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The Kansas City Star: Caution needed on drone strike

February 19, 2014 - 12:05am

Another American citizen may end up on the Obama administration’s “kill list.”

The man is in Pakistan. He’s allegedly affiliated with al-Qaida and responsible for the murders of Americans overseas.

When asked about the rationale behind a potential drone strike, White House press secretary Jay Carney simply referred the questioner to President Barack Obama’s May 2013 speech at the National Defense University in D.C. In it, he discussed the ethics, legality and effectiveness of drone warfare. However, only one component of this triad is under review here: effectiveness.

On Sept. 30, 2011, the Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone-launched Hellfire missile in Yemen. He was an American citizen. But he was also an operational commander in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, where he served as a catalytic force for new recruits and actively plotted the murder of innocent Americans.

Considering the imminent threat he posed, the difficulties that would have attended his capture and the approval of the Yemeni government, the strike on Awlaki was ethical, legal and effective. The possible strike in Pakistan may be ethical and legal as well — but would it be effective?

Pakistan’s official attitude on drone strikes is almost incomprehensibly inconsistent. For example, in 2008 then-President Asif Ali Zardari secretly cobbled together a list of “high-value” drone targets with American officials. Less than a year later, he pleaded for the United States to relent. In December 2011, Pakistani generals revamped their drone policy, pledging to fire upon unauthorized aircraft. At his inauguration ceremony last summer, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif demanded an immediate cessation of drone strikes.

Is this neurotic status quo sustainable? What happens when the political pressure becomes too great? According to Pew Research, only 5 percent of Pakistanis support drone strikes. The Pakistani government is on the cusp of renewed talks with the Taliban, so leaders have asked the United States for a drone hiatus. Now may not be the time for a highly publicized assassination.

Here’s the most confounding, frustrating aspect of this saga: According to reports, U.S. officials know where the al-Qaida operative is hiding. Why can’t we point to his cave or compound and let the Pakistanis deal with him? Perhaps they can use one of the F-16s we sold them.