(in)Humanity and drones

SATIA Spies in ArabiaThe latest issue of Humanity: an international journal of human rights, humanitarianism and development 5 (1) (2014) – see my previous post here – contains a wonderful dossier on Drones between past and present.  It includes Priya Satia, whose work I’ve admired ever since I read her wonderful Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East, on ‘Drones: a history from the Middle East’ (pp. 1-31), Anna Chotzen on ‘Beyond bounds: Morocco’s Rif War and the limits of international law’ (pp. 33-54: ‘From a legal standpoint, the United States’ drone offensives are eerily similar to Spain’s chemical war in Morocco a century ago’), and a Photo Esssay from Trevor Paglen (pp. 57-71), introduced by Nicholas Guilhot (pp. 55-56).

Priya’s essay is of particular interest to me, since it recovers the genealogy and, crucially, what she calls ‘the cultural history of bombardment’ that connects colonial practices of ‘air control’ to the ideologies that activate the drone strikes prosecuted by the US in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.  She’s more sanguine about the transparency of those carried out by the USAF in Afghanistan than I am:

‘… in my conversations with military officers, it is clear how strongly the USAF wishes to distinguish its use of drones from ‘‘other agencies’ ’’ use of them, even while acknowledging that tactics are shared. The USAF’s drone strikes in Afghanistan are transparent; a JAG (judge advocate) assesses the proportionality of the action and the likelihood of collateral damage; official casualty figures line up well with independent counts.’

I now suspect it’s more than ‘tactics’ that are shared, and the lines between the USAF and the CIA are more blurred than – I agree – most military officers would wish.  And my project on ‘Militarized vision‘ is trying to identify the parameters within which the USAF’s transparency and its visual mediations operate.  But as she goes on to say, ‘However, all of this hardly matters politically, given the older and more recent history of aerial counterinsurgency in these regions.’  And she provides a rich and compelling account of that history and its traces in present memories and (para)military practices.

PAGLEN Untitled (Predator drone) 2013

Cloud computing

Just caught up with this: a fine essay over at the Deterritorial Investigations Unit – ‘Instead of building a genealogy of neoliberalism, we must build a cartography of the system’ – called  “The sage speaks of what he sees”: War Games and the New Spirit of Capitalism.

It’s a provocative Deleuzian take on the intersections between systems technology, military violence and the production of code/space, that starts with World War II and tracks on into the present (so in fact it combines genealogy and geography).

Developments in aviation technology, such as the capability for flying at higher altitudes and more complex bomb and weapon systems, led to profound problems in fire-control: in high-speed warfare, it was necessary for gunners to be able to respond immediately to actions in the combat environment and to hit their targets with a greater degree of accuracy. In order to deal with this new machinic vision of warfare (which extends beyond the fire-control issue itself, as larger programs like the Manhattan Project indicate), militaries were quickly investing millions of dollars into scientific research in an effort to find mastery over combat theaters. Through science, the command structures of the military were seeking an orderly control over the environment. 


A central part in the narrative is played by the Semi-Automated [sometimes ‘Automatic’] Ground Environment (SAGE – hence in part the title) and its successor projects, including civilian derivatives like SABRE that revolutionised air travel ticketing (and Travelocity).  On that tangled web, see Jordan Crandall on ‘tracking’ here (also here) and here.

As George Valley and Jay Forrester (later of Urban dynamics fame) conceived of SAGE in 1953, the system would consist of

(1) a net of radars and other data sources and (2) digital computers that (a) receive the radar and other information to detect and tract aircraft, (b) process the track data to form a complete air situation, and (c) guide weapons to destroy enemy aircraft.


The system was developed at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory (at a greater cost than the Manhattan Project, incidentally), and this is how the Lab summarises SAGE:

 A large network of radars would automatically detect a hostile bomber formation as it approached the U.S. mainland from any direction. The radar detections would be transmitted over telephone lines to the nearest SAGE direction center, where they would be processed by an AN/FSQ-7 computer. The direction center would then send out notification and continuous targeting information to the air bases best situated to carry out interception of the approaching bombers, as well as to a set of surface-to-air missile batteries. The direction center would also send data to and receive data from adjoining centers, and send situational awareness information to the command centers.  As the fighters from the air bases scrambled and became airborne, the direction center would continue to process track data from multiple radars and would transmit updated target positions in order to vector the intercepting aircraft to their targets. After the fighter aircraft intercepted the approaching bombers, they would send raid assessment information back to the direction center to determine whether additional aircraft or missile intercepts were necessary.

