In 1996, al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden issued a formal declaration of war against the United States. No serious strategy was developed for defeating what most government officials dismissed as a bunch of fanatics living in mud-brick villages in Afghanistan, shaking their fists at the greatest power on Earth.
Almost two decades later — following attacks from New York to Nairobi to Dar es Salaam to Bali to Riyadh to London to Sana’a to Mali to Benghazi — the U.S. still lacks a coherent plan for neutralizing al-Qaida and its now-multiplying affiliates. The U.S. does, however, have one weapon that it has been deploying to keep al-Qaida off-balance — and to thin its top ranks.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, more popularly known as drones, were originally used for surveillance, in particular by the CIA following 9/11. Before long, however, they were adapted to fire computer-guided missiles. Armed drones quickly became President Barack Obama’s weapon of choice in Afghanistan and Yemen.
Last week, both London-based Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch issued reports charging that America’s use of drones has violated international law, killing scores of innocent civilians and targeting suspected terrorists in ways that, Amnesty International asserts, “may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are nongovernmental organizations with no legal authority. Nevertheless, White House spokesman Jay Carney responded to their charges, saying the president “would strongly disagree” with the allegations. “U.S. counterterrorism operations,” he said, “are precise, they are lawful and they are effective.”
The concern of both organizations for al-Qaida commanders is misplaced. It is neither moral nor helpful to award unlawful combatants, also known as terrorists, more rights than are due honorable soldiers who abide by the laws of war. And make no mistake: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are proposing exactly that. They want al-Qaida commanders to be treated as innocent-until-proven-guilty suspects, entitled to all the constitutional rights due an American citizen in a domestic judicial proceeding.