The twitter of drones

BAFANA Tweet Drone strike in YemenBack in May the Bureau of Investigative Journalism described how local activists were using Twitter and other social media platforms to spread the news of US drone strikes in Yemen.  Haykal Bafana, a lawyer living in San’a, the capital of Yemen, kept up a barrage of tweets recording the ‘covert’ strikes in near real-time, which were then amplified through Facebook and micro-news platforms in the region. You can follow him here.

Haykal Bafana

This is all of a piece with the incorporation of social media into the conduct of late modern war that was evident during Israel’s recent attack on Gaza and, as Noel Sharkey told the Bureau,

‘It is incredible how the same type of technology used by the CIA to kill people with drones in the Yemen, is empowering the Yemenis to tweet the attacks as they are happening. They can send us all pictures and bring us closer to the horror they are experiencing. Technology in the small may eventually bring down the over-use of military technology in the large.’

Josh BegleyDrone strikes are certainly now being made visible across a range of social media platforms, and now comes news – from the wonderful Jorge Amigo – that Josh Begley (whose Drones+ app was serially rejected by Apple) has started tweeting what Jake Heller calls ‘the entire history of US drone strikes’ in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as part of a graduate class at NYU, Narrative Lab, which focuses on ‘the impact of interactivity and technology on traditional narrative structure’.  Begley told Heller that, for him, ‘it’s about the way stories are told on new social-media platforms.’


How complete the data series can be is an open question – and the rhetorical impact would be even more devastating if Afghanistan were included – but as you can see from my screen grab above Begley, who started at noon on Tuesday 11 December, tweeted that after twelve hours ‘we’re only at March 2010’…  Follow him at Dronestream here.  And, as Connor Simpson at the Atlantic Wire commented, ‘if this project doesn’t merit an A, we would love to see one that does.’

The politics of drone wars

I’m in the UK this week for – amongst other things – a seminar with Pete Adey, Sara Fregonese and some of the Geopolitics and Security students at Royal Holloway on my bombing project, Killing space; a workshop at Open Democracy for a new series on Cities in Conflict to be curated by Tom Cowan; and a lecture at Nottingham organised by Steve Legg: another outing for “Deadly Embrace”.

At the RHUL meeting the conversation frequently turned to drones; Pete made an audio recording of it, and I think at least part of what we discussed will appear on the Theory, culture & society website in the near future.  But I’d like to try to set out some of my own puzzlements and positions about the politics of drones here.

There are many ways in which individuals can take a stand against war, and there is a long and principled tradition of conscientious objection that includes pacifists in two World Wars through young Americans who resisted the draft in the 1960s and 70s to high school students in Israel who refuse to serve in the army of occupation.  In recent times most popular mobilisations against war have been against particular wars – I’m thinking of the demonstrations against the wars in S.E. Asia in the 60s and 70s, for example, or the millions of people who took to the streets to express their opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – or against particular objects of violence: campaigns to ban land mines or cluster munitions, for example.  To me, the most effective political response to the use of Predators, Reapers and other UAVs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere is to move between the two: to use the drone to draw publics into an apprehension of the wider fields of military violence in which they are deployed.

Global Hawk imagery of aftermath of Haiti earthquakeI think it is a mistake to focus on the object itself because, like all objects, a drone is highly unstable: it’s not a fixed, determinate ‘thing’ but its capacities and dispositions depend on the network or assemblage in which it is embedded. To see what I mean, begin by stripping the bombs and the missiles from these platforms: at present most drones are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and these capabilities extend far beyond the domain of offensive operations and even beyond those of the military.  In 2010 US Southern Command used a Global Hawk to provide detailed imagery of the damage caused by the Haiti earthquake (above) and the following year another Global Hawk was deployed to assess the damage to the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan; other, smaller and far less sophisticated drones have been used to monitor wildfires in California and to track and disrupt Japanese whaling fleets, while a series of other, broadly ecological-humanitarian projects have been proposed with varying degrees of plausibility.  I don’t rehearse these other possibilities to minimise the military and paramilitary uses of the technology – and we surely know, not least from Nick Turse‘s account in The Complex, that the military and the civilian have become ever more hopelessly entangled with one another – and neither am I indifferent to the blurring of military power and NGO relief operations in the humanitarian present,  but we need to acknowledge, to paraphrase Clive Barnett, that not all ISR operations are sinister: ‘presumptively illegitimate, undemocratic or suspect‘.

