In a perceptive commentary on the ground-breaking investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal into civilian casualties caused by the US air campaign against Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq – see also my posts here and here – Robert Malley and Stephen Pomper write:
The Trump administration has celebrated a no-holds-barred approach to the fight against ISIS, given greater deference to ground commanders, loosened restrictions imposed by its predecessor, and expanded the fight to an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern and African theaters. This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties. Independent monitoring organizations have tracked the numbers, and invariably they point to a serious uptick in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since January 2017. The explanation lies partly in the transition in Iraq and Syria toward the final, more urban phase of the conflict in the heavily populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa. But partly only. It also lies in policy guidance, as well as in matters such as tone, attitude, and priorities set at the very top—including by the commander in chief. These have a way of trickling down and affecting performance on the battlefield.
And yet. Those dead civilians that The New YorkTimes found not to have been counted were not counted by the Obama administration. They were not counted by people who were intent on limiting civilian casualties and ensuring transparency. That those safeguards proved inadequate even in the hands of an administration that considered them a priority raises particularly vexing questions.
Part of the problem, as they note, is the nature of the campaign itself. This is not the sort of counterinsurgency campaign that emerged in Afghanistan and Iraq in which air power was used in support of US and allied ground troops (although we know that also produced more than its share of civilian casualties); neither is it a counterterrorism campaign directed against so-called High Value Targets who supposedly ‘present a direct and imminent threat to the United States’ (ditto; and as I discuss in ‘Dirty dancing’ – DOWNLOADS tab – ‘imminence’ turned out to be remarkably elastic, a deadly process of time-space expansion).
Ultimately, though, their anxieties turn on what they call the ‘over-militarization’ of the US response to al Qaeda and its affiliates and to IS. They explain, succinctly, what has encouraged this militarized response (not least the lowering of the threshold for military violence allowed by remote operations):
[U]ntil this changes, an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer the consequence. Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.
In December the Bureau of Investigative Journalismconfirmed an escalation in US air strikes across multiple theatres in Trump’s first year in office:
President Donald Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Bar some tinkering, his administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous one.
However, the quantity of operations has shot up under President Trump. Strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen [in 2017].
In Afghanistan, where the Bureau has been monitoring US airstrikes since it was officially declared a noncombat mission at the end of 2014, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.
Meanwhile, there are signs that the drone war may be returning to Pakistan, where attacks were also up, compared with 2016.
Much remains unclear about these actions, apart from Trump’s signature combination of machismo and ignorance, but we do know that Obama’s restrictions on the use of military force outside Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been loosened:
In 2013, Obama introduced measures that meant that strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House.
The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.
In September NBC reported that the Trump administration was planning to allow the CIA to take a more aggressive role and to give the agency more authority to conduct (para)military operations. In consequence a comprehensive revision of Obama’s guidelines was in prospect:
The drone playbook, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, or PPG, includes a provision that no strike should go forward unless analysts determine that there is a near-certainty that no civilians will be harmed. And it includes a provision forbidding the addition of new detainees to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Trump administration is contemplating removing both of those restrictions.
Pakistan remains a nominally covert area of operations. US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas resumed in March after a nine-month hiatus – though Trump’s latest spat with Islamabad raises questions about the sporadic but systematic co-operation that had characterised so much of the campaign – and (provocatively: again, see ‘Dirty Dancing’ for an explanation) one strike took place outside the FATA in June 2017. The Bureau’s detailed list is here: five strikes are listed, killing 15-22 people.
In Afghanistan the Bureau noted that air strikes had doubled and that this escalation has been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in transparency (Chris Woods told me the same story for Iraq and Syria when we met in Utrecht).
At least 15,399 civilians were killed in the first 11 months of 2017 according to Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) recording of English language media explosive violence events. This devastating toll – up to the end of November – strongly suggests that 2017 was the worst year for civilian deathsfrom explosive weapons since AOAV’s records began in 2011.
This sharp rise, constituting a 42% increase from the same period in 2016, when 10,877 civilians were killed, is largely down to a massive increase in deadly airstrikes.
Compared to 2011, the first year of AOAV’s recording, the rise in civilians killed by explosive violence in the first 11 months of 2017 constitutes an 175% increase (5,597 died in the same period seven years ago).
On average, our records to November show that there were 42 civilian deaths per day caused by explosive violence in 2017.
The report continues:
For the first time since our recording of all English language media reports of explosive weapon attacks began, the majority of civilian deaths were by air-launched weapons. Of the total civilian deaths recorded (15,399), 58% were caused by airstrikes, mainly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Civilian deaths from airstrikes in this 11-month period was 8,932 – an increase of 82% compared to the same period in 2016 when 4,902 civilians were killed, or 1,169% compared to 2011, when 704 died.
Significantly, as airstrikes are almost always used by State actors, rather than non-State groups, States were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths from explosive weapons for the first time since our records began.
Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV commented:
These are stark figures that expose the lie that precision-guided missiles as used by State airforces do not lead to massive civilian harm. When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, the results are inevitable: innocent children, women and men will die.
In the same vein, Karen McVeigh‘s summary for the Guardian quotes Chris Woods from Airwars:
This is about urban warfare and that’s why we are getting crazy numbers… War is moving into cities. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Russia or the US-led coalition or ground forces leading the assault, the outcome for civilians under attack is always dire…. We’re becoming too complacent about urban warfare, and militaries and governments are downplaying the effects.
I think that’s right, though I also think war is moving back into the cities (if it ever left them); the serial military operations in Mosul and Raqqa are vivid examples of what Chris means, but they also recall the assaults on Fallujah and other cities documented in Steve Graham‘s still utterly indispensable Cities under siege.
The point is sharpened even further if we widen the angle of vision to take in air campaigns conducted by other air forces: the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Air Force in Syria, or the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Yet again, killing cities to save them. As a spokesperson for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silentlyput it last summer, ‘This is very similar to the Vietnam war, where entire cities were destroyed… What is happening in Raqqa is like dropping a nuclear bomb in stages.’
Steve’s work should also remind us that these dead cities are not produced by air strikes alone. Once reduced to rubble they have often been disembowelled (I can think of no better word) by ground forces; it’s as though these now barely human landscapes compel or at any rate license the continued degradation of both the living and the dead: see, for example, Kenneth Rosen on ‘The Devil’s Henchmen’ here or Ghaith Abdul-Ahad‘s chillingly detailed report on the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul here.
I’m still astonished that all those high-minded theoretical debates on planetary urbanism somehow ignore the contemporary intensification of urbicide and urban warfare (see ‘Mumford and sons’ here).
This is the second in a new series of posts on military violence against hospitals and medical personnel in conflict zones. It examines the US attack on the Trauma Centre run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Kunduz on 3 October 2015. I provided preliminary discussions here (on the conduct of US military investigations into civilian casualty incidents), here (on MSF’s own investigation into the attack), here (on the Executive Summary of the US military investigation), here (on two first-hand accounts from MSF personnel), here and here on the final report, and here (on the likelihood that the attack constituted a war crime). This post draws on those discussions but also on a close reading of the redacted report of the US military investigation [all page references refer to that report], on work by investigative journalists, and on ancillary materials and commentaries.
One year ago today, in the early hours of the morning of 3 October 2015, a US AC-130U gunship (‘Spooky’) launched a concentrated attack on the Trauma Centre in Kunduz run by Médecins Sans Frontières. In an otherwise probing report on what happened, the Washington Post claimed that the gunship has sensors ‘that give it a “God’s eye” of the battlefield’. Here I explore some of the multiple ways in which such a view was – and remains – impossible. For militarized vision, like any other optical modality, is never a purely technical affair. A series of cascading technical errors bedevilled the US attempt to re-take Kunduz from the Taliban, who had swept into the city a few days earlier, but these were compounded by a series of profoundly human decisions and interactions and it was the intimate entanglement of the technical and the human that determined the hideous outcome.
At least 42 people were killed, including 24 patients, 14 medical staff and 4 caretakers. Many others were wounded and traumatized. Here is Dr Evangeline Cua, a Philippina surgeon who was on duty when the attack started:
We were like two headless chickens running in total darkness — me and the surgeon who assisted me in an operation. The nurses who were with us a moment ago had run outside the building, braving the volley of gunshots coming from above. I was coughing, half-choked by dust swirling around the area. Behind my surgical mask, my mouth was gritty, as if somebody forced me to eat sand. I could hear my breath rasping in and out. Layers of smoke coming from a nearby room made it hard to see where we were. Blinking around, I caught sight of a glow, from a man’s hand holding a phone. He seemed mortally wounded but was still trying to send a message…perhaps to a loved one?
I stood transfixed, not knowing where to turn or what to do. All around us, bombing continued in regular intervals, shaking the ground, sending debris sweeping and flying. One. Two. Three. I tried to count but there seems to be no abatement to the explosions. I stopped counting at eight and silently prayed that we could get out of there alive.
Fire licked at the roof at one end of the building, dancing and sparkling in the dark, reaching towards the branches of the trees nearby. The ICU was burning. Outside, only the constant humming from above pointed to the presence of something. An aircraft? Airstrike? Why the hospital? Why us? Then, without warning, another tremendous, ear splitting blast shook the building. The ceiling came crashing down on us and the last remaining lights were turned off, sending us to total darkness. I screamed in terror as wires pinned me to the ground. That was the last thing I could remember.
What follows is an attempt to answer those questions. It is fraught with uncertainty: the most detailed investigation to date has been carried out by the US military, but the redacted version of the final report that has been released to the public is (by the standards of other US military investigations) profoundly unsatisfactory – redacted with a brutishly heavy hand. Time and time again, ironically, references to the time of events have been removed; transcripts of radio communications and interviews by the investigating panel that have been released in other cases have been suppressed; and some redactions seem to have been made not for reasons of privacy or security but to avoid embarrassment (more here; you can download the report from US Central Command’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) library here).
All of this reinforces MSF’s original call for an independent investigation. I understand May Jeong‘s pessimism:
A former Afghan special forces commander who was at the command and control center in Kunduz during the fight assured me I would never get to the bottom of the attack. The reason why I couldn’t figure out exactly what had happened, he said, was the fog of war. “Ground truth is impossible to know. Even those who were there wouldn’t be able to tell you what they saw.”
But when the ‘fog of war’ – so often a convenient cover for all manner of horrors – is deliberately thickened – when visibility is ruthlessly reduced by redaction – then perfectly proper public interest is trumped by political and military expediency.
When the NATO-led combat mission to Afghanistan conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) finished at the end of 2014 it was replaced by a much smaller advisory mission, Resolute Support, which was ‘to provide further training, advice and assistance for the Afghan security forces and institutions’. Resolute Support was authorized by a Status of Forces agreement between NATO and the Afghan government in Kabul. Its central hub was Kabul/Bagram, with four ‘spokes’ formed by four other ‘Train Assist Advise’ Commands to support four Afghan National Army Corps outside the capital (more here and here):
US troops were the major contributor to Resolute Support, but they were also assigned to the United States’s continuing (‘concurrent and complementary’) counter-terrorism mission now designated as ‘Operation Freedom’s Sentinel’. Until March 2016 both missions were under the overall command of General John Campbell.
