Killing cities

In a perceptive commentary on the ground-breaking investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal into civilian casualties caused by the US air campaign against Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq – see also my posts here and hereRobert Malley and Stephen Pomper write:

The Trump administration has celebrated a no-holds-barred approach to the fight against ISIS, given greater deference to ground commanders, loosened restrictions imposed by its predecessor, and expanded the fight to an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern and African theaters. This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties. Independent monitoring organizations have tracked the numbers, and invariably they point to a serious uptick in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since January 2017. The explanation lies partly in the transition in Iraq and Syria toward the final, more urban phase of the conflict in the heavily populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa. But partly only. It also lies in policy guidance, as well as in matters such as tone, attitude, and priorities set at the very top—including by the commander in chief. These have a way of trickling down and affecting performance on the battlefield.

And yet. Those dead civilians that The New York Times found not to have been counted were not counted by the Obama administration. They were not counted by people who were intent on limiting civilian casualties and ensuring transparency. That those safeguards proved inadequate even in the hands of an administration that considered them a priority raises particularly vexing questions.

Part of the problem, as they note, is the nature of the campaign itself.  This is not the sort of counterinsurgency campaign that emerged in Afghanistan and Iraq in which air power was used in support of US and allied ground troops (although we know that also produced more than its share of civilian casualties); neither is it a counterterrorism campaign directed against so-called High Value Targets who supposedly ‘present a direct and imminent threat to the United States’ (ditto; and as I discuss in ‘Dirty dancing’ – DOWNLOADS tab – ‘imminence’ turned out to be remarkably elastic, a deadly process of time-space expansion).
Ultimately, though, their anxieties turn on what they call the ‘over-militarization’ of the US response to al Qaeda and its affiliates and to IS.  They explain, succinctly, what has encouraged this militarized response (not least the lowering of the threshold for military violence allowed by remote operations):
[U]ntil this changes, an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer the consequence. Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.
In December the Bureau of Investigative Journalism confirmed an escalation in US air strikes across multiple theatres in Trump’s first year in office:
President Donald Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Bar some tinkering, his administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous one.

However, the quantity of operations has shot up under President Trump. Strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen [in 2017].

In Afghanistan, where the Bureau has been monitoring US airstrikes since it was officially declared a noncombat mission at the end of 2014, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the drone war may be returning to Pakistan, where attacks were also up, compared with 2016.

Much remains unclear about these actions, apart from Trump’s signature combination of machismo and ignorance, but we do know that Obama’s restrictions on the use of military force outside Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been loosened:

In 2013, Obama introduced measures that meant that strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House.

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

In September NBC reported that the Trump administration was planning to allow the CIA to take a more aggressive role and to give the agency more authority to conduct (para)military operations.  In consequence a comprehensive revision of Obama’s guidelines was in prospect:

The drone playbook, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, or PPG, includes a provision that no strike should go forward unless analysts determine that there is a near-certainty that no civilians will be harmed. And it includes a provision forbidding the addition of new detainees to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  The Trump administration is contemplating removing both of those restrictions.

Pakistan remains a nominally covert area of operations.  US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas resumed in March after a nine-month hiatus – though Trump’s latest spat with Islamabad raises questions about the sporadic but systematic co-operation that had characterised so much of the campaign – and (provocatively: again, see ‘Dirty Dancing’ for an explanation) one strike took place outside the FATA in June 2017.  The Bureau’s detailed list is here: five strikes are listed, killing 15-22 people.

In Afghanistan the Bureau noted that air strikes had doubled and that this escalation has been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in transparency (Chris Woods told me the same story for Iraq and Syria when we met in Utrecht).

All of this confirms the report released today by Action on Armed Violence.

At least 15,399 civilians were killed in the first 11 months of 2017 according to Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) recording of English language media explosive violence events.  This devastating toll – up to the end of November – strongly suggests that 2017 was the worst year for civilian deathsfrom explosive weapons since AOAV’s records began in 2011.

This sharp rise, constituting a 42% increase from the same period in 2016, when 10,877 civilians were killed, is largely down to a massive increase in deadly airstrikes.

