The Death of the Clinic

This is the fifth in a new series of posts on military violence against hospitals and medical personnel in conflict zones. It follows directly from my analysis of the situation in Syria here.

President Bashar al-Assad has consistently denied that his forces have attacked hospitals or doctors.  In an interview with SBS Australia on 1 July 2016 he asked his interviewer:

‘… the very simple question is: why do we attack hospitals and civilians?… No government in this situation has any interest in killing civilians or attacking hospitals. Anyway, if you attack hospitals, you can use any building to be a hospital. No, these are anecdotal claims, mendacious statements …’


There are at least four answers to Assad’s disingenuous question (if you falter at the adjective, see here).

(1) Silencing the witnesses

When Widney Brown from Physicians for Human Rights testified at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on 31 March 2016 she provided one clear and compelling rationale for Assad’s attacks on doctors:

‘… attacks on doctors silence particularly powerful witnesses. When the Syrian government denies its use of chemical weapons, cluster munitions, starvation, or torture, doctors can bear witnesses to these violations because they have seen and treated the victims.’


To be sure, there are other witnesses and even paper trails and photographic records.  Ben Taub, who has done so much to bring ‘Syria’s war on doctors‘ to the attention of a wider public, has also provided a detailed account of the work done by Bill Wiley and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability whose volunteers have smuggled over 600,000 documents out of Syria detailing mass torture and killings by the regime.


The war crimes have not been confined to attacks on hospitals in opposition-held areas.  A photographer known only as ‘Caesar’, who had been attached to the Defence Ministry’s Criminal Forensic Division, smuggled out thousands of high-resolution digital images exposing the horrors of the regime’s own military hospitals:

The pictures, most of them taken in Syrian military hospitals, show corpses photographed at close range – one at a time as well as in small groupings. Virtually all of the bodies – thousands of them – betray signs of torture: gouged eyes; mangled genitals; bruises and dried blood from beatings; acid and electric burns; emaciation; and marks from strangulation…

These unfortunates may have lived and died in different ways, but they were bound in death by coded numerals scribbled on their skin with markers, or on scraps of paper affixed to their bodies. The first set of numbers (for example, 2935 in the photographs at bottom) would denote a prisoner’s I.D. The second (for example, 215) would refer to the intelligence branch responsible for his or her death. Underneath these figures, in many cases, would appear the hospital case-file number (for example, 2487/B)…

[T]he system of organizing and recording the dead served three ends: to satisfy Syrian authorities that executions were carried out; to ensure that no one was improperly discharged; and to allow military judges to represent to families—by producing official-seeming death certificates—that their loved ones had died of natural causes. In many ways, these facilities were ideal for hiding “unwanted” individuals, alive or dead. As part of the Ministry of Defense, the hospitals were already fortified, which made it easy to shield their inner workings and keep away families who might come looking for missing relatives. “These hospitals provide cover for the crimes of the regime,” said Nawaf Fares, a top Syrian diplomat and tribal leader who defected in 2012. “People are brought into the hospitals, and killed, and their deaths are papered over with documentation.” When I asked him, during a recent interview in Dubai, Why involve the hospitals at all?, he leaned forward and said, “Because mass graves have a bad reputation.”

(2) Multiplying the casualties

This is a radicalisation of an old strategy.  As Sam Weber pointed out in Targets of opportunity (2005), ‘every target is inscribed in a network or chain of events that inevitably exceeds the opportunity that can be seized or the horizon that can be seen.’  So, for example, when the United States or Israel bombs a power plant it often as not explains that it has been careful to bomb in the small hours when only a skeleton staff was in the building in order to minimise collateral damage.  But this begs the question: why bomb the power plant at all?  In most instances the degradation of the electricity supply means that it becomes impossible to pump water or treat sewage; refrigerators fail and food perishes; hospitals are forced to use unreliable generators. The result – the intended, carefully calculated result – is that casualties rise at considerable distances from the target and over an extended period of time.

Similarly, Dr Abdulaziz Adel notes:  ‘Kill a doctor and you kill thousands.’  Simply put, patients who are sick or injured then go without treatment and in many cases their lives are put at risk.  (The images below are from Collateral Damage: more here).




Dr Rami Kalazi, a neurosurgeon from East Aleppo, agrees:

‘They are the artery of life in the city. Can you imagine a life in city without hospitals? Who will treat your kids? Who will make the surgeries for the injured people? So, they are targeting these hospitals because they know, if these hospitals were completely destroyed, the life will be completely destroyed.’

(3) ‘Moral[e] bombing’

This too is an old strategy.  The architects of ‘area bombing’ during the combined bomber offensive against Germany during the Second World War described it as ‘moral [sic] bombing’: a sustained and systematic attempt to undermine the morale of the enemy population so that they would demand their leaders sue for peace.  If this was a tried and tested strategy, however, the test showed that it was a complete failure (see my ‘Doors into nowhere’: DOWNLOADS tab).



But the lesson was lost in Syria, where attacks on hospitals have had a central place.  As Samir Puri argues, the strategy behind the joint Syrian and Russian air campaign seems to be:

“If there is a total collapse of any kind of trauma care, those are the sort of things that can contribute to collapsing morale very suddenly. The morale of a besieged force can look robust until it collapses.”

And Syria is not unique in contemporary wars: Israel has deployed the same strategy in its repeated assaults on Gaza (see here, here and here for ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014), and the Saudi-led coalition has attacked more than 70 hospitals and health facilities in Yemen since March 2015 (in this latter case Russian media have reported MSF’s objections to the ‘utter disregard for civilian life’ without dissent: see for example here).


