Viewing Eyes in the Sky

 

This image released by Bleecker Street shows Phoebe Fox, left, and Aaron Paul in a scene from "Eye In the Sky." (Keith Bernstein/Bleecker Street via AP)

This image released by Bleecker Street shows Phoebe Fox, left, and Aaron Paul in a scene from “Eye In the Sky.” (Keith Bernstein/Bleecker Street via AP)

The New York Review of Books has a characteristically thoughtful response by David Cole to Gavin Hood‘s newly released Eye in the Sky: ‘Killing from the Conference Room‘.

The film traces the arc of a joint US/UK drone strike in Nairobi, told from the viewpoints of those charged with authorising and executing the kill.  The nominal target is a safehouse, and the two al-Shabab leaders inside (conveniently one American citizen and one British citizen); less conveniently, after the strike has been authorised a young girl sets up a bread stand in front of the house.

It’s a more complicated scenario than the serial drone strikes dramatized in Andrew Niccol‘s  Good Kill – because here the politicians are brought into the frame too – and David sees it as a twenty-first century version of the ‘trolley-problem’:

Eye in the SkyIn the classic version of the problem, a runaway train is hurtling down a track on which five people are tied; they will die if the train is not diverted. By pulling a lever, you can switch the train to an alternate track, but doing so will kill one person on that track. Should you pull the switch and be responsible for taking a human life, or do nothing and let five people die?

In Eye in the Sky, the question is whether to [use a drone to] strike the compound, thereby preventing an apparent terrorist attack and potentially saving many lives, though the strike itself might kill the young girl as well as the suspected terrorists. If the operation is delayed to try to avoid endangering the girl, the terrorists may leave the compound, and it may become impossible to prevent the suicide mission. But it’s also possible that the girl will finish selling her bread and leave the danger zone before the suspects depart. If the terrorists leave the compound, an opportunity to capture or kill them without harming others may arise. And of course, the suicide mission itself might fail. As a Danish proverb holds, predictions are hazardous, especially about the future. But a decision must nonetheless be made, and the clock is ticking.

As he points out, there’s no right, neat answer:

There are only competing intuitions, based on utilitarian calculations, the difference, or lack thereof, between act and omission, and the like. In Eye in the Sky, and all the more so in the real world, the choices are never as clearly delineated as in the “trolley problem”; decisions must be made in the face of multiple unknowns. The girl may die and the terrorists may get away and kill many more. But what the film makes clear is that, notwithstanding today’s most sophisticated technology, which allows us to see inside a compound in Africa from half a world away, to confirm positive identifications with facial imaging technology, to make joint real-time decision about life and death across several continents, and then to pinpoint a strike to reduce significantly the danger to innocent bystanders, the dilemmas remain. Technology cannot solve the moral and ethical issues; it only casts them into sharper relief.

Consider, for example, the implications of the purported accuracy of armed drones. The fact that it is possible to conduct “surgical” strikes and to maintain distance surveillance for extended periods of time increases the moral and legal obligation to avoid killing innocents. When the only way to counter an imminent threat was with more blunt explosives or by sending in ground forces, attacks entailing substantial harm to civilians were nonetheless sometimes warranted. As technology makes it increasingly feasible to strike with precision, risks to civilian lives that were once inescapable can now be avoided. And if they can be avoided, mustn’t they be? Thus, when President Barack Obama in May 2013 announced a standard for targeted killings away from traditional battlefields, he said he would authorize such strikes only when there was a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Precisely because they are so discriminating, drones may demand such a standard. Yet as the film shows, that standard can be very difficult to uphold, even under the best of circumstances.

Given my own interest in the film, I’ll share my thoughts as soon as I’ve seen it.

Note: In the most recent US strike against al-Shabab on 5 March, in which drones and conventional strike aircraft were used to kill perhaps 150 people (or perhaps not) at a training camp 120 miles north of Mogadishu, it seems clear that few doubts were entertained (but see Glenn Greenwald here).