Compared to 2011, the first year of AOAV’s recording, the rise in civilians killed by explosive violence in the first 11 months of 2017 constitutes an 175% increase (5,597 died in the same period seven years ago).

On average, our records to November show that there were 42 civilian deaths per day caused by explosive violence in 2017.

The report continues:

For the first time since our recording of all English language media reports of explosive weapon attacks began, the majority of civilian deaths were by air-launched weapons. Of the total civilian deaths recorded (15,399), 58% were caused by airstrikes, mainly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Civilian deaths from airstrikes in this 11-month period was 8,932 – an increase of 82% compared to the same period in 2016 when 4,902 civilians were killed, or 1,169% compared to 2011, when 704 died.

Significantly, as airstrikes are almost always used by State actors, rather than non-State groups, States were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths from explosive weapons for the first time since our records began.

Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV commented:

 These are stark figures that expose the lie that precision-guided missiles as used by State airforces do not lead to massive civilian harm. When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, the results are inevitable: innocent children, women and men will die.

In the same vein, Karen McVeigh‘s summary for the Guardian quotes Chris Woods from Airwars:

This is about urban warfare and that’s why we are getting crazy numbers… War is moving into cities. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Russia or the US-led coalition or ground forces leading the assault, the outcome for civilians under attack is always dire…. We’re becoming too complacent about urban warfare, and militaries and governments are downplaying the effects.

I think that’s right, though I also think war is moving back into the cities (if it ever left them); the serial military operations in Mosul and Raqqa are vivid examples of what Chris means, but they also recall the assaults on Fallujah and other cities documented in Steve Graham‘s still utterly indispensable Cities under siege.

The point is sharpened even further if we widen the angle of vision to take in air campaigns conducted by other air forces: the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Air Force in Syria, or the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Yet again, killing cities to save them.  As a spokesperson for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently put it last summer, ‘This is very similar to the Vietnam war, where entire cities were destroyed… What is happening in Raqqa is like dropping a nuclear bomb in stages.’

Steve’s work should also remind us that these dead cities are not produced by air strikes alone.  Once reduced to rubble they have often been disembowelled (I can think of no better word) by ground forces; it’s as though these now barely human landscapes compel or at any rate license the continued degradation of both the living and the dead:  see, for example, Kenneth Rosen on ‘The Devil’s Henchmen’ here or  Ghaith Abdul-Ahad‘s chillingly detailed report on the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul here.

I’m still astonished that all those high-minded theoretical debates on planetary urbanism somehow ignore the contemporary intensification of urbicide and urban warfare (see ‘Mumford and sons’ here).

Deconstructing the map

515-00-wcbl-_sx331_bo1204203200_In the wake of the Trump administration’s shock at the non-existent Bowling Green Massacre, its fabricated comments on immigrants, refugees and crime in Sweden (for the record, I’ve been to Rinkeby in the company of Nordic geographers, and I also have Allan Pred‘s brilliant Even in Sweden on my shelves: and I’d also recommend Gavan Titley‘s elegant ‘Swedens of the mind‘ over at Critical Legal Thinking), and – in spectacular contrast – Trump’s sullen silence over attacks on immigrants, refugees and Muslims that did happen,  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has just published an important and incisive take-down of a map that went viral (the mot juste) in 2016.

Its reporters explain:

Last year, an anonymously-produced map started to make its way around German social media. It claimed to show viewers the spread of “refugee and migrant crime” throughout Germany.

Unlike some of the lurid tales of migrant depravity that have circulated in Germany in recent months and turned out to be false, the interactive map seemed professionally put together. Each pin on it correlated to a police or media report of a crime (“we don’t document cases simply on the basis of hearsay”, its makers claimed).

The map, called XY-Einzelfall (a sarcastic riposte to the idea each migrant crime is simply an ‘isolated case’ – Einzelfall in German) was viewed more than four million times.

screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-14-12-15

One of the XY-Einzelfall (XYE) social media followers tweeted over 80 times as new crimes were added to the map: “The time’s coming when Germans will need to carry guns for self-protection.”

