolution, to the Civil War, to WW1 and 11.  Why is it such a taboo in todays warfare.  If you are the leader politically influential member of a country at war, keep your head down.  You can't continue to plan and strategize ways to kill the enemy or win a war, and then complain when you get shot at.  ::)
 

ArmyRick

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The way I see it is rather simple. An enemy leader/commander/general is the same target as any strategic or tactical asset. That same targetted leader has the opition at any time to surrender.

People who sit in comfortable clasrooms and debate this stuff are not realizing the ugly results that ALWAYS come from war. War requires the brutal and effective application of force to impose the will of one side over the other.

I would pay attention to more practical ETHICAL issues like treatment of PWs, avoiding civilian casualties when possible, etc.

If you go overboard with ethics, you could basically argue that any military action is not ethical or that even having an army is unethical.

There is the classroom and the real world.
 

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ArmyRick said:
The way I see it is rather simple. An enemy leader/commander/general is the same target as any strategic or tactical asset. That same targetted leader has the opition at any time to surrender.

Agreed, if it becomes to much of a worry for you, step down from your position or raise the white flag high.
 

HItorMiss

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Targeted Killing...Absolutely!

The key word is "Targeted" I have never met any soldier that Indiscriminately killed anyone. The people who may or may not be "targeted" are watched for weeks sometimes months and years. There are people who's job it is to track and monitor the activities of these BAD people 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

There is a vast amount of work and data used to make it on to any list where people could come at night and take you away to be prosecuted for your crimes. There is another thing to best of my admitted limited knowledge most of the forces I know of who do this sort of thing come to arrest not kill the individuals...
 

George Wallace

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ArmyRick said:
The way I see it is rather simple. An enemy leader/commander/general is the same target as any strategic or tactical asset. That same targetted leader has the opition at any time to surrender.

People who sit in comfortable clasrooms and debate this stuff are not realizing the ugly results that ALWAYS come from war. War requires the brutal and effective application of force to impose the will of one side over the other.

I would pay attention to more practical ETHICAL issues like treatment of PWs, avoiding civilian casualties when possible, etc.

If you go overboard with ethics, you could basically argue that any military action is not ethical or that even having an army is unethical.

There is the classroom and the real world.

I'd say that pretty well sums it up.
 

Armymedic

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According to the United Nations, death squads acting on orders from, and with the direct support of, NATO forces are carrying out "gratuitous civilian killings" in Afghanistan today.

How do they know it is NATO (US) forces? Are they sure it is not US trained Afghan forces? Are they certain it is NATO (US) forces who are telling them what to do?

BTW, I find "death squads" quite sensationalized, targeting the left leaning sheep. You could get by with calling lawful organizations like the Toronto ERT a "death squad" as they are ready to kill if the threat required it.
 

George Wallace

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MedTechStudent said:
See here is the peace keeping stereotype again causing misguided assumptions and opinions of the Canadian Military.   :mad:

Now!  After reading this I really have to wonder where the heck I am?  On what planet/dimension am I living?
 

OldSolduer

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Targeted killings of Taliban unethical? WTF?????

What is so unethical about that? The senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership target women and children. They use women, children and mentally deficient people as suicide bombers. We should be targeting them and killing them without mercy.
So what's with the "lace panties" attitude?
As an example, Admiral Yamamoto was targetted by the USN in WW2. They got him, and one of the operational & strategical brains was put out of the picture. His death was a major blow to the Japanese.
I don't understand the attitude of these people who want to see a "hands off" policy. It's unrealistic and very naive.
 

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We are fighting a war against fanatic insurgents. They will not change their minds. Their only mission is the death of us, and the establishment of a Caliphate, which would expand world wide.

Does this guy beleive that we could negotiate with, and arrest a rabid dog? The same level of reasoning exists...
 

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dglad said:
The fact that there's an unwillingness, to at least some extent, to treat captured combatants as PWs is what's blurring the matter, more than perceptions of Canadian soldiers as "peacekeepers".  

They are not treated as "PW's" because they are not "PW's". They do not fit the definitions of lawful combatants as defined in the various Geneva Conventions, and as noted above, they operate in a manner which is vile and criminal in every regard.

Targeted Killing is much more "ethical" compared to indiscriminate bombing or shelling. In the old days we would need to level entire cities to "get" the enemy leadership (and even then it would be more of a chance occurance); today we have a much better chance of eliminating leaders and other high value targets without material or colateral damage to the surrounding population or countryside.
 

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ArmyRick said:
The way I see it is rather simple. An enemy leader/commander/general is the same target as any strategic or tactical asset. That same targetted leader has the opition at any time to surrender.

People who sit in comfortable clasrooms and debate this stuff are not realizing the ugly results that ALWAYS come from war. War requires the brutal and effective application of force to impose the will of one side over the other.

I would pay attention to more practical ETHICAL issues like treatment of PWs, avoiding civilian casualties when possible, etc.

If you go overboard with ethics, you could basically argue that any military action is not ethical or that even having an army is unethical.

There is the classroom and the real world. 

Unfortunately, there's always an 'expert' out there sticking their nose into the issue...

 

dglad

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MCG said:
I'd say this is more a legal question (as opposed to tactical).  Are we legally at war or not?  My take is that yes we are.

Well, I agree.  But the trouble here is that there's currently a reluctance to, as the article points out, treat captured combatants as PWs.  As others in this thread (including me) have quite amply pointed out, targeted killings in themselves, during wartime, aren't an issue.  Snipers target enemy officers and other leaders, headquarters are high-value targets, an opportunity to kill a senior enemy leader is aggressively pursued (e.g. the killing of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto by American P-38's in 1943, following intercept and decryption of his flight itinerary by US naval intelligence).

However, as soon as you begin to "cherry-pick" things that are considered legitimate in armed conflict and apply them, but choose not to apply others (like treating captured combatants as PWs), you risk placing yourself into a legal and ethical grey zone.  If you're at war and can, therefore, legitimately undertake targeted killings of specific targets, then why wouldn't you treat the opponents you capture as PWs?
 
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