By September 2015 the focus of US concern in Afghanistan was Helmand in the south – where the Taliban were on the ascendant, forcing Afghan government forces to retreat as they seized control of key districts and gained control of the Kajaki dam – and US Special Forces were rushed to Camp Bastion after the fall of Musa Qala gave the insurgents a strategic advantage.
By contrast, Kunduz in the north was regarded as ‘secure’  after a series of combat operations at the start of the fighting season earlier in the year. As late as 13 August Brigadier-GeneralWilson Shoffner, Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications with Resolute Support, declared that although there had been ‘an attempt by the Taliban to try to stretch the Afghan security forces in the north’ the city of Kunduz ‘is not now and has not been in danger of being overrun by the Taliban’ (he also described the situation at Kajaki as merely a ‘local security challenge’). But those previous operations in Kunduz had targeted Taliban operations areas and did not extend to support zones outside the city.
Obeid Alireports that during the summer the Taliban continued to make inroads until they controlled areas to the south west, north west and south east of the city.
On 28 September 2015, the Taliban stormed various ANSF locations in Kunduz city from the three different directions they had spent so long preparing… The simultaneous attacks on the city and the collapse of check posts at the city ‘gateways’ destroyed the confidence of the ANSF inside the city in their ability to stand against this unexpected offensive. In the face of the well-organised and coordinated insurgent operation, most held out for only a few hours. A chaotic environment quickly spread and government officials, ALP [Afghan Local Police] commanders and some of the ANA [Afghan National Army] officers, fled to the military base at the airport [Camp Pamir], leaving Kunduz effectively leaderless.
Kunduz was a spectacular, strategic prize: the first city to fall to the mujaheddin in 1998 and the first time the Taliban had seized a major city since 2001, its capture signalled both a resilient Taliban and a faltering government footprint in the region.
On 28 Septemberthere was a detachment of US Special Forces (‘Green Berets’) based at Kunduz airfield as part of the Train, Assist, Advise mission. Like every Operational Detachment – Alpha (OD-A) it consisted of just 12 soldiers, all cross-trained and capable of operating for extended periods of time with little or no support. On 29 September their superior command – the US Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan – ordered two other OD-As to Kunduz. While they were in the air the OD-A on the ground sketched out a contingency plan (‘Kunduz City Foothold Establishment’) to assist the Afghan forces to return to the city and secure the Kunduz City Hospital and the Prison. There were repeated US airstrikes against Taliban positions in and around the city throughout the day, but by the time the OD-A reinforcements, together with other Afghan troops including Afghan Special Security Forces (below), arrived in the evening it was clear that the original plan was unworkable and their immediate priority had to be the defence of the airfield [032, 382].
The US reinforcements included Major Michael Hutchinson, who assumed overall command of the combined OD-As (he was identified as the Ground Force Commander by the New York Times). He had misgivings about the mission but accepted that ‘we can’t lose the provincial capital’ . The next day a revised plan (‘Kunduz Clearing Patrol’) was submitted to the Special Operations Task Force for approval, which was granted that night, and the OD-As requested that Afghan Special Security Forces be accorded ‘designated special status’ that would permit the Green Berets to extend their own envelope of self-defence and assume a direct combat role (including calling in air strikes) to defend their partner forces if they came under attack [046-7].
By this time Médecins Sans Frontières had been in contact with both US and Afghan forces to ensure that they were aware of the location and status of its Trauma Centre in Kunduz. It was in the eye of the storm. Dr Kathleen Thomas, an Australian doctor in charge of the Emergency Room and the Intensive Care Unit, explained:
We all knew that at times, our hospital was in the middle of the rapidly changing front line – we could feel it. When the fighting was close – the shooting and explosions vibrated the walls. I was scared – we were all scared. When a loud “BOOM” would sound a bit closer to the hospital, we would all drop to the floor away from the large windows that lined the ICU walls. We also tried to move the patients and large (flammable) oxygen bottles away all from the windows, but the layout of the ICU prohibited doing this effectively. I worried constantly about the exposure from those windows – yet never thought to worry about the exposure from the roof.
Most of the patients were civilians. Of the combatants, MSF reported that most of them were from the Afghan army and police, as had been the case since the Trauma Centre opened, but once the city fell on 28 September ‘this shifted to primarily wounded Taliban combatants.’ The Afghan government speedily arranged the transfer of all its patients (apart from the most severely wounded cases) to another hospital.
By that night the Taliban announced that it was in control of the district. Kathleen Thomasdescribed the scene:
The first day was chaos – more than 130 patients poured through our doors in only a few hours. Despite the heroic efforts of all the staff, we were completely overwhelmed. Most patients were civilians, but some were wounded combatants from both sides of the conflict. When I reflect on that day now, what I remember is the smell of blood that permeated through the emergency room, the touch of desperate people pulling at my clothes to get my attention begging me to help their injured loved ones, the wailing, despair and anguish of parents of yet another child lethally injured by a stray bullet whom we could not save, my own sense of panic as another and another and another patient was carried in and laid on the floor of the already packed emergency department, and all the while in the background the tut-tut-tut-tut of machine guns and the occasional large boom from explosions that sounded way too close for comfort.
Although the Trauma Centre had been on US Central Command’s ‘No-Strike List’ since October 2014 MSF now re-supplied its GPS coordinates and reminded the Ministry of Defence in Kabul that ‘MSF and its personnel observes strict neutrality and impartiality in the name of universal medical ethics and rights of populations affected by conflicts to humanitarian assistance’ and claimed ‘full respect of these principles and rules in order to be able to continue responding to the humanitarian and medical needs of all Afghans’ . On 29 September MSF issued what would prove to be a remarkably optimistic statement:
We are in contact with all parties to the conflict and have received assurances that our medical personnel, patients, hospital and ambulances will be respected. With the government provincial hospital not currently functioning, MSF’s hospital is now the only place in Kunduz where people in need of urgent trauma care can receive it.
MSF had withdrawn from Afghanistan in August 2004 – after the targeted killing of five of its aid workers in June, the government’s failure to arrest those responsible, and Taliban threats to target organizations like MSF that they falsely claimed ‘work for US interests’ – and returned five years later with agreements from the US-led coalition, the Afghan government and the Taliban to respect the de-militarization of its hospitals (including a strict ‘no-weapons’ policy inside them). Initially MSF assumed responsibility for two public hospitals in Kabul and Helmand; two years later it opened its Trauma Centre in Kunduz inside the old Spinzer cotton factory. It soon became immensely important:
[Source: Miguel Trelles, Barclay T Stewart and others, ‘Averted health burden over 4 years at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Trauma Centre in Kunduz, Afghanistan, prior to its closure in 2015’, Surgery (2016) in press]
Between August 2011 and August 2015 the Trauma Centre cared for 6,685 patients; roughly one-third were suffering from ‘violence-related trauma’, which included land mines and bomb blasts, gunshots, stabbings, assaults, rape and torture; one quarter of those were children. Procedures for complex wounds were the most common – debridement (excision), removed of shrapnel, care of burns – followed by orthopaedic procedures (including amputation). Those injuries increased dramatically in the months before the city fell to the Taliban. Miguel Trelles and his collaborators estimate that during this period the Trauma Centre averted 154, 254 ‘Disability Adjusted Life Years’; more prosaically:
The MSF Kunduz Trauma Centre provided surgical care for a large number of wounded and injured patients in the region. The surgical epidemiology is consistent with reports from other areas of prolonged insecurity in that unintentional, traumatic, non–war-related injuries generally outnumber those from violence. Nevertheless … the Trauma Centre provided surgical care for many adults and children injured directly by conflict (eg, injuries due to gunshots, land mines, bomb blasts). The health burden averted by surgical care at the Trauma Centre was large…
And yet, despite the importance of the Trauma Centre and its inclusion on a centralized No-Strike List that database was not consulted during the operational vetting and legal approval of the two plans drawn up by the OD-As [032, 045] (which, to be fair, had never been in the city and had no direct knowledge of the terrain; their Joint Terminal Attack Controllers had tried to print hard copy of ISR imagery before they set out from Camp Pamir but the base’s only printer was so old all it could produce were ‘giant magenta blobs’ that were completely useless  – so initially they relied on a single 1:50,00 map to plan and execute their operations ).
In fact – the irony is extraordinary – one member of the Special Operations Task Force testified that even they had no access to the No-Strike List and only discovered the existence of the Trauma Centre by accident, when ‘somebody was looking for additional medical facilities for use as emergency means to treat our own casualties’ if they could not make it back to Camp Pamir and the Forward Surgical Team based there [217, 219]. It was only then, late in the night of 29 September, that the Trauma Centre was added to the database maintained by the ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] Tactical Controllers at the Special Operations Task Force at Bagram; early the next morning e-mails with this information were sent to ‘all ISR assets supporting operations in Kunduz’ .
On 30 September there was a secure videoconference between General Campbell, his Afghan counterpart and Major Hutchinson. It was clear that Campbell was exasperated at the conduct of the Afghan forces and attached great importance to re-taking the city. Fired up, Hutchinson briefed his men on the planned Kunduz Clearing Patrol, relaying the spirit of Campbell’s comments and telling them this was ‘a no fail mission’, that ‘all of the civilians have fled and only the Taliban are in the city’, and that ‘everything is a threat’ . That night, once the mission had been approved, the Green Berets fought their way into the city alongside the Afghan Special Security Forces, with Close Air Support from US aircraft including an AC-130 gunship that ‘continuously called out and engaged [Taliban] ambush sites’ . This seems to have been the same aircraft and crew that returned on 2/3 October; the sensor operator described that fateful mission as their third flight over Kunduz, following two others on 2 September and 30 September, the last when they provided armed overwatch for a US convoy into the city centre and engaged the Taliban at multiple locations. Indeed, he claimed that those previous missions had provided them with ‘good situational awareness’ of Kunduz and the ‘patterns of life’ of both civilians and insurgents .
Before dawn on 1 October the US and Afghan troops had cleared several key buildings and established a defensive strongpoint in the Provincial Chief of Police Compound [PCOP]. They hunkered down and came under repeated mortar, rocket-propelled grenade and automatic weapons fire, and throughout that day and the next their Joint Terminal Attack Controller called in multiple strikes from F-16 aircraft, many of them ‘danger close’, in immediate proximity to the PCOP .
By the end of the afternoon on 2 Octoberseveral Afghan troops had been wounded. Their commander was all for taking the casualties back to Camp Pamir immediately, but Hutchinson persuaded them that this was madness: they were stable so the medical evacuation should wait for the cover of darkness. The Afghan Special Security Forces agreed; while they were at Pamir they would re-supply and then return to attack a command and control centre they said had been established by the Taliban in the National Directorate of Security compound (NDS) to the south west of the PCOP which the Afghan SSF also referred to as ‘the NDS prison’ [386-8]. The investigation report includes this map showing the relationship of the PCOP to the NDS Compound and the MSF Trauma Centre:
[A similar map included in a detailed analysis by The Intercept mis-locates the PCOP – almost certainly confusing it with the NDS Prison that the Operations Center in Bagram wrongly assumed was the intended target of the air/ground operation: see below]
The Afghan Special Security Forces were assured that Close Air Support would be extended to the convoy once they had returned to the ‘self-defence perimeter’ beyond the PCOP – a ‘bubble’, Hutchinson called it, roughly defined by the range of the heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns used by the Taliban .
