Civil(ian) wars in Yemen

It’s not easy to keep track of the intensifying civil war/proxy war in Yemen, but the New York Times has published a series of maps – including the one below – that sketch out some of the contours of violence.

Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen to April 2015

Not surprisingly, the Saudi-led air strikes (‘Operation Decisive Storm’ – really) have been ineffective in halting the advance of the Houthis; in fact, they may be counterproductive.  Three days ago senior United Nations officials warned that the loss of civilian lives and the repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure may constitute grave violations of international law, and there are now reports that US officials are also becoming alarmed at the mounting toll of civilian casualties.

The United States is, of course, intimately involved in the air campaign.  According to the Los Angeles Times:

Pentagon officials, who pride themselves on the care they take to avoid civilian casualties, have watched with growing alarm as Saudi airstrikes have hit what the U.N. this week called “dozens of public buildings,” including hospitals, schools, residential areas and mosques. The U.N. said at least 364 civilians have been killed in the campaign.

Although U.S. personnel don’t pick the bombing targets, Americans are working beside Saudi military officials to check the accuracy of target lists in a joint operations center in Riyadh, defense officials said. The Pentagon has expedited delivery of GPS-guided “smart” bomb kits to the Saudi air force to replenish supplies.

The U.S. role was quietly stepped up last week after the civilian death toll rose sharply. The number of U.S. personnel was increased from 12 to 20 in the operations center to help vet targets and to perform more precise calculations of bomb blast areas to help avoid civilian casualties.

U.S. reconnaissance drones now send live video feeds of potential targets and of damage after the bombs hit. The Air Force also began daily refueling flights last week to top off Saudi and United Arab Emirates fighter jets in midair, outside Yemen’s borders, so they can quickly return to the war.

You could be forgiven for thinking this a bit rich.  The US has long been waging its own air campaign in Yemen:

US air strikes in Yemen 2009-15

The NYT map above is derived from the vital work of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and you can find its detailed accounting of drone strikes in Yemen here.  Drone strikes have not been suspended during the new air offensive: earlier this week Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula announced that one of its most prominent spokesmen and clerics, Ibrahim al-Rubeish, had been killed by a US drone strike near the coastal city of al Mukalla.

Readers will know that there has been considerable critical discussion of civilian casualties caused by the programme of targeted killing in Yemen (and elsewhere): so much so that on 23 May 2013 the Obama administration issued a Presidential Policy Guidance [PPG] for the use of force ‘outside the United States and areas of active hostilities’ that supposedly imposed more stringent restrictions on its use of (para)military violence outside ‘hot battlefields’ like Afghanistan.

KLAIDMAN Kill or CaptureThe guidelines affirmed a preference for ‘capture’ over ‘kill’ – ‘The policy of the United States is not to use lethal force when it is feasible to capture a terrorist suspect, because capturing a terrorist offers the best opportunity to gather meaningful intelligence and to mitigate and disrupt terrorist plots’ – and so limited the use of lethal force to situations where ‘capture is not feasible at the time of the operation‘.  That last clause –my emphasis – clearly provides wide latitude for elevating ‘kill’ over capture’, but for a recent, vigorous discussion of the kill/capture debate prompted by the arrest and indictment of Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh earlier this month, see David Cole on ‘Targeted killing’ here.

In addition, crucially, the PPG required there to be a ‘near certainty’ that civilians would not be killed or injured during the operation.

Yet even when the guidelines were issued, they were ambiguous.  As Ryan Goodman pointed out, grey zones remained:

The notion of “areas of active hostilities” essentially refers to geographic zones where belligerents engage in sustained fighting. It is a term of art, as far as we can tell, developed by the administration at an unknown date, and not found in international law. In congressional testimony, the administration has stated that it considers Afghanistan an area of active hostilities, and it considers Yemen (despite frequent drone operations in that country) and Somalia outside the area of active hostilities.

These topological contortions did not begin with Obama.  The Bush administration made no secret of its central interest in ‘conducting war in countries we are not at war with‘.