But analysis of the map’s methodology by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows that it is systematically misleading, often attributing crimes to migrants or refugees on the basis of nothing more than a witness statement that the perpetrator was “dark-skinned” or “southern”. On top of this, the project vastly overstates the figures on migrant crime through skewed use of statistics.

Tracing the map’s presence on social media also shows it to be far from politically neutral. An account in XYE’s name on the Russian social media site VKontakte is rife with the kind of pro-Trump pro-Putin memes which have become the signature of the global alt-right. These are also the dominant affiliations of the Twitter accounts promoting the map. Overtly racist and xenophobic memes are also commonplace.

Most readers – especially those familiar with the stream of work set in motion by Brian Harley – will not be surprised to find that the map’s authors summon the supposed objectivity and facticity of cartography as a legitimating device:

The map’s creators like to portray their approach as scientific, mimicking the language of academics and think tanks. In January they released a “7-day analysis of published police reports”, with a breakdown of crimes by groups of different origins and a headline suggesting that 84% of crimes were committed by migrants.

In fact, the 84% figure is completely misleading. The map makers have stripped out all crimes in which the perpetrators’ background is not mentioned from their calculation. The true percentage of crimes in this period committed by migrants – according to XYE’s own data – is 13%. There is a further 13% of crimes which the XYE say are ‘probably’ committed by migrants.

We looked at how XYE decide that each pin on the map represents a crime which could have been committed by migrants. They comb police and media reports and pull out descriptions of perpetrators. We found that almost two-thirds of their reported offenders fell into the categories of “dark-skinned”, “southern-looking”, “foreigner” or “refugee”.

We then selected a random sample of 100 reports within each of these four categories for closer analysis. We found that in nearly all cases where the perpetrator was described as “dark-skinned” or “southern”, there was no evidence in the sources positively identifying them as a migrant or refugee. This was also true of the overwhelming majority of cases where the offender was described as a “foreigner”.

I’m en route to Vancouver, so forgive the brevity of this notice of such an important issue.

More tortured geographies

Route Map 2

There have been several attempts to reconstruct the geography of the CIA’s program of extraordinary rendition. I’ve long admired the work of my good friend Trevor Paglen, described in his book with A.C. ThompsonTorture Taxi: on the trail of the CIA’s rendition flights, available in interactive map form through Trevor’s collaboration with the Institute for Applied Autonomy as Terminal Air. (I’ve commented on the project before, here and especially here).

terminal-air

And you can only applaud Trevor’s chutzpah is displaying the results of his work on a public billboard:

paglenemerson-cia-flights-2001-6

The project, which involved the painstaking analysis of countless flight records and endless exchanges with the geeks who track aircraft as a hobby, triggered an installation in which the CIA was reconfigured as a ‘travel agency‘:

Terminal Air travel agency

At the time (2007), Rhizome – which co-sponsored the project – explained:

Terminal Air is an installation that examines the mechanics of extraordinary rendition, a current practice of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in which suspected terrorists detained in Western countries are transported to so-called “black sites” for interrogation and torture. Based on extensive research, the installation imagines the CIA office through which the program is administered as a sort of travel agency coordinating complex networks of private contractors, leased equipment, and shell companies. Wall-mounted displays track the movements of aircraft involved in extraordinary rendition, while promotional posters identify the private contractors that supply equipment and personnel. Booking agents’ desks feature computers offering interactive animations that enable visitors to monitor air traffic and airport data from around the world, while office telephones provide real-time updates as new flight plans are registered with international aviation authorities. Seemingly-discarded receipts, notes attached to computer monitors, and other ephemera provide additional detail including names of detainees and suspected CIA agents, dates of known renditions, and images of rendition aircraft. Terminal Air was inspired through conversations with researcher and author Trevor Paglen (Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights – Melville House Publishing). Data on the movements of the planes was compiled by Paglen, author Stephen Grey (Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program – St. Martin’s Press) and an anonymous army of plane-spotting enthusiasts.