‘Preventing medicine’, as Annie Sparrow puts it, has become ‘a new weapon of mass destruction’.

(4) ‘Violence legislates’

Following the attack on the UN aid convoy delivering supplies to a Syrian Red Crescent warehouse outside East Aleppo on 19 September 2016, 101 humanitarian organisations issued a joint appeal to the United Nations on 22 September; in part it read:

‘Deliberate attacks on humanitarian workers and civilians are war crimes. This must mark a turning point: the UN Security Council cannot allow increasingly brazen violations of international humanitarian law to continue with impunity.

‘Heads of state are gathered in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly. Each one that accepts a lack of accountability for perpetrators and facilitators of war crimes colludes in the ongoing dissolution of international humanitarian law’ (my emphases).

The first paragraph is damning enough.  Ben Taub in the New Yorker again:

Nowhere has the supposed deterrent of eventual justice proved so visibly ineffective as in Syria. Like most countries, Syria signed the Rome Statute, which, according to U.N. rules, means that it is bound by the “obligation not to defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.” But, because Syria never actually ratified the document, the International Criminal Court has no independent authority to investigate or prosecute crimes that take place within Syrian territory. The U.N. Security Council does have the power to refer jurisdiction to the court, but international criminal justice is a relatively new and fragile endeavor, and, to a disturbing extent, its application is contingent on geopolitics.

But the sting comes in the second paragraph.  As I’ve noted before, international humanitarian law is not a neutral court of appeal, a deus ex machina above the fray, but has always been closely entangled with military violence.  In many respects it travels in the baggage train, constantly pulled by the trajectory of the very violence it supposedly seeks to regulate (or facilitate, depending on your point of view).  In short, as Eyal Weizman has it, ‘violence legislates‘.

There is good reason to fear that the systematic violation of medical neutrality is intended to force its dissolution.  Thomas Arcaro writes: ‘Humanitarian principles like neutrality and impartiality that once seemed so self-evident have been drawn into question, especially on the politically and ethnically complex battlefields of Iraq and Syria.’

And not only there.  In the case of the US airstrike on the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz in 2015, I’ve suggested that some key Afghan officers and politicians chafed at the protections afforded to wounded Taliban combatants by international humanitarian law.  They also alleged that the Trauma Centre had breached its conditional immunity because the Taliban had overrun the hospital and were firing at US and Afghan forces from its precincts.  There is no evidence to support that assertion, but it is an increasingly familiar claim.  On 7 December 2016 US Central Command justified a ‘precision strike’ requested by Iraqi forces on a building within the al-Salem hospital complex in Mosul by claiming that IS fighters had used it as a base to launch heavy and sustained machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade attacks.  That would certainly have compromised the hospital’s immunity, but international humanitarian law still requires a warning to be issued before any attack and a proportionality analysis to be conducted; Colonel John Dorrian said that the US Air Force did not ‘have any reason to believe civilians were harmed’ but conceded that it was ‘very difficult to ascertain with full and total fidelity’ whether any medical staff or patients were in the building at the time of the air strike.

But what the Syrian case suggests is a new impatience with medical neutrality tout court: not only a hostility towards the treatment of wounded and sick combatants but also an unwillingness to extend sanctuary to wounded and sick civilians.


And that reluctance is not confined to the Assad regime and its allies.    A survey carried out for the International Committee of the Red Cross between June and September makes for alarming reading – even once you’ve overcome your scepticism about public opinion polls.  As Spencer Ackerman reports:

Areas in active conflict record greater urgency over questions of civilian protection in wartime than do the great powers that often conduct or participate in those conflicts. In Ukraine, 83% believe everyone wounded and sick during a conflict has a right to health care, compared with 62% of Russians. A full 100% of Yemenis endorse the proposition, as do 81% of Afghans, 66% of Syrians and 42% of Iraqis – compared with 49% of Americans, 53% of Britons, 37% of the Chinese and 67% of the French.

It’s that last clause that is so disturbing: for the last four states listed are all permanent members of the UN Security Council…

So what, then, are we to make of what I’ve been calling ‘the exception to the exception’?

The exception to the exception

homo-sacerI think it’s a mistake to treat ‘the camp’, following Giorgio Agamben‘s vital work, as the exemplary, diagnostic site of the modern space of exception; the killing fields of today’s wars (themselves spaces of indistinction, where it is never clear where war stops and peace begins, where the geometry of the battlefield or, better, ‘battlespace’ becomes ever more fractured and blurred, and where the partitions between international and internal conflicts have been reduced to rubble) are also spaces within which groups of people are deliberately and knowingly exposed to death through the removal of legal protections that would ordinarily be afforded to them.  In short, killing and injuring become legally permissible.

Those exposed groups include both combatants and civilians, but their fate is not determined solely by the suspension of national laws (the case that concerns Agamben) because international humanitarian law continues to afford them some minimal protections.  One of its central provisions has been medical neutrality: yet if, through its serial violations in Syria and elsewhere, we are witnessing the slow ‘death of the clinic’ – which I treat as a topological figure which extends from the body of the sick or wounded through the evacuation chain to the hospital itself – and the extinction of ‘the exception to the exception’, the clinic as a (conditionally) sacrosanct space – then I think it’s necessary to add further twists to Agamben’s original conception.

As Adia Benton and Sa’ed Ashtan have argued, medical neutrality – the exception to the exception – represents a fraught attempt to restrict the state’s recourse to military violence: it is a limitation on and has now perhaps become even an affront to sovereign power and the state’s insistence that it is ‘the sole arbiter of who can live and who can die’.