But by then the F-16s providing close air support were running low on munitions and in the early evening, with the situation in Kunduz remaining precarious, the Special Operations Task Force scrambled the AC-130 gunship from Bagram to take over.
The AC-130 (call-sign ‘Hammer’) was a mission in a hurry and the aircraft took off without a proper briefing or any geospatial intelligence products. All the aircrew had was the grid location of the PCOP and the call sign and contact frequency for the OD-As . By then, superior commands had received the e-mail detailing the location of the Trauma Centre, and at 1847 the Fires Officer from Combined Joint Special Operations e-mailed a package of ‘mission products’ to the Electronic Warfare Officer onboard the AC-130 which included that information. But en route to Kunduz one of the aircraft’s communications systems failed and the message never arrived; when the aircrew did not acknowledge receipt, the Fires Officer at Bagram made no attempt to pass the information over the radio (which was working) .
At 0130 on 3 October the Afghan convoy left on its evacuation and re-supply mission, and Hutchinson contacted the AC-130 through his Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) to ask them to carry out a ‘defensive [infrared] scan’ of the area of operations. Specifically, he wanted to prepare the ground ahead of the convoy’s return: if they were ambushed and ‘got fixed in place what I wanted to do was to reduce heavy weapons and strongpoints so that they would be able to effectively maneuver on to the objective’ . To that end he supplied the aircraft with a grid location for the NDS compound.
It is unclear – from the redacted report, at least – how the co-ordinates of the target were obtained. Hutchinson said that when the Afghan Special Security Forces showed him their plan for securing the NDS compound it included ‘a grid [which] said, I think, NDS prison’, but when he plotted the location he realised it was not the Prison to the south that was one of the objectives included in the original plan to establish a foothold in the city. Hutchinson riffed on the multiple NDS facilities throughout Kunduz, but this begs a crucial question: how did he plot the grid to confirm the location? He claimed to have been working from the 1:50,00 map spread out on the hood of his armoured vehicle, which could hardly have provided the co-ordinates required for a precision strike. The Joint Terminal Attack Controllers would have had access to digital imagery stored on their laptops, but by this stage they were running low on batteries and cannibalising the radios of other Green Berets to keep communications with the AC-130 open [334, 383]. ‘The worst part of it,’ Hutchinson said, was that the day after the strike they found a detailed 1:10,000 map produced by a Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2013 ‘with nice crisp imagery, and it had everything labelled with 10-digit grids’ . The commanders of the other two OD-As remembered it differently, both testifying that the map was found in the provincial governor’s office on 1 October.
All this matters because when the TV sensor operator on the AC-130 (above) inputted the grids that were passed by Hutchinson via his JTAC he found ‘it put me in a field with residential buildings’. The AC-130 has a sophisticated sensor suite, including high resolution sensors (an All Light Level Television system, infrared detection set and strike radar to permit all weather/night target acquisition). But reading between the redactions in the investigation report there is some suggestion that there are also known technical issues with the system (perhaps distortion introduced by the aircraft’s height and/or orbit, because the AC-130 had been forced out of its overhead orbit at 2220 by taking evasive action against a surface-to-air threat): ‘Nothing in the immediate location matched the target but from training I was aware that at significant [redacted]…’ .
So the sensor operator widened the search and found a large compound 300 metres to the south that appeared to match the description of the target. It was not difficult to find: the Trauma Centre had its own generator and was the only building in the city that was still brightly illuminated. At first sight the sensor operator said ‘there was nothing else near the original location that could match the description of a prison.’
‘As we got closer,’ s/he continued,
I observed multiple [redacted: this is surely MAMs or ‘military-aged males’, a term the US military was supposed to have discontinued, which would explain the otherwise puzzling deletion] walking in between buildings [redacted] entrances with [redacted: guards?] posted. After passing back the information to the JTAC he said the compound was under enemy control and that those [redacted: MAMs?] were declared hostile .
The navigator had informed the JTAC that the grids had originally plotted to the middle of a field but they now had a large compound in their sights, a T-shaped structure with an arch gate and nine people ‘roaming outside’. The Green Berets conferred with the Afghan Special Security Forces in the PCOP who confirmed that this was the NDS compound, and the Fire Control Officer on the AC-130 adjusted the target location in the fire control system accordingly [054, 242].
But the sensor operator, more mindful of the Tactical Guidance issued by General Campbell (below), testified that he wanted ‘to make sure we were not inadvertently declaring civilians hostile’.
So he re-entered the original co-ordinates (‘to determine any system [redacted: error?]’) – by then the AC-130 had moved to a more accurate, overhead orbit  – and this time the sensor homed in on a second compound:
a much smaller compound with two large buildings, what appeared to be a third smaller shack, two overhangs, a wall surrounding, what appeared to be guard towers at the four corners with a single entrance on the south side of the compound and was unable to observe any movement in that compound .
This underscored his concerns. ‘Now that we are closer,’ he told the rest of the crew,
even though that compound [is] the only one that’s limited and has activity, if you look in the TV’s screen you can see this hardened structure [the second compound] that looks very large and could also be more like a prison with cells. So I just want to verify that before we start declaring people hostile, that we are 100 per cent sure that this is the correct compound .
He asked the navigator to request a more detailed target description from the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (though the JTAC was not told that the aircraft’s sensors had now identified two different compounds from the same grids).
The JTAC came back with a target description of multiple buildings with a wall surrounding, and a main gate with an arch shape. I asked for further clarification on which side of the compound that gate was on, to which he replied the North side of the compound. The gate I was able to make out at the first compound was on the north side and matched the target description .
The first compound was the MSF Trauma Centre; the second was the NDS compound.
The redacted version of the investigation report includes a satellite image of the MSF Trauma Centre but conspicuously failed to include a corresponding image of the NDS compound. Yet from TerraServer’s satellite imagery (below) it is clear that the two are radically different, and in fact the gate on the NDS compound faced south not north.
Neither Hutchinson nor his JTAC had access to real-time imagery from the AC-130 because the same antenna that prevented the aircraft receiving the e-mail with the No-Strike List also prevented it from transmitting a video feed to the JTAC’s laptop, and so both the aircrew and the US forces on the ground had to rely on verbal descriptions. The investigation report calls the characterisation of the target building ‘a vague description’  but, as Mathieu Aikinspointed out in a superb analysis of the strike, ‘it’s actually a rather specific description that corresponds to MSF’s distinctive layout.’ Indeed, whenthe aircrew compared the two compounds they were persuaded by the description of a ‘T-shaped structure’ that they had identified the correct target.
Once the AC-130 aircrew’s description of the Trauma Centre had been confirmed by the Afghan Special Security Forces as the NDS compound, the circle was closed. As Hutchinson testified, he had a report from the AC-130 ‘that describes a target, the disposition of the target and the pattern of life on it that’s completely consistent with what I’ve heard from the Afghans…’ Whether the Afghans deliberately substituted a description of the Trauma Centre for the NDS compound remains an open question. From their own (separate) interviews in Kunduz, both May Jeong and Mathieu Aikins repeatedly raise this as a distinct possibility. Some informants insisted that the Trauma Centre had been overrun by the Taliban, confirmed (so they said) by raw intelligence and communications intercepts, even that it was being used as a firing position – a claim that was repeated by the government in Kabul in the immediate aftermath of the strike – while others complained that MSF treated Taliban casualties who then returned to the fray: ‘patching up fighters and sending them back out.’ Much of this is ex post facto rationalisation; clearly many Afghans regarded the attack on the Trauma Centre as perfectly justified. But Aikins asks a more pointed question: Did Afghan forces, out of longstanding mistrust of MSF, draw the United States into a terrible tragedy?’
If they did, then it had to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision to take advantage of a developing situation, since the Afghan Special Security Forces had originally provided the correctgrids for the NDS compound.
More telling, I suspect, is that from 0100 until well into the attack on the Trauma Centre the only people who had the co-ordinates for the target now in the sights of the AC-130 were the aircrew, who did not pass the grid location for what they had incorrectly identified as the target back to Hutchinson. And yet the ground force commander had already told the navigator he had ‘great confidence in the grids passed ’, and it is astonishing that this did not prompt a more extensive discussion among the aircrew since the original grids had plotted first to an open field and second to the NDS compound but never to the Trauma Centre that had now been designated as the target.
Neither did the aircrew pass the revised grids back to the Special Operations Task Force who were monitoring events from Bagram. Repeating Hutchinson’s earlier mistaken assumption, the staff in the Operations Center at Bagram believed the target (‘the NDS prison’) was the Prison in the south of the city which had been included in the original Kunduz City Foothold Establishment plan, and they tasked an MQ-1 Predator to provide surveillance over that location .
Hutchinson could not view the video feed from the Predator, since the laptops in the PCOP were desperately short of batteries, but the Special Operations Task Force did have access to the drone’s real-time imagery. Nothing was happening around the Prison, and confident that this was the strike location nobody at Bagram attempted to confirm the coordinates until the attack on the Trauma Center was well under way. At 0207 they heard a sudden, direct transmission from the AC-130 – ‘unreadable numbers followed by going hot/rounds away’ – and ‘the quickness of the going hot call’ suggested to one experienced JTAC at Bagram that ‘there was possibly a dire situation on the ground.’ But ‘the passing of engagement grids was broken, unreadable’, and s/he immediately ‘made multiple attempts to get a resend of [the] grid of engagement’. Those requests ‘were either not acknowledged or met with “still engaging/hot”‘, but this was ‘not uncommon due to the task saturation during coordination and employment by ground JTACs and aircraft’. Meanwhile another JTAC in the Operations Centre, realising that ‘no activity was noted at the facility’ – presumably by the Predator on station over the Prison; the Taliban had reportedly freed all the prisoners when they took the city – tasked the Predator crew to ‘find the engagement area’ [261-4]. At 0220 they were successful, and once the new grids had been checked the Operations Center realised that the AC-130 was attacking the Trauma Center.
Hutchinson provided two contradictory rationales for the attack. One was offensive: his JTAC relayed to the AC-130 that Hutchinson’s intent was to ‘soften the target’ (meaning the NDS compound) for the Afghan convoy returning from Camp Pamir. When the aircrew asked for clarification they were told they were to ‘destroy targets of opportunity that may impede partner forces’ success’ . When he was questioned by the investigating officers, Hutchinson represented this as pre-emptive and precautionary: ‘If they were going to take contact I did not want to play twenty questions while they were taking fire’ . The other was unambiguously defensive: the immediate trigger for Hutchinson to clear the AC-130 to open fire was the sound of automatic gunfire from the east-west road near the NDS compound.
What did it for me in the end was when I believed the [redacted] convoy to be at that parallel cross street … or the perpendicular cross street … to the facility, I heard sustained automatic weapons fire … and it was coming from that general direction. And so I asked the [redacted] are they in contact yet. He can’t get through [to] them at first, and so I think okay, so that’s a sign they’re probably in contact… Fire continues and I ask him again and he says strike now, assume they are decisively engaged’ [393-4].