There’s a short video documenting the project on Vimeo here and embedded below (though strangely Trevor isn’t mentioned and doesn’t appear in it):

Although Trevor subsequently explained why he tried to ‘stay away from cartography and “mapping” as much as possible’ in his work, preferring instead the ‘view from the ground’, the cartography of all of this matters in so many ways – from the covert complicity of many governments around the world in a global geopolitics of torture through to the toll exerted on the bodies and minds of prisoners as they were endlessly shuffled in hoods and chains over long distances from one black site to another.

And now, thanks to the equally admirable work of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it’s possible to take the analysis even further.  Here is Crofton Black and Sam Raphael introducing their project, ‘The boom and bust of the CIA’s secret torture sites‘:

In spring 2003 an unnamed official at CIA headquarters in Langley sat down to compose a memo. It was 18 months after George W Bush had declared war on terror. “We cannot have enough blacksite hosts,” the official wrote. The reference was to one of the most closely guarded secrets of that war – the countries that had agreed to host the CIA’s covert prison sites.

Between 2002 and 2008, at least 119 people disappeared into a worldwide detention network run by the CIA and facilitated by its foreign partners.

Lawyers, journalists and human rights organisations spent the next decade trying to figure out whom the CIA had snatched and where it had put them. A mammoth investigation by the US Senate’s intelligence committee finally named 119 of the prisoners in December 2014. It also offered new insights into how the black site network functioned – and gruesome, graphic accounts of abuses perpetrated within it.

Many of those 119 had never been named before.

The report’s 500-page summary, which contained the CIA official’s 2003 remarks, was only published after months of argument between the Senate committee, the CIA and the White House. It was heavily censored, while the full 6,000-page study it was based on remains secret. All names of countries collaborating with the CIA in its detention and interrogation operations were removed, along with key dates, numbers, names and much other material.

In nine months of research, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Rendition Project have unpicked these redactions to piece together the hidden history of the CIA’s secret sites. This account unveils many of the censored passages in the report summary, drawing on public data sources such as flight records, aviation contracts, court cases, prisoner testimonies, declassified government documents and media and NGO reporting.

Although many published accounts of individual journeys through the black site network exist, this is the first comprehensive portrayal of the system’s inner dynamics from beginning to end.

CIA black sites (BOIJ:REndition Project)

At present the mapping is rudimentary (see the screenshot above), but the database matching prisoners to black sites means that it ought to be possible to construct a more fine-grained representation of the cascade of individual movements.  The Rendition Project has already identified more than 40 rendition circuits involving more than 60 renditions of CIA prisoners: see here and the interactive maps here.

Joining the dots…

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Rendition Project have just published their first quarterly report on 119 people secretly detained and tortured by the CIA as part of the ‘war on/of terror’.

You can download the brief report as a pdf here, but the infographic below summarises the key findings (and don’t let its stark simplicity fool anyone about the detailed research that went into its production: this is difficult work).

what-we-know

Many commentators have noted that the Obama administration’s determination to end the CIA’s rendition program coincided with a decision to ramp up its covert program of targeted killing.  The preference for ‘kill’ over ‘capture’ is complicated by the living death suffered by many of those who were imprisoned in the carceral archipelago of black sites and prisons – and we should surely welcome the determination to widen the focus beyond Guantanamo to include, notably, Bagram.

But the apparent distinction between the two programs becomes even more blurred once you realise that many of the officials in charge of the one were switched to the other.  According to Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo writing in the New York Times:

‘Perhaps no single C.I.A. officer has been more central to the effort than Michael D’Andrea, a gaunt, chain-smoking convert to Islam who was chief of operations during the birth of the agency’s detention and interrogation program and then, as head of the C.I.A. Counterterrorism Center, became an architect of the targeted killing program. Until last month, when Mr. D’Andrea was quietly shifted to another job, he presided over the growth of C.I.A. drone operations and hundreds of strikes in Pakistan and Yemen during nine years in the position…

‘Mr. D’Andrea was a senior official in the Counterterrorism Center when the agency opened the Salt Pit, a notorious facility in Afghanistan where prisoners were tortured. His counterterrorism officers oversaw the interrogation and waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. His actions are described in the withering Senate Intelligence Committee report about torture that was released late last year, although he was not identified publicly.’