Ryan’s discussion focused on the ambiguous location of Pakistan in this atlas of violence, and in particular the Federally Administered Tribal Areas: were they inside or outside “areas of active hostilities” (or even ‘half-in, half-out’)?  Since then, clearly, Yemen too may have been repositioned by Obama’s cartographers: it’s surely difficult to maintain the pretence that it is now not an ‘area of active hostilities’.

But in between the PPG and the opening of the new air offensive in Yemen, how effective were those restrictions on civilian casualties?  A collaborative investigation carried out by the Open Society Justice Initiative in the United States and the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights in Yemen raises plausible doubts.

Death by Drone (Yemen) (2015)

Their joint report, Death by Drone: civilian harm caused by targeted killing in Yemen, investigates nine US air strikes carried out between May 2012 and April 2014, and is based on interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses, relatives of individuals killed or injured in the attacks, local community leaders, doctors and hospital staff who were involved in the treatment of victims, and Yemeni government officials:

The nine case studies documented in this report provide evidence of 26 civilian deaths and injuries to an additional 13 civilians. This evidence casts doubt on the U.S. and Yemeni governments’ statements about the precision of drone strikes. Yemen’s President Abdu Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi praised U.S. drone strikes in Yemen as having a “zero margin of error” and commented that “the electronic brain’s precision is unmatched by the human brain.” The United States government has similarly emphasized that the precision afforded by drone technology enables the U.S. to kill al-Qaeda terrorists while limiting civilian harm…

[T]his report provides credible evidence that civilians were killed and/or injured in all nine airstrikes, including four which post-date President Obama’s [PPG] speech. To be sure, it is possible—owing to a mistake or an unforeseeable change of circumstances that manifests between the ordering of a strike and its occurrence—for civilians to be killed or injured despite a near-certainty prior to the strike that this would not happen. Nonetheless, the evidence of civilian deaths and injuries in nine cases raises serious concerns about the effective implementation of the “near-certainty” standard.

death-drones-report-eng-20150413 (dragged)

And in paragraphs that will be dismally familiar to anyone who has read the Stanford/NYU report on Living under drones in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the authors add:

The testimonies in this report describe desperately poor communities left to fend for themselves amid the devastation caused by U.S. drone strikes. Mothers and fathers who lost their children in drone strikes speak of inconsolable loss. They speak of their children’s bodies charred beyond recognition. Wives speak of losing their breadwinners, and of young children asking where their fathers have gone. The victims of these strikes say that these strikes will not make the United States or Yemen safer, and will only strengthen support for al-Qaeda.

The report also describes the terrorizing effects of U.S. drones on local populations. In many of the incidents documented, local residents had to live with drones continually flying overhead prior to the strikes and have lived in constant fear of another attack since. Some fled their villages for months after the strike, and lost their source of livelihood in the process. Survivors of the attacks continue to have nightmares of being killed in the next strike. Men go to their farms in fear. Children are afraid to go to school.

The Executive Summary is here, and you can download the full 123pp report here.

Degrees of intimacy

Drone warsNext month Cambridge University Press is publishing a book of essays edited by Peter Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg, Drone wars: transforming conflict, law and policy, due out from Cambridge University Press at the end of the year.  Here’s the blurb:

Drones are the iconic military technology of many of today’s most pressing conflicts, a lens through which U.S. foreign policy is understood, and a means for discussing key issues regarding the laws of war and the changing nature of global politics. Drones have captured the public imagination, partly because they project lethal force in a manner that challenges accepted rules, norms, and moral understandings. Drone Wars presents a series of essays by legal scholars, journalists, government officials, military analysts, social scientists, and foreign policy experts. It addresses drones’ impact on the ground, how their use adheres to and challenges the laws of war, their relationship to complex policy challenges, and the ways they help us understand the future of war. The book is a diverse and comprehensive interdisciplinary perspective on drones that covers important debates on targeted killing and civilian casualties, presents key data on drone deployment, and offers new ideas on their historical development, significance, and impact on law and policy. Drone Wars documents the current state of the field at an important moment in history when new military technologies are transforming how war is practiced by the United States and, increasingly, by other states and by non-state actors around the world.

