In May, The Australian reported that SAS troops in Afghanistan had successfully carried out what it called a “targeted assassination”. This was, we learned, part of a strategy explicitly modelled on the Phoenix Program, a notorious Vietnam era CIA operation that degenerated into a campaign of torture and murder.

The revelations about Australian assassination squads raise many questions. Phoenix was directed solely at civilians but the SAS are said to be targeting “Taliban leaders”. Yet, in the context of an insurgency based on tribal and religious affiliations, when the military draws up its death lists, how does it distinguish between civilian and military targets?

The question arises once more as the Pentagon adds drug traffickers to its register of those who can be captured or killed on sight.

The New York Times notes:

The policy of going after drug lords is likely to raise legal concerns from some NATO countries that have troops in Afghanistan. Several NATO countries initially questioned whether the new policy would comply with international law.

“This was a hard sell in NATO,” said retired Gen. John Craddock, who was supreme allied commander of NATO forces until he retired in July.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the secretary general of NATO until last month, told the Senate committee staff that to deal with the concerns of other nations with troops in Afghanistan, safeguards had been put in place to make sure the alliance remained within legal bounds while pursuing drug traffickers. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai , is also informed before a mission takes place, according to a senior military official.

Those European panty-waists with their — pah! — “international laws”. Whatever could they be worried about?

Here’s the thing: even in war, you’re not supposed to kill just anyone. Drug traffickers might be criminals but that doesn’t, in and of itself, make them a military target. The Times again:

The generals told Senate staff members that two credible sources and substantial additional evidence were required before a trafficker was placed on the list, and only those providing support to the insurgency would be made targets.

Currently, they said, there are about 50 major traffickers who contribute money to the Taliban on the list.

Now it’s nice that they need “two credible sources”. Still, legalists might object that, even the Karzai regime, knee-deep in warlordism and torture, pays lip-service to the idea of a judiciary resolving criminal matters, and that, whatever you might say about the military and its “credible sources”, they don’t actually amount to a trial.

But, really, the key issue centres on the provision of support for the Taliban, since it’s only on that basis that anyone can suggest it’s legal to consider drug dealers as targets. Most of Afghan’s opium grows in the southern provinces, places where the Taliban often exerts de facto control.

In 2008, there were an astonishing 157,000 hectares under poppy cultivation, a figure suggesting that most farmers have something to do with the trade. In such circumstances, if you wanted to, you could describe just about anyone as a “drug kingpin”. Given that the Taliban collects taxes from areas where it has a presence, you could also accuse just about anyone of “contributing money to the Taliban”.

It’s a pretty broad basis on which to be drawing up death lists.

What of it? you might say. If this war is to be won, we can’t be worrying too much about legalistic restrictions on whom we kill and whom we don’t. Why, perhaps the increasing reliance on assassinations in Afghanistan is actually progressive, since it means a decreasing use of the aerial bombing that has caused such carnage amongst civilians.

That might be true. But if so, what does it say about where this war is at? Or, to put it another way, after everything we learned from Vietnam, how did we once more get into a situation where we must choose between bombing campaigns and death lists?

If assassinations are the answer, surely there’s something wrong with the question.