The tragic “friendly fire” incident at the weekend, in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were allegedly killed in a NATO airstrike, raises many questions. Who shot first? How should Pakistan respond? What is the future for the already traumatized U.S.-Pakistan relationship?
But surely the biggest question, after a decade of conflict, is this: Should the United States even have launched military action in Afghanistan in the first place? And was the magnitude of the attacks on September 11, 2001, so great as to mean there was no choice but to launch military operations?
Setting aside the support of the international community, the United States still chose to act unilaterally against Afghanistan, claiming self–defense. There was much debate at the time over the legality of the initial use of force. Yet the devastation that the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan have experienced over the last decade as U.S. and coalition forces have battled Taliban militias almost makes that debate seem trite.
Interestingly, the justification for the war has transformed from self-defense, to an even less well defined fight against global terrorism. Meanwhile, Pakistan-based Taliban have replaced al-Qaeda as the central enemy in a war that has gradually come to be seen by Afghans as regime enforcement.
Whatever the reason given for military action, it has become increasingly clear that a dangerous precedent was set in Afghanistan. The justification for the use of force as self-defense has been increasingly utilized by opportunistic states to meet the challenge of insurgents and rebels, and this unwanted development of the doctrine of pre-emptive and preventive self-defense now poses a grave threat to international peace and security.
In addition, it also appears to be a mistake for coalition forces, acting under the mandate of the UN Security Council, to indulge in peace enforcement rather than just peacekeeping initiatives in Afghanistan. After all, history has shown that such aggressive use of force has typically worsened conflicts, as witnessed in Somalia.
Indeed, as underscored by events at the weekend, the fight against Taliban militants has now spilled over into Pakistan, where civilian causalities far outnumber those of combatants. This is in large part due to the U.S. insistence of using drone attacks to target militants, attacks that have had only sporadic success, even as they have killed scores of civilians, thus fueling extremism and resentment in Pakistan.
Against this backdrop, the United States has avoided providing proper legal justification for drone attacks, which violate Pakistani sovereignty. When confronted on the issue, the Obama administration responds in vague terms that it has a right to defend itself. The Pakistani military, for its part, has generally stayed quiet over the issue.
Yet although the U.S. and Pakistani governments may have until recently been in tacit agreement over the drone strikes, these extra-judicial killings should be seen as illegal under international law, in violation of the Constitution of Pakistan, and without the support of the people of Pakistan.