And here is the Contents List:

Part I. Drones on the Ground:

1. My guards absolutely feared drones: reflections on being held captive for seven months by the Taliban David Rohde
2. The decade of the drone: analyzing CIA drone attacks, casualties, and policy Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland
3. Just trust us: the need to know more about the civilian impact of US drone strikes Sarah Holewinski
4. The boundaries of war?: Assessing the impact of drone strikes in Yemen Christopher Swift
5. What do Pakistanis really think about drones? Saba Imtiaz

Part II. Drones and the Laws of War:

6. It is war at a very intimate level USAF pilot
7. This is not war by machine Charles Blanchard
8. Regulating drones: are targeted killings by drones outside traditional battlefields legal? William Banks
9. A move within the shadows: will JSOC’s control of drones improve policy? Naureen Shah
10. Defending the drones: Harold Koh and the evolution of US policy Tara McKelvey
Part III. Drones and Policy Challenges:
11. ‘Bring on the magic’: using drones in combat Michael Waltz
12. The five deadly flaws of talking about emerging military technologies and the need for new approaches to law, ethics, and war P. W. Singer
13. Drones and cognitive dissonance Rosa Brooks
14. Predator effect: a phenomenon unique to the war on terror Meg Braun
15. Disciplining drone strikes: just war in the context of counterterrorism David True
16. World of drones: the global proliferation of drone technology Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland

Part IV. Drones and the Future of Warfare:

17. No one feels safe Adam Khan
18. ‘Drones’ now and what to expect over the next ten years Werner Dahm
19. From Orville Wright to September 11: what the history of drone technology says about the future Konstantin Kakaes
20. Drones and the dilemma of modern warfare Richard Pildes and Samuel Issacharoff
21. How to manage drones, transformative technologies, the evolving nature of conflict and the inadequacy of current systems of law Brad Allenby
22. Drones and the emergence of data-driven warfare Daniel Rothenberg

Over at Foreign Policy you can find an early version of Chapter 6, which is an interview with a drone pilot conducted by Daniel Rothenberg.  There are two passages in the interview that reinforce the sense of the bifurcated world inhabited by drone crews that I described in ‘From a view to a kill’ and ‘Drone geographies’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  On the one side the pilot confirms the inculcation of an intimacy with ground troops, particularly when the platforms are tasked to provide Close Air Support, which is in some degree both reciprocal and verbal:

“Because of the length of time that you’re over any certain area you’re able to engage in lengthy communications with individuals on the ground. You build relationships. Things are a little more personal in an RPA than in an aircraft that’s up for just a few hours. When you’re talking to that twenty year old with the rifle for twenty-plus hours at a time, maybe for weeks, you build a relationship. And with that, there’s an emotional attachment to those individuals.

“You see them on a screen. That can only happen because of the amount of time you’re on station. I have a buddy who was actually able to make contact with his son’s friend over in the AOR [area of responsibility]. If you don’t think that’s going to make you focus, then I don’t know what will.

“Many individuals that have been over there have said, ‘You know, we were really happy to see you show up’; ‘We knew that you were going to keep us from being flanked’; ‘We felt confident in our ability to move this convoy from ‘A’ to ‘B’ because you were there.’ The guy on the ground and the woman on the ground see how effective we are. And it gives them more confidence.”

GREGORY Angry Eyes Extract.001

[The image above is taken from my ‘Angry Eyes’ presentation; the Predator pilot in this instance was involved in orchestrating the air strike in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan on 21 February 2010, and the quotation is taken from the US Army investigation into the incident.  I’m converting the presentation into the final chapter for The everywhere war, and I’ll post the draft as soon as I’m finished.]