Matters of definition

Since my post on the use of drones to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over Iraq and Syria I’ve been thinking about the image stream provided by Predators and Reapers.  Then I used an image from what I think must be an MQ-9 Reaper operated by France which was in full colour and – this is the important part – in high definition.  Over the weekend the New York Times published a report, culled from the Italian magazine L’Espresso, which – together with the accompanying video clip (the link is to the Italian original not the Times version) – confirmed the power of HD full motion video, this time from a Reaper operated by Italy:

The footage … begins with grainy black-and-white images of an airstrike on what appears to have been a checkpoint on a road in northern Iraq, beneath a huge black flag.

Then there is something altogether different: high-resolution, color video of four distinct armed figures walking out of a house and along the streets of a town. At one stage, the picture suddenly zooms in on two of the suspected militants to reveal that one of them is almost certainly a child, propping a rifle on his shoulder that indicates how small he is relative to the man next to him. The images are so clear that even the shadows of the figures can be examined.

Italian Drone video BItalian drone video CItalian drone video AItalian drone video DItalian drone video I

But the significance of all this is less straightforward than it might appear.

First, not all drones have this HD capability.  We know from investigations into civilian casualty incidents in Afghanistan that the feeds from Predators but also early model (‘Block’) Reapers are frequently grainy and imprecise.  Sean Davies reports that the video compression necessary for data transmission squeezed 560 x 480 pixel resolution images into 3.2 MBps at 30 frames per second whereas the newer (Block 5) Reapers provide 1280 x 720 pixel resolution images resolution images at 6.4 MBps.  The enhanced video feeds can be transmitted not only to the Ground Control Stations from which the aircraft are flown – and those too have been upgraded (see image below) – but also to operations centres monitoring the missions and, crucially, to ruggedized laptops (‘ROVERs’) used by special forces and other troops on the ground.

ground-control-stations

The significance of HD full-motion video is revealed in the slide below, taken from a briefing on ‘small footprint operations’ in Somalia and Yemen prepared in February 2013 and published as part of The Intercept‘s Drone Papers, which summarises its impact on the crucial middle stage of the ‘find, fix, finish‘ cycle of targeted killing:

HD FMV impact on Fix

As you can see, HD FMV was involved in as many as 72 per cent of the successful ‘fixes’ and was absent from 88 per cent of the unsuccessful ones.

Second, Eyal Weizman cautions that the image stream shown on the Italian video was captured ‘either very early or very late in the day.  Without shadows we could not identify these as weapons at all.’  Infra-red images captured at night could obviously not provide definition of this quality, but even so-called ‘Day TV’ would not show clear shadows at most times of the day. In Eyal’s view, ‘showing these rare instances could skew our understanding of how much can be seen by drones and how clear what we see is.’

Third, no matter how high the resolution of the video feeds, we need to remember that their interpretation is a techno-cultural process.  One of the figures shown in the Italian video ‘is almost certainly a child’, reports the New York Times.  So bear in mind this exchange between the crew of a Predator circling over three vehicles travelling through the mountains of Uruzgan in February 2010 (see also here and here):

1:07 􏰀(MC):􏰀 screener􏰀 said 􏰀at least 􏰀one 􏰀child 􏰀near 􏰀SUV􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Sensor):􏰀 bull􏰀 (expletive 􏰀deleted)…where!?􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Sensor): 􏰀send 􏰀me 􏰀a 􏰀(expletive􏰀deleted) 􏰀still,􏰀􏰀 I􏰀 don’t 􏰀think 􏰀they 􏰀have 􏰀kids 􏰀out 􏰀at 􏰀this 􏰀hour, 􏰀I 􏰀know􏰀 they’re 􏰀shady 􏰀but􏰀 come􏰀 on􏰀

1:07􏰀 (Pilot):􏰀 at 􏰀least 􏰀one 􏰀child…􏰀Really?􏰀 Listing 􏰀the􏰀 MAM [Military-Aged Male], 􏰀uh, 􏰀that 􏰀means 􏰀he’s 􏰀guilty􏰀

1:07􏰀 (Sensor):􏰀 well 􏰀may be􏰀 a 􏰀teenager 􏰀but 􏰀I 􏰀haven’t􏰀 seen􏰀 anything 􏰀that 􏰀looked 􏰀that 􏰀short, 􏰀granted 􏰀they’e􏰀 all 􏰀grouped 􏰀up 􏰀here,􏰀 but.􏰀..

