Fighting over Kunduz

This is the third in a new series of posts on military violence against hospitals and medical personnel in conflict zones. It examines some of the key issues arising from the US attack on the Trauma Centre run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Kunduz on 3 October 2015; it follows directly from my detailed analysis of the attack here and prepares the ground for a still more detailed analysis of attacks on hospitals, doctors and casualties in Syria to follow.

There are at least four main issues arising from the US attack on the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz that spiral out into a wider argument about what I will later call ‘The Death of the Clinic’.  I’m treating ‘the clinic’ here as a topological figure that extends from the body of the wounded through the evacuation chain to the hospital itself.  The clinic has been accorded a privileged status within the space of exception that is the modern conflict zone – a complicated, fractured space in which killing is made permissible subject to the protocols of international humanitarian law –  so that the clinic becomes an exception to the exception and its inhabitants granted a conditional immunity from attack.


It’s important to understand that this legal armature is not immutable, and that changes (and challenges) to it arise through both (geo)political and military actions; international humanitarian law is not a deus ex machina, somehow above the fray, but is thoroughly entangled with the prosecution of military violence.  More on this to come, but for now it will be enough to list some of the major protections accorded to the clinic in war-time.

The first Geneva Convention (1864) (‘the Red Cross Convention’):

Ambulances and military hospitals shall be acknowledged to be neuter, and, as such, shall be protected and respected by belligerents so long as any sick or wounded may be therein.  Such neutrality shall cease if the ambulances or hospitals should be held by a military force … A distinctive and uniform flag shall be adopted for hospitals, ambulances and evacuations.

Under the Hague Regulations (1899/1907) that were in force during the hospital raids in France at the end of the First World War:

… all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, … hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes. It is the duty of the besieged to indicate the presence of such buildings or places by distinctive and visible signs, which shall be notified to the enemy beforehand.

Geneva Conventions 1949 care of woundedUnder the Geneva Conventions (1949) – whose provisions applied to the attack on the MSF Trauma Centre a hundred years later – there is a similar immunity granted to the military-medical machine:

The protection to which fixed establishments and mobile medical units of the Medical Service are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after a due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit and after such warning has remained unheeded.

And this is explicitly extended beyond the military-medical machine to institutions like the MSF Trauma Centre:

Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.

The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit and after such warning has remained unheeded.

In so doing the treatment of hostile combatants is also explicitly provided for and protected:

The fact that sick or wounded members of the armed forces are nursed in these hospitals, or the presence of small arms and ammunition taken from such combatants and not yet been handed to the proper service, shall not be considered to be acts harmful to the enemy.

The language and specifications change, but there is nevertheless a consistent thread running through these provisions.  It has been stretched – and perhaps broken – by the attack on the MSF Trauma Centre, and here I’ll focus on four issues that have proved contentious.  First, the visual identification of the Trauma Centre; second, the alleged breach of its conditional immunity; third, the construal of the attack as a war crime; and fourth, the putative rejection of medical neutrality altogether.

(1) Visual identification

International humanitarian law (IHL) requires those responsible for hospitals ‘to indicate their presence’ – the language varies – in order to ensure their protection, and here the US military investigation made this finding (all page numbers in brackets refer to the redacted report):

The center roof of the MSF Trauma Center was marked with two rectangular MSF flags… The front and sides of the MSF hospital were marked from the street view and a MSF flag flew in the courtyard.  The MSF Trauma Center was not marked with any internationally recognized symbols such as a red cross, red crescent or a red “H”.  If it had been marked with these symbols, it is possible the Trauma Center would not have been engaged. (082)

This counterfactual does not loom large in the report or its recommendations, but Charles Dunlap (at Lawfire) has seized upon it to berate MSF:

Ask yourself: wasn’t it a mistake for [MSF] – and a serious one – not to have marked its facility in accordance with Protocol III to the Geneva Conventions which designates “the only emblems recognized by nations signifying the protected status of individuals or objects bearing them during armed conflict”?  Had, for example, the hospital been marked with large Red Crosses/Red Crescents or one of the other internationally-recognized symbols (as the U.S. does) or something that would make its protected use clear from the air, isn’t it entirely plausible that the aircrew (or someone) might have recognized the error and stopped the attack before it began?

Put another way, isn’t it foreseeable that in an exceptionally chaotic combat situation (where a belligerent is making use of civilian buildings to conduct combat operations) that mistakes could occur in identifying a protected structure absent Protocol III markings or at least something to make it identifiable at a distance, especially when it’s known that attacking aircraft are being used?  Wouldn’t reasonably prudent persons have marked their medical facility with an internationally-recognized symbol or something of similar clarity to the warring parties?  Wouldn’t due care demand it in that situation?

In accusing MSF of ‘imprudence’ and even recklessness Dunlap applies a double standard.  He repeatedly insists that the US and the Afghan militaries confronted ‘an extraordinarily intense situation’ in Kunduz, that they faced ‘terrible urgency’ and ‘enormous pressure’ as they operated ‘in the turmoil of a war zone’ – all of which is undoubtedly true – but he uses this to excuse their mistakes while refusing to extend the same privilege to MSF.


Let me remind you of Dr Kathleen Thomas‘s account of working in the ER (above) once the city had fallen to the Taliban:

The first day was chaos – more than 130 patients poured through our doors in only a few hours. Despite the heroic efforts of all the staff, we were completely overwhelmed. Most patients were civilians, but some were wounded combatants from both sides of the conflict. When I reflect on that day now, what I remember is the smell of blood that permeated through the emergency room, the touch of desperate people pulling at my clothes to get my attention begging me to help their injured loved ones, the wailing, despair and anguish of parents of yet another child lethally injured by a stray bullet whom we could not save, my own sense of panic as another and another and another patient was carried in and laid on the floor of the already packed emergency department, and all the while in the background the tut-tut-tut-tut of machine guns and the occasional large boom from explosions that sounded way too close for comfort.

In any case, MSF had clearly ‘indicated their presence’ to both the US and Afghan authorities by providing them with the GPS co-ordinates of the Trauma Centre (see my previous discussion here). Dunlap finds this ‘commendable’ but ‘legally problematic’.