Agamben describes the inhabitants of the space of exception as so many homines sacri – where sacer has the double meaning of both ‘sacred’ and ‘accursed’ – and it may be that in today’s killing fields doctors, nurses and healthcare workers are being transformed into new versions of homo sacer: once ‘sacred’ for their selfless devotion to saving lives, they are now ‘accursed’ for their principled dedication to medical neutrality.



Yet the precarity of their existence under conditions of detention and torture, siege and airstrike, has not reduced them to what Agamben calls ‘bare life’.  They care – desperately – whether they live or die; they have improvised a series of survival strategies; they have not been silent in the face of almost unspeakable horror; and they have developed new forms of solidarity, support and sociality.


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.


Spaces of exception and enemies

Human Geography 25

I’m just back from a wonderful time at a conference in Galway organised by John Morrissey as part of The Haven Project on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.  The latest issue of Human Geography (Vol 9, No 2) is devoted to Geographical Perspectives on the European ‘Migration and Refugee Crisis‘ – those scare-quotes are vital – and if your library doesn’t subscribe you can contact the Institute of Human Geography at (most of the articles can be downloaded here).

At Galway I gave a new presentation on ‘Surgical strikes and modern war’, describing and analyzing the ways in which hospitals and ambulances, doctors and nurses have become targets of military violence; it drew on my new series of posts (see here and here), and there will be more to come on both Kunduz and on Syria (which was my main focus), but you can find a preliminary account of the whole event from Alex Jeffrey here.

My starting point was the modern space of exception seen not as ‘the camp‘, as Giorgio Agamben would have it, but as the killing fields of contemporary military and paramilitary violence (what would once have been called ‘the battlefield‘).  For these are spaces in which groups of people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the removal of legal protections that would ordinarily be afforded them; and yet these are not spaces in which the law is suspended tout court, spaces from which the law withdraws and abandons the victims of violence to their fatebut rather spaces in which law – and specifically international humanitarian law – seeks to regulate and, crucially, to sanction violence.  This is a form of martial law that Agamben never considers (I know I am taking liberties with that term, but that is precisely my point): here as elsewhere violence exists not only beyond the law but is inscribed within it.  My purpose was to show how what was once a sacred space within this zone of exception – ‘the hospital’,  a topological figure that extends from the body of the wounded through the sites of the evacuation chain to the hospital itself – has become corroded; no longer a space of immunity – of safety – an exception to the exception, it has often become a central target of contemporary violence.

The need to pull all this together largely explains my silence these last weeks, and a lot has happened in the interim.  Where to start?  A good place is the latest issue of Radical Philosophy, the last in its present form, which includes two essays of direct relevance to the theme of the Galway conference.

First, an important essay by Achille Mbembe on ‘The Society of Enmity’ which you can download here:

Desire (master or otherwise) is also that movement through which the subject – enveloped on all sides by a specific phantasy [fantasme] (whether of omnipotence, ablation, destruction or persecution, it matters little) – seeks to turn back on itself in the hope of protecting itself from external danger, while other times it reaches outside of itself in order to face the windmills of the imagination that besiege it. Once uprooted from its structure, desire then sets out to capture the disturbing object. But since in reality this object has never existed – does not and will never exist – desire must continually invent it. An invented object, however, is still not a real object. It marks an empty yet bewitching space, a hallucinatory zone, at once enchanted and evil, an empty abode haunted by the object as if by a spell.

The desire for an enemy, the desire for apartheid, for separation and enclosure, the phantasy of extermination, today all haunt the space of this enchanted zone. In a number of cases, a wall is enough to express it.  There exist several kinds of wall, but they do not fulfil the same functions. [6] A separation wall is said to resolve a problem of excess numbers, a surplus of presence that some see as the primary reason for conditions of unbearable suffering. Restoring the experience of one’s existence, in this sense, requires a rupture with the existence of those whose absence (or complete disappearance) is barely experienced as a loss at all – or so one would like to believe. It also involves recognizing that between them and us there can be nothing that is shared in common. The anxiety of annihilation is thus at the heart of contemporary projects of separation.

Everywhere, the building of concrete walls and fences and other ‘security barriers’ is in full swing. Alongside the walls, other security structures are appearing: checkpoints, enclosures, watchtowers, trenches, all manner of demarcations that in many cases have no other function than to intensify the zoning off of entire communities, without ever fully succeeding in keeping away those considered a threat.

You can already surely hear the deadly echoes of Carl Schmitt – whose spectral presence lurked in the margins of my own presentation in Galway (for geographical elaborations of Schmitt, see Steve Legg‘s Spatiality, sovereignty and Carl Schmitt and Claudio Minca and Rory Rowan‘s On Schmitt and space) – and Achille makes the link explicit:

dangerousmindThis is an eminently political epoch, since ‘the specific political distinction’ from which ‘the political’ as such is defined – as Carl Schmitt argued, at least – is that ‘between friend and enemy’.  If our world today is an effectuation of Schmitt’s, then the concept of enemy is to be understood for its concrete and existential meaning, and not at all as a metaphor or an empty lifeless abstraction. The enemy Schmitt describes is neither a simple competitor, nor an adversary, nor a private rival whom one might hate or feel antipathy for. He is rather the object of a supreme antagonism. In both body and flesh, the enemy is that individual whose physical death is warranted by their existential denial of our own being.