It’s not clear from the redactions who Hutchinson was talking to, but it was almost certainly someone from the Afghan Special Security Forces in the PCOP. What is certain – and known to the aircrew on the AC-130, who were also tracking the convoy, but not to Hutchinson – was that the convoy was nowhere near the NDS compound or even the Trauma Centre at that time but 9 km away, still within the northern perimeter of the airfield.
Hutchinson’s attention was on the sound of gunfire. He explained that most of the fire directed against his forces in the PCOP compound had been from the west, and it was ‘unthinkable’ that ‘there would have been anything functional over there in terms of essential services’  – like a hospital.
And so, at 0202 Hutchinson had his JTAC instruct the AC-130 to strike the ‘objective building first’ and then to provide ‘suppressing fire’ (which the JTAC later described as a ‘PAX cocktail’ and the aircrew translated as ‘MAMs’ [military-aged males]). Again the aircrew sought clarification; they wanted to be sure that their target was the ‘large T-shaped building in the centre of the compound’ and that ‘we are [also] cleared on people in this compound.’ It was and they were; at 0208 the first round was fired as the Electronic Warfare Officer announced the grids over the radio: the garbled transmission received at Bagram [064-6].
The AC-130 made five passes over the Trauma Centre at 15-minute intervals, firing a total of 211 rounds. But ’rounds’ fails to convey the scale of the ordnance involved. As May Jeongnotes, the AC-130 is ‘built around a gun’; it is, after all, a gunship. It has a 105 mm M102 Howitzer that fires high explosive shells at 10 rounds a minute (reputedly the largest gun ever operated from a US aircraft); a 40 mm Bofors cannon that fires 120 rounds a minute; and a 25mm 5-barrelled Gatling cannon that fires incendiary rounds at 1,800 rounds a minute. YouTube has a video of a live-firing exercise carried out by the 4th Special Operations Squadron in 2016 that is truly chilling:
All these weapons are side-firing; the AC-130 performs a slow left-banking pylon turn in a five-mile orbit to keep its weapons on target for much longer than a conventional strike aircraft:
The results on the ground were catastrophic.
All the patients in the ICU died except one, alongside the caretakers who were with them; one doctor, three nurses and a cleaner who were in the ICU were also killed. Here is Kathleen Thomas again:
I hope with all my heart that the three sedated patients in ICU, including our ER nurse Lal Mohammad, were deep enough to be unaware of their deaths — but this is unlikely. They were trapped in their beds, engulfed in flames.
The same horror that rocked the ICU rocked the rest of the main building as the plane hit with alarming precision. Our ER nurse Mohibulla died. Our ER cleaner Najibulla died. Dr. Amin suffered major injuries but managed to escape the main building, only to then die an hour later in the arms of his colleagues as we desperately tried to save his life in the makeshift operating theater set up in the kitchen next to the morning meeting room. The OT nurse, Abdul Salam, died. The strikes continued further down the building, tearing through the outpatients department, which had become a temporary sleeping area for staff. Dr. Satar died. The medical records officer Abdul Maqsood died. Our pharmacist Tahseel was lethally injured. He also made it to safety in the morning meeting room, only to die soon after, having bled to death. Two of the hospital watchmen Zabib and Shafiq also died.
Our colleagues didn’t die peacefully like in the movies. They died painfully, slowly, some of them screaming out for help that never came, alone and terrified, knowing the extent of their own injuries and aware of their impending death. Countless other staff and patients were injured; limbs blown off, shrapnel rocketed through their bodies, burns, pressure wave injuries of the lungs, eyes, and ears. Many of these injures have left permanent disability. It was a scene of nightmarish horror that will be forever etched in my mind.
The loss of life and the destruction of the hospital was appalling. But the effects of the air strike have reverberated far beyond the Trauma Centre and the events of 3 October. In February this year Sophia Jonestold the troubling story of a father of four who lost his right arm and the sight of one eye when he was caught in cross-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan army. With the destruction of the Trauma Centre in Kunduz there were no local hospitals capable of treating his life-threatening injuries, and it took him two agonising days to travel 200 miles to the Surgical Center for War Victims run by another NGO, Emergency, in Kabul – now ‘the only free, specialized trauma hospital of its kind treating war victims in Afghanistan.’ Like MSF, Emergency is absolutely clear that ‘we cannot be on one side of the war’: ‘a patient is a patient’. Like MSF, most of Emergency’s patients are civilians. But, as Luke Mogelsonfound in the spring of 2012,
At Emergency’s hospital in Kabul, it’s not unusual to find Afghan national security forces recovering in the same ward as Taliban insurgents, and after a while, the ideas that make enemies of the two men lose their relevance; the daily spectacle of their impact on human bodies invalidates them.
That was then. ‘After Kunduz’, Emergency’s program co-ordinator now concedes, ‘anything is possible.’ It would be truly, desperately awful if one of the casualties of the air strike on the Trauma Centre turned out to be the core principle of medical neutrality.
One year after Kunduz, Christopher Stokes, MSF’s General Director, warned that ‘A war without limits leads to a battlefield without doctors.’ MSF pledged not to allow that to happen. They must not stand alone.
I’ve noticed Brian Castner‘s astonishing work before – see my post here – and I’m now deep into his latest book (published on my birthday). I’ll write a detailed response when I’m finished, but it is so very good that I wanted to give readers advance notice of it. It’s called All the ways we kill and die (Arcade, 2016):
The EOD—explosive ordnance disposal—community is tight-knit, and when one of their own is hurt, an alarm goes out. When Brian Castner, an Iraq War vet, learns that his friend and EOD brother Matt has been killed by an IED in Afghanistan, he goes to console Matt’s widow, but he also begins a personal investigation. Is the bomb maker who killed Matt the same man American forces have been hunting since Iraq, known as the Engineer?
In this nonfiction thriller Castner takes us inside the manhunt for this elusive figure, meeting maimed survivors, interviewing the forensics teams who gather post-blast evidence, the wonks who collect intelligence, the drone pilots and contractors tasked to kill. His investigation reveals how warfare has changed since Iraq, becoming individualized even as it has become hi-tech, with our drones, bomb disposal robots, and CSI-like techniques. As we use technology to identify, locate, and take out the planners and bomb makers, the chilling lesson is that the hunters are also being hunted, and the other side—from Al-Qaeda to ISIS— has been selecting its own high-value targets.
In January of 2012, a good friend of mine–Matt Schwartz from Traverse City, Michigan–was killed in Afghanistan. Matt was an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician. We had the same job, but while I had done my two tours in Iraq and went home, Matt deployed again and again and again. He was shot on his second tour, and died on his sixth.
I realize now that I was bound to do an investigation into his death; my training demanded it. But instead of asking “what” killed him–we knew immediately it was a roadside bomb–I asked “who” killed him. It’s a question that would not have made any sense in past wars, not even at the start of this one. But we have individualized the war, we target specific people in specific insurgent organizations, and in the course of my research, I discovered the leaders on the other side do the same in reverse to us.
This is the story of an American family at war, and the men and women who fight this new technology-heavy and intelligence-based conflict. I interviewed intel analysts, biometrics engineers, drone pilots, special operations aircrew, amputees who lost their legs, and the contractors hired to finish the job. They are all hunting a man known as al-Muhandis, The Engineer, the brains behind the devices that have killed so many soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Reading this in counterpoint to Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a soldier (see my post here) – both deal with the aftermath of an IED in Afghanistan – is proving to be a rich and truly illuminating experience.
‘He straightened and held me in one hand. “Right, orders for tomorrow’s operation,” he said. “We’re deploying most of the company for the first time and the whole platoon’s out together. It’s a standard route security operation for the logistics convoy bringing in our supplies. There’s nothing complicated about this patrol, but we’ll be static for long periods and that will make us vulnerable. We have to clear all the roads in our AO and then secure it so the convoy can travel safely through.” He moved his hand up my shaft and used me to point at the flat ground.
“Is everyone happy with the model?” he said.
There were a few silent nods from the watching men.
“Just to orientate you again. This is our current location.” He pointed me at a tiny block of wood near the centre of the grid that had PB43 written on it in peeling blue paint. It was the largest of a hundred little wooden squares placed carefully across the earth and numbered in black. “This is Route Hammer.” He moved my end along a piece of orange ribbon that was pinned into the dirt. “And this blue ribbon represents the river that runs past Howshal Nalay.” I swept along the ribbon over a denser group of wooden blocks. “These red markers are the IED finds in the last three months, so there’s quite a few on Hammer.” I hovered over red pinheads…
He started describing the plan and used me to direct their attention to different parts of the square. He said their mission was to secure the road and then provide rear protection. He told them how they would move out before first light and push along the orange ribbon, past the blocks with L33 and L34 written on them. I paused as he explained how vulnerable this point was, and that one team would provide overwatch at the block marked M13 while others cleared the road.
I was pointed at one of the men, who nodded that he understood.
He told them how they would spread out between block L42 and the green string. Two other platoons would move through them and secure the orange ribbon farther up. Then he swept me over the zones they were most likely to be attacked from. He said the hardest part of the operation was to clear the crossroads at the area of interest named Cambridge; this was 6 Platoon’s responsibility. I hovered over where the orange ribbon was crossed by white tape.
I had done it all before: secured sections of the ribbon, dominated areas of dirt, reassured little labels, ambushed red markers and attacked through clusters of wooden blocks. I had destroyed as my end was pushed down hard and twisted into the ground. I’d drawn lines in the sand that were fire-support positions and traced casualty evacuation routes through miniature fields. I was master of the model.’
This passage comes from Harry Parker‘s stunning novel about the war in Afghanistan, Anatomy of a soldier(Faber, 2016).
In one sense, perhaps, it’s not so remarkable: the use of improvised physical models to familiarise troops with the local terrain is a commonplace even of later modern war. In ‘Rush to the intimate‘ (DOWNLOADS tab) I described how in November 2004, immediately before the second US assault on Fallujah, US Marines constructed a large model of the city at their Forward Operating Base, in which roads were represented by gravel, structures under 40′ by poker chips and structures over 40′ by Lego bricks (see image below). Infantry officers made their own physical model of the city using bricks to represent buildings and spent shells to represent mosques.
I called this a ‘rush from the intimate to the inanimate’, and discussed the ways in which the rendering of the city as an object-space empty of life was a powerfully performative gesture – one in which, as Anne Barnardput it, the soldiers straddled the model ‘like Gulliver in Lilliput’.
As the passage I’ve just quoted suggests, it was standard practice in Afghanistan too; here are soldiers from the Afghan National Army studying a model for Operation Tufan/Storm, a joint ANA/UK operation in Helmand:
So far, then, so familiar. But the passage with which I began is remarkable because the narrator – whose shaft is gripped by the officer’s hand, who hovers over the orange ribbon, who confesses to having done it all before – is the handle of a broken broom. ‘My first purpose was to hold my head down against the ground as I brushed sand out of a small, dirty room,’ the chapter begins. ‘In time, my head loosened and the nail then held it on pulled free. Someone tried to push it back on, but my head swung round and fell off. I was discarded.’
‘That would have been the end of me,’ the broom handle continues – ‘my head was burned with the rubbish’ – ‘but I was reinvented and became useful again.’