Instead, he is fixated on the absence of a Red Cross flag from the roof, in which case he might reflect on another passage from the report.  On 2 October, the day before the air strike, MSF phoned the Special Operations Task Force in Bagram to develop a contingency plan: while the Taliban were respecting the neutrality of the Trauma Centre and ‘treating the government casualties well’, they wanted to know the feasibility of extracting their patients should conditions deteriorate.  During that conversation they were advised to ‘take the signs normally affixed to the sides of the trucks and to install them on the top of the vehicles for easy identification by aircraft during this or any future MSF resupply operations‘ (503; my emphasis).  This surely makes it clear that the US military anticipated no difficulty in recognising MSF’s flag and logo as symbols of medical neutrality.


(2)  Conditional immunity

IHL makes it clear that treating wounded combatants does not compromise the protections afforded to a medical facility; that occurs only if it is used as a base from which ‘to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to [one of the belligerents]’.  I’ll address the intervening clause – ‘outside their humanitarian duties’ – under (4) and confine my discussion here to the alleged militarisation of the clinic.


MSF’s internal review found that its unambiguous ‘no weapons‘ policy was adhered to:

All of the MSF staff reported that the no weapons policy was respected in the Trauma Centre. [Since the KTC opened, there were some rare exceptions when a patient was brought to the hospital in a critical condition and the gate was opened to allow the patient to be delivered to the emergency room without those transporting the patient being first searched. In each of these instances, the breach of the no weapon policy was rapidly rectified.]  In the week prior to the airstrikes, the ban of weapons inside the MSF hospital in Kunduz was strictly implemented and controlled at all times and all MSF staff positively reported in their debriefing on the Taliban and Afghan army compliance with the no-weapon policy.

The US military investigation accepted this was indeed the case:

Evidence provided to the investigation team supports the MSF internal initial report’s characterization that their no-weapons policy was adhered to with rare exceptions (038, note 15).


Mathieu Aikins‘s interviewees also confirmed the absence of weapons from the Trauma Centre:

Though the MSF hospital was crowded with fighters, whether patients or caretakers (each patient was allowed one), staff members and civilians who were present said the insurgents respected the rules. They left their weapons outside or handed them over at the gun lockers at the entrance. One employee recalled seeing a fighter give up his weapon but forget his ammunition vest; when the employee nervously approached the fighter about it, the man apologized profusely and handed it over. “We had respect for the hospital, as they were serving the people,” said Shahid, the Taliban commander. “I myself went there once when one of our men was wounded, and before entering we submitted our weapons outside.”

Aikins goes on to report that patients were allowed to retain their cellphones, and some of their caretakers retained hand-held radios whose transmissions were intercepted by Afghan special forces.  They in turn concluded that not only were the Taliban inside the hospital but were using it as a base: ‘They had raised their flag and established their headquarters there.’  On 1 October, presumably in response to these reports, the Pentagon contacted MSF in New York to ask whether ‘they had a large number of Taliban “holed up”’ in the Trauma Centre, and were assured that the only Taliban inside the hospital were wounded patients.

But the suspicions clearly remained, and festered to such a degree that some of those on the ground were convinced that the hospital had been overrun by Taliban fighters.  Associated Press reported that the radio intercepts prompted US analysts to request ‘specific intelligence-gathering flights over the hospital’ – their outcome has never been disclosed – and on 1 October a senior Special Forces commander (whether in Kabul or in Kunduz is unclear) wrote in his daily log that the Trauma Centre was under Taliban control and that he planned to clear it in the coming days.   At least some of the Green Berets in Kunduz agreed with his assessment: ‘They were using it as a C2 node … They had already removed and ransomed the foreign doctors, and they had fired on partnered personnel from there.’  Indeed, after the attack a senior US officer in Kabul was told – by whom has been redacted – that ‘there were three dead Military-Aged Males near the hospital, identified as Taliban by the local population.  They were using the hospital as a command post (using its protected status)’ (275).


But all of this was fantasy, and the investigation discounted it.  Although US intelligence reported that insurgents were present at the hospital at the time of the strike, the investigation accepted that this was for medical treatment and they could trace ‘no specific intelligence reports that confirm[ed] insurgents were using the MSF Trauma Center as an operational  C2 [command and control] node, weapons cache or base of operations’ (085).  In addition, they determined that observations made from the AC-130 revealed neither substantive hostile acts nor demonstrations of hostile intent –  only ‘unarmed individuals walking around [or] sitting in chairs’ (085).  The report describes these as ‘ordinary and innocuous acts’ (055), but to at least one member of the aircrew that was in itself grounds for suspicion: ‘In his experience, when AC-130 aircraft fly over insurgents, they act normally or try to stay normal… [whereas] civilians will not try to be nonchalant when the aircraft is overhead’ (093, note 304).  Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t: when everything is construed as hostile, even the most innocent acts are transformed into somcething sinister.

The claims made by Afghan forces were even wilder.  Here is May Jeong in The Intercept:

On the night of the hospital strike, a unit commander with the Ministry of Defense special forces was at the police headquarters taking fire from the direction of the hospital. “Vehicles were coming out of there, engaging, then retreating,” he told me. When I pointed out that he couldn’t have seen the gate of the hospital from where he was, several hundred meters away, he said that he was sure because he had personally interrogated a cleaner who told him that the hospital was full of “armed men using it as a cover.” The cleaner told the commander that there were Pakistani generals using the hospital as a recollection point and that they had set up a war room there. When I challenged his line of vision again, he responded, “Anyone can claim anything. The truth is different.”


[Amrullah] Saleh, [former head of the National Security Directorate and] the author of the 200-page Afghan commission report on the fall of Kunduz … believed that the “hospital sanctity had been violated” and held out as evidence 130 hours of recorded conversations with more than 600 interlocutors. “I spoke with the MSF country director,” Saleh told me recently. “They don’t deny that the hospital was infiltrated by the Taliban.”

But of course they did deny it: repeatedly, emphatically and convincingly.

(3) War crimes?

The US military investigation was unequivocal: it found multiple violations of the military’s own Rules of Engagement and of international humanitarian law.

The first rule of customary international humanitarian law, now codified in the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, is distinction:

The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.

The investigation found that both the Ground Force Commander (GFC) and the aircraft commander failed to exercise this core principle:

Neither commander distinguished between combatants and civilians nor a military objective and protected property. Each commander had a duty to know, and available resources to know that the targeted compound was protected property’ (075-6).

A second core principle is proportionality:

Launching an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, is prohibited.

