The President Decides Who Should Die: Another Assassination in the ‘Forever War’

At 6:18 am on Sunday, 31 July, local time, two Hellfire missiles killed Ayman Al-Zawahri as he stood on the balcony of his house in Kabul. He was home with his family. The President of the United States of America, Joe Biden had decided that Al-Zawahri should be assassinated. This was a military drone-attack conducted by a non-military security agency.

A couple of days later President Biden gave a speech defending the assassination. ‘I am sharing this news with the American people now after confirming the mission’s total success.’  It prompts the question: would the president have shared this news if it had not been a ‘total success’? The last known drone attack in Kabul, in August 2021, was not announced. It was subsequently revealed by the New York Times that it killed an Afghan aid worker, Zemari Ahmadi, and nine other civilians, including seven children.

That was a tragic moment, but lest we lose the full meaning of that event and the recent assassination, it is worth clarifying the basic issue. First, the United States has taken it upon itself the authority, without trial, to kill anyone it deems to be a threat anywhere in the world. Habeas corpus, the legal principle that someone should be present face-to-face for judgment to be legitimate, has been abandoned—at least for non-citizens residing outside the United States. Second, despite our present preoccupation with a relatively old-fashioned imperial war in Ukraine, there has been a qualitative shift in the nature of the projection of military violence. An abstract war-machine has relativised the meaning of military/secret-agency targeting, the nature of the civilian/combatant distinction, the distinction between everyday life and engagement in war, and the meaning and ethics of combat. President Biden made the first point manifest at a significant break in his speech; the second sits behind his words.

Biden’s speech faltered for a moment, as if the autocue had frozen, and then said: ‘We make it clear again tonight that no matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out’. Biden lifted his hand to emphasise the words, ‘find you, and take you out’, pointing his index finger at the autocue. He then shifted to making a virtue of this unilateral act of killing at a distance: ‘We [meaning the United States] keep the light of freedom burning, a beacon for the rest of the entire world, because this is the great and defining truth of our people. We do not break. We never give in. And, we never back down.’

The meaning of the phrase ‘if you are a threat’ remains unspecified. But it has a decades-long history that is worth uncovering in relation to assassination. It is bound up with the doctrine of a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ (RMA). One of the first expressions of this, at least for the United States, was through global mobility campaigns characterised by stealth aircraft, super-precision targeting, and an integrated global information system. It became known as the ‘Forever War’.  This is not just a technical issue of extending the disembodied reach of the machines of so-called ‘conventional’ war, but one that reaches into every domain of life. Culturally, it requires societies to be on a permanent war-footing, where military action, or the threat of it, is normalised as the only viable response to every other aggressive threat. Legally, it requires an apparatus that justifies the relative irrelevance of legal judgment.

Ironically, it was an apparently redemptive American president who led the way: Barak Obama, whose early speeches suggested he was going to dismantle the war-machine—. As Samuel Moyne wrote in 2021 in The Guardian:

In just the first few months of 2009, after Obama took the oath of office, the initial metamorphosis of American war into humane form was achieved. As the worst sins of the prior administration were disowned, Obama’s lawyers claimed authority to continue war indefinitely across space and time, devising formal legal frameworks for targeted killings. The rise of the armed drone empire under Obama’s watch was merely the symbol of the extension and expansion of endless war.

This process was begun through an apparently innocuous legal brief in March 2009 dealing with considerations of habeas corpus in irregular war. After initially issuing executive orders to stop torture and to close Guantanamo Bay (thought this has still not happened, with Joe Biden having made a similar promise to close the Cuban prison), a legal intervention was used to extend the possibility of globalising ‘legitimate force’ against whomever was deemed an enemy by the president. The space–time setting and form of embodiment involved in the ongoing war on terror were thus relativised.

The brief’s overt concern was to define who could be detained as a prisoner of war in Guantanamo Bay. In the process the brief confirmed George Bush’s 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), Pub. L. 107-40, 115 Stat. 224, which opened the way ‘to all necessary and appropriate force’ to be used against al-Qaida. Going further than the AUMF, the Obama brief then legally rendered two elements as intentionally and ‘legitimately’ undefined (that is, rather than simply vague). The first was the meaning of ‘substantial support’ for an act of terror. The second was what it meant to say that a person or group was an ‘associated force’ of a defined terrorist grouping ‘like al-Qaida’. In short, as a number of commentators have noted, it dissolved most of the limitations in acting upon an enemy, so considered, both across the globe and across time. The spatial, temporal and corporeal parameters of this war were now to be determined by the relative and changing standpoint of the US president.