Dwell Detect Destroy drone ad

Hellfire missile launch (USAF)This is why Drone Wars UK focuses on ‘armed drones’ and Drones Watch on ‘killer drones’.  It’s clear that militarised ISR is part of a continued ‘rush to the intimate’ that is profoundly invasive and, on many occasions, extraordinarily violent. In Afghanistan the US military embeds its UAVs in a networked kill-chain in which their near real-time, high-resolution, full-motion video feeds are routinely used to call in attacks from conventional strike aircraft.  So let’s now put the bombs and missiles back on these platforms, since the Predators and Reapers are usually armed and their manufacturers boast about their capacity to compress the kill-chain: to ‘dwell, detect [and] destroy’. But it then makes no sense to object to the strikes carried out directly from them and to exempt those carried out by conventional means across the network: what is the difference between a Hellfire missile launched from a Reaper and one fired from an Apache helicopter gunship?  (To put this in perspective, according to the most recent airpower summary, USAF Predators and Reapers directly accounted for just 5-6 per cent of its ‘weapons releases’ in Afghanistan in 2009, 2010, and 2011, though the proportion climbed to 9.25 per cent in the first ten months of 2012).

Medea BENJAMIN Drone WarfareTo answer that question critics usually cite the horror of death at a distance.  This is death from thousands of miles away, conducted by operators in the continental United States: ‘killing by remote control’.  And yet there are countless other ways in which militaries have been killing from ever increasing distances ever since the invention of the slingshot and the longbow. If you insist that it is wrong to kill somebody from 7,500 miles away, then over what distance do you think it is acceptable?  If you are determined to absolutize distance in this way, then don’t you need to consider all the other ways in which advanced militaries are able to kill their adversaries (and civilians) without ever seeing them? Again, I don’t raise the spectre of Cruise missiles launched from ships hundreds of miles from their targets, the US ‘Prompt Global Strike’ capability and its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon which is ultimately  intended to hit a target anywhere on the planet in under an hour, or the prospect of ‘frictionless’ cyberwarfare, to minimise the deaths caused by drones.  I simply want our politics to apprehend the larger field of military violence in which they are deployed.

And there is something different about those deaths that draws us back into the killing fields.  I should say at once that I don’t think this is simply war reduced to a video-game – and in any case there are many other military technologies that also depend on hand-eye co-ordination, multi-tasking and spatial acuity, all skill-sets valorized by video-games – but I also think it a mistake to assume that the screen effectively insulates the viewer from the victim.  In this sense there is a parallel between the platforms, because video-games are profoundly immersive, and those who call in or carry out these strikes insist that they are not 7,500 miles from their targets at all (and Launch & Recovery crews are much closer than that) but ‘eighteen inches away’: the distance from eye to screen.  It’s a highly selective process of compression; as I’ve shown in detail in Lines of descent (DOWNLOADS tab), those involved in the remote kill-chain typically feel remarkably close to their own troops on the ground and remain distant from the life-worlds of the population at large (which in part accounts for the civilian casualties when drones are used to provide close air support).  But unlike most other forms of distant death and destruction, the pilots, sensor operators and others who are networked into these kill-chains can see their targets up close – even if their ‘seeing’ is techno-culturally conditioned and often predisposes them to treat innocent actions as hostile intentions – and they typically remain on station to carry out a ‘bomb damage assessment’ and so see for themselves, often in hideous detail, what they have done.

Flying an MQ-9 Reaper over Kandahar, Afghanistan

The most consequential change is that these new modes of air power deal not in the area bombing of cities like Cologne, Hamburg or Dresden, or the blind bombing of target boxes over the rainforests of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but – in addition to close air support – in the calculated assassination of individuals or groups: so-called ‘targeted killing‘ or what the USAF calls putting ‘warheads on foreheads‘.  This does not mean that the firebombing of cities in the Second World War should become the moral standard against which we judge contemporary military violence. On the contrary, targeted killing raises its own grave legal and ethical questions – and, not incidentally, those video feeds have given military lawyers a pivotal role in these newly networked strikes – that in turn activate two other no less serious concerns about the emergent geographies of fields of military violence.