The novel tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes, a British army officer who steps on an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan; he is airlifted to the Role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion and then evacuated to Britain; he loses both his legs, the first to the effects of the blast and the second to infection. And the narrative is reconstructed through the objects that are entangled in – and which also, in an extraordinarily powerful sense, animate – the events.
‘My serial number is 6545-01-522… A black marker wrote BA5799 O POS on me and I was placed in the left thigh pocket of BA5799’s combat trousers… At 0618 on 15 August, when I was sliding along BA5799’s thigh, I was lifted into the sky and turned over. And suddenly I was in the light… I was pulled open by panicked fingers and covered in the thick liquid… I was wound tighter, gripping his thigh… I clung to him as we flew low across the fields and glinting irrigation ditches…’
The story is continued in and through other object-fragments. On patrol, a boot; day-sack; helmet (‘My overhanging rim cut his vision as a black horizontal blur and my chinstrap bounced up against his stubble as he pounded onto each stride’); night vision goggles (‘My green light reflected off the glassy bulge of his retina’); a radio (‘His breathing deepened under the weight of the kit and condensation formed on the gauze of my microphone… I continued to play transmissions in BA5799’s ear as the other stations in the network pushed farther up the road’); an aerial photograph (‘He took me out and traced his finger across my surface… in the operations room a small blue sticker labelled B30 was moved across a map pinned to the wall. That map was identical to me’); and his identity tags (‘I had dropped around your neck and my discs rested on the green canvas stretcher stained with your blood’).
After the blast from the IED and a helicopter evacuation, the medical apparatus: a tube inserted into his throat at Camp Bastion’s trauma centre (‘I was part of a system now; I was inside you…’); a surgical saw (‘He held me like a weapon, and down at the end of my barrel was my flat stainless-steel blade… My blade-end cut through the bone, flashing splinters and dust from the thin trench I gouged out’); a plasma bag (‘I hung over you… I was empty; my plastic walls had collapsed together and red showed only around my seals. The rest of the blood I’d carried since a young man donated it after a lecture, joking with a mate in the queue, was now in you’); a catheter; a wheelchair; his series of prosthetics (‘You pressed your stump into me and we became one for the first time… Slowly you outgrew all my parts and the man switched them over until I only existed as separate components in a cupboard and you’d progressed to a high-activity leg and a carbon-fibre socket’).
The agency of many of the objects is viscerally clear:
‘I lived in the soil. My spores existed everywhere in the decomposing vegetable matter of the baked earth. Something happened that meant I was suddenly inside you… I was inside your leg, deep among flesh that was torn and churned. I lived there for a week and wanted to take root, but it wasn’t easy… I struggled to survive. Except they missed a small haematoma that had formed around a collection of mud in your calf… You degraded and I survived… I made you feverish and feasted unseen on your insides…’
Or again, his first prosthetics:
‘You improved on me but you became thinner. The pressure I exerted on you, and the weight you lost from the energy I used, made your stump shrink. I could no longer support you properly.’
And the new ones:
‘Your hand caressed my grey surface and felt around the hydraulic piston under my knee joint… You’d been waiting for me but were nervous about what I might do for you…’
What is even more remarkable, as many of the passages I have quoted demonstrate, is that these events are narrated through objects that in all sorts of ways show how military violence reduces not only the ground but the human body to an object-space, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in this remark: ‘You were not a whole to them, just a wound to be closed or a level on a screen to monitor or a bag of blood to be changed.’ And yet: virtually every one of those passages is also impregnated with Barnes’s body: its feel – its very fleshiness – its sweat, its smell, its touch.
I think this is an even more successful attempt to render the corporeality of war through its objects than Tim O’Brien‘s brilliant account of Vietnam in The Things They Carried(for more, see my post on ‘Boots on the Ground‘ and my essay on ‘The natures of war’: DOWNLOADS tab). This is, in part, because the narrative is not confined to those objects close to Barnes’ own body; it spirals far beyond them to include a drone providing close air support (‘I banked around the area and my sensor zoomed out again and I could see the enemy in relation to the soldiers who needed me’) and, significantly, extends to the components of the IED and the bodies of the insurgents who constructed and buried it.
There is a powerful moment when the two collide, when the father of a young insurgent killed in the drone strike wheels his son’s body to the patrol base:
‘The corpse was half in me, with my front end under it and my handles sticking up in the air. He managed to push it farther into me and the distended head bounced off my metal side. Dried blood showed around its ears and nose and was red in its mouth. And then he pushed my handles down and I scooped it all up… The corpse’s eyes had opened from the jolting and looked up at him. He looked down into them, at his son’s face and the blue lips and purple blotching across his cheeks and he knew he had already accepted the loss. He lowered my handles and smoothed the eyelids shut again. He pushed me down the road.’
‘There was a leaflet that BA5799 had read tucked in the notebook next to me. It described how to deal with this. What to say, what not to say… He was dealing with death in an alien culture and he had no idea how to relate to this man or the death of his son… BA5799 wanted to feel compassion for this man and his dead son but only felt discomfort and the man’s eyes challenging him. And all he cared about was getting back into the base and the loss of a potential asset in securing the area.’
All of these criss-crossing, triangulating lines capture not only the anatomy of a soldier but an anatomy of the war itself – at once calmly, coolly and shockingly abstract – in a word, objectified – and invasively, terrifyingly, ineluctably intimate.
Postscript: You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Anatomy of a soldier is based on Harry Parker’s own experience. Out on patrol with his men on 18 July 2009 in central Helmand he stepped on an IED; he lost his lower left leg in the blast and had his lower right leg amputated at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham (the major centre for advanced trauma care for the British military). ‘‘Writing about the explosion felt good creatively,’ he toldChristian House, ‘but also you’ve mined your personal experiences’ and the process left him ‘a sweaty mess’. I’ve written about what Roy Scranton calls ‘the trauma hero‘ before, and so it’s important to add that Parker insists that the novel is not disguised autobiography: ‘I didn’t want to write, “I was in the Helmand valley.”’
One other note: at the AAG meeting in San Francisco next month Iain Shaw and Katherine Kindervater have organised a series of really interesting sessions on Objects of Security and War:
These sessions aim to bring together scholars working in the areas of war and security that are attentive to the materialities of contemporary violence and conflict. We are especially interested in work that seeks to place objects of security and war within a wider set of practices, assemblages, bodies, and histories. From drones and documents, to algorithms and atom bombs, the materiality of state power continues to anchor and disrupt the conduct and geography of (international) violence.
I’m part of those sessions – but reading Anatomy of a soldier has made me think about giving an altogether different presentation. I’ve long argued that we need to disrupt that lazy divide between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ and that literature is able to convey important truths that evade conventional academic prose (hence my unbounded admiration for Tom McCarthy‘s C, for example). And Anatomy of a soldier convinces me that I’ll find more inspiration in novels like that than in whole libraries on object-oriented philosophy…
Cultural training and deep, nuanced understanding of Afghan politics and history were in short supply in the Army; without them, good intelligence was hard to come by, and effective policy making was nearly impossible. Human Terrain Teams, as Human Terrain System units were known, were supposed to include people with social-science backgrounds, language skills and an understanding of Afghan or Iraqi culture, as well as veterans and reservists who would help bind the civilians to their assigned military units.
On that winter day in Zormat, however, just how far the Human Terrain System had fallen short of expectations was clear. Neither of the social scientists on the patrol that morning had spent time in Afghanistan before being deployed there. While one was reasonably qualified, the other was a pleasant 43-year-old woman who grew up in Indiana and Tennessee, and whose highest academic credential was an advanced degree in organizational management she received online. She had confided to me that she didn’t feel comfortable carrying a gun she was still learning how to use. Before arriving in Afghanistan, she had traveled outside the United States only once, to Jamaica — “and this ain’t Jamaica,” she told me…
The shortcomings I saw in Zormat were hardly the extent of the Human Terrain System’s problems. The project suffered from an array of staffing and management issues, coupled with internal disagreements over whether it was meant to gather intelligence, hand out protein bars and peppermints, advise commanders on tribal conflicts or all three — a lack of clear purpose that eventually proved crippling. It outraged anthropologists, who argued that gathering information about indigenous people while embedded in a military unit in active combat posed an intractable ethical conflict. Once the subject of dozens of glowing news stories, the program had fallen so far off reporters’ radar by last fall that the Army was able to quietly pull the plug without a whisper in the mainstream media.
She suggests that the military could – and should – have learned from its previous attempts to enlist social scientists in Vietnam, Central America and elsewhere, and points to Seymour Deitchman‘s The Best-Laid Schemes: A tale of social science research and bureaucracy(1976), which is available as an open access download from the US Marine Corps University Press here.
Deitchman worked for the Pentagon as a counterinsurgency advisor (among many other roles), and his account was a highly personal, take-no-prisoners affair.
Part of the problem, he insisted, was the language of the social sciences:
There’s much more in a similar vein, and not surprisingly, Deitchman’s conclusion about the military effectiveness of social science was a jaundiced one.
The community of social science is likely to urge and has urged that increased government support of research on the great social problems of the day. With due recognition for the government’s need to collect data to help it plan and evaluate the social programs it is expected to undertake, I have reached the conclusion, nevertheless, that the opposite of the social scientists’ recommendation is in order. The research is needed, without question. Some of it, especially in the evaluation area, is necessary and feasible for government to sponsor. Beyond this, its support should be subject to the economic and political laws of the intellectual marketplace. And the government should do less, not more, to influence the workings of that marketplace. It should support less, not more, research into the workings of society.
You couldn’t make it up (or perhaps they did). But this isn’t Vanessa’s view. ‘The need for cultural understanding isn’t going away,’ she insists:
The rise of drones and sociocultural modeling, which uses data to simulate and sometimes predict human responses to conflict and crisis, have given some in the defense establishment the idea that we can do all our fighting safely, from a distance. But we’ve had this idea before, in the decades following Vietnam, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have reminded us of its falsity.
A new book from the ever-innnovative Patricia Owens, Economy of Force:counterinsurgency and the historical rise of the Social (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
There’s an excellent interview with Patricia at e-IR here, which includes her own summary of the book:
The book retrieves the older, but surprisingly neglected, language of household governance, oikonomia, to show how the techniques and domestic ideologies of household administration are highly portable and play a remarkably central role in international and imperial relations. In contrast to the ahistorical and anachronistic adoption of social language across IR, I think there is an important story to be told of when, where, and why the social realm first emerged as the domain through which human life could be intervened in and transformed. Economy of Force tells this story in terms of modern transformations in and violent crises of household forms of rule. In two late-colonial British emergencies in Malaya (1948-1960) and Kenya (1952-1960), US counterinsurgency in Vietnam (1954-1975), and US-led campaigns in Afghanistan (2001-2014) and Iraq (2003-2011), so-called ‘armed social work’ policies were the continuation of oikonomia – not politics – by other means. Though never wholly succeeding, counterinsurgents drew on and innovated different forms of household governance to create units of rule in which local populations were domesticated. Military strategists conceived population control as sociological warfare because the social realm itself and distinctly social forms of thought are modern forms of oikonomikos, the art and science of household rule.