1:07 􏰀(MC): 􏰀They’re 􏰀reviewing􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Pilot):􏰀Yeah 􏰀review 􏰀that􏰀 (expletive 􏰀deleted)…why􏰀 didn’t 􏰀he 􏰀say􏰀 possible􏰀 child,􏰀 why􏰀 are􏰀 they􏰀 so 􏰀quick􏰀 to 􏰀call 􏰀(expletive􏰀 deleted) 􏰀kids 􏰀but􏰀 not 􏰀to 􏰀call 􏰀(expletive􏰀deleted) 􏰀a 􏰀rifle􏰀….

03:10 􏰀(Pilot):􏰀 And 􏰀Kirk􏰀97, 􏰀good 􏰀copy􏰀 on􏰀 that.􏰀 We 􏰀are 􏰀with 􏰀you.􏰀 Our 􏰀screener􏰀 updated􏰀 only􏰀 one􏰀 adolescent 􏰀so 􏰀that’s 􏰀one􏰀 double 􏰀digit􏰀 age 􏰀range.􏰀 How􏰀 Copy?􏰀

03:10 􏰀(JAG25):􏰀We’ll􏰀 pass 􏰀that 􏰀along 􏰀to 􏰀the 􏰀ground 􏰀force􏰀 commander.􏰀 But 􏰀like 􏰀I 􏰀said, 􏰀12 􏰁13 􏰀years 􏰀old 􏰀with􏰀 a 􏰀weapon 􏰀is􏰀 just 􏰀as􏰀 dangerous.􏰀􏰀

In other words – it’s more than a matter of high definition; it’s also a matter of political and cultural definition.

The Drone Papers

Drone Papers header JPEG

The Intercept has released a new series of documents – not from Edward Snowden – that provide extraordinary details about the Obama administration’s targeted killing operations (especially in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia).

I haven’t had a chance to work through them yet – today is taken up with teaching and Eyal Weizman‘s visit for tonight’s Wall Exchange – but I imagine that readers who don’t already have their heads up will welcome a head’s up.

The reports include a considerable number of informative graphics (taken from briefing slides) together with analysis.  Here is the full list:

The Assassination Complex (by Jeremy Scahill)

A visual glossary (by Josh Begley)

The Kill Chain (by Jeremy Scahill)

Find, Fix, Finish (by Jeremy Scahill)

Manhunting in the Hindu Kush (by Ryan Devereaux)

Firing Blind (by Cora Currier and Peter Maass)

The Life and Death of Objective Peckham (by Ryan Gallagher)

Target Africa (by Nick Turse)

More to come when I’ve worked through the reports, slides and analyses.

Eyes opening

Eye in the sky JPEG

Guy Hibbert writes to say that Gavin Hood‘s Eye in the Sky has its world première at the Toronto International Film Festival later this month (see also my earlier post here).

A fascinating look at how our leaders wage war now, Eye in the Sky takes us into the control rooms and shipping containers where military personnel make decisions that could result in the deaths of people thousands of miles away. Featuring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Alan Rickman, the latest from Tsotsi director Gavin Hood is enormously pertinent and eerily entertaining.

The goal of British-led Operation Cobra is the capture of Aisha Al Hady (Lex King), a radicalized British citizen who has joined the Somali terrorist group Al Shabab. But their “capture” objective is changed to “kill” when the indomitable Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren), who has been tracking Al Hady for years, learns that Al Shabab is planning suicide attacks. Nevada-based drone operator Steve Watts (Paul) targets Al Shabab’s Nairobi safehouse but reports back to London that a nine-year-old girl has entered the kill zone. Given the value of the target, could a civilian child be chalked up to collateral damage? Is the potential political fallout worth the risk?

Written by Guy Hibbert with an unerring ear for military doublespeak, Eye in the Sky becomes blackly comic as the officers’ concern with optics sparks a protracted game of bureaucratic pass-the-buck, with everyone “referring up” the chain of command, through the UK Foreign Secretary (who has food poisoning) and the US Foreign Secretary (busy attending a ping pong tournament in China) all the way up to the Prime Minister. Shades of Dr. Strangelove abound — though, as with the Kubrick classic, Eye in the Sky is only as funny as it is because the truths it arrives at are so very grave and resonant.

Full details are here.