The investigation found this to have been disregarded too:

The GFC and the aircraft commander failed to exercise the principle of proportionality in relation to the direct military advantage (076).

Both principles are deceptively simple, and in ‘The Passions of Protection: Sovereign Authority and Humanitarian War’ Anne Orford reminds us that IHL ‘immerses its addressees in a world of military calculations.’  In practical terms the distinction between civilians and combatants in today’s conflicts is rarely straightforward, but in this case the No-Strike List plainly recognised the protected status of the Trauma Centre and there is no convincing evidence that its immunity had been compromised.  In addition, the balance between loss of civilian life and military advantage is weighed on the military’s own scales – ‘expected’; ‘excessive’; ‘anticipated’: these are not self-evident calculations – but even if the GFC or the aircraft commander had grounds to believe the Taliban were firing from the hospital the Pentagon’s own Law of War Manual (which is not without its own controversies: see here and, specifically on proportionality, here and here) advises under § that

The obligation to refrain from use of force against a medical unit acting in violation of its mission and protected status without due warning does not prohibit the exercise of the right of self-defense. There may be cases in which, in the exercise of the right of self-defense, a warning is not “due” or a reasonable time limit is not appropriate. For example, forces receiving heavy fire from a hospital may exercise their right of self-defense and return fire.  Such use of force in self-defense against medical units or facilities must be proportionate.

Not only was there was no evidence of hostile let alone ‘heavy fire’ from the Trauma Centre but the AC-130 was also monitoring the progress of the Afghan Special Forces convoy that it was tasked with protecting and knew perfectly well that it was still within the perimeter of the airfield.  This was not a time-sensitive target (the report makes that crystal clear) and neither the GFC nor the aircraft commander had reason to believe that any putative threat to Afghan or US forces was so grave and so sustained that it called for an air strike involving multiple passes by the AC-130 – over 30 minutes according to the US military, an hour according to MSF – delivering such intense fires that the building was virtually destroyed.

For these reasons many commentators – and MSF (‘Under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed, MSF demands that a full and transparent investigation into the event be conducted by an independent international body’) – have insisted that the attack was a war crime.



But others (including the US military) have concluded that it was not.  US Central Command’s initial summary – produced before the redacted report was released – accepted that there had been breaches of both the Rules of Engagement and of IHL (‘the law of armed conflict’) but noted that

the investigation did not conclude that these failures amounted to a war crime.  The label “war crimes” is typically reserved for intentional acts – intentionally targeting of civilians or intentionally targeting protected objects.  The investigation found that the tragic incident resulted from a combination of unintentional human errors, process errors and equipment failures, and that none of the personnel knew that they were striking a medical facility.

The report has been so heavily redacted so that this legal discussion is unavailable (see also the commentary by Sarah Knuckey and two of her students here).  We do know that the investigation team included an unnamed legal advisor from US Central Command (CENTCOM) and that its report was subject to legal review by the Staff Judge Advocate, who accepted its findings as ‘legally sufficient’ with several, redacted exceptions  – though there is no way of knowing what they were (007-009).  We know too that General John Campbell, who ordered the investigation as commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, subsequently disapproved a number of findings and recommendations ‘not related to the proximate cause of the strike’ (002) but, again, the details have been excised.

General Votel at Pentagon press briefing on MSF attack

General Joseph Votel, commander of CENTCOM, repeated the summary statement’s disavowal of war crimes at a Pentagon Press Briefing on 29 April 2016, and in responding to a storm of questions from plainly incredulous reporters (above) he elaborated:

… an unintentional action takes it out of the realm of actually being a deliberate war crime against persons or protected locations…. They were absolutely trying to do the right thing; they were trying to support our Afghan partners; there was no intention on any of their parts to take a short cut, or to violate any rules that were laid out for them. And they were attempting to do the right thing.  Unfortunately, they made a wrong judgment in this particular case…

Jens David Ohlin explains the disputation (which Faye Donnelly helpfully re-casts as one between two contending narratives whose speech-acts struggle to realize their performative force):

The problem is that the killing of the innocent civilians was not intentional, it was accidental. As a matter of criminal law, it was either reckless or negligent … but the civilian killings were not performed with purpose.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court provides for war crimes prosecutions for ‘intentionally directing’ or ‘intentionally launching’ attacks that contravene international humanitarian law (in effect, criminalizing the rules of IHL).  Jens discusses this in relation to attacks on civilians, but the Statute also proscribes ‘intentionally directing attacks against buildings, material, medical units and personnel’ or against ‘personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping mission’.

In every case the emphasis is on intentionality, and yet intentionality – as philosophers have demonstrated time and time again – is not the simple, settled matter some legal scholars assume it to be.  Jens’s central point is that common-law cultures identify intentionality with purpose or knowledge whereas civil-law cultures widen its sphere to include a conscious disregard of risk or ‘recklessness’.  The full argument is here – including an intricate disection of the (geo)politics involved in drafting the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols – but the sharp conclusion is that (for Jens, at least) the strike on the Trauma Centre would not constitute a war crime under the first count (he accepts that neither the GFC nor the aircraft commander possessed the knowledge or the purpose) but could under the second (their actions, and those of others, were reckless).  I should add that he recommends the recognition of a new war crime to explicitly address the second count and thereby signal ‘the moral difference between intentionally killing civilians and recklessly killing them.’



The investigation report provides endless, explicit examples of a thoroughly compromised ‘risk management process’ by multiple actors at multiple sites, and this dispersal of responsibility in Kunduz (see map above) and Bagram further complicates the legal situation.  Peter Margulies – who does not accept that ‘the lack of intent among US personnel is determinative’ – concedes that ‘the cascading systemic errors in the hospital attack impede the attribution of culpable awareness to one or more specific individuals.’ In his view,

CENTCOM would have been better served by acknowledging that intent was not required [for the commitment of a war crime], but that awareness of risk was distributed among many organizational components, without full awareness concentrated in one or more individuals who could be charged criminally.

Adil Ahmad Haque notes that Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions requires attackers to do ‘everything feasible’ to verify that their target is a military objective and instructs them in cases of doubt to presume that it is civilian – the Law of War Manual doesn’t follow this standard, but the investigation report does –  and here there is such clear evidence of recklessness on the part of many of the US forces involved (whose evidence is shot through with technical failures and radical uncertainty) that, in his view, their decision to press on with the attack ‘was unlawful, irrespective of their good faith.’

