U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries may be militarily effective, but they are killing innocent civilians in a way that is obscene and immoral. I’m afraid that ignoring this ugly fact makes Americans complicit in murder.

It is understandable why President Obama has made drone attacks his go-to weapon in the fight against terrorists and the Taliban. Armed, pilotless aircraft allow the CIA and the military to target individuals in enemy strongholds without putting U.S. lives at risk. But efficacy is not legitimacy, and I don’t see how drone strikes can be considered a wholly legitimate way to wage war.

This is an unpopular view in Washington — especially at the White House, where Obama and his aides have done much to erase the stain on the nation’s honor left by the excesses of George W. Bush’s Global War on Terrorism. It is to his great credit that Obama ended torture, shut down the CIA’s secret overseas prisons and made a good-faith effort to close the detention center at Guantanamo.

But Obama has greatly expanded the use of drones, and his version of the terror war looks a lot like a campaign of assassination.

Even if the intelligence agents and military officers who operate the drones have perfect knowledge — meaning they are absolutely certain the target is a dangerous enemy — and fire the drones’ missiles with perfect accuracy, this amounts to summary execution. Is such killing morally defensible?

To defend enforcing a death sentence with no due process, at a minimum you have to accept that the fight against terrorists is properly defined as a war. Obama sharply questioned that conceptual framework when he was running for president in 2008; these days, he uses the word “war” frequently. But I have never heard him embrace the theory of a global Manichaean conflict in which, as Bush said, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Under what theory, then, does the president order drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, with which we are not at war? It would seem the definition of “enemy” is, basically, “someone the United States decides to target.”

I have considerable faith in Obama to make careful, sober decisions about who should be considered a targetable enemy, and I know he agonizes over pulling the trigger. But that is cold comfort. Bush’s theory of war was clear and morally indefensible. Obama’s is fuzzy and morally ambiguous.

All this is true even if the drones kill only their targets. But of course there is “collateral damage.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has threatened not to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States because of a drone attack last week that killed a 2-year-old child and wounded two women. Karzai is a corrupt and unreliable ally, and this is just the latest in a string of reasons he has given for vacillating on the pact. But he has good reason to complain about this atrocity — as was acknowledged when the top U.S. general in Afghanistan offered a formal apology.

How many civilians have been killed in drone strikes? The Obama administration refuses to say but insists that the toll, whatever it may be, is declining because of stricter rules on choosing targets.

In Afghanistan, it is hard to attempt a count because there is an actual war going on, with no agreement on who qualifies as a civilian. The Los Angeles Times wrote recently about a Sept. 7 drone strike in Kunar Province. U.S. officials told the paper that 11 people died, most of them Taliban fighters; grieving local residents, however, insisted that 14 civilians had been killed. When does a village cease being a village and become a “Taliban stronghold”? When we say so, apparently.

The nonpartisan New America Foundation, which has attempted to keep a running tally, says drone strikes have killed between 258 and 307 civilians in Pakistan, and between 66 and 68 in Yemen. Those numbers may seem small but each victim was a human being who posed no threat to the United States or its interests — in some cases a child who was here one minute, full of laughter and life’s promise, and gone the next.

I believe historians will look at Obama’s second term and see the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, despite its rocky launch, as a great moral triumph. I fear they will see the drone war as a great moral failure.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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