‘That others may die’

As I am (at last) moving into the finishing stages of my ‘Dirty Dancing’ essay on CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, it’s time to round up some of the latest work on drones and civilian casualties across multiple theatres.

tumblr_nhlv56QBGc1t8pecvo1_1280

First, Afghanistan: the principal theatre of US remote operations.  I’ve noted Larry Lewis‘s remarkable work before (here and here), based on classified sources, and in particular this claim (see also here):

Drone strikes in Afghanistan were seen to have close to the same number of civilian casualties per incident as manned aircraft, and were an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement.

usaf_mq_9_reaper_1024x1024As I said at the time, the distinction between an ‘incident’ and an ‘engagement’ is crucial, though most commentators who have seized on Larry’s work have ignored it and focused on the dramatic difference in civilian casualties per engagement. Despite my best efforts, the Pentagon were unwilling to clarify the difference, so here is what Larry himself has told me:

An engagement is probably intuitively what you would expect – the use of force against a target. The distinction is the term incident, which is borrowed from ISAF definitions. I should have said “civilian casualty incident.” This refers to an engagement that results in civilian casualties.

This means that, if you look at the collection of civilian casualty incidents, the average number of civilian casualties is close to the same for manned and unmanned platforms. At the same time, the rate of civilian casualties for the two platforms is markedly different, with unmanned platforms being ten times more likely to cause civilian casualties than manned platforms. That doesn’t mean that drones caused more civilian casualties than manned aircraft, by the way, since the denominators (number of engagements of manned aircraft versus drones) can and in fact were very different. But it does suggest that the relative risk of civilian casualties was higher for one kind of platform versus the other.

And this is in the specific context of Afghanistan and for a specific time. I wouldn’t want to say that this specific rate would be repeated, necessarily. Yet there were certain risk factors I observed in the civilian casualty incidents that I would expect to continue to be factors unless steps were taken to mitigate them.

Larry’s most recent report, Improving lethal action: learning and adapting in US Counterterrorism Operations, is available here.  It includes an analysis of the Uruzgan air strike that is central to my ‘Angry Eyes’ essay (next on my to-do list).

[The short clip above is from Baden Pailthorpe‘s stunning animation MQ-9 Reaper (That Others May Die) (2014) – you can find much more here]

You might think that all of this is now of historical interest since President Obama has declared the end of the Afghanistan war.  Not so.  Here is John Knefel writing in Rolling Stone this week:

Though many Americans may not have realized it, December 28th marked what the U.S. government called the official end of the war in Afghanistan. That war has been the longest in U.S. history – but despite the new announcement that the formal conflict is over, America’s war there is far from finished. In fact, the Obama administration still considers the Afghan theater an area of active hostilities, according to an email from a senior administration official – and therefore exempts it from the stricter drone and targeted killing guidelines the president announced at a major speech at the National Defense University in 2013.

“Afghanistan will continue to be considered an ‘area of active hostilities’ in 2015,” the official tells RS. “The PPG does not apply to areas of active hostilities.” (PPG stands for Presidential Policy Guidelines, the formal name for the heightened drone rules.)

That perplexing distinction – that formal combat operations are over but that the U.S. still remains in an armed conflict – in many ways exemplifies the lasting legacy of Obama’s foreign policy.

If you assume the situation in Pakistan is somehow less ambiguous, read Ryan Goodman on ‘areas of active hostilities’ over at Just Security here (I’m having to sort all this out for ‘Dirty Dancing’, of course).

Second, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has released its end-of-year report on US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in 2014, which includes these tabulations of casualty rates for the first two countries:

cas-rates-cia-pak-09-14

cas-rate-yemen-02-14

The Bureau comments:

While there have been more strikes [in Pakistan] in the past six years, the casualty rate has been lower under Obama than under his predecessor. The CIA killed eight people, on average, per strike during the Bush years. Under Obama, it is less than six. The civilian casualty rate is lower too – more than three civilians were reported killed per strike during the past presidency. Under Obama, less than one.  There were no confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistan in the past year, as in 2013….

The frequency of strikes [in Yemen] may have fallen in 2014 but more people were killed, on average, per strike than in any previous year.  The casualty rate for last year even outstrips 2012 – the bloodiest year recorded in the US’s drone campaign in Yemen when at least 173 people were reported killed in 29 strikes. In 2014 at least 82 people were reported to have died in just 13 strikes.