(On the Times‘ decision to name names, see Jack Goldsmith‘s interview with Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the Times).

But the real sting in the tail comes when Mazetti and Apuzzo also note:

‘The confidence [Senator Dianne] Feinstein and other Democrats express about the drone program, which by most accounts has been effective in killing hundreds of Qaeda operatives and members of other militant groups over the years, stands in sharp contrast to the criticism among lawmakers of the now defunct C.I.A. program to capture and interrogate Qaeda suspects in secret prisons.

‘When Ms. Feinstein was asked in a meeting with reporters in 2013 why she was so sure she was getting the truth about the drone program while she accused the C.I.A. of lying to her about torture, she seemed surprised.

‘“That’s a good question, actually,” she said.’

Scoping Afghanistan

BOIJ Tracking drone strikes in AfghanistanThe marvellous Bureau of Investigative Journalism has just published a preliminary report on its new study  of drone strikes in Afghanistan, ‘the most heavily drone-bombed country in the world.’  The study, carried out with the support of the Remote Control Project, has been prompted by analyses which show that ISAF has persistently under-estimated civilian casualties from its strikes (‘“We only count that which we see… You can do a tremendous amount of forensics … [but] seldom do we see the actual bodies.”)

I have my doubts about the wisdom of severing ‘drone strikes’ from air strikes carried out by conventional aircraft that are networked in to ISR feeds from drones; I’ve elaborated this before, and it is a crucial part of my own work on militarised vision, where I’m working through the military investigations into air strikes in Kunduz, Sangin and Uruzgan.  I’ll start posting about this work next month.

The irony, I think, is not (quite) that we know so little about the ostensibly ‘public’ strikes in Afghanistan compared with the ‘covert’ campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere: it is, rather, that we know a lot about how the USAF (though not the RAF) conducts strikes in Afghanistan but remarkably little about the victims, whereas in Pakistan we know much less about how the strikes are carried out (apart from the bureaucratisation of ‘kill lists’ in Washington) and, thanks to the work of the Bureau, much more about the victims.

It is true, though, that while the official US military investigations released through FOIA requests are often immensely informative, even in redacted form (more on this next month), there is often also a remarkable reluctance to release even basic information to the public.  Spot the difference between these two tables; the first release (on top) was subsequently overwritten by the second (below)…

Airpower statistics 2007-2012

As I say, more to come.  In the meantime, the ‘scoping study ‘ from the Bureau is here, and well worth reading.

The Federal Administration of Military Violence

On 15 June – one week after the attack on Karachi’s international airport by the Pakistan Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban or TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (UMI) – the Pakistan military announced its ‘comprehensive’ Operation Zarb-i-Azb in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  From their bases in North Waziristan, the statement announced, militants had ‘waged a war against the state of Pakistan’ and the military had been ‘tasked to eliminate these terrorists regardless of hue and color, along with their sanctuaries.’  Although the press release insisted that ‘these enemies of the state will be denied space anywhere across the country’ the epicentre of the operation was and remains North Waziristan.

NWA_PakMil_locations_all_1200

There are reportedly 60,000 troops in the region, and the main Pakistan military installations in North Waziristan are shown on the map above (taken from the AEI spinoff site, Critical Threats), but the prelude to ground operations was a concerted attack by the Pakistan Air Force on eight targets linked to planning the assault on Karachi airport.

Green Ground Red Drones Blue PAF strikes DAWN 20 June 2014

‘Operation Zarb-i-Azb’ refers to Mohammed’s sword, and its political imagery is artfully dissected by Afiya Shehrbano Zia:

‘It refers to the (‘sharp/cutting’) sword of the prophet of Islam and is a brilliant usurpation of the religious metaphor. It upstages the religious imaginary for which the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claim to be fighting. After all, who would dare to vanquish the Prophet’s metaphorical sword? The appellation justifies its cause for the defense of the Islamic state, and quells the lesser purpose of the Taliban in one fell swoop. As in all cases in the instrumentalisation of religion as a propaganda tool, it also excites nationalists and seeks to rationalise another round of military operations, killings and displacements that will follow.’