(4) Medical neutrality at risk

I noted above that hospitals only lose their protected status if they are used ‘to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to [one of the belligerents]’.  It’s a telling provision because its intermediate clause can be read as a tacit acknowledgement that those humanitarian duties – treating the sick and wounded – could otherwise be construed as acts harmful to their enemies.

And there is evidence that this is exactly how both the Afghan government and its military viewed MSF’s activities.  When Mathieu Aikins visited Kunduz after the air strike he reported:

Some members of the Afghan government and security forces there had little respect for MSF’s neutrality and resented its treatment of wounded Taliban. When I visited Kunduz in November, their anger was still surprisingly raw, despite the recent destruction of the hospital. “They give them medicine; they transport and treat their injured,” [Colonel Abdullah] Gard, the commander of the [Ministry of Interior’s] quick-reaction force, told me. “Their existence is a big problem for us…. The people that work there are traitors, all of them.”


Gard (seen above) and one of his colleagues told May Jeong exactly the same:

Gard spoke of MSF with the personal hatred reserved for the truly perfidious. He accused the group of “patching up fighters and sending them back out,” a line I heard repeatedly. Cmdr. Abdul Wahab, head of the unit that guarded the provincial chief of police compound, told me he could not understand why in battle an insurgent could be killed, but the minute he was injured, he would be taken to a hospital and given protective status. Wouldn’t it be easier, he asked, wouldn’t the war be less protracted or bloody if they were allowed to march in and take men when they were most compromised? He had visited the MSF hospital three times to complain. Each time a foreign doctor explained the hospital’s neutral status and its no-weapons policy, which mystified him.

In short, it seems that some (perhaps many) in the Afghan security forces – particularly after the humiliation of being forced out of Kunduz – believed that the Taliban were legitimate targets wherever they were and that the fight against them was being hamstrung by what one officer described to Jeong as a ‘silly rule’.


This becomes material because, as I showed previously, the intended target for the air strike was a National Directorate of Security compound whose co-ordinates had been passed to Major Michael Hutchinson, the Ground Force Commander, by Afghan Special Security Forces (who, like him, were unfamiliar with the city): they had identified the NDS compound as a Taliban command and control node, and planned to clear it on their return from the airfield following a casualty evacuation.  The AC-130 was supposed to provide Close Air Support, but a series of technical difficulties compromised the accuracy of its sensors and several hours after the Afghan Special Security Forces had left in an armoured convoy with their three casualties the aircrew were still unsure of the location of the target and so requested a verbal description of the NDS compound.  This was provided by Afghan forces still inside the Provincial Chief of Police compound: their description matched the MSF Trauma Centre much more closely than the NDS compound, and the aircrew fixed on this as their target.


It’s impossible to know whether this was a mistake or misdirection, and the report fails to identify who provided the description.  Hutchinson was shown various photographs but explained that ‘it was dark when everything happened’; he couldn’t remember the name of the Afghan liaison officer and – the redactions make his responses difficult to follow at this point – he wasn’t always sure who he was talking to since he had to rely on interpreters (387-8).  But the description obviously had to come from someone who knew the city (which would include Gard and Wahab), and both Aikins and Jeong clearly believe that misdirection is not only possible but also extremely likely.  ‘That hospital is in the service of the Taliban,’ Gard told Aikins. ‘I swear to God, if they make it a hundred times, we’ll destroy it a hundred times.’  Hence the headline for Aikins’s searching New York Times report (above): ‘Doctors with enemies: did Afghan forces target the MSF hospital?‘ I should note that David Glazier dismisses all this as ‘highly speculative’ and insists that ‘it simply defies logic’.  While the claim is speculative it surely doesn’t defy logic, and Aikins and Jeong make at least a plausible if not definitive case).  They are clearly not alone in their suspicions: MSF’s very first question in response to the investigation report was this:

‘What was the physical description of the intended target provided by the Afghan forces and how did it match the description of the MSF hospital?’


The studied refusal to recognise medical neutrality – if that is what this was – emerges from a long history of friction between MSF and the government in Kabul, and it threads its way out into a wider history and geography of deliberate attacks against medical facilities elsewhere in Afghanistan, and – among other recent places – in Gaza (by the Israeli military), in Syria (primarily by the Russian and Syrian Arab Air Forces) and in Yemen (primarily by the Saudi-led coalition which is advised by the United Kingdom on targeting).  In February 2014 Thanassis Cambanis was already writing that ‘medical care is now a tool of war’, and in a report issued in May 2016 the World Health Organisation counted almost 600 attacks against medical facilities, doctors and nurses in 19 countries since then.  These shocking statistics, which are inevitably imperfect, include attacks by non-state actors, among them the Taliban and Islamic State, but I have emphasised the complicity of state actors – including leading members of the UN Security Council – because it is their actions that determine the course of international humanitarian law and because they are ultimately responsible for what MSF’s president Joanne Liu saw in the wake of the attack on its Trauma Centre in Kunduz as  ‘not just an attack on our hospital’ but ‘an attack on the Geneva Conventions.’


In a letter to the UN Security Council issued on 22 September 2016, after a direct and deliberate attack on a humanitarian convoy delivering aid to eastern Aleppo, more than 100 humanitarian organisations noted that:

‘Each [head of state] that accepts a lack of accountability for perpetrators and facilitators of war crimes colludes in the ongoing dissolution of international humanitarian law.’

That dissolution can be seen as a defiant reassertion of the absolutism of sovereign power, because ‘medical neutrality’ is not a neutral claim.  Adia Benton and Sa’ed Ashtan persuasively argue that:

The health worker’s claim to impartiality may itself be a stance against the state’s insistence that it is the sole arbiter of who can live and who can die. The local health worker’s claim to an international norm … may be understood as a direct challenge to the state’s claim to sovereignty…. Can ‘‘medical neutrality’’ accurately describe a situation where there is no neutral ground upon which to stand? (‘‘‘Even War has Rules’’: On Medical Neutrality and Legitimate Non-violence’ , Cult. Med. Psychiatry 40 (2016) 151-158).

As the spectral presence of Giorgio Agamben in my slide below implies, this has the liveliest implications for how we are to understand the space of exception and the refusal of its victims to be reduced to the passivity of ‘bare life’.