You can find the Long War Journal‘s tabulations for Pakistan here and Yemen here.

unammed-rogershillThird, Israel.  I’ve commented previously on an interview with an Israeli drone pilot, but it’s been difficult to put his observations in context (though see here and scroll down to the tabulations). Now Ann Rogers, who wrote Unmanned: drone warfare and global security (Pluto, 2014) with John Hill – as good an introduction to drone wars as you will find – has just released an essay on ‘Investigating the Relationship Between Drone Warfare and Civilian Casualties in Gaza‘.  It’s in a special issue of the open-access Journal of Strategic Security 7 (4) (2014) on ‘Future challenges in drone geopolitics’.  Here’s the abstract:

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are increasingly touted as ‘humanitarian’ weapons that contribute positively to fighting just wars and saving innocent lives. At the same time, civilian casualties have become the most visible and criticized aspect of drone warfare. It is argued here that drones contribute to civilian casualties not in spite of, but because of, their unique attributes. They greatly extend war across time and space, pulling more potential threats and targets into play over long periods, and because they are low-risk and highly accurate, they are more likely to be used. The assumption that drones save lives obscures a new turn in strategic thinking that sees states such as Israel and the US rely on large numbers of small, highly discriminating attacks applied over time to achieve their objectives. This examination of Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza argues that civilian casualties are not an unexpected or unintended consequence of drone warfare, but an entirely predictable outcome.

Drone-flying-above-me-Friday-afternoon-400-x-300It’s an interesting essay, but I fear that it takes the Israeli military at its word.  Ann repeatedly refers to Israel’s ‘discriminating’ targeting:

‘The central point is that drones enabled the IDF to undertake detailed, extensive, and discriminating targeting of Gaza, before and during the actual fighting. The killing of civilians may be down to differing interpretations of military necessity, or in some cases, in how combatants and non-combatants are distinguished from one another. But it is the drone gaze that enables these targets to be ‘called into being’ (p. 102)…

‘As Israeli targeting of Gaza appears to have been highly discriminating, a more serious problem may lie in how its view of legitimate attacks differs from the global “norm.” (p. 104).’

I commented on Israeli attacks on hospitals and ambulances last summer here, here and here, and on the wholesale destruction of  Gaza here and here, so I confess I am at a loss for words.  But she is right to emphasise the operative power of international humanitarian law and its protocols of distinction (discrimination) and proportionality – though, as often as not, these seem to have been inoperative in anything other than a rhetorical sense.  For much more on this, and the way in which military lawyers are incorporated into Israel’s kill-chains, you should click across to Craig Jones‘s War, Law and Space.  All of which makes the Palestinian decision to seek membership of the International Criminal Court all the more important (there’s a good commentary on the wider legal issues by David Luban at Jus Security here and by a clutch of commentators at the Middle East Research and Information Project‘s blog here).  Perhaps not surprisingly, Daniel Reisner, the former head of the Israeli military’s International Law Department, has condemned the Palestinian application as ‘a belligerent act within the framework of the non-physical and kinetic world of lawfare.’

Finally, the US-led air strikes on IS/ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria.  Here we know much less than we should, not least because the Pentagon knows much less than it should.  Here is Nancy Youssef reporting earlier this week:

In a war fought largely from the air and in places no one can safely go, the impact is as opaque as the war itself, making it difficult to measure whether the U.S. and coalition effort is working.

“We don’t have the ability to count the nose of every guy we schwack,” as Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, using military jargon [sic] for killing. “That’s not the goal.”

Presumably, that also means the Pentagon can’t count how many civilians it has accidentally killed in the name of ridding the region of ISIS.

Drone Wars UK has an excellent survey of the logistics of air operations over Iraq and Syria from Chris Cole here, and the New York Times has produced a useful interactive map of US-led air strikes from which I’ve snipped this summary:

Iraq:Syria air strikes 4 August to 31 December 2014

We don’t know how many of these were carried out by drones or even orchestrated by them, but as their limitations are becoming clearer it’s reasonable to assume that most involved conventional strike aircraft.  We do know that targeting involves the analysis of video feeds from both remote and conventional platforms, and that CENTCOM has had considerable difficulty in juggling the competing demands for ISR from Afghanistan and from Iraq/Syria.

