On shooting Bin Laden

Never really bothered me that we shot Bin Laden whether he was actually resisting or not.  Honestly, seemed perfectly reasonable.  This nice post over at the New Yorker explains why, according to accepted rules of modern warfare, it was, in fact, perfectly reasonable:

There is no military circumstance where an Al Qaeda operative of bin Laden’s stature could merely be a “combat-based target” in the way a low-level insurgent at a roadside checkpoint would be, because he is also a high-value target, and his status as such matters. In 2009, I also described why:

For many years, soldiers have also been permitted to kill people because of who they are, rather than what they are doing—such people are “status-based targets.” During the Second World War, an American infantryman could shoot an S.S. officer who was eating lunch in a French café without violating the Law of War, so long as he did not actively surrender. The officer’s uniform made it obvious that he was the enemy. In Iraq, the R.O.E. listed about two dozen “designated terrorist organizations,” including Al Qaeda, and, if it can be proved that someone is a member of one of these groups, that person can legally be killed. For a time, the R.O.E. designated as a status-based target any armed man wearing the uniform of the Mahdi Army—the militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr. (After Sadr called a truce, in 2004, the militia was provisionally taken off the list.) But most insurgent groups in Iraq don’t wear uniforms, so their members must be “positively identified” by informants or other forms of intelligence before they can legally be killed. An insurgent is positively identified if there is “reasonable certainty” that he belongs to a declared hostile group.

What was true in Iraq and in the Second World War also applies in the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Targeted air strikes are status-based operations. The drone strikes are status-based operations. Raids conducted by Special Forces to kill key militants—as in the case of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was killed in Iraq by Special Forces working under the command of General Stanley McChrystal—are status-based operations. A status-based target can become a non-combatant (that is, illegal to kill) only if he is wounded to the point where he no longer poses a threat, or if he is in the process of surrendering. This is why Eric Holder said, during a recent Congressional hearing, that if bin Laden “had surrendered, attempted to surrender, I think we should obviously have accepted that, but there was no indication that he wanted to do that, and therefore his killing was appropriate.” In such a circumstance, the law suggests that the onus is on the target to immediately revoke his combatant status. Soldiers do not have to wait.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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