Use of drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan: deadly, but legal?

Unmanned aerial drones have become important weapons in the US counterterrorism effort. But questions are mounting about who controls the drones, and what laws govern their use.

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Unmanned Predator drones have become the face of the US war on terrorism, an unconventional response to an unconventional enemy. And they are seemingly effective. Last week, they struck down one of the US military's most-wanted enemies: Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban.

The drones are likely to become more a regular feature of counterterrorism. But as they do, the US – and allies like Pakistan – will have to confront important questions about their legality. Who, exactly, controls the drones? And by what laws are they governed?

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Surprisingly, nobody really knows.

Many global observers are troubled by this fact. One of them is Hina Shamsi, a senior adviser to the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at the NYU School of Law. She wrote recently for CBS News:

There has been no real domestic public debate or meaningful congressional oversight over targeted killings, even though their strategic and policy consequences are hotly contested....
Even the legal basis for the targeted killing policy in Pakistan is shrouded in secrecy. Is the CIA operating under the laws of war or some other law? Under the laws of war, only organized armed forces can kill during hostilities; civilian agencies like the CIA cannot. Who reviews CIA target selection and on what criteria? Unlike the military, which has the laws of war to guide it, we simply do not know how the CIA chooses targets and how many civilian bystanders it decides can be killed before it suspends an airstrike.

Within Pakistan, the laws governing predator attacks have never been made clear, as Ashfaq Ahmed writes in an opinion piece for Gulf News, a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates.

In fact it seems the government has a dual policy: its officials, including Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, condemn the US strikes in public, but there are reports of intelligence being shared behind the scenes to facilitate drone attacks.
US officials have shrugged off the public protest, saying that the drone strikes are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistani leaders to oppose the attacks in public.
Pakistan clearly needs a transparent and bold policy on this issue.

Since 2008, some 360 people have been killed in 42 drone attacks in Pakistan, many of them civilians, according to Dawn News. Dawn reports that US officials hope the strike on Mr. Mehsud, one of Pakistan's most-wanted enemies, will persuade Pakistan to look more favorably on drone strikes. (Click here to read the The Christian Science Monitor's briefing on drones as weapons of war.)

Mr. Ahmed argues that, to avoid the public outcry that the civilian deaths cause, the US should give Pakistan the drones, and Pakistan should frame the appropriate laws to use them.

For now, the US seems unlikely to do that. But evidence suggests the US is sharing more information on drone attacks with their Pakistani counterparts, according to the Associated Press.

Last year U.S. and Pakistan military officials met in a secret session in which Pakistani leaders agreed to target al-Qaida operatives in return for greater U.S. action against militant tribal leaders such as Mehsud who were a more significant threat to Pakistan.
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