However, to distinguish between friends and enemies is one thing; to identify the enemy with certainty is quite another. Indeed, as a ubiquitous yet obscure figure, today the enemy is even more dangerous by being everywhere: without face, name or place. If they have a face, it is only a veiled face, the simulacrum of a face. And if they have a name, this might only be a borrowed name, a false name whose primary function is dissimulation. Sometimes masked, other times in the open, such an enemy advances among us, around us, and even within us, ready to emerge in the middle of the day or in the heart of night, every time his apparition threatening the annihilation of our way of life, our very existence.

Yesterday, as today, the political as conceived by Schmitt owes its volcanic charge to the fact that it is closely connected to an existential will to power. As such, it necessarily and by definition opens up the extreme possibility of an infinite deployment of pure means without ends, as embodied in the execution of murder.

The essay is taken from Achille’s latest book, Politiques de l’inimitié published by Découverte in 2016:

Introduction – L’épreuve du monde
1. La sortie de la démocratie
Retournement, inversion et accélération
Le corps nocturne de la démocratie
La consumation du divin
Nécropolitique et relation sans désir
97827071881822. La société d’inimitié
L’objet affolant
L’ennemi, cet Autre que je suis
Les damnés de la foi
État d’insécurité
Nanoracisme et narcothérapie
3. La pharmacie de Fanon
Le principe de destruction
Société d’objets et métaphysique de la destruction
Peurs racistes
Décolonisation radicale et fête de l’imagination
La relation de soin
Le double ahurissant
La vie qui s’en va
4. Ce midi assommant
Impasses de l’humanisme
L’Autre de l’humain et généalogies de l’objet
Le monde zéro
Capitalisme et animisme
Émancipation du vivant
Conclusion. L’éthique du passant

Asylum seekers being registered at Passau

Second, an essay by Mark Neocleous and Maria Kastrinou, ‘The EU hotspot: Police war against the migrant’, which you can download here.  They start by asking a series of provocative questions about the EU strategy of ‘managing’ (read: policing) migration through the designation of ‘hotspots’ in which all refugees are to be identified, registered and fingerprinted:

There is no doubt that in some ways the term ‘hotspot’ is meant to play on the ubiquity of this word as a contemporary cultural trope, but this obviousness may obscure something far more telling, something not touched on by the criticisms of the hotspots, which tend to focus on either their squalid conditions or their legality (for example, with routes out of Greece being closed off migrants are in many ways being detained rather than registered; likewise, although ‘inadmissibility’ is being used as the reason to ship migrants back to Turkey, in reality ‘inadmissibility’ often means nothing other than that the political and bureaucratic machine is working too slowly to adequately process asylum claims).  Neither the legality nor the sanitary state of the hotspot is our concern here. Nor is the fact that the hotspots use identification measures largely as instruments of exclusion. Rather, we are interested in what the label ‘hotspot’ might tell us about the way the EU wants to manage the crisis. What might the hotspot tell us about how the EU imagines the refugee? But also, given that the EU’s management of the refugee crisis is a means for it to manage migration flows across Europe as a whole, what might the hotspot tell us about how the EU imagines the figure of the migrant in general?

You can find an official gloss (sic) on hotspots here (and more detail here), critical readings by Frances Webber here and Glenda Garelli and Martina Taziolli here, and NGO responses from Oxfam here and Caritas here.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism also has a useful report on Frontex, the EU’s border agency, here.


Here is the kernel of Mark’s and Maria’s answer to their questions – and you will see see the link with Achille’s essay immediately:

For every police war, an enemy is needed. Defining the zones as hotspots suggests that migrants have arrived as somehow already ‘illegal’ in some way, enabling them to be situated within the much wider and never-ending ‘war on crime’. Yet this process needs to be understood within the wider practice of criminalizing breaches of immigration law in western capitalist polities over the last twenty years, as individual states and the state system as a whole have increasingly sought to make the criminal law work much more closely with immigration law: ‘crimmigration’, as it has become known, means that criminal offences can now very easily result in deportation, while immigration violations are now frequently treated as criminal offences. Concerning the UK, for example, Ana Aliverti has noted that ‘the period between 1997 and 2009 witnessed the fastest and largest expansion of the catalogue of immigration crimes since 1905’.  This expansion serves to further reinforce the conception of the migrant as already tainted by crime, as the figure of the criminal and the figure of the migrant slowly merge. The term ‘illegal immigrant’ plays on this connection in all sorts of ambiguous ways. Indeed, it is significant that the very term ‘illegal immigrant’ has over the same period replaced the term ‘undocumented migrant’, so that a figure once seen as lacking papers is seen now as lacking law.

However, the fact that migrants arriving in the EU hotspots do so as propertyless (or at least apparently so) subjects adds a further significance. Why? Because by arriving propertyless the historical figure to which the migrant is most closely aligned is as much the vagrant as the criminal. Aliverti’s reference to 1905 is a reference to the Aliens Act of that year, in which any ‘alien’ landing in the UK in contravention of the Act was deemed to be a rogue and vagabond. The Act was underpinned by making such ‘aliens’ liable to prosecution under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act of 1824, usually punishable in the form of hard labour in a house of correction. As Aliverti puts it, ‘in view of the similarities between the poor laws and early immigration norms, it is no coincidence that the first comprehensive immigration legislation in 1905 penalized the unauthorized landing of immigrants with the penalties imposed on “rogues and vagabonds” and vagrancy was one of the grounds for expulsion of foreigners.’  In the mind of the state, the vagrant is the classic migrant, just as migrants arriving in the hotspots are increasingly coming to look like and be treated as the newest type of vagrant. In the mind of the state, the propertyless migrant is a kind of vagrant-migrant (which is of course one reason why welfare and migration are so frequently connected).