As I will show in the next post in this series, Syria is the most egregious contemporary case.  If some members of the Afghan security forces wilfully misled the Americans into targeting the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz, then it seems clear that they objected to the protection extended by IHL to wounded Taliban combatants and those who treat them (though many of those killed in the attack were civilians, despite Alan Dershowitz‘s tawdry attempt to suggest that MSF ‘favoured Taliban fighters over civilian patients’: see Kevin Jon Heller’s magisterial response here).  But in Syria not only has the provision of medical aid to those in rebel-held areas been explicitly criminalised by the state’s new Counterterrorism Law which came into effect in July 2012 – the space of exception is far from being a ‘legal “black hole” – but the ban extends to those providing medical aid to sick or wounded civilians.  And make no mistake: there have been no mistakes.  The murder of doctors and nurses and the bombing of hospitals and clinics in Syria has been deliberate and systematic.  The exception to the exception contracts to its vanishing point.

To be continued.


Legal battles

DoD Law of War ManualFollowing up my comments on the Pentagon’s new Law of War Manual, issued last month: commentaries are starting to appear (it’s not surprising these are taking so long: the new version runs to 1200 pages).

Just Security is hosting a forum on the Manual, organised by Eric Jensen and Sean Watts.  They are both deeply embedded in the debate: Eric is a Professor at Brigham Young Law School and was formerly Chief of the Army’s International Law Branch and Legal Advisor to US military forces in Iraq and Bosnia, while Sean is a Professor at Creighton University Law School and on the Department of Law faculty at the United States Military Academy at West Point; he is also Senior Fellow at the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence and served in the US Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

In the opening salvo, Sean focuses on the Manual‘s identification of three core principles:

“Three interdependent principles – military necessity, humanity, and honor – provide the foundation for other law of war principles, such as proportionality and distinction, and most of the treaty and customary rules of the law of war.”

The implications of this formulation are more far reaching than you might think.  Necessity, proportionality and distinction have long been watchwords, but the inclusion – more accurately, Sean suggests, the resurrection – of ‘humanity’ and ‘honor’ is more arresting: in his view, the first extends the protection from ‘unnecessary suffering’ while the second ‘marks an important, if abstract revival of good faith as a legal restraint on military operations’.

Watch that space for more commentaries, inside and outside the armed camp.

Others have already taken a much more critical view of the Manual.

Claire Bernish draws attention to two particularly disturbing elements here.  First, like several other commentators, she notes passages that allow journalists to be construed as legitimate targets.  While the Manual explains that ‘journalists are civilians’ it also insists there are cases in which journalists may be ‘members of the armed forces […] or unprivileged belligerents.’   Apparently, Claire argues,

‘reporters have joined the ranks of al-Qaeda in this new “unprivileged belligerent” designation, which replaces the Bush-era term, “unlawful combatants.” What future repercussions this categorization could bring are left to the imagination, even though the cited reasoning—the possibility terrorists might impersonate journalists—seems legitimate. This confounding label led a civilian lawyer to say it was “an odd and provocative thing for them to write.”‘

Other commentators, mindful of incidents in which the US military has been accused of targeting independent (non-embedded) journalists, have read this as far more than provocation.  Like other claims registered in the Manual, this has implications for other armed forces – and in this particular case, for example, Ken Hanly points out that ‘what is allowed for NATO and the US is surely legitimate for Israel.’

This is not as straightforward as he implies, though.  Eric Jensen agrees that

‘[T]he writers had to be aware this manual would also be looked to far beyond the US military, including by other nations who are formulating their own law of war (LOW) policies, allies who are considering US policy for purposes of interoperability during combined military operations, transnational and international organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who look to such manuals when considering the development of customary practice, and even national and international tribunals who adjudicate LOW questions with respect to the criminality of individual actions.

While Eric acknowledges ‘the inevitable use of [the Manual] in the determination of customary practice.’ however, he also argues that the authors of the Manual go out of their way to preclude this possibility: they ‘wanted to be very clear that they did not anticipate they were writing into law the US position on the law of war.’

Second, Claire draws attention to a list of weapons with specific rules on use’ (Section 6.5.1), which includes cluster munitions, herbicides and explosive ordnance, and a following list of other ‘lawful weapons’ (Section 6.5.2) for which ‘there are no law of war rules specifically prohibiting or restricting the following types of weapons by the U.S. armed forces’; the list includes drones and Depleted Uranium munitions.  These designations are all perfectly accurate, but Claire’s commentary fastens on the fact that at least two of these weapons have been outlawed by many states.  She draws attention to the hideous consequences of DU and cluster bombs, and explains that cluster bombs:

‘are delineated in the manual as having “Specific Rules on Use”— notably, such weapons’ use “may reflect U.S. obligations under international law” [emphasis added]. While this is technically apt, cluster bombs have been banned by the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions—which was agreed to by 116 countries around the world. The U.S. stands out in joining infamous human rights violator, Saudi Arabia, in its refusal to sign. These insidious munitions leave unexploded ordnance for months, or even decades, after the originating bomb was dropped. Children are often maimed or killed when they unwittingly mistake them for toys.’

Meanwhile, also at Just Security but seemingly not part of the Forum, Adil Ahmad Haque has attacked the Manual‘s discussion of ‘human shields’:

The Defense Department apparently thinks that it may lawfully kill an unlimited number of civilians forced to serve as involuntary human shields in order to achieve even a trivial military advantage. According to the DOD’s recently released Law of War Manual, harm to human shields, no matter how extensive, cannot render an attack unlawfully disproportionate. The Manual draws no distinction between civilians who voluntarily choose to serve as human shields and civilians who are involuntarily forced to serve as human shields. The Manual draws no distinction between civilians who actively shield combatants carrying out an attack and civilians who passively shield military objectives from attack. Finally, the Manual draws no distinction between civilians whose presence creates potential physical obstacles to military operations and civilians whose presence creates potential legal obstacles to military operations. According to the Manual, all of these count for nothing in determining proportionality under international law.

If true, this would dramatically qualify the discussion of ‘humanity’ and ‘honor’ above; but, not surprisingly, Charles Dunlap will have none of it.  He objects not only to Adil’s reading of the Manual, but also the logic that lies behind his criticism:

Killing those who do the vast majority of the killing of civilians can save lives. It really can be that simple.