There’s much more of value in her commentary, but – as Zia also acknowledges – the genealogy and geography of the offensive is no less complicated (my map comes from Dawn, 20 June 2014; green circles are Pakistan military land operations; blue are Pakistan Air Force strikes; red are US drone strikes).

First, it’s not clear whether the Pakistan military finally has the Afghan Taliban in its sights too – regarded by Islamabad as the ‘good Taliban’ because, far from threatening the state of Pakistan, it has long been used by both the military and (particularly) the intelligence service as a counter to any Indian influence over Kabul once US and ISAF forces complete their withdrawal.  And it is of course the Afghan Taliban (along with the Haqqani network) which is the principal concern of the United States.

Second, the Pakistan military – and especially the Air Force – has a long history of offensive operations in the FATA, as I’ve discussed in detail before: see here and here.  Now other commentators have noticed this: the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has tracked 15 Pakistan Air Force strikes carried out by helicopter gunships and F-16 fighters between 19 December 2013 and 15 June 2014, which killed 291-540 people (including 16-112 civilians).

The significance of this is not only that it precedes the current offensive but also that it coincides with the so-called ‘pause’ in CIA-directed drone strikes against targets in the FATA.  Chris Woods notes that PAF strikes are ‘generating casualties far in excess of any caused by CIA drones strikes’, and one resident of Mir Ali recited a grim military timetable:

“It’s like doomsday for people in Mir Ali, where death is everywhere since Saturday… They start the day with artillery shelling early in the morning. Gunship helicopters come for shelling during the day and jets strike at around 2:00-2:30 in the night.”

The military denies all reports of civilian casualties but this beggars belief, and the Bureau reports that some residents have even concluded that the drone strikes were preferable:

‘The difference between the drone strikes and the military strikes is that drones target specifically who they want to target… the wanted terrorists… people are saying that drone attacks were good compared to the military strikes.  Personally I agree, because I have seen drones, they are in the air 24 hours and they don’t attack as randomly… the place of the attack was always an area where the Taliban or terrorists were living.’

But whatever one makes of this – a calculation that would imply that the CIA had abandoned its anonymous ‘signature strikes’ – drones have not been absent from the skies over Waziristan. Pakistan has its own reconnaissance drones, and they have repeatedly been used to direct strike aircraft onto their targets (though with what accuracy it is impossible to know) and to support ground operations: the PAF boasted of their use in May, when hundreds of houses and shops were destroyed in Machis Camp and in the bazaar at Mir Ali.  And – the third complication – the US resumed its drone war on 11 and 12 June when two UAVs fired six missiles at compounds near Miram Shah, supposedly killing ten members of UMI and the Haqqani network, and again on 18 June when three compounds near Dargah Mandi were hit.  Whether these strikes were co-ordinated with Pakistan is unclear – the Foreign Office has issued its ritual denial, but it’s difficult to believe they were not connected to Pakistan’s own military operations, and here too there is a long history of what I’ve called ‘dirty dancing‘ between Washington and Islamabad that continued until at least the end of 2011.  It seems highly unlikely that the dance has ended.

_75732447_75732446

Finally, the shock waves from these various operations ripple far beyond their ostensible targets. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, some in advance of military operations (which had been telegraphed for months), many more when the military temporarily loosened its curfew on the region. As on previous occasions, most of them fled to Bannu, some to government camps (‘Only the poorest of the poor would go to a camp in such hot and humid weather‘) but the majority to stay with family members, while some refugees have even crossed into Khost in Afghanistan to seek sanctuary. The map below is an early trace (18 June), and it shows only those who are officially registered so it excludes those lodging with their extended families; but even this anticipates hundreds of thousands more displaced people to come.