The argument has big implications for international theory, as well as the history and theory of counterinsurgency. Rather than objective theories of modern society and their interrelations, various forms of liberalism, political realism, social constructivism, and Marxism need to be situated within the history of the rise and violent transformation of the social realm. They are fragments of competing paradigms of social regulation. Ironically, the dominance of distinctly social forms of thought has obscured the household ontology of the modern social realm. Each of the major traditions is explicitly based on, or implicitly accepts, the erroneous notion that modern capitalism destroyed large-scale forms of household rule. So the book not only offers a new history and theory of counterinsurgency. It offers a new history of the rise of the social realm and political history and theory of household governance.
Research for the book was supported by a yearlong fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. There’ll be a symposium on Economy of Force at Disorder of Things later in 2015.
Here’s the Contents list:
1. Introduction: oikonomia in the use of force
2. The really real? A history of ‘social’ and ‘society’
3. Out of the confines of the household?
4. The colonial limits of society
5. ‘More than concentration camps’: the battle for hearths in two late-colonial emergencies
6. Society itself is at war: new model pacification in Vietnam
7. Oikonomia by other means: counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq
8. Conclusion: ‘it’s the oikos, stupid’.
Among the many pre-publication plaudits, here’s Didier Fassin‘s:
“Through a combination of historical perspective on the colonial world and contemporary inquiry into the imperial enterprise, Economy of Force invites us to rethink the laws of warfare and politics of counterinsurgency by paying attention to the pacification of local populations understood as a form of domestication. It thus unveils the genealogy of the blurred line between military and humanitarian interventions.”
You can get a taste of Patricia’s argument (particularly if you shrink from CUP’s extortionate pricing, even for the e-edition) in her ‘Human security and the rise of the social’, Review of International Studies 38 (2012) 547-567 and ‘From Bismarck to Petraeus:the question of the social and the social question in counterinsurgency’, European journal of international relations 19 (1) (2013) 139-161.
I’ve just heard from Patricia, who tells me that CUP will publish Economy of Force next year in paperback (which ought to make it much more accessible); she’s also made available the proofs of the Introduction on her academia.edu page here.
It’s been an age since I looked at the US military’s attempt to ‘weaponise culture’ in its counterinsurgency programs (see ‘The rush to the intimate’: DOWNLOADS tab), but Roberto Gonzalez has kept his eyes on the ground – or the ‘human terrain’ (I’ve borrowed the image above from Anthropologists for Justice and Peace here).
In a special report for Counterpunch a month ago, Roberto noted the demise of the Human Terrain System:
The most expensive social science program in history – the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS)–has quietly come to an end. During its eight years of existence, the controversial program cost tax payers more than $725 million…
HTS supporters frequently claimed that the program would increase cultural understanding between US forces and Iraqis and Afghans–and therefore reduce American and civilian casualties. The program’s leaders insisted that embedded social scientists were delivering sociocultural knowledge to commanders, but the reality was more complex. HTS personnel conducted a range of activities including data collection, intelligence gathering, and psychological operations. In at least one case, an HTS employee supported interrogations in Afghanistan.
The program also served a more insidious function: It became a propaganda tool for convincing the American public–especially those with liberal tendencies–that the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were benevolent missions in which smart, fresh-faced young college graduates were playing a role. It appeared to demonstrate how US forces were engaged in a kinder, gentler form of occupation. Department of Defense photos portrayed HTS personnel sitting on rugs while drinking tea with Afghan elders, or distributing sweets to euphoric Iraqi children. Here was a war that Americans could feel good about fighting.
The program had its critics, inside as well as outside the military, and US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) eventually confirmed that HTS had been terminated on 30 September 2014. In his report, Roberto traces the rise and fall of HTS, and attributes its demise to US troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the fall from grace of the ‘new’ counterinsurgency’s champion David Petraeus, the incompetence of many of the HTS teams, and – crucially – to the precipitate shift from ‘cultural’ to geospatial intelligence.
The last, impelled by the desire to substitute air strikes for ‘boots on the ground’ and to rely on computational methods rather than human intelligence, is the key: as Oliver Belcher put it in his PhD thesis on The afterlives of counterinsurgency, “It’s algorithms, not anthropology, that are the real social science scandal in late-modern war.”
I’ve been exploring this shift in my ‘Dirty Dancing’ essay – in relation to the American production of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan as a space of execution, a code/space in which data surveillance and computational methods are activated to assert an extra-territorial claim over bodies-in-spaces – but it’s become clear to me that this continues to rely on (and in some respects even extends) the weaponisation of culture. It’s an appropriate metaphor: after all, weapons are inherently dangerous, they can be misdirected, they do misfire and they can cause grievous harm far beyond their intended target.
In a follow-up post on ‘Re-making the Human Terrain’, Roberto says as much:
The gaps in military knowledge that HTS claimed to fill still remain. The desire to weaponize culture is as old as dreams of counterinsurgency, and such dreams do not die easily.
It would be premature for those concerned about the militarization of culture to breathe a sigh of relief. The needs of empire—especially an empire in denial—are far too great to ignore cultural concerns. HTS’s sudden death can obscure the fact that elements of the program continue to survive, though in distinct and sometimes unrecognizable forms. The basic idea behind HTS—to equip the military with cultural expertise for battlefield operations—has not been eradicated. If anything, the concept has firmly taken root.
He traces its off-shoots through the development of a Global Cultural Knowledge Network – which I can’t help seeing as the cultural version of the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World – and the role of private corporations in providing ‘human terrain analysts’ to support US special operations (see also Max Fortehere on what I think of as the Military-Academic-Industrial-Media complex: MAIM). Interestingly, Whitney Kassel – who is adamant that ‘shuttering HTS will almost certainly be a mistake’ – notes that ‘the National Defense University conducted a detailed study of HTS [summarised in JFQ] in late 2013 and recommended that the function be moved and permanently housed at U.S. Army Special Operations Command … which has the lead for irregular warfare and other Army functions that make the most frequent use of sociocultural knowledge.’
Roberto also provides a more detailed analysis of the US military’s investment in socio-cultural modelling and (this is truly vital) predictive forecasting in two linked essays on ‘Seeing into hearts and minds’: Part 1 is ‘The Pentagon’s quest for a social radar’, Anthropology Today 31 (3) (June 2015) 8-13 and Part 2 is ‘‘Big data’, algorithms, and computational counterinsurgency, Anthropology Today 31 (4) (August 2015) 13-18.
The second part is most directly relevant to what I’ve been working on because it describes the conceptual development of so-called ‘Social Radar’ (see image above: ‘sensor systems for the 21st century‘; see also here) and the morphing of the NSA’s Real Time Regional Gateway for Iraq – which integrated data surveillance from multiple sources and domains with visual feeds from drones – into Nexus 7 in Afghanistan.
Today, the Data Machine doesn’t care where it is fighting. It doesn’t matter whether targets are hiding in Hindu Kush caves or in villages of the Fertile Crescent. Nor does Predator care, or Reaper, or Global Hawk, or any other of our other aptly and awkwardly named all-seeing eyes. In fact, they don’t care about anything: they are machines. But the men and women … behind the entire Machine also don’t care, for every place is reduced to geographic coordinates that flash across a screen in seconds. Nations, armies, and even people are reduced to links and networks.
Loitering drones and geolocating weapons just need the data. Everyone needs the global information grid and the Internet—or, more precisely, an internet. Actual battlefield geography and culture have become immaterial. The node and the network sentry become the determinant and the provocateur of action—all the way to the edge of the world, anywhere.
The debate over the militarisation of policing in the United States that has been sparked by the shooting of a young Afro-American by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri increasingly cites Radley Balko‘s Rise of the warrior cop: the militarisation of America’s police forces. It was published last year to considerable acclaim, and last August the Wall Street Journal‘s Saturday Essay featured what was, in effect, Balko’s three-minute version.
Since the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment – from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers – American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop – armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.
So far, so familiar – and by no means confined to the United States. There the present debate seems to have been conducted in an intellectual vacuum. When ‘Warrior cop’ was published, Glenn Greenwald wrote that ‘there is no vital trend in American society more overlooked than the militarization of our domestic police forces’, and he’s since repeated the claim (though he does acknowledge the ACLU report produced earlier this year, War Comes Home: the excessive militarization of American policing(see also Matthew Harwood‘s ‘One Nation Under SWAT’ here – he’s a senior writer/editor at the ACLU).
I suspect the debate could be advanced, both politically and intellectually, by including two other (academic) voices that approach the situation from two different directions. One is Steve Graham‘s Cities under siege: the new military urbanism (2010), which starts from new constellations of military violence, and the other is Mark Neocleous‘s War power, police power (2014), which starts from a wider conception of policing than has figured in the present discussion. Doing so would also enable the role of racialisation – which flickers in the margins of both accounts – to be given the greater prominence I think it deserves. But it would also considerably sharpen talk of war ‘coming home’, as though it ever left…
For now, though, let me make two further points. One is about the need to enlarge the conventional conception of the military-industrial complex. It has already been extended in all sorts of ways, of course – the Military-Industy-Media-Entertainment complex (MIME) and the Military-Academic-Industrial-Media complex (MAIM) to name just two – but it has become increasingly clear that the producers and designers of military equipment also have domestic police forces in their sights (sic).
It’s a complicated business, because on one side there is an active Department of Defense program that, since 1990, has channelled surplus military equipment to state and local police departments in the United States: more details from Shirley Lihere. The New York Times has a sequence of interactive maps showing the spread of everything from aircraft and armoured vehicles through grenade launchers and assault rifles to body armour and night vision goggles (the accompanying article is here). The map below is just one example, showing the transfer of armoured vehicles:
On the other side, there’s also an active market for new equipment – and some of the latest ‘toys for the boys‘ (see also here) include drones (at present unarmed versions only for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). Jane’s, widely acknowledged as an indispensable global database on military equipment and platforms, now advertises a new guide dedicated to ‘Police and Homeland Security Equipment’:
Jane’s Police & Homeland Security Equipment delivers a comprehensive view of law enforcement and paramilitary equipment in production and service around the world, providing A&D businesses with the market intelligence that drives successful business development, strategy and product development activity, and providing military, security and government organizations with the critical technical intelligence that they need in order to develop and maintain an effective capability advantage….
Profiles of more than 2,200 types of law enforcement equipment and services around the world, including firearms, body armor, personal protection, riot and crowd control equipment, communications, security equipment and biometric solutions, make Jane’s Police & Homeland Security Equipment the most comprehensive and reliable source of police equipment technical and program intelligence.
There is a genealogy to all of this, of course, which means there is important work to be done in tracing the historical pathways through which both offensive and defensive materials have migrated from external uses (by the military) to internal uses (by the police). This breaches one of the canonical divides of the liberal state, a rupture signalled by the hybrid term ‘security forces’, but it has been going on for a long time.
In an excellent essay – a preview of her book, Tear Gas: 100 years in the making, due out from Verso next year – Anna Feigenbaumshows how tear gas drifted from the battlefields of France and Belgium onto streets around the world. The French were the first to use toxic gas shells on a large scale – engins suffocants – which discharged tear gas; in most cases the effects were irritating rather than disabling, and when the Germans used similar shells against the British in October 1914 at Neuve Chapelle they too proved largely ineffective.