Experience shows that well-meaning efforts to curb the use of force can have disastrous effects on civilians. Think about the restrictions on airstrikes imposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan in mid-2009. The result? By the time he was fired a year later in June 2010, civilian casualties had jumped a heart-rending 31% entirely because of increased killings by anti-government forces. (In addition, casualties among friendly troops hit an all-time high in 2010.)

McChrystal Tactical Directive 1

[The unclassified section of McChrystal’s Tactical Directive (above) is here]

When Gen. David Petraeus took command in mid-2010, he took a different, more aggressive approach. While still scrupulously adhering to the law of war, he clarified the rules of engagement in a way that produced a tripling of the number of airstrikes. The result? The increase in civilian casualties was cut in half to 15% by the end of 2010. Under Petraeus’ more permissive interpretation of the use of force against the Taliban and other anti-government forces, the increase the following year was cut almost in half again to 8% (and losses of friendly troops fell 20%). To reiterate, although counterintuitive to some critics, restricting force by law or policy can actually jeopardize the lives of the civilians everyone wants to protect.

Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institue makes exactly the same argument about the Manual here (scroll down), but Dunlap’s sense is much sharper: the Manual, he says, ‘is designed to win wars in a lawful way that fully internalizes, as it says itself on several occasions, the “realties of war.”’  This is immensely important because in effect it acknowledges that neither the Manual nor the laws of war are above the fray.  If the Manual ‘is designed to win wars in a lawful way’ that is precisely because law is in the army’s baggage train, fully incorporated into the juridification of later modern war.  Law is at once a powerful weapon and a moving target.

Theory of the drone 4: Pennies from Heaven

This is the fourth in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone.

7: Counter-insurgency from the air

The focus of the new US Army /US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual FM 3-24 that was issued in 2006 was, naturally enough, on ground operations in which the Army and the Marine Corps would take the lead.  To the anger of many Air Force officers, air operations were relegated to a supporting role outlined in the last appendix, the last five pages of 335, which acknowledged the contribution of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) from ‘air- mounted collection platforms’ and (in certain circumstances) the ‘enormous value’ of ‘precision air attacks’.


And yet in practice, as Chamayou argues, the balance was already being reversed; the incorporation of drones into counterinsurgency (COIN) was soon so advanced that there were calls (from air power advocates) for the promulgation of an official doctrine reflecting the new intrinsically three-dimensional reality.  So – to take the example Chamayou gives – Phillip Meilinger, a retired command pilot and former Dean of the School of Advanced Airpower Studies at the USAF’s Air University at Maxwell AFB, complained that the Field Manual had already been overtaken by events:

The role for airpower in COIN is generally seen as providing airlift, ISR capabilities, and precision strike. This outdated paradigm is too nar- rowly focused and relegates airpower to the support role while ground forces perform the “real” work. Worse, marginalizing airpower keeps it in support of ground-centric strategies that have proved unsuccessful.

He called for the Pentagon to

‘re-examine the paradigm that was so successful in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. That was the use of air and space power, combined with [Special Operations Forces], indigenous ground forces, and overwhelming ISR. Given the outstanding results already demonstrated, an air-centric joint COIN model should be one of the first options for America’s military and political leaders.’

As the image heading his article makes clear, Meilinger – a gifted military historian – was not limiting the role of airpower to drones; far from it.  But his repeated references to the Air Force’s ‘more sophisticated and effective sensor aircraft and satellites’ signalled their indispensable importance in the transformation of counterinsurgency from a ground-centric to an air-centric model.

fm-3-24-counterinsurgency_500A similar salvo was fired at more or less the same time by Charles Dunlap, Deputy Judge Advocate General for the USAF, who castigated FM 3-24 for conceiving air power ‘as aerial artillery’ whose weapons were ‘somehow more inaccurate than other kinds of fires.’

‘In perhaps no other area has the manual been proven more wrong by the events of 2007…. [T]he profound changes in airpower’s capabilities have so increased its utility that it is now often the weapon of first recourse in COIN operations, even in urban environments.’

Dunlap was quick to say that this myopia wasn’t the result of inter-service rivalry (‘parochialism’):

‘Rather, FM 3-24 draws many of its lessons from counterinsurgency operations dating from the 1950s through the 1970s. While this approach is remarkably effective in many respects, it inherently undervalues airpower. The revolutions in airpower capabilities that would prove so effective during 2007 were unavailable to counterinsurgents in earlier eras.’ 

Those ‘revolutions’ – what Dunlap identified as ‘the precision and persistence revolutions’ – placed armed drones at the leading edge of counterinsurgency and, as Chamayou glosses these arguments, consigned previous objections to the dustbin of history.

Recalling my post yesterday about ‘pattern of life’ analysis, Dunlap argued that ‘visual observations have a grammar all their own’, and he cited with approval this paragraph from journalist Mark Benjamin‘s Killing “Bubba” from the skies’:

‘The Air Force recently watched one man in Iraq for more than five weeks, carefully recording his habits—where he lives, works, and worships, and whom he meets . The military may decide to have such a man arrested, or to do nothing at all. Or, at any moment they could decide to blow him to smithereens.’

It’s a revealing essay that accords closely with Chamayou’s central thesis: Benjamin reported that, from the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, ‘they are stalking prey’ and that the US Air Force had turned the art of searching for individuals into a science.

But Dunlap cooly added: ‘The last statement may be more insightful than perhaps even Benjamin realized.’  For it was not only a matter of killing, ‘blowing a man to smithereens’, and what Dunlap had in mind was not only persistent presence but also persistent threat: the ability to ‘dislocate the psychology of the insurgents’ who now never knew where or when they might be attacked.

For this reason Chamayou suggests that the drone effects a sort of détournement on the strategies and weapons of the insurgent-terrorist – the skirmish and the ambush, the IED and the suicide bomb – to become what he calls, through this radical reversal, ‘the weapon of State terrorism’.  Its short-lived engagements happen without warning and target individuals without compunction.

And yet, for all its technological sophistication, Chamayou insists that this is not a new strategy. Military historians ought to look further back, he suggests, to the policies of colonial ‘air control’ developed in the inter-war period (the image below shows a bomb dropped by the RAF on Sulaimaniyah in Iraq on 27 May 1924: more here).  He develops this argument in a later chapter, where he describes the drone as ‘the weapon of an amnesiac post-colonial violence’ (p. 136): a postcolonialism that has forgotten – or suppressed – its own wretched history.