Vagrancy legislation has always been the ultimate form of police legislation: it criminalizes a status rather than an act (the offence of vagrancy consists of being a vagrant); it gives utmost authority to the police power (the accusation of vagrancy lies at the discretion of the police officer); and it seeks not to punish a crime as such but to instead eliminate what are regarded as threats to social order (as in section 4 of the UK’s Vagrancy Act of 1824, which enables people to be arrested and punished for being ‘idle and disorderly’, for ‘being a rogue’, for ‘wandering abroad’ or for simply ‘not giving a good account of himself or herself’; note the present tense used – section 4 of the Act of 1824 is still in operation in the UK).

And in case the links with ‘The society of enmity’ are still opaque, I leave the last word to Achille:

Hate movements, groups invested in an economy of hostility, enmity, various forms of struggle against an enemy – all these have contributed, at the turn of the twenty-first century, to a significant increase in the acceptable levels and types of violence that one can (or should) inflict on the weak, on enemies, intruders, or anyone considered as not being one of us. They have also contributed to a widespread instrumentalization of social relations, as well as to profound mutations within contemporary regimes of collective desire and affect. Further, they have served to foster the emergence and consolidation of a state-form often referred to as the surveillance or security state.

From this standpoint, the security state can be seen to feed on a state of insecurity, which it participates in fomenting and to which it claims to be the solution. If the security state is a structure, the state of insecurity is instead a kind of passion, or rather an affect, a condition, or a force of desire. In other words, the state of insecurity is the condition upon which the functioning of the security state relies in so far as the latter is ultimately a structure charged with the task of investing, organizing and diverting the constitutive drives of contemporary human life. As for the war, which is supposedly charged with conquering fear, it is neither local, national nor regional. Its extent is global and its privileged domain of action is everyday life itself. Moreover, since the security state presupposes that a ‘cessation of hostilities’ between ourselves and those who threaten our way of life is impossible – and that the existence of an enemy which endlessly transforms itself is irreducible – it is clear that this war must be permanent. Responding to threats – whether internal, or coming from the outside and then relayed into the domestic sphere – today requires that a set of extra-military operations as well as enormous psychic resources be mobilized. The security state – being explicitly animated by a mythology of freedom, in turn derived from a metaphysics of force – is, in short, less concerned with the allocation of jobs and salaries than with a deeper project of control over human life in general, whether it is a case of its subjects or of those designated as enemies.

The Last Dance

Mansour strike photo

I have – at long last – finished the longform version of “Dirty dancing: drones and death in the borderlands“, which analyses drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and situates them within a wider context of military violence in the region.  You can find it under the DOWNLOADS tab, but I’ve pasted the conclusion below; there’s also a video of the last presentation I gave under that title here.

To make sense of the conclusion, I should explain that the essay opens by juxtaposing the killing of two people, Baitullah Mehsud (leader of the Pakistan Taliban) and Mamana Bibi (a village midwife), to pose the question: what kinds of spaces are the FATA made to be for incidents like these – incidents as unlike as these – to be possible?

My answer works with two framing devices.

The first is the space of exception – a space in which people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the political-juridical removal of legal protections and affordances that would otherwise be available to them.  My version of this is different from that proposed by Giorgio Agamben, and far from invoking a suspension of the law I explore three legal geographies that have been used to prepare the ground for aerial violence in the borderlands.

The second is the space of execution; here I riff off Owen Sheers‘ perceptive remark about ‘the territory of the screen’ (as I note, ‘Killing somebody with a Hellfire missile controlled from thousands of miles away depends upon a screen – or more accurately a series of screens – on which the image of a human body will eventually be touched by the cross-hairs of a targeting pod’).  Owen’s phrase is much more than metaphor, so I treat ‘territory’ as a (bio)political technology whose calibrations enable states to assert, enact and enforce a claim over bodies-in-space (you can no doubt hear the echoes of Stuart Elden) and then explore the technicity involved in three of its screen elements that jointly transform the FATA into a space of execution: kill lists, signals intercepts and visual feeds.


Mamana Bibi's surviving family

Here, then, is the conclusion:

The production of the borderlands as spaces of exception and spaces of execution are attempts to force those who live there into particular subject-positions as a means of subjugation. These positions are partial and precarious but the project to establish them as legitimate and rational has consequences that are material and affective. They clearly affect those targeted – people like Baitullah Mehsud – whose political agency exceeds in terrifying ways the normative space allowed them by the state of Pakistan and the United States and in so doing brings their actions to the attention of both. But they also impact the rest of the population in the FATA, constricting their mobilities and stoking their fears to such a degree that ‘normal life’ for many of them threatens to become a memory or a fantasy. Their existence is rendered more precarious because the subject-positions to which they are so brutally assigned are racialized. These are ‘tribal peoples’, different from those who inhabit ‘mainland Pakistan’, while the United States writes off their incidental deaths as ‘collateral damage’ whose anonymity confers on them no individuality only a collective ascription. When a CIA-directed drone strike on a compound in the Shawal Valley of South Waziristan on 15 January 2015 was found to have killed not only a deputy leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and a local Taliban commander but also two hostages, an American development contractor and an Italian aid worker, a ‘grim-faced’ and ‘visibly moved’ Obama made a personal and public apology. [i] The rarity of the gesture is revealing. For the value of their lives was acknowledged and their deaths were made grievable in ways that others – which is to say Others – were not. Nobody has ever accepted responsibility or apologised for the death of Mamana Bibi or any of the other innocent victims of aerial violence.