First is the fear that the use of remote platforms lowers the threshold at which military violence will be launched.  Predators and Reapers are much cheaper than conventional strike aircraft, and if there are no troops on the ground, there are no body bags to come home.  In short, drone war threatens to become risk-transfer war hypostatised; the risk is transferred wholly to the adversary population.  But at present these platforms have high failure rates – they are vulnerable to weather conditions (and I don’t mean hurricanes and monsoons, I mean clouds), they crash all too frequently and they are so slow and noisy that they can easily be shot down so they can only be used in uncontested airspace.  These limitations mean that, at present at any rate, they are less likely to incite conventional state-on-state war – though there is certainly a global arms race to acquire and develop far more advanced drone technologies.

Second and closely connected is the fear that they make it much easier to engage in war by stealth.  If one of the primary foreign policy challenges of the last Bush administration was ‘conducting war in countries we are not at war with‘, Obama’s version is the determination to wage what Martin Libicki calls ‘non-obvious warfare’: hence the Obama administration’s preference for remote operations, Special Forces and cyber-attacks.  To be sure, there are degrees of obviousness: the drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere are hardly covert – since they are hidden in plain sight – but they are, within limits, more deniable than the deployment of thousands of ground troops and so inherently less accountable to the various publics involved in them.  And in all these cases Predators and Reapers dramatically heighten the asymmetry involved in military and paramilitary operations against non-state actors, where they have made a policy of ‘kill’ rather than ‘capture’ a much more tempting (and much more pernicious) US counter-terrorism strategy.

More to come.

Drone’s eye view

I expect many readers will remember  that Apple rejected NYU grad student Josh Begley‘s Drones+ app last August.  It did so three times and for a multiplicity of confusing – and frankly shifty – reasons.  Apparently it was neither ‘useful’ nor ‘entertaining’; then it presented ‘excessively objectionable’ content (something to take up with the Pentagon and the CIA, surely?). As Danger Room explained, the app was bare bones stuff:

When a drone strike occurs, Drones+ catalogs it, and presents a map of the area where the strike took place, marked by a pushpin. You can click through to media reports of a given strike that the Bureau of Investigative Reporting compiles, as well as some basic facts about whom the media thinks the strike targeted.

All the more ironic, really, since the US military makes extensive use of smart phone technology – including its own (restricted) apps for the iPhone.  More on that here and here and here.

But for the past several weeks James Bridle – of New Aesthetic fame – has been posting satellite images of the distant places where drone strikes are recorded by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to Instagram: and, as the image below shows, you can view these on your iPhone…

There are, of course, difficulties in pinpointing the locations of drone strikes– and James is evidently very well aware of them – but on his Dronestagram website he explains his desire to convert abstract targets into physical places in terms that resonate beautifully with the arguments I’m trying to develop in Deadly embrace:

The political and practical possibilities of drone strikes are the consequence of invisible, distancing technologies, and a technologically-disengaged media and society. Foreign wars and foreign bodies have always counted for less, but the technology that was supposed to bring us closer together is used to obscure and obfuscate. We use military technologies like GPS and Kinect for work and play; they continue to be used militarily to maim and kill, ever further away and ever less visibly.

Yet at the same time we are attempting to build a 1:1 map of the world through satellite and surveillance technologies, that does allow us to see these landscapes, should we choose to go there. These technologies are not just for “organising” information, they are also for revealing it, for telling us something new about the world around us, rendering it more clearly.

History, like space, is coproduced by us and our technologies: those technologies include satellite mapping, social photo sharing from handheld devices, and fleets of flying death robots. We should engage with them at every level. These are just images of foreign landscapes, still; yet we have got better at immediacy and intimacy online: perhaps we can be better at empathy too.

You can follow the images here and in much more detail via tumblr here.  More information here.

This comes at an opportune moment since I’ve been talking this week with Susan Schuppli and Eyal Weizman at Forensic Architecture about a collaborative, interactive project to bring together all the available data on drone strikes.

Targeted killings and signature strikes

And so what Tom Junod calls the lethal presidency continues…  though it surely would have done whoever occupied the White House for the next four years.

