Obama is pursuing one of the Bush administration's key policies of "holding at risk" terrorist leaders, which is a euphemism for targeting them. Is this assassination? The November 2002 column observed that (technically) al-Harthi died in an air attack. A terrorist's vehicle can be construed as a "command and control center" (a command bunker is a legitimate target), but doing so takes the concept to the edge of absurdity. The U.S. was hunting al-Harthi.
The United States bans political assassinations, but the U.N. charter permits military defense against attack. Al-Qaida wages a war without limits. Every American, in al-Qaida's war doctrine, is a permissible target. Al-Qaida's own decentralized organization is part of its offensive and defensive strategy. Individual al-Qaida members -- its suicidal terrorists -- are indeed its military weapons, hence Predator hits and special operations strikes.
Obama's reply also indicates he himself is facing one of the most difficult problems America has in this war: actionable intelligence. George W. Bush can testify, and likewise Bill Clinton. When do you pull the trigger?
Predators have operated over Pakistan for years. More advanced Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are being employed in Afghanistan. Predator strikes in Pakistan began to increase in summer 2008. The exact number of strikes is classified. Several commentators try to keep a tally, however -- among them Bill Roggio at longwarjournal.org.
Roggio recently reported on Dec. 8 that "U.S. airstrikes inside Pakistan have tapered off since September" and that "U.S. intelligence officials said a big reason for the scaleback in attacks is that al-Qaida and the Taliban have adapted to the U.S. tactics, improved their operational security and have ruthlessly killed anyone suspected of providing intelligence to the U.S."
An irony lurks. Terrorists crow that they choose the place and time of an attack. Their claim of ubiquitous surprise, wherever you may hide, intends to sow fear. Predators, however, ambush them. Now, knowing wagging tongues will bring missiles, they murder their own.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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