For this reason it is important to resist those versions of the space of exception that are complicit in the denial of agency to those who live within its confines. The state of Pakistan administers the inhabitants of the FATA through Political Agents: but this does not remove (though it does diminish) their own political agency. Pakistan’s armed forces conduct clearing operations that ruthlessly drive people from their homes and into camps for displaced persons: but this does not turn the FATA into one vast ‘camp’. The presence of US drones strips those who live under them of their well-being and dignity: but this does not reduce them to ‘bare life’. Similarly, the emergent subject that is produced within the space of execution, apprehended as a network trace, a sensor signature and a screen image, is a cipher that stands in for – and in the way of – a corporeal actor whose existence is not measured by the calculative alone.


This version, or something very much like it, will appear in a collection edited by Caren Kaplan and Lisa Parks, Life in the Age of Drones.  But an (even longer!) version will eventually appear in my own book, with images and maps (you can find many of them scattered through my previous posts: for example here, here and here), so I really would welcome any comments or suggestions if you have time to read the full thing:


Dirty Dancing online

I had a wonderful time at the Balsillie School at Waterloo last week – good company, constructive conversations and endless hospitality – and I’m truly grateful to Simon Dalby, Jasmin Habib and all the graduate students who made my visit so enjoyable.  I finished by giving one of the Centre for Global Governance Innovation (CIGI)’s Signature Lectures.

This was the latest (and near-final) version of “Dirty dancing: drones and death in the borderlands”.   The argument has developed considerably since my first presentations; I’ll upload the written version once it’s finished, but CIGI has posted the lecture and Q&A online here.  I’ve also embedded the YouTube version below, but if that doesn’t work try here.

My thanks to the AV technicians who made this possible: their help with the production followed by their assured and rapid-fire editing beats anything I’ve encountered anywhere.

In this version, I begin with two CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, one on Baitullah Mehsud (the leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban) and the other on ‘Mamana’ Bibi, an innocent grandmother and midwife, and ask what it is that makes strikes like these – which is to say strikes as unlike these – possible.  My answer turns on the kinds of space the FATA been made out to be: in particular, a space of exception in which people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death, and a territory conceived as a political technology through which power lays claim to bodies-in-space.

Unlike Giorgio Agamben‘s original formulation, though, my discussion of the space of exception focuses not on violence authorised through the suspension of the law but rather violence that operates inside the law: so I look at the legal regimes, both international and national, that affect military and paramilitary violence in the FATA.  A further difference is that this exceptional state of affairs is provoked not by an event but by a margin: by the construction of the FATA as a liminal zone, borderlands that are outside ‘Pakistan proper’ or ‘mainland Pakistan’.  Many commentators (including me) trace the origin of aerial violence to the British Raj, its Frontier Crimes Regulations and its ‘policing’ of the North-West Frontier.  This is important, but the line of descent to today’s air strikes is not direct.  In particular, it is important to bring into view the cross-border incursions made by Soviet and Afghan aircraft during the occupation of Afghanistan.  Thousands of people were killed and injured during these attacks, and this constitutes an important horizon of memory, but no less important is the response of the Pakistan Air Force: their US-supplied jets intercepted incoming aircraft and either escorted them out of Pakistani air space or, towards the end of the 1980s, engaged them in combat.  This begs an obvious question: if Pakistan objects to the US strikes – carried out by drones that are slow, noisy and sluggish – why does its Air Force not shoot them down?  Since today’s drones cannot be used in contested air space – bluntly, they can only be used against defenceless people – why does Pakistan elect to render the people of FATA defenceless?  This immediately brings into view the other source of aerial violence in the borderlands: the ongoing offensives in the FATA launched by the Pakistan Air Force (in concert with large-scale ground operations).  Even though the Pakistan Air Force has its own reconnaissance drones, some of which are now armed, these are not attempts to put ‘warheads on foreheads’, as the US Air Force would have it, but wide-area assaults conducted by conventional strike aircraft and attack helicopters – as I show in the case of Mir Ali and Miran Shah during Operation Zarb-i-Azb (see here and here and here).

To complete the sequence and add the US drone strikes, I trace the intimate collaboration between both the CIA and the US Air Force and between Washington and Islamabad.  The diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks show time and time again that many of the negotiations about access to ‘flight boxes’ over North and South Waziristan were conducted by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of US Central Command.  I show, too, how the collaboration between Washington and Islamabad continued until at least 2013.


In order for the CIA-directed strikes to be possible, however, the FATA must also be turned into a territory in something like the sense proposed by Stuart Elden.  So I describe the multiple ways in which data is harvested by the NSA and other agencies to produce what Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge call code/space: the algorithmic combination of sensors, traces and intercepts to summon into being a body-as-target (for more, see here: scroll down), and to produce the space of the target where fleshy bodies disappear and are replaced by codes, co-ordinates and cross-hairs.  This is another version of what Ian Hacking calls ‘making up people’: there is an important sense, then, in which the supposed ‘individuation’ of later modern war depends on the selective and active production (and destruction) of an ‘individual’.

The questions and comments after the lecture were immensely helpful, and as I turn this into its final, written version I’d be grateful for any further comments if you watch the video.