These were ‘Lilliputian efforts’, according to historian Peter Bull, and experiments by both sides with other systems were aimed at a greater and deadlier harvest. You can find much more on the use of lethal gas on the battlefield from Ulrich Trumpener, ‘The road to Ypres’, Journal of modern history 47 (1975) 460-80; Tim Cook, No place to run: the Canadian Corps and gas warfare in the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999) – which despite its title is much less Canuck-centric than it might appear; Jonathan Krause, ‘The origins of chemical warfare in the French Army’, War in history 20 (4) (2013) 545-56; and Edgar Jones, ‘Terror weapons: the British experience of gas and its treatment in the First World War’, War in history 21 (3) (2014) 355-75.
But many military officers realised that tear gas had other potential uses, and Anna shows that the process of repatriation and re-purposing began even before the First World War had ended:
By the end of the 1920s, police departments in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Chicago were all purchasing tear-gas supplies. Meanwhile, sales abroad included colonial territories in India, Panama, and Hawaii.
With this new demand for tear gas came new supply. Improved tear-gas cartridges replaced early explosive models that would often harm the police deploying them….
Leading American tear-gas manufacturers, including the Lake Erie Chemical Company founded by World War I veteran Lieutenant Colonel Byron “Biff” Goss, became deeply embroiled in the repression of political struggles. Sales representatives buddied up with business owners and local police forces. They followed news headlines of labor disputes and traveled to high-conflict areas, selling their products domestically and to countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Cuba. A Senate subcommittee investigation into industrial-munitions sales found that between 1933 and 1937, more than $1.25 million (about $21 million today) worth of “tear and sickening gas” had been purchased in the U.S. “chiefly during or in anticipation of strikes.”
Anna continues the story through the Second World War and the Vietnam War (where in an unremarked irony tear gas was used against anti-war demonstrations) and down to the present, but you get the (horrible) idea. She closes with the supreme irony:
Yet while tear gas remains banned from warfare under the Chemical Weapons Convention, its use in civilian policing grows. Tear gas remains as effective today at demoralizing and dispersing crowds as it was a century ago, turning the street from a place of protest into toxic chaos. It clogs the air, the one communication channel that even the most powerless can use to voice their grievances.
This brings me to my second point, and it’s one that both Steve and Mark sharpen in different ways: the militarization of policing is not only about weapons but also about the the practices in which they are embedded. One place to start such an investigation would be the cross-over in what the military calls doctrine. There’s many a slip between doctrine on the books and practice on the streets. But Public Intelligence has recently published U.S. Army Techniques Publication 3-39.33: Civil Disturbances, which will now repay even closer reading. The cross-overs between counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism and police operations against organised crime are now a matter of record – and I’ve discussed these on several occasions (see here and here) – but 3-39.33 is perhaps most revealing in its preamble:
ATP 3-39.33 provides discussion and techniques about civil disturbances and crowd control operations that occur in the continental United States (CONUS) and outside the continental United States (OCONUS)….Worldwide instability coupled with U.S. military participation in unified-action, peacekeeping, and related operations require that U.S. forces have access to the most current doctrine and techniques that are necessary to quell riots and restore public order.
Which is where I came in… These are just preliminary jottings, and there’s lots more to say – and lots more to consider (as the Martha Rosler photomontage at the top of this post implies: it’s from her 2004 series Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, which carries an implicit plea to attend to their homes and their streets not just ‘ours’ ) – so watch this space.
UPDATE: See Stuart Schrader‘s elegant short essay on ‘Policing Empire’ at Jacobin:
‘… we should be skeptical of calls for police reform, particularly when accompanied by cries that this (militarization) should not happen here. A close look at the history of US policing reveals that the line between foreign and domestic has long been blurry. Shipping home tactics and technologies from overseas theaters of imperial engagement has been a typical mode of police reform in the United States. When policing on American streets comes into crisis, law-enforcement leaders look overseas for answers. What transpired in Ferguson is itself a manifestation of reform.
From the Philippines to Guatemala to Afghanistan, the history of US empire is the history of policing experts teaching indigenous cops how to patrol and investigate like Americans. As a journalist observed in the late 1950s, “Americans in Viet-Nam very sincerely believe that in transplanting their institutions, they will immunize South Viet-Nam against Communist propaganda.” But the flow is not one-way: these institutions also return home transformed.’
This morning the Stimson Center issued an 81-page Recommendations and Report of the Task Force on US Drone Policy: you can access it online via the New York Timeshere or download it as a pdf here; Mark Mazetti‘s report for the Times is here.
Founded in 1989, the Stimson Center is a Washington-based ‘non-profit and non-partisan’ think-tank that prides itself on providing ’25 years of pragmatic solutions to global security’. It’s named after Henry Stimson, who served Presidents Taft, Roosevelt and Truman as Secretary of War and President Hoover as Secretary of State. The Center established its 10-member Task Force on drones a year ago, with retired General John Abizaid (former head of US Central Command, 2003-2007) and Rosa Brooks(Professor of Law at Georgetown) as co-chairs; the Task Force was aided by three Working Groups – on Ethics and Law; Military Utility, National Security and Economics; and Export Control and Regulatory Challenges – each of which is preparing more detailed reports to be published later this year. The present Report focuses on
‘key current and emerging issues relating to the development and use of lethal UAVs outside the United States for national security purposes. In particular, we focus extensively on the use of UAVs for targeted counterterrorism strikes, for the simple reason that this has generated significant attention, controversy and concern.’
But this focus repeats and compounds the myopia of both conventional wisdom and contemporary debate. The Report summarily (and I think properly) rejects a number of misconceptions about the use of drones, insisting that their capacity to strike from a distance is neither novel nor unique; noting that the vast majority of UAVs in the US arsenal are non-weaponized (‘less than 1 percent of … UAVs carry operational weapons at any given time’ – though their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions are of course closely tied to the deployment of weapons by conventional strike aircraft or ground forces); and arguing that ‘UAVs do not turn killing into “a video game”‘. These counter-claims are unexceptional and the Task Force presents them with clarity and conviction.
But the Report also accepts that the integration of UAVs into later modern war on ‘traditional’ or ‘hot’ battlefields [more about those terms in a moment] is, by and large, unproblematic. Thus:
‘UAVs have substantial value for a wide range of military and intelligence tasks. On the battlefield, both weaponized and non-weaponized UAVs can protect and aid soldiers in a variety of ways. They can be used for reconnaissance purposes, for instance, and UAVs also have the potential to assist in the detection of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, as well as ordinary explosives. Weaponized UAVs can be used to provide close air support to soldiers engaged in combat.’
A footnote expands on that last sentence:
‘In the past, warfighters on the ground under imminent threat would have to navigate a complicated command hierarchy to call for air support. The soldier on the ground would have to relay coordinates to a Forward Air Controller (FAC), who would then talk the pilot’s eyes onto a target in an extremely hostile environment. These missions have always been very dangerous for the pilot, who has to fly low and avoid multiple threats, and also for people on the ground. It is a human-error rich environment, and even today, it is not uncommon for the wrong coordinates to be relayed, resulting in the deaths of friendlies or innocent civilians. To ease these difficulties, DARPA is currently investigating how to replace the FAC and the pilot by a weaponized UAV that will be commanded by the soldier on the ground with a smartphone.’
And subsequently the Report commends the ‘robust’ targeting process put in place by the US military and the incorporation of military lawyers (JAGs) into the kill-chain:
‘The Department of Defense has a robust procedure for targeting, with outlined authorities and steps, and clear checks on individual targets. The authorization of a UAV strike by the military follows the traditional process in place for all weapons systems (be they MQ-9 Reaper drones or F-16 fighter jets). Regardless of whether particular strikes are acknowledged, the Pentagon has stated that UAV strikes, like strikes from manned aircraft, are subject to the military’s pre-strike target development procedures and post-strike assessment.
‘The process of determining and executing a strike follows a specific set of steps to ensure fidelity in target selection, strike and post-strike review.’
Both Craig Jones and I have discussed the targeting cycle [the figure above shows one of six steps in the ‘find-fix-track-target-engage-assess’ cycle, taken from JP 3-60 on Joint Targeting, issued in January 2013] and the role of operational law within it (Craig in much more detail than me), and these are all important considerations. But the Report glosses over the fragilities of the process, which in practice is not as ‘robust’ as the authors imply. They concede:
‘No weapons system is perfect, and targeting decisions — whether for UAV strikes or for any other weapons delivery system — are only as good as the intelligence on which they are based. We do not doubt that some US UAV strikes have killed innocent civilians. Nonetheless, the empirical evidence suggests that the number of civilians killed is small compared to the civilian deaths typically associated with other weapons delivery systems (including manned aircraft).’
That last sentence is not unassailable, but in addition I’ve repeatedly argued that it is a mistake to abstract strikes carried out by UAVs from the wider network of military violence in which their ISR capabilities are put to use: hence my ongoing work on the Uruzgan airstrike in Afghanistan, for example, and on ‘militarised vision’ more generally. What these studies confirm is that civilian casualties are far more likely when close air support is provided – by UAVs directly or by conventional strike aircraft – to ‘troops in contact’ (even more so when, as in both the Kunduz and Uruzgan airstrikes, it turns out that troops calling in CAS were not ‘in contact’ at all).
In short, while it’s perhaps understandable that a Task Force that included both General Abizaid and Lt-Gen David Barno (former head of Combined Forces Command – Afghanistan from 2003-2005) should regard the use of UAVs on ‘traditional’ battlefields as unproblematic, I think it regrettable that their considerable expertise did not result in a more searching evaluation of remote operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But what, then, of those ‘non-traditional’ battlefields? A footnote explains:
‘Throughout this report, we distinguish between the use of UAV strikes on “traditional” or “hot” battlefields and their use in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. These are terms with no fixed legal meaning; rather, they are merely descriptive terms meant to acknowledge that the US of UAV strikes has not been particularly controversial when it is ancillary to large-scale, open, ongoing hostilities between US or allied ground forces and manned aerial vehicles, on the one hand, and enemy combatants, on the other. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States deployed scores of thousands of ground troops and flew a range of close air support and other aerial missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and UAV strikes occurred in that context. In Libya, US ground forces did not participate in the conflict, but US manned aircraft and UAVs both operated openly to destroy Libyan government air defenses and other military targets during a period of large scale, overt ground combat between the Qaddafi regime and Libyan rebel groups. In contrast, the use of US UAV strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere has been controversial precisely because the strikes have occurred in countries where there are no US ground troops or aerial forces openly engaged in large scale combat.’
A major focus of the report is on what Frédéric Mégret (above) has called ‘the deconstruction of the battlefield‘ and the countervailing legal geographies that provide an essential armature for later modern war (though it’s surprising that the Report makes so little use of academic research on UAVs and contemporary conflicts). The authors ‘disagree with those critics who have declared that US targeted killings [in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia] are “illegal”’ – no surprise there either, incidentally, since one of the Working Groups included Kenneth Anderson, Charles Dunlap and Christine Fair: I’m not sure in what universe that counts as ‘non-partisan’) but they also accept that these remote operations move in a grey zone (and in the shadows):
‘The law of armed conflict and the international legal rules governing the use of force by states arose in an era far removed from our own. When the Geneva Conventions of 1949 were drafted, for instance, it was assumed that most conflicts would be between states with uniformed, hierarchically organized militaries, and that the temporal and geographic boundaries of armed conflicts would be clear.