The network as envisaged in 1958 is shown below (more details here):

SAGE network plan 1958

FARISH Contours of America's Cold WarThis plainly reaches back to the air defence systems set up by Britain and Germany during the Second World War, but more significantly for my purposes it intersects with the sensor-shooter system that was at the deadly centre of the ‘electronic battlefield’ during the Vietnam war and with a stream of subsequent tactical (rather than purely strategic) developments.  If you want to know more about SAGE and its spiralling military trajectory, I recommend Matt Farish‘s brilliant chapter in The contours of America’s Cold War (Minnesota, 2010), ‘The cybernetic continent: North America as defense laboratory’.

More recently still, there’s Jeremy Packer and Joshua Reeves, ‘Romancing the drone: military desire and anthropophobia from SAGE to swarm’, Canadian Journal of Communication 38 (2013) 309-31.  And, as their title suggests, all of this feeds into my continuing interest in the networks that make today’s drone wars possible, to which I’ll return shortly.

The facts on the ground

Razed to the groundHuman Rights Watch has released a bleak report, Razed to the Ground: Syria’s unlawful neighborhood demolitions, 2012-2013.

Satellite imagery, witness statements, and video and photographic evidence show that Syrian authorities deliberately and unlawfully demolished thousands of residential buildings in Damascus and Hama in 2012 and 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 38-page report, “Razed to the Ground: Syria’s Unlawful Neighborhood Demolitions in 2012-2013,” documents seven cases of large-scale demolitions with explosives and bulldozers that violated the laws of war. The demolitions either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population or caused disproportionate harm to civilians, Human Rights Watch found.

“Wiping entire neighborhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government.”

Demolitions, Hama

More images and commentary here, but this is almost certainly only a fragmentary map of a still wider geography of urbicide.  According to Martin Chulov, reporting from Beirut,

Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “These are the areas that we were told about by witnesses. There are likely to be other areas, but there are many black holes in Syria where we don’t have information. This is likely part of a systematic policy in rebel held areas elsewhere in the country as well.

“It shows yet again that this is not a one-off act by a commander. This is part of a strategy targeting all opposition-held areas. It is a mirror image of the starvation of people in Yarmouk [refugee camp in Damascus] or in Old Homs. It shows yet again how ready the government is to collectively harm areas of people that are supporting the opposition.”

The circumstances and context are different, but Assad is clearly borrowing yet another tactic from Israel’s playbook.  The ongoing demolition of homes in occupied Palestine is a slower process, but just as brutal and just as illegal: see the work of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions here (though I wish it were called the Committee against Home Demolitions to capture more fully what is being so deliberately and callously destroyed).  Here is Human Rights Watch last summer:

Israeli forces should immediately end unlawful demolitions of Palestinian homes and other structures in Occupied Palestinian Territory. The demolitions have displaced at least 79 Palestinians since August 19, 2013. Demolitions of homes and other structures that compel Palestinians to leave their communities may amount to the forcible transfer of residents of an occupied territory, which is a war crime.

Human Rights Watch documented demolitions on August 19 in East Jerusalem that displaced 39 people, including 18 children. Israeli human rights groups and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) documented additional demolitions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank on August 20 and 21 that destroyed the homes of 40 people, including 20 children.

“When Israeli forces routinely and repeatedly demolish homes in occupied territory without showing that it’s necessary for military operations, it appears that the only purpose is to drive families off their land, which is a war crime,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The politics of peace talks do not make it any less unlawful for Israel to demolish Palestinians’ homes without a valid military reason.”

Remember these two reports when you read the response from the ‘international community’ to the latest Syrian revelations.  And listen to the silences.

More dirty dancing

As I work on turning my Beirut talk on drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into a long-form version – which includes a detailed and critical engagement with Giorgio Agamben‘s characterisation of the state/space of exception – I’ll post some of the key arguments here.  But for now, two important developments.


First, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has just published a list of 330 drone strikes  between 2006 and July 2013 (data for the five strikes that took place in 2007 are missing) compiled by the Pakistan government (see extract above); this is an update of a partial release from the Bureau last summer.  The source is a series of reports filed each evening by Political Agents in the field to the FATA secretariat, and while it’s not a comprehensive listing – and Islamabad relies on other sources too – the document closely follows the Bureau’s own database compiled from other independent sources.  It also allows for a more accurate mapping of the strikes – more to come on this.

But one key difference between the list and the Bureau’s database is that, following the election of Obama, the official reports no longer attempted to classify the victims as combatants or civilians: and the coincidence may not be coincidental.  According to Chris Woods,

‘One of my sources, a former Pakistani minister, has indicated that local officials may have come under pressure to play down drone civilian deaths following the election of Barack Obama. It’s certainly of concern that almost all mention of non-combatant casualties simply disappears from this document after 2009, despite significant evidence to the contrary.’

One of the most egregious omissions is the drone strike on 24 October 2012 that killed Mamana Bibi, a grandmother tending the fields with her grandchildren.  The case was documented extensively by Amnesty International and yet, as the Bureau notes, while the date and location of the strike is recorded the report from the political agent is remarkably terse and makes nothing of her evident civilian status.