British bomb dropped on Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, 1924

Indeed it has.  The twenty-first century version of counterinsurgency has made much of the iconic, inspirational figure of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.  But as I’ve argued in ‘DisOrdering the Orient’ (DOWNLOADS tab):

‘… long before he resigned his Army commission and re-enlisted in the Royal Air Force as Aircraftsman Ross, [Lawrence] had been drawn to the wide open spaces of the sky as well as those of the desert. Patrick Deer suggests that in Lawrence’s personal mythology ‘air control in the Middle East offered a redemptive postscript to his role in the Arab Revolt of 1916-18’. He imagined the Arab Revolt ‘as a kind of modernist vortex,’ Deer argues, fluid and dynamic, ‘without front or back,’ and in Seven Pillars he recommended ‘not disclosing ourselves till we attack.’ To Lawrence, and to many others at the time, the intimation of a nomadic future war gave air power a special significance. ‘What the Arabs did yesterday,’ he wrote, ‘the Air Forces may do tomorrow – yet more swiftly.’  As Priya Satia has shown, this rested not only on a military Orientalism that distinguished different ways of war but also on a cultural Orientalism that represented bombing as signally appropriate to the people of these lands. This was, minimally, about intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. ‘According to this perverse logic’, Satia explains, ‘the RAF’s successful persecution of a village testified to their intimacy with the people on the ground, without which they would not have been able to strike it accurately.’ More than this, however, ‘the claim to empathy ultimately underwrote the entire air control system with its authoritative reassurances that bombardment was a tactic that would be respected and expected in this unique land.’ From this perspective, Satia continues, Arabs saw bombing as ‘pulling the strings of fate from the sky.’ They understood it ‘not as punishment,’ Lawrence informed his readers, ‘but as misfortune from heaven striking the community.’ And if women and children were killed in the process that was supposedly of little consequence to them: what mattered were the deaths of ‘the really important men.’’

JONGBLOED Lawrence triptych

As far as I know, Lawrence has not been invoked by any of the contemporary advocates of airpower in counterinsurgency – though he has been called ‘Lawrence of Airpower‘ – but many of these formulations and their successors, translated into an ostensibly more scientific vocabulary, reappear in contemporary debates about the deployment of drones in counterinsurgency.

In fact, Meilinger had conceded the relevance of these historical parallels. ‘It would be useful to revisit the “air control” operations employed by the Royal Air Force in the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s,’ he wrote. ‘These operations were not always successful in objective military terms, but they were unusually successful in political terms, in part because they carried a low cost in both financial and casualty terms’ (my emphasis).

That is an extraordinary sentence, although Chamayou doesn’t quote it, because what is missing from the air power advocates’ view (so Chamayou argues) is – precisely – an apprehension of the politics of counterinsurgency in general and air strikes in particular.  Indeed, when the imaginary conjured up by Lawrence and his successors reappears in contemporary debates it is entered on both sides of the ledger: not only as economical and effective but also as cowardly and counter-productive.   Here is Colonel Keen, complaining about the bombing of Pashtun villages on the North West Frontier in 1923:

‘By driving the inhabitants of the bombarded area from their homes in a state of exasperation, dispersing them among neighbouring clans and tribes with hatred in their hearts at what they consider ‘‘unfair’’ methods of warfare … [these attacks] bring about the exact political results which it is so important in our own interests to avoid, viz., the permanent embitterment and alienation of the frontier tribes.’ 

Both Chamayou and I cite this passage, and you can find more about the colonial bombing of Waziristan in a previous post (scroll down).

This sentiment reappeared in different form in the critique of drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas  – the same region described by Keen – published by David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum in the New York Times in 2009, ‘Death from above, Outrage down below‘. Their core argument was that the campaign was making the cardinal mistake of ‘personalizing’ the struggle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban – going after individuals – while causing considerable civilian casualties: ‘every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.’

Estimates of combatant and civilian casualties remain contentious, of course, including those used by Kilcullen and Exum; Chamayou doesn’t discuss this in any detail, but most sources (including the Bureau of Investigate Journalism) suggest that civilian casualties in Pakistan have fallen from their peak in 2009-10.  Others have argued that drone strikes are more effective than their critics claim.  Their confidence typically rests on a combination of assertion and anecdote, but a recent quantitative study by Patrick Johnston and Anoop Sarbahi (from which I’ve borrowed the map below) purports to show that, contrary to Kilcullen and Exum’s original claim, US drone strikes between January 2007 and September 2011 reduced the incidence of militant activity in the FATA.

JOHNSTON and SARBAHI Figure 1 Drone strikes and militant activity in FATA

I mention these qualifications neither to adjudicate them nor to blunt Chamayou’s argument: simply to note that the situation is far from static or settled. Chamayou uses the Kilcullen-Exum critique, in conjunction with Kilcullen’s other, more extended contributions, to leverage two linked claims:

(1) counterinsurgency is a politico-military strategy that depends, for its effectiveness, on a sustained presence amongst a population: a politics of verticality (described in my previous post) cannot substitute for, and usually confounds, a properly population-centric campaign, which can only be won on the ground.

(2) the ‘dronisation’ of US military operations signals a shift away from counterinsurgency and towards counter-terrorism, which is a police-security strategy that prioritises an individual-centric campaign.

Chamayou owes the distinction to Kilcullen [‘Countering global insurgency’, Journal of strategic studies 28 (2005) 597-617]:

‘Under this [counter-terrorism] paradigm … terrorists are seen as unrepresentative aberrant individuals, misfits within society. Partly because they are unrepresentative, partly to discourage emulation, ‘we do not negotiate with terrorists’. Terrorists are criminals, whose methods and objectives are both unacceptable. They use violence partly to shock and influence populations and governments, but also because they are psychologically or morally flawed (‘evil’) individuals. In this paradigm, terrorism is primarily a law enforcement problem, and we therefore adopt a case-based approach where the key objective is to apprehend the perpetrators of terrorist attacks…

‘The insurgency paradigm is different. Under this approach, insurgents are regarded as representative of deeper issues or grievances within society. We seek to defeat insurgents through ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the population, a process that involves compromise and negotiation. We regard insurgents’ methods as unacceptable, but their grievances are often seen as legitimate, provided they are pursued peacefully… We see insurgents as using violence within an integrated politico-military strategy, rather than as psychopaths. In this paradigm, insurgency is a whole-of-government problem rather than a military or law enforce- ment issue. Based on this, we adopt a strategy-based approach to counterinsurgency, where the objective is to defeat the insurgent’s strategy, rather than to ‘apprehend the perpetrators’ of specific acts.’

in Chamayou’s terms, ‘manhunting by drones’ represents the triumph, at once doctrinal and practical, of counter-terrorism over counterinsurgency.  In this optic, a space of representation substitutes for lived space: ‘The body count, the list of hunting trophies, substitutes for the strategic evaluation of the political effects of military violence.  Success is turned into statistics.  Their evaluation is disconnected from effects on the ground.’