Much of the discussion of US targeted killing has centred on both its status under international law and on the quasi-judicial armature through which various government agencies, including the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, draw up and adjudicate their kill lists of named individuals who are liable to a ‘personality strike’. But the majority of US targeted killings turn out to be ‘signature strikes’.

Signature strikes were initiated under President George W. Bush, who authorised more permissive rules of engagement in January/February 2008.  According to Eric Schmitt and David Sanger, writing in the New York Times,

[A] series of meetings among President Bush’s national security advisers resulted in a significant relaxation of the rules under which American forces could aim attacks at suspected Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the tribal areas near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

The change, described by senior American and Pakistani officials who would not speak for attribution because of the classified nature of the program, allows American military commanders greater leeway to choose from what one official who took part in the debate called “a Chinese menu” of strike options.

Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance, so long as the risk of civilian casualties is judged to be low.

Under Obama signature strikes increased in frequency, and Micah Zenko notes that the President’s initial reluctance soon yielded to endorsement:

According to Daniel Klaidman, when Obama was first made aware of signature strikes, the CIA’s deputy director clarified: “Mr. President, we can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don’t necessarily know who they are.” Obama reacted sharply, “That’s not good enough for me.” According to one adviser describing the president’s unease: “‘He would squirm … he didn’t like the idea of kill ‘em and sort it out later.’” Like other controversial counterterrorism policies inherited by Obama, it did end up “good enough,” since he allowed the practice to stand in Pakistan, and in April authorized the CIA and JSOC to conduct signature strikes in Yemen as well.

Today signature strikes are frequently triggered not on the fly – a sudden response to an imminent threat – but by a sustained ‘pattern of life’ that arouses the suspicion of distant observers and operators. This depends on persistent surveillance – on full motion video feeds and a suite of algorithms that decompose individual traces and networks – some of which involve a weaponized version of Hägerstrand’s time-geography: see, for example, GeoTime 5 here.

We know even less about the legal authority for these attacks, but Kevin Jon Heller has a new essay on their legality up at the wonderful open access resource that is SSRN [Social Science Research Network]  here, and there are preliminary responses at Opinio Juris here.  This is the abstract:

The vast majority of drone attacks conducted by the U.S. have been signature strikes – strikes that target “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.” In 2010, for example, Reuters reported that of the 500 “militants” killed by drones between 2008 and 2010, only 8% were the kind “top-tier militant targets” or “mid-to-high-level organizers” whose identities could have been known prior to being killed. Similarly, in 2011, a U.S. official revealed that the U.S. had killed “twice as many ‘wanted terrorists’ in signature strikes than in personality strikes.” 

Despite the U.S.’s intense reliance on signature strikes, scholars have paid almost no attention to their legality under international law. This article attempts to fill that lacuna. Section I explains why a signature strike must be justified under either international humanitarian law (IHL) or international human rights law (IHRL) even if the strike was a legitimate act of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Section II explores the legality of signature strikes under IHL. It concludes that although some signature strikes clearly comply with the principle of distinction, others either violate that principle as a matter of law or require evidence concerning the target that the U.S. is unlikely to have prior to the attack. Section III then provides a similar analysis for IHRL, concluding that most of the signature strikes permitted by IHL – though certainly not all – would violate IHRL’s insistence that individuals cannot be arbitrarily deprived of their right to life.

The most interesting section (for me) is Kevin’s discussion of ‘evidentiary adequacy’.  Most of the examples he discusses appear to be derived from CIA-directed strikes in Pakistan – drawing on the Stanford/NYU report on Living under drones – and, for that very reason, are remarkably limited. But we know much more about problems of evidence – and inference – from strikes conducted by the US military in Afghanistan…

The first point to make, then, is that targeted killings are also carried out by the US military – indeed, the US Air Force has advertised its ability to put ‘warheads on foreheads‘ – and a strategic research report written by Colonel James Garrett for the US Army provides a rare insight into the process followed by the military in operationalising its Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL). Wikileaks has provided further information about JSOC’s Task Force 373 – see, for example, here and here – but the focus of Garrett’s 2008 report is the application of the legal principles of necessity and proportionality (two vital principles in the calculus of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) discussed by Kevin) in counterinsurgency operations.  Garrett describes ‘time-sensitive targeting procedures’ used by the Joint Targeting Working Group to order air strikes on ‘high-value’ Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, summarised in this diagram:

Notice that the members included representatives from both Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) and the CIA (‘Other Government Agency’, OGA).  This matters because Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) – once commanded by General Stanley McChrystal – and the CIA, even though they have their own ‘kill lists’, often co-operate in targeted killings and are both involved in strikes outside Afghanistan.  Indeed, there have been persistent reports that many of the drone strikes in Pakistan attributed to the CIA – even if directed by the agency – have been carried out by JSOC.  Here is Jeremy Scahill citing a ‘military intelligence source’:

“Some of these strikes are attributed to OGA [Other Government Agency, intelligence parlance for the CIA], but in reality it’s JSOC and their parallel program of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] because they also have access to UAVs. So when you see some of these hits, especially the ones with high civilian casualties, those are almost always JSOC strikes.”

Garrett’s discussion clearly refers to ‘personality strikes’, but – second – the distinction between the evidential/inferential apparatus used for a ‘personality strike’ and for a ‘signature strike’ is by no means clear-cut.  Kate Clark‘s report for the Afghan Analysts Network describes the attempted killing of Muhammad Amin, the Taliban deputy shadow governor of Takhar province.  On 2 September 2010 ISAF announced that a ‘precision air strike’ earlier that morning had killed him and ‘nine other militants’.  The target had been under persistent surveillance from remote platforms – what Petraeus later called ‘days and days of the unblinking eye’ – until two strike aircraft repeatedly bombed the convoy in which he was travelling.  Two attack helicopters were then ‘authorized to re-engage’ the survivors. The victim was not the designated target, however, but Zabet Amanullah, the election agent for a parliamentary candidate; nine other campaign workers died with him. Clark’s painstaking analysis clearly shows that one man had been mistaken for the other, which she attributed to an over-reliance on ‘technical data’ – on remote signatures.  Special Forces had concentrated on tracking cell phone usage and constructing social networks. ‘We were not tracking the names,’ she was told, ‘we were targeting the telephones.’

This is unlikely to be an isolated incident.  Here for example is Gareth Porter:

‘…the link analysis methodology employed by intelligence analysis is incapable of qualitative distinctions among relationships depicted on their maps of links among “nodes.” It operates exclusively on quantitative data – in this case, the number of phone calls to or visits made to an existing JPEL target or to other numbers in touch with that target. The inevitable result is that more numbers of phones held by civilian noncombatants show up on the charts of insurgent networks. If the phone records show multiple links to numbers already on the “kill/capture” list, the individual is likely to be added to the list.’

In the Takhar case, despite informed protests to the contrary, ISAF insisted that they had killed their intended target (added emphases are mine):

PBS/Frontline screened a Stephen Grey/Dan Edge documentary on the Takhar incident last year, Kill/Capture, from which the images below are taken (reworked for my presentation on Lines of descent) and which, like Kate Clark’s remarkable report on which it drew, gave the lie to the ISAF statement; the film included an Afghan Police video of the aftermath of the attack: more here, video here, and transcript here.

Finally, there is a persistent propensity to read hostile intent into innocent actions. In ‘From a view to a kill’ (DOWNLOADS tab) I describe in detail an attack launched on 21 October 2010 near Shahidi Hassas in Uruzgan province in central Afghanistan.  In the early morning a Predator was tasked to track three vehicles travelling down a mountain road, several miles away from a Special Forces unit moving in to search a village for an IED factory.

The Predator crew in Nevada had radio contact with the Special Forces Joint Terminal Attack Controller and they were online with image analysts at the Air Force’s Special Operations Command headquarters in Florida. At every turn the flight crew converted their observations into threat indicators: thus the two SUVs and a pick-up truck became a ‘convoy’, cylindrical objects ‘rifles’, adolescents ‘military-aged males’ and praying a Taliban signifier (‘seriously, that’s what they do’).

After three hours’ surveillance two Kiowa helicopters were called in, and during the attack at least 23 people were killed and more than a dozen wounded.  Only after the smoke had cleared did the horrified Predator crew re-cognize the victims as civilians, including women and children.