But when the pilot in Rothenberg’s interview goes on to claim that ‘Targeting with RPAs is very intimate’ and that ‘It is war at a very intimate level’, he reveals on the other side an altogether different sense of intimacy: one that is strictly one-sided, limited to the visual, and which resides in a more abstracted view:

“Flying an RPA, you start to understand people in other countries based on their day-to-day patterns of life. A person wakes up, they do this, they greet their friends this way, etc. You become immersed in their life. You feel like you’re a part of what they’re doing every single day. So, even if you’re not emotionally engaged with those individuals, you become a little bit attached. I’ve learned about Afghan culture this way. You see their interactions. You’re studying them. You see everything.”

The distinction isn’t elaborated, but the claims of ‘immersion’ and becoming ‘part of what they’re doing every day’ are simply astonishing, no?  You can find more on the voyeurism of ‘pattern of life analysis’ and the remarkable conceit that ‘you see everything’ here.

GREGORY Drones and the everywhere war 2014 Homeland insecurities.001

[The image above is taken from my ‘Drone geographies’ presentation]

The interview emphasises a different bifurcation, which revolves around the alternation between ‘work’ and ‘home’ when remote operations are conducted from the United States:

“”When you’re doing RPA operations, you’re mentally there, wherever there is. You’re flying the mission. You’re talking to folks on the ground. You’re involved in kinetic strikes. Then you step out the ground control station (GCS) and you’re not there anymore…

“Those are two very, very different worlds. And you’re in and out of those worlds daily. I have to combine those two worlds. Every single day. Multiple times a day. So, I am there and then I am not there and then I am there again. The time between leaving the GCS [Ground Control Station] and, say, having lunch with my wife could be as little as ten minutes. It’s really that fast.”

You can find much more on these bifurcations in my detailed commentary on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone here and in ‘Drone geographies’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

There’s one final point to sharpen.  In my developing work on militarized vision, and especially the ‘Angry eyes’ presentation/essay,  I’ve tried to widen the focus beyond the strikes carried out by Predators and Reapers to address the role they play in networked operations where the strikes are carried out by conventional strike aircraft.  Here is what Rothenberg’s pilot says about what I’ve called the administration of military violence (where, as David Nally taught me an age ago, ‘administration’ has an appropriately double meaning):

‘”Flying an RPA is more like being a manager than flying a traditional manned aircraft, where a lot of times your focus is on keeping the shiny side up; keeping the wings level, putting the aircraft where it needs to be to accomplish the mission. In the RPA world, you’re managing multiple assets and you’re involved with the other platforms using the information coming off of your aircraft.

“You could use the term ‘orchestrating’; you are helping to orchestrate an operation.”

***

Drone wars appears just as remote operations over Iraq and Syria are ramping up: you can find an excellent review by Chris Cole at Drone Wars UK here, ‘Drones in Iraq and Syria: What we know and what we don’t.’  The images below are from the Wall Street Journal‘s interactive showing all air strikes reported by US Central Command 8 August through 3 November 2014:

Air strikes in Iraq and Syria

During this period  769 coalition air strikes were reported: 434 in Syria (the dark columns), including 217 on the besieged border city of Kobane, and 335 in Iraq (the light columns), including 157 on Mosul and the Mosul Dam.

Air strikes in Iraq and Syria August-November 2014

But bear in mind these figures are for all air strikes and do not distinguish between those carried out directly by drones and those carried out by conventional strike aircraft.  As Chris emphasises:

‘Since the start of the bombing campaign, US drones have undertaken both surveillance and strike missions in Iraq and Syria but military spokespeople have refused to give details about which aircraft are undertaking which strikes repeatedly using the formula “US military forces used attack, fighter, bomber and remotely-piloted aircraft to conduct airstrikes.”’

Although the USAF has used a mix of MQ-1 (Predator) and MQ-9 (Reaper) drones, F-15E, F-16, F/A-18 and F-22 fighters, B-1 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters in these operations, it seems likely that its capacity to use remote platforms to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is limited by its continuing commitments in Afghanistan (though Britain’s Royal Air Force has now deployed its Reapers for operations in both Iraq and Syria).