According to a report this week from W.J. Hennigan, who visited the USAF’s 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia:

In a vast windowless room, several dozen intelligence analysts worked under the glow of more than 100 computer screens, quietly studying video streaming from U.S. drones and spy planes hunting for Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

One team searched the incoming video to find a firefight underway between Iraqi security forces and militants somewhere south of the insurgent-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq.

For four hours, the analysts pored over the imagery before identifying 20 positions where the militants were dug in with machine guns and other weaponry. After the analysts called in the coordinates, 15 jets from five countries pounded the targets with more than two dozen bombs.

The Dec. 5 airstrike, one of 462 last month, underscores the Pentagon’s increased reliance on personnel far from the battlefield…  Air Force analysts here stand — or rather sit — on the virtual front lines by tracking Islamic State fighters in a war zone some 6,000 miles away.

But here’s the rub:

Unlike in past wars, when U.S. troops on the ground helped provide targeting information and intelligence, commanders in the battle against Islamic State rely chiefly on airborne surveillance, captured communications chatter, signals intelligence and other material that is processed by analysts here.

U.S. officers said the video-watching analysts working half a world away are no match for spotters and other troops feeding intelligence from the front lines.

“We don’t have anywhere near the level of intelligence we used to,” Lt. Col. Marc Spinuzzi, a senior intelligence officer, wrote in an email from Baghdad. The analysts are under “a lot of pressure … to clearly distinguish friend from foe, and to pick out the enemy from the civilian population” on the battlefield.

That is precisely how mistakes are made and civilians killed.  And, as Robert Naiman pointed out,

“There is a big danger here that U.S. air strikes in Syria are going to resemble the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in the sense that there is no accountability for who is killed. We have reports of civilian casualties from people in the area and the U.S. government says, ‘No, they are bad guys.’ There has to be some public accountability for what happens when there are allegations of civilian casualties.”

At least the Pentagon has now gone some way towards recognising the problem.  Previously it had insisted that it was unaware of any civilian casualties, which is disingenuous: it beggars belief that 1,000 air strikes could have resulted in no civilian casualties – but if your ISR is inadequate it’s scarcely surprising that you would be ‘unaware’ of the consequences.  Even so, on 6 January the Pentagon announced that it had investigated 18 allegations of coalition airstrikes causing civilian casualties between 8 August and 30 December.  It determined that 13 were ‘not credible’, but was continuing to review three others; a further two, one in Iraq and one in Syria, are now the subject of formal military investigations.  But before you gold your breath, both Iraq and Syria are also exempt from the Presidential Policy Guidelines that require a ‘near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’.  Here is Harold Koh (really):

‘They seem to be creating this grey zone…  If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value.’

Drones, battlefields and later modern war

STIMSON Drone report 2014

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 Times here 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.’

Targeting cycle

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).’

cover_646That 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.’

0202megret0

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.

Mapping violent conflict

The Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research has published its Conflict Barometer for 2013:

Violent conflicts 2013 HEIDELBERG

The full report can be downloaded here; it includes a detailed explanation of methodology and sources, many more maps, and a series of detailed regional surveys.

There are, of course, many other projects that attempt to monitor the macro-geography of armed conflict that also make their databases available for research, including the Correlates of War project (data from 1816 on), the Armed Conflict Dataset maintained by UCDP/PRIO (see also here; data from 1946 on) – both these are global – and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) which provides a much more detailed, sub-regional mapping and claims to be ‘the most comprehensive public collection of political violence data for developing states.’  I’ve pasted an example of their sub-regional mapping below; the original is here, along with others for the DRC and Zimbabwe, while maps plotting the activities of Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army and other conflicts are available here and here.

ACLED_Infographic_Al-Shabaab-Activity-Map-721x1024

I also greatly admire the Event Data on Conflict and Security (EDACS) produced by Sven Chojnacki and his colleagues in Berlin, and the disaggregated analyses they provide.  Like ACLED, this also includes a remarkably detailed time-space analysis of violence in Somalia:

CHOJNACKI Somalia

You can find out more about the project from the special issue of International Interactions 38: 4 (2012) on Event Data in the Study of Conflict.