Pakistan Displaced Persons June 2014

There is also the real fear that, as Ismail Khan and Declan Walsh reported earlier this month, Taliban reprisals will focus on the Punjab, the electoral base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

All of this suggests the importance of unravelling the intimate connections between the political constitution of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the administration of military violence there.  This is clearly not limited to CIA-directed drone strikes, and here Zia’s reflections on a question posed by a feminist friend are worth repeating:

‘She wonders, “why this obsession with drones?” Obviously, the interest is due to a host of factors, but her query reflects the difference in modes of analysis. Her position reflects the views of women’s rights/human rights groups who consider specific military operations in one part of Pakistan as just one cog in a broader narrative about the source of the conflict. For them, this has been the cosy nexus and mutually beneficial relationship between the military establishment and the jihadi groups.

Those like Imran Khan, who foreground drones in their analysis of ‘conflict’, consider US intervention and occupation of Afghanistan as the drivers of conflict in Pakistan. But local progressive groups argue that even if militants in FATA are subdued, or US interventions are resisted, unless the policy of patronage and nurturing of jihadi groups in the rest of Pakistan is dismantled and buried, conflict at all levels will never end – drones or no drones.

This doesn’t mean that military technologies are unimportant nor that drone strikes are of marginal concern (inside or outside an ‘area of active hostilities‘): it means that we need to direct our attention to the larger matrix of political and military violence within which they are deployed, transnational and national, and to its genealogies and geographies.

Britain’s Reapers

UK Remote Control

As Craig Jones has discussed in detail, it’s been much easier to get information about the ways in which the United States has incorporated drones into its military and paramilitary operations than to prise open the door of UK operations (see also Chris Cole on ‘five basic facts we are simply not allowed to know here).

But the House of Commons Defence Committee has just published a two-volume report, Remote Control: remotely piloted air systems – current and future UK use.

Volume 1, the report and formal minutes (58 pp), can be downloaded as a pdf here, and Volume II, written evidence (130 pp), is available here.  The second volume includes submissions from the Ministry of Defence, Northrop Grumman, and General Atomics together with critical submissions from Drone Wars UK, Reprieve, the Network for Social Change’s Remote Control project, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Over at the Bureau, Alice Ross has a first response and summary here, while Chris Cole has a trenchant critique at Drone Wars UK here.

I’m still working my way through all this, but here are some key passages.

First, on the ‘double proximity’ of drone operations – as I’ve said before, even though these platforms can be controlled from thousands of miles away they are not weapons of global reach:

‘The MoD told us that in order to utilise unmanned air systems in the most efficient manner, they should be based as close as possible to the target area of interest to allow for the longest loiter time possible. In a “non-permissive” or hostile environment this would be “extremely difficult”.’

The other side of this is the invocation of a new (though, as I’ve also emphasised, thoroughly conditional and technologically mediated) quasi-intimacy:

‘It was very clear from the visit to XIII Squadron and discussions with Reaper aircrew that all were experienced professional personnel with a clear purpose and keen understanding of the Rules of Engagement which govern their operations. Despite being remote from the battle space they exhibited a strong sense of connection to the life and death decisions they are sometimes required to take. This was in stark contrast to the image portrayed by some commentators of “drone” pilots as video gaming “warrior geeks”.’

RAF Reaper

Again, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that ‘sense of connection’ is much more highly developed in relation to troops on the ground than to others who are in (or beyond) the field of view, and who are inevitably shut out from audio or online communications, which in part accounts for the risk to non-combatants whenever troops are ‘in contact’ with the Taliban and other fighters.

Second, the report seeks to draw a line between the US program of targeted killing and UK military operations in Afghanistan:

‘We acknowledge that over the last few years there has been a growing concern in relation to the sharing of intelligence with allies and the uses to which such data may contribute. While the issues raised by Reprieve stray beyond the terms of reference for our inquiry and indeed the remit of the Defence Committee, we do believe that there should be greater transparency in relation to safeguards and limitations the UK Government has in place for the sharing of intelligence…

‘We consider that it is of vital importance that a clear distinction be drawn between the actions of UK Armed Forces operating remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan and those of other States elsewhere… In Afghanistan UAS provide intelligence in support of our ground commanders, enabling them to stay one step ahead of the enemy. Whether for targeting the Taliban or supporting troops on patrol, their ability to loiter over and survey areas for enemy activity and then feed back images and video in real time means they are an invaluable asset to our forces on the ground. Together, the UK’s fleet of UAS have carried out over 160,000 hours of ISR operations.