It’s an engaging argument, but I think it’s over-stated for several reasons.

First, contemporary counterinsurgency clearly has not ceded the statistical battleground to anyone. Under David Petraeus in particular, cascades of PowerPoint slides sluiced a tidal wave of metrics over military and public audiences, and these too were often disconnected from events on the ground.  As I showed in “Seeing Red” (DOWNLOADS tab), for example, at the height of the violence in Baghdad military briefers preferred the virtual-cartographic to the visceral-physical city, ‘walking’ reporters through maps of the capital because, for all their upbeat assessments, it was far too dangerous to walk them through the real city that lay beyond the Green Zone.  And so far it has proved impossible to obtain any figures of fatalities from drone strikes in the FATA from Obama’s otherwise garrulous ‘off-the-record’ (and, remarkably, never prosecuted) officials.

Second, contemporary counterinsurgency is not only about deploying ‘soft power’ and exploiting the humanitarian-military nexus; this is a one-sided view.  Kilcullen himself conceded that ‘there’s always a lot of killing, one way or another’, in counterinsurgency, but in the wake of the nightmare that was Abu Ghraib the publicity campaign that surrounded the release of FM 3-24 directed attention to ‘hearts and minds’ – to a kinder, gentler, culturally-informed and compassionate military – rather than to bullets and bombs.   But as Petraeus reminded Noah Schachtman in November 2007,  the manual

‘doesn’t say that the best weapons don’t shoot. It says sometimes the best weapons don’t shoot. Sometimes the best weapons do shoot.”

As I showed in “The rush to the intimate” (DOWNLOADS tab), more often than one might think. Chamayou is perfectly correct to say that ‘drones are excellent at crushing bodies from a distance, but they are perfectly  inappropriate for winning “hearts and minds”‘: but counterinsurgency, even in its supposedly radically new form, involves both.

Third, for that very reason counterinsurgency has continued to incorporate air power into its operations, and ground troops and commanders in Afghanistan continue to clamour for Predators and Reapers to provide close air support.  In October 2009 the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued Joint Publication 3-24 on Counterinsurgency Operations, which was far more positive about air power than the Field Manual three years earlier:

‘Video downlink and datalink technology have revolutionized real-time air to ground employment allowing air assets to seamlessly integrate into and support the ground commander’s scheme of maneuver. Armed overwatch missions provide ground forces with the critical situational awareness, flexibility, and immediate fire support necessary to succeed in the dynamic COIN environment.’

Fourth, later modern war is intrinsically hybrid, and military operations under its sign are likely to involve an unstable and often contradictory mix of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism. Writing a year or so into Obama’s first term, Colleen Bell and Brad Evans [in ‘Terrorism to insurgency: Mapping the post-intervention security terrain’, Journal of intervention and statebuilding 4 (4) (2010) 371-390] described a reverse movement from counter-terrorism to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan:

‘Counterterrorist interventionism has, until relatively recently, been principally rooted in an exterminatory logic that demands a sovereign commitment to the violent excision of enemies. The shift towards the problem of insurgency, however, is more expansive. It demonstrates a strategic focus on political opposition as embedded within besieged, illiberal and underdeveloped populations…. [The] focus on insurgency in terms of population represents a break from the preoccupation with terrorism as a form of incalculable danger to the mobilization of a different rationality of risk, that of insurance, which seeks to govern the future on the basis of the collective probabilities emanating from within host societies today.’

kaplan_the-insurgents_cover-finalThey treat this as a transformation of what Chamayou would call the ‘logics’ of intervention: from ‘a conventional struggle to eliminate adversaries’ to a ‘productive reconstitution of the life of a population’ (which requires ‘marking out what qualities the “good” life must possess, whilst in the process positively rendering dangerous all “other” life which does not comply with the productive remit).  In other words (their words), a switch from sovereign power to bio-power.  I have my reservations about the theoretical argument, but in any case the transformation was far from stable or straightforward.  In December 2009 Obama committed thousands of extra ground troops as part of a revitalized counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan; they were supported by a continued increase in drone operations. And Obama had also authorised a dramatic increase in CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan.  But in June 2011 he announced the withdrawal of those additional troops: as Fred Kaplan puts in The insurgents, ‘pulling the plug on COIN.’  All of this va-et-vient was, as Kaplan shows in exquisite detail, more than a philosophico-logical affair: it was also profoundly political, and included considerations of domestic US politics, concerns over the Afghan state in general and the re-election of Hamid Karzai in particular, and no doubt calculations of advantage within the US military.  In short, while Chamayou is surely right to accentuate the politics of military violence this is not confined to the ‘inside’ of counterinsurgency – COIN as ‘applied social work’, as Kilcullen once described it – because politics also provides one of its activating armatures. (I’ve discussed Kaplan’s view of drone strikes and what he sees as an emerging imaginary of ‘the world as free-fire zone’ here).

For all that, Chamayou’s dissection of the ‘reverse logics’ of these particular forms of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism is analytically helpful, and adds another dimension to his argument about the transformation of war from battlefields to hunting grounds and from armies to individuals.   He insists that the commitment to targeted killing (by drone or, I would add, Special Forces) is a commitment to ‘an infinite eradicationism’ in which it becomes impossible to kill leaders (‘High Value Targets’) faster than they can be replaced. In his vivid image, the hydra constantly regenerates itself as a direct response  to the very strikes that seek to decapitate it.

‘Advocates for the drone as the privileged weapon against terrorism promise a war without loss or defeat.  They fail to note that this will also be war without victory’ (p. 108).