I’m including a much fuller account in The everywhere war, based on a close reading of the redacted investigative report by Major General Timothy McHale released under a FOI request (the images above are all taken from my Keynote presentation based on the report), and you can also find David McCloud‘s spine-chilling analysis for the LA Times here.  But even in this abbreviated form it’s clear that the cascade of (mis)interpretations offered by the flight crew mimics Kevin’s list of ‘signatures’, where some would be categorised as ‘possibly adequate’ and others as ‘inadequate’.

All of these materials relate to air strikes inside a war zone, so that their modalities are different – in Afghanistan remote platforms like the Predator and the Reaper are one element in a networked ‘killing machine’, and they work in close concert with ground forces and conventional strike aircraft – and the legal parameters are not as contentious as those that govern ‘extra-territorial’ strikes in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen (which are Kevin’s primary concern).  But they all raise questions about the evidential and inferential practices that are incorporated into the kill-chain that are clearly capable of wider application and concern.

Those questions raise other issues too.  It seems clear, from the examples I’ve given, that to isolate a single platform (the drone) is to contract the scrutiny of military and paramilitary violence that, under the conditions of late modern war, is typically networked.  And to determine the legal status of targeted killing must not foreclose on wider political and ethical decisions: to accept late modern war’s avowed reflexivity is too often to equate legality with legitimacy.

Droning on

Here’s a selection of recent reports on drone strikes from around the web plus commentary:

Craig Whitlock completes the Washington Post‘s three-part series on ‘Permanent War’ – started by Greg Miller‘s report on the US ‘disposition matrix‘ for targeted killing – with a remarkable account of what he calls ‘the US military’s first permanent drone war base’ at Camp Lemonnier, just (barely) outside Djibouti City.  It’s ‘the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone’, from which Predators are launched around the clock, sixteen times a day, to conduct missions in Somalia and Yemen.  Nominally overseen by US Africa Command (AFRICOM) – ‘the primary base of operations for US Africa Command in the Horn of Africa‘ – Whitlock mades it clear that it’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that calls the shots.  What is remarkable about Whitlock’s report is his artful piecing together of a jigsaw of information from construction solicitations, contracts and plans, submissions to Congress, planning memoranda, Air Force journals, and Predator accident investigation reports, some in the public domain and countless others obtained through FOI requests.  More on drone wars in East Africa from Somalia Report (which also provided the image of Camp Lemonnier below) and on what David Axe calls ‘America’s secret drone war in Africa’ from Wired‘s Danger Room.

Alex Kane at Mondoweiss reprises the Columbia report on Counting Drone Strike Deaths issued earlier this month – which is sharply critical of the estimates of civilian casualties in Pakistan reported by both the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal and endorses those provided by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – and then follows up with an interview with Naureen Shah, Acting Director of the Human Rights Clinic and the Associate Director of the Counter-terrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia:

… all of these estimates, including our estimate, are just based on news reports, news reports filed in that region where journalists have very limited access to the scene of the crime, if you will.

It’s not like journalists, for the most part, are going to where the drone strike happened and talking to witnesses, doing a bit of, almost a forensic analysis, being able to see what happened with their own eyes. This [Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas] is a region where few journalists, even Pakistani journalists, can really get there. We’re talking about media reports that are often based on the word of anonymous, Pakistani government officials who have an interest in telling a story of, “drone strikes kill only militants.” We’re not going to see anonymous government officials admitting that many of the people killed are civilians. So it’s a stacked deck.’

All true.  But there is a striking geographical absence from the kerfuffle over civilian casualties caused by drone strikes: Afghanistan.  The situation there is no less fraught: as the map below shows, journalists in Afghanistan also work in highly dangerous circumstances. (More on the map here and more from the Committee to Protect Journalists here).

The politico-technical matrix is also more complicated: in Afghanistan Predators and Reapers are part of an extended network in which aircraft are linked to ground forces and through which remote operators carry out persistent surveillance while, on occasion, leaving attacks to conventional strike aircraft (though they certainly also launch them from their own platforms too).  This makes it more difficult to disentangle drones from the wider apparatus of military violence – but why on earth should they be?  Afghanistan is part of a recognised ‘war zone’ – but does that make civilian casualties there any less grievable than those that take place across the border?