‘The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper operated by the RAF is the UK’s only armed remotely piloted air system. The RAF fleet rose to ten in early 2014 as an additional five aircraft were accepted into service. RAF Reapers provide persistent intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) for ISAF forces in Afghanistan, mostly in support of UK forces in Helmand province…. Since May 2008, UK Reaper aircraft have been armed with precision-guided weapons—Hellfire laser guided air-to-ground missiles and GBU-12 Paveway 500lb laser guided bombs… By 31 August 2013, UK operated Reaper aircraft had flown over 50,000 hours on operations in the ISR role with 418 weapons fired in the same period.’

RAF Reaper and weapons

Here are the raw figures released to Drone Wars UK last month, following a FoI Request to the Ministry of Defence:

Weapons released by UK Reapers in Afghanistan 2008-2013 (Drone Wars UK)

Chris Cole is not convinced by the Committee’s (and, by extension, the Ministry’s) attempt to draw the line:

‘The report also argues that it is “of vital importance” that a clear distinction be draw between the use of drones by UK armed forces and what it discreetly calls “those of other States elsewhere.” It urges the MoD to continue its PR campaign – what the committee calls a “public awareness programme” – in order to “aid public understanding and acceptance.” PR it seems trumps transparency.’

Third, and closely connected to Chris’s misgivings, the report restates without examination the legal armature for UK military operations:

‘…the MoD told us that UK remotely piloted aircraft operate within the constraints of UK rules of engagement (ROE) and policy, even where operational control is assigned to a Coalition Commander, such as the Commander of ISAF. The MoD also stated that UK policy relating to targeting by remotely piloted aircraft is exactly the same as that for manned aircraft (and land and maritime weapons where applicable):

‘It is entirely compliant with International Humanitarian Law. Targets are always positively identified as legitimate military objectives and both pattern of life assessment and collateral damage estimate conducted. Strikes are carried out in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict.

‘Personnel were keen for the public to know more and understand better what it is they do and to dispel some myths that have grown up about Reaper operations in particular. One pilot commented that the public needed to know that remotely piloted aircraft are “not robots, they’re not autonomous and we spend an awful lot of time training to fly them”. This training emphasised all aspects of the RAF rules of engagement such as whether a strike is necessary, whether any civilians are nearby, and what instructions have been received from the ground commander. Reaper aircrew were firmly of the view that the loiter time of remotely piloted aircraft allowed more informed decisions to be made and consequently the risk of civilian casualties was reduced should a missile strike be required….

Fourth, on civilian casualties and transparency:

‘The MoD told us that it was aware of only one incident involving an armed UK remotely piloted air system Reaper, which had resulted in the deaths of civilians:

‘On 25 March 2011 [three years ago to the day!] an attack on two pick-up trucks resulted in the destruction of a significant quantity of explosives and the death of two insurgents. Sadly, four Afghanistan civilians were also killed. In line with current ISAF procedures, an ISAF investigation was conducted to establish if any lessons could be learned or if any errors in operational procedures could be identified. In that case, the report concluded that the actions of the Reaper crew had been in accordance with extant procedures and rules of engagement.

…We note the conclusion of the UN Special Rapporteur [Ben Emmerson] that in any case in which civilians have been, or appear to have been, killed, there is an obligation on the State responsible to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation. We recognise that this is not a simple and straightforward request as to do so could seriously jeopardise continuing operations. Nonetheless, we recommend that, to the extent that it is operationally secure to do so, following an event which has resulted in confirmed civilian casualties the MoD should seek to publish details about the incident and any lessons learned from the review process…’

For a good discussion of the UK’s definition of ‘civilian’ in such cases, see Dapo Akande at the European Journal of International Law here.

To be continued.