‘If a case as well-documented as Mamana Bibi’s isn’t recorded as a civilian death, that raises questions about whether any state records of these strikes can be seen as reliable, beyond the most basic information,’ said Mustafa Qadri, a researcher for Amnesty International…. ‘It also raises questions of complicity on the part of the Pakistan state – has there been a decision to stop recording civilians deaths?’

These are important questions, and in fact one of the central objectives of my own essay is to document the close, covert co-operation between the US and Pakistani authorities: what I called, in an earlier post, dirty dancing, trading partly on Jeremy Scahill’s inventory of ‘dirty wars’ and partly on Joshua Foust‘s calling out of the ‘Islamabad drone dance’.

We now know that this collaboration continued at the very least until late 2011.  The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center routinely prepared reports that included maps (see below) and pre- and post-strike imagery that were briefed by the Deputy Director to Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, and subsequently transmitted to Islamabad.


And consistent with the reports from Political Agents to the FATA Secretariat, Greg Miller and Bob Woodward note that in these briefings:

Although often uncertain about the identities of its targets, the CIA expresses remarkable confidence in its accuracy, repeatedly ruling out the possibility that any civilians were killed.  One table estimates that as many as 152 “combatants” were killed and 26 were injured during the first six months of 2011. Lengthy columns with spaces to record civilian deaths or injuries contain nothing but zeroes.

The collaboration is important, because it has major implications for how one thinks about the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as a ‘space of exception’: there are multiple legal regimes through which the people who live in these borderlands are knowingly and deliberately ‘exposed to death’, as Agamben would have it.  More on this later, but for now there is a second, more substantive point to be sharpened.

I’ve previously emphasised that the people of FATA are not only ‘living under drones‘, as the Stanford/NYU legal team put it last year, but also under the threat of air strikes from the Pakistan Air Force.  Last week the PAF resumed air strikes against leaders of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in North Waziristan, using first F-16 aircraft and then helicopter gunships to attack what were described as ‘eight major targets’ in the villages of Mir Ali (Hamzoni, Issori, Khadi and Nawana). Although the Air Force described the operation as a ‘blitz’, it initially claimed that only two people were killed.  A different story soon emerged.


According to Pakistan’s International News, the air raids started just before midnight on 20 January, and people ‘left their homes in desperation and spent the night in the open along with children when the jets started bombing.’

There were conflicting reports about the identity of those killed. Military authorities said all the 40 people killed in the overnight aerial strikes were hardcore militants or their relatives and family members.

However, tribesmen in Mir Ali subdivision insisted that some local villagers, including women, children and elderly people, were also killed in the bombing by the PAF’s fighter aircraft and Pakistan Army’s helicopter gunships as residential areas were attacked.


Several days later there were reports of hundreds – even thousands – of people fleeing the area in anticipation of continuing and intensifying military operations.  On 25 January the Express Tribune reported:

“Most of the families of Mir Ali Bazaar and adjacent areas have been leaving,” Abdullah Wazir, a resident of Spin Wam told The Express Tribune, adding, “women and children have been leaving with household materials, but livestock and larger items of belongings are being abandoned by these families.”

“It is difficult to find shelter in Bannu,” said Janath Noor, aged 38, who travelled there with her family. “There are problems at home and here in Bannu too.” She added that the families were forced to act independently as the political administrations in North Waziristan and Bannu have not made arrangements for the fleeing families. Some families reportedly spent the night under the open sky in Bannu town, waiting for any available shelter.

Some IDPs have also faced problems such as harassment at the hands of the police, requests for bribes, soaring rates of transport from Mir Ali and inflated rents for houses in Bannu. Some families, suspected of being militants, have had problems finding accommodation in Bannu district.

Mir Ali:Bannu

By 27 January the government estimated that 8,000 people had arrived in Bannu, while many others unable to find shelter and unwilling to sleep in the open had hone on to Peshawar and elsewhere.  But the head of the FATA Disaster Management Authority declared that ‘No military operation has been announced in the tribal area so there are no instructions to make arrangements for the internally displaced people.’

Most local people were clearly sceptical about that and, certainly, there were authoritative claims that Pakistan was being put ‘on a war footing’ to counter the surging power of the TTP.  In the same week that the air strikes were launched, Islamabad promulgated an amended Protection of Pakistan Ordinance (PPO), modelled on the imperial Rowlatt Act of 1919, that included provisions for secret courts, greater shoot-to-kill license for the police, house raids without warrants and the detention of terror suspects without charge. Rana Sanaullah, Minister for Law, Parliamentary Affairs and Public Prosecution in the Punjab and a close confidant of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told the Guardian: ‘I think what will be done will be no worse than what has happened in Guantánamo Bay.’  Not surprisingly, he also offered support for the US drone strikes:

‘We believe that drone attacks damage the terrorists, very much… Inside, everyone believes that drone attacks are good; but outside, everyone condemn because the drones are American.’