Drone networks

Three contributions to the debates over drones and military violence.  First, my friends at the Bard Center for the Study of the Drone have published Dan Gettinger‘s essay on ‘Drone Geography: mapping a system of intelligence‘.  It’s a superb sketch of the intelligence network in which the US Air Force’s drones are embedded (you can read my complementary take on ‘Drone geographies’ under the DOWNLOADS tab).  Let me add just one map to the illustrations that stud his essay.  It’s taken from the Air Force’s RPA Vector report for 2013-28, published last February, and it shows the architecture of remote split operations within and beyond the United States.  It’s helpful (I hope) because it shows how the Ground Control Stations in the continental United States feed in to the Distributed Common Ground System that provides image analysis and exploitation (shown in the second map, which appears in a different form in Dan’s essay).  I’m having these two maps combined, and I’ll post the result when it’s finished.

RSO architecture (USAF) 1

Distributed Common Ground System (USAF) 2

Dan is right to emphasise the significance of satellite communications; much of the discussion of later modern war and its derivatives has focused on satellite imagery, and I’ve discussed some of its complications in previous posts, but satellite communications materially shape the geography of remote operations.  The Pentagon has become extraordinarily reliant on commercial providers (to such an extent that Obama’s ‘pivot to the Pacific’ may well be affected), and limitations of bandwidth have required full-motion video streams from Predators and Reapers (which are bandwidth hogs) to be compressed and image quality to be degraded.  Steve Graham and I are currently working on a joint essay about these issues.

One caveat: this is not the only network in which US remote operations are embedded.  In my essay on ‘Dirty Dancing’ (now racing towards the finish line) I argue that the CIA-directed program of targeted killing in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan cannot be severed from the multiple ways in which the FATA have been configured as both borderlands and battlefields and, in particular, from the cascade of military operations that have rendered the FATA as a space of exception (in something both more and less than Agamben’s sense of the term).  Here I’ve learned much from an excellent essay by Elizabeth Cullen Dunn and Jason Cons, ‘Aleatory sovereignty and the rule of sensitive spaces’, Antipode 46 (1) (2014) 92-109).  They complicate the claim that spaces of exception always derive from a single locus of sovereign power (or ‘the sovereign decision’).  Instead, they  suggest that borderlands are ‘contested spaces’ where ‘competing’ powers ‘collide’.  In the FATA multiple powers have been involved in the administration of military violence, but on occasion – and crucially – they have done so in concert and their watchword has been a qualified and covert collaboration. In particular, the FATA have been marked by a long and chequered gavotte between the militaries and intelligence services of the United States and Pakistan which, since the 1980s, has consistently put at risk the lives of the people of the borderlands.  And in my essay on ‘Angry Eyes’ (next on my screen) I argue that the US military’s major use of Predators and Reapers in Afghanistan – orchestrating strikes by conventional aircraft and providing close air support to ‘troops in contact’ – depends on communication networks with ground troops in theatre, and that this dispersed geography of militarised vision introduces major uncertainties into the supposedly ‘precise’ targeting process.

CHAMAYOU Theory of the droneSecond: Elliott Prasse-Freeman has an extended review of the English translation of Grégoire Chamayou‘s Theory of the drone – called ‘Droning On‘ – over at the New Inquiry (you can access my own commentaries on the French edition here: scroll down).  His central criticism is this:

While his title promises theory, we instead are treated to a digression on the military and social ethics of attacks from the air, in which Chamayou asks without irony, “can counterinsurgency rise to the level of an aero-policy without losing its soul?” What offends Chamayou is the “elimination, already rampant but here absolutely radicalized, of any immediate relation of reciprocity” in warfare. This, we are told, is the problem.

Promised a theory of the drone, how do we arrive at a theory of the noble soldier?…

And so, dispatching with the dream of the drone … Chamayou assumes the concerns not of the brutalized but of military leaders and soldiers.

He continues in terms that resonate with my argument in ‘Dirty Dancing’:

By combining knowing (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), sighting (targeting in movement and in the moment), and eliminating (“putting warheads on foreheads”), the drone constitutes an assemblage of force (as drone-theorist Derek Gregory puts it) that promises a revolution in control and allows the US war apparatus to imagine space and politics in new ways. Because the body of the accused can ostensibly be precisely seen, it can be seen as itself carving out a body-sized exception to state sovereignty over the territory on which that body moves. In this way, eliminating the body does not constitute an assault on the territory of the state, as these bodies are presented as ontologically (and hence quasi-legally) disconnected from that territory.  Geographer Stuart Elden in Terror and Territory (2009) points out the significant overlap between who are labeled ‘terrorists’ and movements fighting for their own political spaces – which hence necessarily violate extant states’ ‘territories’ (and hence the entire international order of states): to violate territory is to terrorize. The US is hence remarkably concerned in its arrogation of a position of supra-sovereignty to ensure that it overlaps with ‘classic’ state sovereignty, and by no means violates the norm of territorial integrity (well-defined borders): by harboring or potentially harboring unacceptable transnational desires, the militant uproots himself, and risks being plucked out and vaporized in open space that belongs only to him. The exception to sovereignty provides the drone the opportunity to extend this exception into temporal indefiniteness: wars are not declared, aggressions are not announced—the fleet, fusing police and military functions, merely watches and strikes, constantly pruning the ground of human weeds.

In ‘Dirty Dancing’ I’m trying to prise apart – analytically, at least – the space of exception, conceived as one in which a particular group of people is knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the political-juridical removal of legal protections and affordances that would otherwise be available to them, and territory conceived (as Stuart suggests) as a political-juridical technology, a series of calculative practices that seeks to calibrate and register a claim over bodies-in-spaces.  That’s why Dan Gettinger’s essay is so timely too, and why I’ve been thinking about the FATA as a performance of what Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge call ‘code/space’, why I’ve been working my way through the files released by Edward Snowden, and why I’ve been thinking so much about Louise Amoore‘s superb critique of The politics of possibility: risk and security beyond probability (2013).