Across the course of Obama’s presidency, by not bringing any prisoners to Guantanamo Bay to test habeas corpus, and by eschewing in-person torture, a new regime of indefinite killing was imposed. (I could write here, ‘a new regime of semi-legitimised state-terror’.)

The first drone operation of Obama’s presidency took place on the third day of his incumbency. At the end of the first year, Obama had presided over more killer-drone strikes than occurred during the entire period of George W. Bush’s incumbency, including the first confirmed ‘double-tap strike’. Such strikes send a missile from a drone a short period after the first, thus intending to kill the first-responders who are trying to help the victims of the first strike. Later in 2009 two, it now seems, related events occurred: Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first books on killer robots were published. Peace was being redefined, and automation was in the air.

It needs to be recognised that during Obama’s time in office, the rhetoric of ‘humane warfare’ was accompanied by increasingly precise targeting technologies and an actual minimisation of collateral damage. Fully automated strikes were renounced, and persons, actual people, were to be engaged with algorithmic decision making to make final attack decisions. Sitting in air-conditioned offices on US airforce bases, they would make life and death decisions guiding drones to their human targets on screen, then go home at the end of a ‘normal’ working day. Despite these liberal qualifications, as the strikes expanded in number and range, the disjunctures between disembodied engagement and the effects on actual people intensified. This effect extended from local people in targeted areas such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia to the drone operators themselves in the United States. The effects of the disembodied process continue to be exacerbated for both groups.

     *          *           *

Disjunctures abound in this context of disembodied warfare, and their meaning is mostly lost in the media focus on singular events. The increasingly disembodied war fought from the skies over Afghanistan, for example, was nevertheless associated with mortal attacks on the bodies of thousands of combatants and civilians—by one count 176,000. Similarly, the final outcome of that war was part of a more general trend in which the distinction between winning and losing wars has all but lost its meaning. Even if a techno-regime of military control could have continued indefinitely (a potential temporal stretching of the meaning of war), the Taliban, a neo-traditional movement that did not use remotely piloted vehicles or algorithmic surveillance systems, ‘won’ the twenty-year war against an otherwise undefeatable military machine.

Despite this win, the trend towards automation, technological mediation, action-at-a-distance, and cyber-engagement continues apace and has the capacity for increasing military dominance—at least when political will and perceived legitimacy is maintained. From one side of what we might consider the new, postmodern war, semi-automated machines navigate vast extensions of space and diminish time differences between a war-room decision in one place and the engagement of a drone-enabled ‘targeted killing’ on the other side of the world. War-zones are no longer confined to the nationally bounded territories of the declared combatants. And identification of kill-targets is no longer based primarily on eye-to-eye confirmation but is rather ‘tested’ by computerised algorithmic verification. The assassination of Ayman Al-Zawahri is more than just the killing of a war criminal. It is one small moment in a Forever War that has now become the new normal.

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About the author

Paul James

Paul James is a researcher in the Institute for Culture and Society at the Western Sydney University. He is Scientific Advisor to the City of Berlin, and a Metropolis Ambassador of Urban Innovation. He has been an editor of Arena since 1986, and is author or editor of numerous books including Globalization Matters: Engaging the Global in Unsettled Times (with Manfred Steger, Cambridge University Press, 2019).

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There is no contradiction here that I can see. It would have been an assassination, but one that might be morally justified in terms of just war theory. The difference is profound. This is a ‘forever war’ in which enemies of state are loosely defined and then arbitrarily killed without trial. In your analogy, it is like using drones to assassinate Nazis who fled twenty years ago, rather than negotiating their extradition and bringing them to trial – even Eichmann was afforded that process of justice.

“War-zones are no longer confined to the nationally bounded territories of the declared combatants.”
How far do we have to go back to find a time when all players abided by this rule? It was not the policy of the ancient Persians (Thermopylae) Greeks (Peloponnesian War) Romans (Europe generally). Hitler & the Axis did not abide by it, even if his appeasers did for the time it took their luck to run out. (Vide Spanish Civil War.) In modern war, everyone on all sides is potentially at least, a front line soldier.
The Vietnamese NLF (1965-75) did not pour down napalm and cluster bombs from the skies onto the continental US, but many would not have blamed them if they had.

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