And, as I’ll try to show in a later post, it’s a different inside/outside indistinction that plays a vital role in producing the FATA as a space of exception.

In plain sight

I’ve posted about camouflage before, but mainly in an historical context: the issue looms large in two recent essays, ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and the soon-to-be-completed ‘The natures of war’.  But it is, of course, of vital contemporary importance, and I’m thinking through its implications for my ‘Militarized vision‘ project.  After all, ‘seeing like a military‘ also involves what is not seen…

Here the work of Isla Forsyth is indispensable: see in particular her ‘Subversive patterning: the surgical qualities of camouflage’, Environment and Planning A 45(2013) 1037-52 and  ‘Designs on the desert: camouflage, deception and the militarization of space’, Cultural geographies, online July 2013; I also like James Philip Robertson‘s ‘Darkened surfaces”: camouflage and the nocturnal observation of Britain, 1941-45’, Environment and Planning A 45 (2013) 1053-69.

But these are all historical investigations, and for those new to contemporary camouflage Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan has a helpful summary of advances (and failures) in ‘digital’ camouflage over at Gizmodo, ‘The history of invisibility and the future of camouflage’.

Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corp

The article takes off from the failure of the US Army’s ‘Universal Camouflage Pattern’ introduced in 2004, which was supposedly designed to work anywhere: not surprisingly, it didn’t. Cindi Katz‘s wonderfully waspish descriptions of the post-9/11 deployment of the National Guard in New York City are irresistible:

‘I’ve grown accustomed to their presence — frighteningly so — but still can’t get over their costumes. Green, woodsy camouflage. To blend with Penn Station?!’

Kelsey interviews Guy Cramer, CEO of Hyperstealth Biotechnology, ‘leaders in camouflage, concealment and deception’, and one of four finalists in the US Army’s Camo Improvement project. He has interesting things to say about fractals, pattern and scale but also about the temporal horizon of camouflage: how long does the deception have to work? Perhaps it will soon be time to head over to Penn Station again….

UPDATE: I’ve just stumbled across Stefka Hristova‘s ‘Digital Animalized Camouflage: A Zone of Biopolitical Indistinction’, from interstitial last year, which make a series of imaginative connections between digital camouflage and the state of exception: you can access it  here.

The rule of war

ADS_274_300por300The latest issue of Lisbon’s Análise Social has a special section devoted to the work of historical sociologist Michael Mann (all in English).  I’ve admired Mann’s historical and geographical range – and his combination of narrative and analytical power – ever since I read the first volume of his Sources of social power (1986; new edition 2012).

In the course of an interview with Miguel Bandeira Jéronimo, Mann describes the conceptual changes he has introduced as his multi-volume project has progressed, and he draws particular attention to his attempt to clarify the distinction between political power and military power:

Political power is the institutionalization of power relations over a given territory, backed up by mostly non-lethal, routinized and rule-governed coercion. Military power is the deployment of lethal violence which is aimed deliberately at terrifying, killing, and wounding people, and which is minimally or not at all institutionalized or rule-governed. Geopolitics lies between the two and can be either an extension of political or military power, according to whether inter-state relations contain matters of peace or war. The former are subject to negotiated rules and international courts and tribunals, the latter are not.

Leaving aside Mann’s claims about geopolitics, which I leave to my friends who work in that area, and the idea of a ‘given territory’ (on which I suspect Stuart Elden would have much to say), I’m puzzled by this.

I accept that not all rules are codified into formal protocols, but even in the case of so-called ‘new wars’ is military violence really perpetrated in a rule-free zone?  The operative codes may not be ‘ours’, and they may be fluid and improvisational, but this does not mean they don’t have a substantial role in drawing the contours of military and paramilitary violence.

And surely military power in many (though not all) of its contemporary forms is highly institutionalised and ‘rule-governed’?  The bureaucratisation of modern war, and in its later forms its juridification, is highly advanced: I don’t mean to imply that this is unproblematic, of course, still less that the rules remain intact throughout a conflict, and the reach of international courts and tribunals is evidently highly skewed (not least through the operation of political power), but still…  I think we need a much more nuanced account of the relations between law and war, one which recognises the complicities between them and, in particular, the ways in which military violence frequently works to extend the boundaries of a law that travels in the rear, its baggage train so to speak.

Finally, these clarifications are too clear.  In particular, they don’t address intra-state and transnational conflicts, and they make the distinction between ‘war’ and ‘peace’ such a black and white affair.  And here, plainly, the question of territory reappears in even more urgent (and contested) form.