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 10.03.16 AM

Although Louise doesn’t address drone strikes directly, her arguments are full of vital insights into the networks that are mobilised through them.  ‘The sovereign strike is always something more, something in excess of a single flash of decision’, she insists, and when she writes that —

those at risk (which is to say those who are to be put at risk by virtue of their inferred riskiness) are ‘not strictly “included by means of their own exclusion”, as Agamben frames the exception, they are more accurately included by means of a dividuated and mobile drawing of risk fault lines’

17— it’s a very short journey back to Grégoire Chamayou‘s reflections on the strange (in)dividual whose ‘schematic body’ emerges on the targeting screen of the Predator or Reaper.  Louise writes of ‘the appearance of an emergent subject’, which is a wonderfully resonant way of capturing the performative practices through which targets are produced: ‘pixelated people’, she calls them, that emerge on screens scanning databanks but which also appear in the crosshairs…

And finally, Corporate Watch has just published a report by Therezia Cooper and Tom Anderson, Gaza: life beneath the drones.  This brings together a series of interviews conducted in 2012 – when ‘drones killed more people in Gaza than any other aircraft’ – that were first published in serial form in 2014.  The report includes a tabulation of deaths from Israeli military action in Gaza and those killed directly by drones (2000-2014) and a profile of some of the companies involved in Israel’s military-industrial complex.

Geographies of the Holocaust

We are in the preparatory stages for a new edition of the Dictionary of Human Geography, which I’m co-editing this time with Clive Barnett, Jeremy Crampton, Diana DavisGeraldine Pratt, Joanne Sharp and Henry Yeung.  At the moment, we are making devilishly difficult decisions over headwords (which to cut, which to add) and lengths (which to shorten, which to increase).  Of course, none of this is set in stone, and new entries always press themselves forward as the submission deadline draws near.  Sometimes they are words you wonder why they weren’t included in the first place.

One such, last time round, was ‘Holocaust’: a glaring omission from previous editions, I belatedly realised.  There was, after all, a considerable body of geographical work on it, some of it by geographers, which I did my best to incorporate in the entry I wrote in short order for the last edition.  In truth, I suspect I noticed the omission through my interest in Giorgio Agamben‘s Homo sacer and Remnants of Auschwitz; thinking about the geographies of the Holocaust made me realise that the space of the exception, however defined, was not limited by the barbed perimeter of the camp but extended out along the railway tracks to the ghettoes, the round-ups and a host of capillary and diminishing exceptions (see my discussion here).  This in turn makes the spatiality of the exception of constitutive significance.


This time round, the intellectual task ought to be made easier by a new book edited by Anne Kelly Knowles, Tim Cole and Alberto Giordano, Geographies of the Holocaust, due from Indiana University Press in their Spatial Humanities series the middle of next month:

This book explores the geographies of the Holocaust at every scale of human experience, from the European continent to the experiences of individual human bodies. Built on six innovative case studies, it brings together historians and geographers to interrogate the places and spaces of the genocide. The cases encompass the landscapes of particular places (the killing zones in the East, deportations from sites in Italy, the camps of Auschwitz, the ghettos of Budapest) and the intimate spaces of bodies on evacuation marches. Geographies of the Holocaust puts forward models and a research agenda for different ways of visualizing and thinking about the Holocaust by examining the spaces and places where it was enacted and experienced.

1. Geographies of the Holocaust / Alberto Giordano, Anne Kelly Knowles, and Tim Cole
2. Mapping the SS Concentration Camps / Anne Kelly Knowles and Paul B. Jaskot, with Benjamin Perry Blackshear, Michael De Groot, and Alexander Yule
3. Retracing the “Hunt for Jews”: A Spatio-Temporal Analysis of Arrests during the Holocaust in Italy / Alberto Giordano and Anna Holian
4. Killing on the Ground and in the Mind: The Spatialities of Genocide in the East / Waitman W. Beorn, with Anne Kelly Knowles
5. Bringing the Ghetto to the Jew: The Shifting Geography of the Budapest Ghetto / Tim Cole and Alberto Giordano
6. Visualizing the Archive: Building at Auschwitz as a Geographic Problem / Paul B. Jaskot, Anne Kelly Knowles, and Chester Harvey, with Benjamin Perry Blackshear
7. From the Camp to the Road: Representing the Evacuations from Auschwitz, January 1945 / Simone Gigliotti, Marc J. Masurovsky, and Erik Steiner
8. Afterword / Paul B. Jaskot and Tim Cole

Tim Cole is the author of a series of outstanding geographical studies of the Holocaust, including Holocaust City on Budapest; he’s now Professor of Social History at Bristol, but his PhD in Geography at Cambridge was started under the supervision of Graham Smith, one of my dearest friends, who tragically died before the thesis was completed.

Here’s another old Cambridge friend Geoff Eley on the present collaborative project: ‘As a pioneering call to extend our familiar approaches, Geographies of the Holocaust offers a welcome model of collaborative interdisciplinarity — between historians and geographers, humanities and the social sciences, distinguished specialists and scholars from the outside. The desired purposes are admirably served. Thinking with space delivers not only a new range of challenging methodologies, but brings the well-established findings of the field under strikingly new perspectives too.’