Assassination is banned by a US federal executive order issued by President Gerald Ford in the 1970s. That didn’t stop the Bush administration from adding assassination to its toolkit in the War on Terror, along with torture, detention without trial, and extraordinary rendition. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has not only taken up the torch, but has vastly expanded a CIA program that uses unmanned aerial drones to summarily execute suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders and anyone who happens to be in the vicinity.

These are not “surgical strikes.” Aerial drones fly at very high altitudes to avoid detection. Some carry cameras to locate suspicious clusters of people, while others carry high-powered bombs to target groups of people in the hope that someone of importance is killed. A subdivision of Boeing manufactures aerial surveillance drones.

A couple of weeks ago, US officials boasted that Baitullah Mehsud, a suspected Taliban leader, had been assassinated by a missile fired from a CIA-controlled aerial done. At first, US officials told The New York Times (and the paper faithfully reported) that Mehsud, a diabetic suffering from kidney failure, was killed while receiving medical treatment on the roof of his father-in-law’s villa. No sooner had the strike been reported than conflicting information emerged.

An Associated Press article appearing in the Seattle Times on Aug. 8 said that Mehsud was killed along with his wife and several bodyguards while hooked up to an intravenous drip and undergoing treatment for “stomach problems.” The Wall Street Journal quoted Pakistani officials saying that Mehsud was “undergoing treatment for a kidney ailment.” Almost certainly he was receiving kidney dialysis at the time–not something that can occur on the roof of his father-in-law’s villa. Also, the article stated that Mehsud was killed when a missile targeted the second-story balcony of a building where he was receiving treatment. No mention was made of any rooftop.

In fact, it appears that Mehsud was killed when the CIA bombed a medical clinic–probably the only facility that offers kidney dialysis in the Waziristan frontier. We can believe with some confidence that his wife and bodyguards were not the only ones killed in the bombing, but medical personnel and other patients were included in the death toll. In addition, anyone who lives in South Waziristan who needs kidney dialysis will now die without access to the complex, sterile equipment and medical personnel required to keep them alive.

Let’s remember what’s been forgotten by US officials and the US press: the bombing of medical facilities is a war crime, a direct violation of international law and the rules of warfare. It doesn’t matter if the enemy is receiving medical treatment in the facility at the time. It doesn’t matter if the clinic is treating Hitler or Osama bin Laden, or Baitullah Mehsud, or enemy foot soldiers. Hospitals and clinics are off limits.

Nevertheless, US officials were jubilant. They happily theorized that the death of Mehsud would cause a fatal fracture among the Waziristan tribes who’ve been helping Mehsud target the Pakistani government. Scholars of Pakistan and observers on the ground in Waziristan had a different view. In the Seattle Times report, Karim Mehsud, a lawyer in Peshawar who had met Baitullah Mehsud, was quoted as saying, “Another Baitullah will emerge. This is an ideological war, this is not a local problem.” Almost everyone agrees that Baitullah Mehsud was responsible for focusing his tribe’s attention away from Afghanistan and towards the Pakistani government; now that he’s gone, his 10,000-man guerilla army is free to reunite with the Taliban and once again attack US troops in Afghanistan.

More than 360 people have been killed in over 40 drone attacks in Pakistan this year. Pakistan has publicly condemned each and every one of these attacks as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. But both Pakistan’s foreign minister and the chief of its Interior Ministry have hailed the assassination of Mehsud as a major success. The Pakistani military has been preparing (with dread) for an offensive against tribal elements in the rugged, mountainous region of Waziristan, spurred on by heavy urging from the US government. The Pakistani government is now hopeful they can avoid the effort and expense altogether, much to the Pentagon’s dismay.

This week, US officials leaked news that the top US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is considering pulling US troops back from their forward positions near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Since the Pakistani government won’t deploy its own troops in Waziristan, “there’s no point swinging a hammer if there’s no anvil there,” according to US officials. The recent buildup of US troops in Afghanistan has apparently had no effect, except to disperse the Taliban over a wider area and provide more targets for their attacks.

Eight years of warfare, and this is what it comes down to: our government is engaging in assassination prohibited by US law and committing international war crimes, with the excuse that it will “save American lives” and “help end the war in Afghanistan.” Nothing could be further from the truth. To accomplish those goals our military would have to pull out of Afghanistan completely, and our president would have to end the policy of assassination with the use of aerial drones and high altitude bombing. Obama has shown no willingness to order either of those things.

When you assassinate an enemy’s leader, someone will inevitably take his place. In the case of Baitullah Mehsud, who’s been ill for some time now, the preparation for his successor was probably already complete. A new leader of the Mehsud tribe will arise swiftly and without most of the infighting so ardently expected by CIA officials.

Of course, the man who replaces Baitullah Mehsud will be more radical and more bloodthirsty. And now he’ll be looking for revenge.

Sources: “Taliban leader in Pakistan reportedly dead,” Joby Warrick, Joshua Partlow, and Haq Nawaz Khan, Associated Press, reprinted in the Seattle Times, 8/8/09; “U.S. Drone Kills Chief of Taliban in Pakistan,” Matthew Rosenberg, Zahid Hussain, and Siobhan Gorman, The Wall Street Journal, 8/8/09; “U.S. studies pulling troops from remote Afghan posts,” Jonathan S. Landay and Nancy A. Youssef, Seattle Times, 8/13/09.