‘The paradigmatic armed conflict was presumed to have a clear beginning (a declaration of war) and a clear end (the surrender of one party, or a peace treaty); it was also presumed the armed conflict to be confined geographically to specific, identifiable states and territories. What’s more, the law of armed conflict presumes that it is a relatively straightforward matter to identify “combatants” and distinguish them from “civilians,” who are not targetable unless they participate directly in hostilities. The assumption is that it is also a straightforward matter to define “direct participation in hostilities.”
‘The notion of “imminent attack” at the heart of international law rules relating to the use of force in state self-defense was similarly construed narrowly: traditionally, “imminent” was understood to mean “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”
‘But the rise of transnational non-state terrorist organizations confounds these preexisting legal categories. The armed conflict with al-Qaida and its associated forces can, by definition, have no set geographical boundaries, because al-Qaida and its associates are not territorially based and move easily across state borders. The conflict also has no temporal boundaries — not simply because we do not know the precise date on which the conflict will end, but because there is no obvious means of determining the “end” of an armed conflict with an inchoate, non-hierarchical network.
‘In a conflict so sporadic and protean — a conflict with enemies who wear no uniforms, operate in secret and may not use traditional “weapons” — the process of determining where and when the law of armed conflict applies, who should be considered a com- batant and what counts as “hostilities” inevitably is fraught with difficulty…
‘While the legal norms governing armed conflicts and the use of force look clear on paper, the changing nature of modern conflicts and security threats has rendered them almost incoherent in practice. Basic categories such as “battlefield,” “combatant” and “hostilities” no longer have a clear or stable meaning. And when this happens, the rule of law is threatened.’
These too are important considerations, but they are surely not confined to counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia: they also apply with equal force to counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and intersect with a wider and much more fraught debate over the very idea of ‘the civilian’.
There is a particularly fine passage in the Report:
‘Consider US targeted strikes from the perspective of individuals in — for instance — Pakistan or Yemen. From the perspective of a Yemeni villager or a Pakistani living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), life is far from secure. Death can come from the sky at any moment, and the instability and incoherence of existing legal categories means that there is no way for an individual to be certain whether he is considered targetable by the United States. (Would attending a meeting or community gathering also attended by an al-Qaida member make him targetable? Would renting a building or selling a vehicle to a member of an “associated” force render him targetable? What counts as an “associated force?” Would accepting financial or medical aid from a terrorist group make him a target? Would extending hospitality to a relative who is affiliated with a terrorist group lead the United States to consider him a target?).
‘From the perspective of those living in regions that have been affected by US UAV strikes, this uncertainty makes planning impossible, and makes US strikes appear arbitrary. What’s more, individuals in states such as Pakistan or Yemen have no ability to seek clarification of the law or their status from an effective or impartial legal system, no ability to argue that they have been mistakenly or inappropriately targeted or that the intelligence that led to their inclusion on a “kill list” was flawed or fabricated, and no ability to seek redress for injury. Their national laws and courts can offer no assistance in the face of foreign power, and far from protecting their fundamental rights and freedoms, their own states may in fact be deceiving them about their knowledge of and cooperation with US strikes. Meanwhile, geography and finances make it impossible to access US courts, and a variety of legal barriers — such as the state secrets privilege, the political question doctrine, and issues of standing, ripeness and mootness — in any case would prevent meaningful access to justice.’
This is one of the clearest summaries of the case for transparency and accountability I’ve seen, but the same scenario has also played out in Afghanistan (and in relation to the Taliban, which appears only once in the body of the Report) time and time again. There are differences, to be sure, but the US military has also carried out its own targeted killings in Afghanistan, working from its Joint Prioritized Effects List. The Report notes that ‘in practice, the military and CIA generally work together quite closely when planning and engaging in targeted UAV strikes: few strikes are “all military” or “all CIA”’ – which is true in other senses too – and this applies equally in Afghanistan.
In sum, then, this is a valuable and important Report – but it would have been far more incisive had its critique of ‘US drone policy’ cast its net wider to provide a more inclusive account of remote operations. The trans-national geographies of what I’ve called ‘the everywhere war’ do not admit of any simple distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ battlefields, and trying to impose one on such a tangled field of military and paramilitary violence ultimately confuses rather than clarifies. I realise that this is usually attempted as an exercise in what we might call legal cartography, but I also still think William Boyd‘s Gabriel was right when, in An Ice-Cream War, he complained that maps give the world ‘an order and reasonableness’ it doesn’t possess. And we all also know that maps – like the law – are instruments of power, and that both are intimately entangled with the administration of military violence.
On 15 June – one week after the attack on Karachi’s international airport by the Pakistan Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban or TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (UMI) – the Pakistan military announced its ‘comprehensive’ Operation Zarb-i-Azb in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). From their bases in North Waziristan, the statement announced, militants had ‘waged a war against the state of Pakistan’ and the military had been ‘tasked to eliminate these terrorists regardless of hue and color, along with their sanctuaries.’ Although the press release insisted that ‘these enemies of the state will be denied space anywhere across the country’ the epicentre of the operation was and remains North Waziristan.
There are reportedly 60,000 troops in the region, and the main Pakistan military installations in North Waziristan are shown on the map above (taken from the AEI spinoff site, Critical Threats), but the prelude to ground operations was a concerted attack by the Pakistan Air Force on eight targets linked to planning the assault on Karachi airport.
‘Operation Zarb-i-Azb’ refers to Mohammed’s sword, and its political imagery is artfully dissected by Afiya Shehrbano Zia:
‘It refers to the (‘sharp/cutting’) sword of the prophet of Islam and is a brilliant usurpation of the religious metaphor. It upstages the religious imaginary for which the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claim to be fighting. After all, who would dare to vanquish the Prophet’s metaphorical sword? The appellation justifies its cause for the defense of the Islamic state, and quells the lesser purpose of the Taliban in one fell swoop. As in all cases in the instrumentalisation of religion as a propaganda tool, it also excites nationalists and seeks to rationalise another round of military operations, killings and displacements that will follow.’
There’s much more of value in her commentary, but – as Zia also acknowledges – the genealogy and geography of the offensive is no less complicated (my map comes from Dawn, 20 June 2014; green circles are Pakistan military land operations; blue are Pakistan Air Force strikes; red are US drone strikes).
First, it’s not clear whether the Pakistan military finally has the Afghan Taliban in its sights too – regarded by Islamabad as the ‘good Taliban’ because, far from threatening the state of Pakistan, it has long been used by both the military and (particularly) the intelligence service as a counter to any Indian influence over Kabul once US and ISAF forces complete their withdrawal. And it is of course the Afghan Taliban (along with the Haqqani network) which is the principal concern of the United States.
Second, the Pakistan military – and especially the Air Force – has a long history of offensive operations in the FATA, as I’ve discussed in detail before: see here and here. Now other commentators have noticed this: the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has tracked 15 Pakistan Air Force strikes carried out by helicopter gunships and F-16 fighters between 19 December 2013 and 15 June 2014, which killed 291-540 people (including 16-112 civilians).
The significance of this is not only that it precedes the current offensive but also that it coincides with the so-called ‘pause’ in CIA-directed drone strikes against targets in the FATA. Chris Woodsnotes that PAF strikes are ‘generating casualties far in excess of any caused by CIA drones strikes’, and one resident of Mir Ali recited a grim military timetable:
“It’s like doomsday for people in Mir Ali, where death is everywhere since Saturday… They start the day with artillery shelling early in the morning. Gunship helicopters come for shelling during the day and jets strike at around 2:00-2:30 in the night.”
The military denies all reports of civilian casualties but this beggars belief, and the Bureau reports that some residents have even concluded that the drone strikes were preferable:
‘The difference between the drone strikes and the military strikes is that drones target specifically who they want to target… the wanted terrorists… people are saying that drone attacks were good compared to the military strikes. Personally I agree, because I have seen drones, they are in the air 24 hours and they don’t attack as randomly… the place of the attack was always an area where the Taliban or terrorists were living.’
But whatever one makes of this – a calculation that would imply that the CIA had abandoned its anonymous ‘signature strikes’ – drones have not been absent from the skies over Waziristan. Pakistan has its own reconnaissance drones, and they have repeatedly been used to direct strike aircraft onto their targets (though with what accuracy it is impossible to know) and to support ground operations: the PAF boasted of their use in May, when hundreds of houses and shops were destroyed in Machis Camp and in the bazaar at Mir Ali. And – the third complication – the US resumed its drone war on 11 and 12 June when two UAVs fired six missiles at compounds near Miram Shah, supposedly killing ten members of UMI and the Haqqani network, and again on 18 June when three compounds near Dargah Mandi were hit. Whether these strikes were co-ordinated with Pakistan is unclear – the Foreign Office has issued its ritual denial, but it’s difficult to believe they were not connected to Pakistan’s own military operations, and here too there is a long history of what I’ve called ‘dirty dancing‘ between Washington and Islamabad that continued until at least the end of 2011. It seems highly unlikely that the dance has ended.
Finally, the shock waves from these various operations ripple far beyond their ostensible targets. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, some in advance of military operations (which had been telegraphed for months), many more when the military temporarily loosened its curfew on the region. As on previous occasions, most of them fled to Bannu, some to government camps (‘Only the poorest of the poor would go to a camp in such hot and humid weather‘) but the majority to stay with family members, while some refugees have even crossed into Khost in Afghanistan to seek sanctuary. The map below is an early trace (18 June), and it shows only those who are officially registered so it excludes those lodging with their extended families; but even this anticipates hundreds of thousands more displaced people to come.
There is also the real fear that, as Ismail Khanand Declan Walshreported earlier this month, Taliban reprisals will focus on the Punjab, the electoral base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
All of this suggests the importance of unravelling the intimate connections between the political constitution of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the administration of military violence there. This is clearly not limited to CIA-directed drone strikes, and here Zia’s reflections on a question posed by a feminist friend are worth repeating:
‘She wonders, “why this obsession with drones?” Obviously, the interest is due to a host of factors, but her query reflects the difference in modes of analysis. Her position reflects the views of women’s rights/human rights groups who consider specific military operations in one part of Pakistan as just one cog in a broader narrative about the source of the conflict. For them, this has been the cosy nexus and mutually beneficial relationship between the military establishment and the jihadi groups.
Those like Imran Khan, who foreground drones in their analysis of ‘conflict’, consider US intervention and occupation of Afghanistan as the drivers of conflict in Pakistan. But local progressive groups argue that even if militants in FATA are subdued, or US interventions are resisted, unless the policy of patronage and nurturing of jihadi groups in the rest of Pakistan is dismantled and buried, conflict at all levels will never end – drones or no drones.
This doesn’t mean that military technologies are unimportant nor that drone strikes are of marginal concern (inside or outside an ‘area of active hostilities‘): it means that we need to direct our attention to the larger matrix of political and military violence within which they are deployed, transnational and national, and to its genealogies and geographies.