IS (Islamic State) claims to have its own drones too.  In February it released video of its aerial surveillance of Fallujah in Iraq, taken from a DJI Phantom FC40 quadcopter, in August it released video of Taqba air base in Syria taken from the same platform, tagged as ‘a drone of the Islamic State army’, and in September a propaganda video featuring hostage John Cantile showed similar footage of Kobane (below).

1414438887900_wps_7_IS_have_released_a_new_vi

These image streams are all from commercial surveillance drones, but in September the Iranian news agency Fars reported that Hezbollah had launched an air strike from Lebanon against a command centre of the al-Nursra Front outside Arsal in Syria using an armed (obviously Iranian) drone.

You can find Peter Bergen’s and Emily Schneiders view on those developments here, and a recent survey of the proliferation of drone technologies among non-state actors here.

The details of both the state and non-state air strikes remain murky, but I doubt that much ‘intimacy’ is claimed for any of them.

Gaza, stripped again

As Craig Jones notes over at War, Law and Space, the renewed fighting between Hamas and the IDF is all too familiar; so too is the cartography.

In November 2012, the New York Times published two maps – one showing Israeli cities ‘taking enemy fire’ and the other showing the site of Israeli leaflet drops on Gaza (see my discussion here).

This time round, the only maps available until today have shown the putative range of Hamas’s rockets and the strikes that have taken place in Israel: Gaza might just as well have been a blank space marked ‘here be monsters’ (which is, of course, exactly how the Netanyahu administration wants us to see it).

This evening, Britain’s Telegraph published this map:

IDF and Hamas air strikes 2014

What the latest Israeli assault shows once again, however, is that the key on the left-hand map is misleading.  To juxtapose ‘Israeli-controlled’ with ‘Palestinian territories’ is like juxtaposing ‘fruit’ to ‘apples’.  So many domains of life – and death – in the Palestinian territories, in both the occupied West Bank and Gaza, remain firmly under Israeli control.

More dirty dancing

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

Document-excerpt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US_Pakistan_Panorama21382550661-1

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

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

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

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

MIR ALI

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

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

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

848700893_1390366252

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

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

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

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

Mir Ali:Bannu

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

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

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

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

Digital airstrikes and physical casualties

Afghanistan

The US military defines Close Air Support (CAS) as ‘air action by fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces, and [it] requires detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.’  It’s a difficult and dangerous business, and not only for the intended targets.

The technologies of CAS have been transformed but, according to the the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, its fundamentals haven’t changed since the First World War.

‘Pilots and dismounted ground agents must ensure they hit only the intended target using just voice directions and, if they’re lucky, a common paper map. It can often take up to an hour to confer, get in position and strike—time in which targets can attack first or move out of reach.’

To achieve what is in effect the time-space compression of the kill-chain, DARPA is developing its Persistent Close Air Support program to provide an all-digital system.  The system ‘lets a Joint Tactical Air Controller call up CAS from a variety of sources, such as aircraft or missile platforms, to engage multiple, moving and simultaneous targets,’ explains David Szondy (from whom I’ve borrowed the short-hand ‘digital airstrikes’). ‘By eliminating all the radio chatter and map fumbling, the exercise is much faster and more accurate with reduced risk of friendly fire incidents.’  The program manifesto, for want of a better word, includes these aims and specifications:

The program seeks to leverage advances in computing and communications technologies to fundamentally increase CAS effectiveness, as well as improve the speed and survivability of ground forces engaged with enemy forces.

The program envisions numerous benefits, including:

  • Reducing the time from calling in a strike to the weapon hitting the target by a factor of 10, from up to 60 minutes down to just 6 minutes 
  • Direct coordination of airstrikes by a ground agent from manned or unmanned air vehicles
  • Improved speed and survivability of ground forces engaged with enemy forces
  • Use of smaller, more precise munitions against smaller and moving targets in degraded visual environments
  • Graceful degradation of services—if one piece of the system fails, warfighters would still retain CAS capability

PCAS_ProgramPage_Image

PCAS has two components:

The first is PCAS-Air, which … involves the use of internal guidance systems, weapons and engagement management systems, and communications using either the Ethernet or aircraft networks for high-speed data transmission and reception. PCAS-Air processes the data received, and provides aircrews via aircraft displays or tablets with the best travel routes to the target, which weapons to use, and how best to use them.