In the Mondoweiss interview Shah draws attention to the perpetual fear induced by the persistent presence of the drones:

We’re talking about planes hovering over head for hours every single day, and really the casualty of that, the human casualty, is peace of mind for the people who live there. We see reports that parents don’t want to send their kids out to school, that people don’t know what’s going to get them killed by a drone strike. Imagine living in that kind of fear, and we’re talking about communities that are already ravaged by war.

For more on this, turn to UK-based Medact’s report on Drones: the physical and psychological implications of a global theatre of war, also issued earlier this month.  Free download here.

Women are disproportionately affected by drones. What little control they have over their lives is further eroded by a weapon they know could strike at any time. Their lives and those of the children they try to protect are under constant threat. While men can sublimate their grief and anger to some degree by becoming fighters – one of the terrible consequences of drone warfare – women have no such outlet. And if their menfolk are killed in a drone strike, they may have to endure the continuing presence of the drone just overhead.

The report is a survey of surveys, short and to the point, but it adds a British dimension to the debate – important at a time when the RAF is doubling its Reaper fleet and moving control from Creech AFB in Nevada to RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire – and too briefly brings Israel’s use of drones in Gaza into the general discussion.  That last point desperately needs to be sharpened, given the global prominence of the Israeli drone industry and the filiations between US and Israeli practices of targeted killing.  Another depressing blank on the drone debate map.

(I hadn’t heard of Medact before, but it claims to speak out ‘for countless people across the globe whose health, wellbeing and access to proper health care are severely compromised by the effects of war, poverty and environmental damage’, and it’s associated with the journal Medicine, conflict and survival – a source which deserves close attention).

Haymarket Books has just published (pb and e-book versions) a collection of Nick Turse‘s columns on drones and Obama’s other signature modes of warfare, The changing face of empire: see here for an adapted version of the conclusion (extract below) and here for the book.

Several times this year, [General Martin Dempsey], the other joint chiefs, and regional war-fighting commanders have assembled at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico to conduct a futuristic war-game-meets-academic-seminar about the needs of the military in 2017. There, a giant map of the world, larger than a basketball court, was laid out so the Pentagon’s top brass could shuffle around the planet — provided they wore those scuff-preventing shoe covers — as they thought about “potential U.S. national military vulnerabilities in future conflicts” (so one participant told the New York Times). The sight of those generals with the world underfoot was a fitting image for Washington’s military ambitions, its penchant for foreign interventions, and its contempt for (non-U.S.) borders and national sovereignty.

And lastly, on an almost lighter note, Teo Ballvé at Territorial Masquerades has an artful post on ‘Writing like a drone’.  Following up on the ‘New Aesthetic‘, he describes a robotic graffiti writer that can write text massages ‘on such high risk/high profile targets as the U.S. Capitol Building’ and ‘can be deployed in any highly controlled space or public event from a remote location.’  It’s the remoteness that presumably prompts Teo to call this a ‘graffiti drone’, but there are two other (remote) connections to the real thing.

The project comes from the Institute for Applied Autonomy, which also hosts Trevor Paglen‘s captivating (sic) Terminal Air, a satirical version of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition flights –  the ‘capture’ side of the kill/capture regime that uses drones for the ‘kill’.

Former US Ambassador Kurt Volker adds a gloss to this in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post following up the ‘Permanent War’ reports:

More people have been killed in U.S. drone attacks than were ever incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. Can we be certain there were no cases of mistaken identity or innocent deaths? Those detained at Guantanamo at least had a chance to establish their identities, to be reviewed by an oversight panel and, in most cases, to be released. Those who remain at Guantanamo have been vetted and will ultimately face some form of legal proceeding. Those killed in drone strikes, whoever they were, are gone. Period.

What he doesn’t quite say is that most of those incarcerated at Guantanamo were, on the US government’s own admission, never al Qaeda fighters.  More on the implications of these intelligence failures for the US targeted killing programme from the Stanford/NYU report on Living under drones here (scroll down).

Finally, back to Theo’s ‘graffiti drone’:  one of several synonyms for graffiti writing – particularly at night – is bombing…