The other half is PCAS-Ground, intended for improved mobility, situational awareness and communications for fire coordination. Soldiers on the ground can use an HUD eyepiece wired to a tablet that displays tactical imagery, maps, digital terrain elevation data, and other information [the image above is an artist’s impression of the Heads-Up Display]. This means they can receive tactical data from PCAS without having to keep looking at a computer screen.

PCAS-Ground has been deployed in Afghanistan since December 2012.  The original plan, as the emphasis on ‘persistent’ implies, was to integrate the system with drones, but after the cancellation of the US Air Force’s MQ-X (‘Avenger’) program Raytheon announced that PCAS would be developed using a conventional A-10 Thunderbolt.

There is of course a long history to the digitisation and automation of the battlespace, and that reference to the First World War was not an anachronism.  There were such intimate links between mapping, aerial photography and artillery ranging on the Western Front – whose cascade of updated imagery and intelligence underwrote the seeming stasis of trench warfare – that Peter Chasseaud described the result as ‘a sophisticated three-dimensional fire-control data base’ through which ‘in effect, the battlefield had been digitised.’  It was also, in a sense, automated; I discuss this in detail in ‘Gabriel’s Map’, but it’s captured perfectly in Tom McCarthy‘s novel C.

More obvious way stations to the present include the Vietnam-era Electronic Battlefield, whose sensor-shooter system I described in ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab) as a vital precursor to today’s remote operations:

Another was the development of the PowerScene digital terrain simulation that was used to identify target imagery transmitted by proto-Predators over Bosnia-Hercegovina and to rehearse NATO bombing missions.

PowerScene at Wright-Dayton AFBRemarkably, it was also used at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base during the negotiations that led to the Dayton peace accords. As one US officer explained:  ‘It’s an instrument of war but we’ll use it for peace because you are willing to come to the table’.  The system was used to explore proposals for potential boundaries, but the sub-text was clear: if agreement could not be reached, NATO had a detailed military knowledge of terrain and targets.  (For more, see James Hasik‘s Arms and innovation: entrepreneurship and alliances in the twenty-first century defense industry (2008) Ch. 6: ‘Mountains Miles Apart’; Richard Johnson‘s ‘Virtual Diplomacy’ report here; and a precocious paper by Mark Corson and Julian Minghi here, from which I’ve taken the image on the left).

powerscene2PowerScene was later used by USAF pilots rehearsing simulated bombing missions against Baghdad in the 1990s (see right) – the system fixed target co-ordinates and red ‘bubbles’ displayed threats calibrated on the range of surface-to-air missile systems – and when Anteon Corporation and Lockheed Martin introduced TopScene air strikes over Afghanistan in 2001 were also rehearsed over digital terrain.

But there is another side to all this, because digital platforms can also be used to enable others to display and interrogate the geography of air strikes.  I’ve discussed this before in relation to the CIA-directed program of targeted killing in Pakistan here and here, but impressive progress has also been made in plotting air strikes across the border in Afghanistan.

The most remarkable use of USAF/ISAF data that I know is Jason Lyall‘s work in progress on what he calls ‘Dynamic coercion in civil wars’ – ‘Are airstrikes an effective tool of coercion against insurgent organizations?’ – which focuses on air strikes in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2011. This is part of a book project, Death from above: the effects of airpower in small wars; the most recent version of the relevant analysis is here.  The map below is Jason’s summary of air strikes in Afghanistan 2006-11, but as I’ll explain in a moment, it gives little idea of the critical digital power that lies behind it.

JASON LYALL Air strikes in Afghanistan 2006-2011

First, the original USAF/ISAF data was in digital form, but transforming it into a coherent and consistent geo-coded database has involved a truly extraordinary enterprise:

We draw on multiple sources to construct a dataset of nearly 23,000 airstrikes and shows of force in Afghanistan during 2006-11. The bulk of the dataset stems from newly-declassified data from the Air Forces Central’s (AFCENT) Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Southwest Asia, which recorded the location, date, platform, and type/number of bombs dropped for January 2008 to December 2011 in Afghanistan. These data required extensive cleaning to ensure that a consistent standard for each type of air operation was maintained and duplicates dropped. These data were supplemented by declassified data from the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) Combined Information Data Exchange Network (CIDNE) for the January 2006 to December 2011 time period. Finally, additional records from press releases by the Air Force’s Public Affairs Office (the “Daily Airpower Summary,” or DAPS) were also incorporated. … Each air operations’ intended target was confirmed using at least two independent coders drawing on publicly available satellite imagery. Merging of these records was extremely labor intensive, not least because of the near total absence of overlap between CAOC, CIDNE, and DAPS records. Only 448 events were found in all three datasets, underscoring the problems inherent in single-sourcing data, even official data, in conflict settings (my emphasis).

Second, to get the full visual effect of Jason’s analysis you absolutely need to see the animation that he’s made available on his website here; the image below is just a screenshot for September 2009 (I’ll explain why I chose that month in my next post).

JASON LYALL Air strikes in Afghanistan 09:2009

But what about casualty figures?  Josh includes a summary map of 216 air strikes involving acknowledged civilian casualties, taken from the same military databases (with all their limitations), and in January 2011 the US military released its data on ‘CIVCAS’ for the previous two years to the journal Science.  They included casualties from all parties to the conflict:

The numbers show that 2,537 Afghans civilians were killed and 5,594 were wounded in the past two years. Most of the deaths – 80 percent – are attributed to insurgents, with 12 percent caused by coalition forces, a 26 percent drop.

Here is Science‘s visualization of the CIVCAS data, designed to capture the time-space rhythms of violence from multiple causes:

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You can access the interactive version here.

But other sources (notably the Afghan Rights Monitor and the UN Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, which produces six-monthly Reports on the protection of civilians in armed conflict) using different methodologies came up with much higher figures; here is a graph from the most recent UNAMA report showing casualties from air strikes 2009-13:

UNAMA Civilian casualties from air attacks 2009-13

UNAMA added this comment:

UNAMA welcomes the reduction in civilian casualties from aerial operations but reiterates its concern regarding several operations that caused disproportionate loss of civilian life and injury. UNAMA also raises concerns with the lack of transparency and accountability about several aerial operations carried out by international military forces that resulted in civilian casualties.

You can find the full analysis by John Bohannon, which includes a discussion of both databases, at Science (open access) here.

To be sure, counting casualties is always a contentious (and often dangerous) affair.  Getting information from the government of Afghanistan isn’t any more straightforward, as Nick Turse has shown: as he adds, ‘neither is it cheap’.  But he persevered, and the wonderful Pitch Interactive (a data visualization studio that also produced the haunting representation of deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan) collaborated with The Nation to produce a stunning interactive of ‘civilian deaths that have occurred in Afghanistan as a result of war-related actions by the United States, its allies and Afghan government forces.’  Here’s a screenshot:

Civilian fatalities in Afghanistan 2001-2012

You will see running along the top the military commanders during each period; the red dots mark major events.  It’s common knowledge – or should be – that the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was spearheaded by an intensive high-level bombing campaign (I described this in The Colonial Present), shown along that desperately deep left margin.  But I suspect fewer people have grasped the reliance that ISAF has continued to place on air power.  What stands out from the image above, clearly, is the disproportionate (sic) number of deaths attributed to air strikes (5, 622) compared with ground operations (794) throughout the period: the UNAMA data above suggest that this only started to change in 2013. You can read more about this in the essay by Bob Dreyfuss and Nick Turse that accompanied the interactive, ‘America’s Afghan victims’, here, and – as always – the tireless work of Marc Herold is indispensable.

And to forestall a stream of comments, my title is not intended to suggest that digital technologies or the airstrikes they facilitate are somehow ‘immaterial’; nothing could be further from the truth.  Or the killing fields.