Three strikes…

I’ve been working away on my Tanner Lectures, which has plunged me back in to my research on air strikes.  There is a dismal topicality to the subject, since in the UK the hawks on both right and left are circling the lobbies in the wake of the attacks in Paris (but still not, it seems, those in Beirut) demanding that yet more bombs fall on Syria.  They are less than hawk-eyed, however, since they offer no insight into what – precisely (not exactly the right word where bombing is concerned) – this is designed to achieve.  They have learned nothing from the 100-odd years of the history of bombing, or even from its more recent effects.

And talking of Beirut: when I delivered a presentation there in 2006, six months after Israel’s devastating air strikes on its southern suburbs, I borrowed my title [‘In another time-zone the bombs fall unsafely’: see DOWNLOADS tab] from Blake Morrison‘s poem ‘Stop’ which was reprinted in an anthology to aid children’s charities in Lebanon:

Blake Morrison STOP.001

So let me turn to three recent investigations of civilian casualties caused by US air strikes.  In each case it’s difficult to say as much as one ought to be able to say: in the first two cases (in Iraq and Syria) the reports have been heavily redacted, and in the third case (the attack on MSF’s hospital in Kunduz) all we have so far is an extended summary (though Kate Clark, as always, does a brilliant forensic job in filleting it here).

In this post I’ll discuss the report of an investigation into an air strike by two A-10 (‘Warthog’) aircraft on an Islamic State checkpoint near Al Hatra in Iraq on 13 March 2015.  On 2 April CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar was forwarded the following e-mail:

e-mail translation Al Hatra CIVCAS

Officers at the CAOC completed an initial ‘Civilian Casualty [CIVCAS] Credibility Assessment’ and agreed that the details in the e-mail were consistent with the known air strike.  On 20 April an investigation was established ‘to determine the veracity of the CIVCAS claim’ and, in the event that it was upheld, to review the targeting process ‘to determine if any errors occurred.’  Between 22 April and 1 June the investigating officer interviewed the military personnel involved in the air strike and reviewed intelligence reports and imagery of the target area.  This included an examination of the weapons system video (WSV) conducted by an ISR imagery analyst, and a transcript of the associated audio: neither has been released to the public, but you can get a sense of what A-10 imagery can (and cannot) show in this compilation video from Iraq here.

al Hatra map JPEG

Al Hatra is the site of the ancient fortified city of al Hadr, 2km northwest of the modern settlement (see map above), established under the Seleucids, and after its capture by the Parthians it became one of the major cities of the post-Alexandrian world.   Since October, intelligence reports had identified the ruins as an Islamic State training camp, and in March IS announced its intention to level the site and purge it of the ‘symbols of idolatry‘. (In April it released a video showing just that: see the images below, and more here).

IS video of al Hatra

IS Video of destruction at al Hatra

The initial target for the air strike on 13 March was an IS checkpoint and ‘enemy personnel’ who were stopping traffic.  They had been seen by an A-10 aircraft en route for refuelling – A10s fly sorties lasting between five and nine hours, and can require two or three inflight refuellings – and the information had been passed to the Dynamic Targeting Cell responsible for drawing up a detailed target folder or target package (a ‘Joint Targeting Message’) for all emergent targets: in effect, targets of opportunity.

Targeting and Targets (JP 3-60) 2013

It must have seemed routine to those on duty in the CAOC (shown below): there had been multiple strikes in the vicinity for several months.  The Dynamic Targeting Cell cleared the operation via the Battle Director at Al Udeid with the CAOC director who acted as the ‘Target Engagement Authority’ to sanction the strike, with ultimate responsibility for all lethal strikes against Islamic State in Syria and designated areas of western Iraq.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC), Al Udeid Air Base, 2015

While this was happening, the same aircraft reported that two vehicles had pulled into the side of the road next to the checkpoint (and within ‘the target area outline’: notice how rapidly individuals disappear from view, contained first within objects and then the objects within an area).

The occupants began to interact with the people manning the checkpoint – the pilot said the two vehicles ‘appeared to be a part of the checkpoint’ but he also made it clear that this was only an ‘opinion’ and that responsibility for the positive identification of the vehicles and passengers as a legitimate target had to rest with superior officers – and the Dynamic Targeting Cell agreed to ‘seek additional authority’.  After a short time he radioed back with permission for them to be included as part of the original Joint Targeting Message: ‘You’re cleared to execute Joint Targeting Message [Reference Number] including vehicles and all associated PAX [people/passengers] with PID [Positive Identification].’  The investigating officer evidently thought this perfectly reasonable, agreeing that ‘these vehicles did not display characteristics typical of transient vehicles at checkpoints’; rather than passing through (as seven other vehicles did), they stopped and ‘appeared to be functionally and geospatially tied to the … checkpoint and personnel authorized for strike.’

But this amendment to the original targeting package was never reported up the chain of command to the Target Engagement Authority who only validated the original Joint Targeting Message.  He was provided with imagery showing the intended target area, confirmed that it had ‘a single use purpose’, and so had no doubt that the checkpoint and its operators constituted ‘a functionally and geospatially defined object of attack’ and that it was a ‘legitimate military target’ in accordance with international humanitarian law – what the US military prefers to call ‘the law of armed conflict’ – and consistent with the military’s own rules of engagement.  The repetition of those qualifiers is vital: the US military defines Positive Identification [PID] as ‘the reasonable certainty that a functionally and geospatially defined object of attack is a legitimate military target’.

The Target Engagement Authority sought no advice from a Judge Advocate, the military lawyer on duty, about the propriety of striking the vehicles and passengers because they were not included in the original package.  He testified that ‘at no point was there any discussion of vehicles in association with this strike’: in fact, he explicitly instructed the aircrew ‘to clear for transients [passing vehicles] prior to weapons release.’

The deputy legal adviser to the Combat Operations Division in the CAOC explained that a Judge Advocate was involved in all Dynamic Targeting strikes.  The Dynamic Targeting Chief works with the Targets Duty Officer to establish positive identification of the target.  The Targets Duty Officer usually spends half of a 12-hour shift on the combat operations floor with the Chief and half with ISR analysts preparing target packages, and it is the responsibility of the Chief to write the ‘5Ws’ – who, what, where, when and why – necessary for any dynamic targeting strike.  As the two of them ‘work’ the target, the deputy legal adviser added, they ‘may bring [in] the legal adviser at various times’ throughout the process to provide advice derived from international humanitarian law, the rules of engagement and any special instructions (‘spins’).  The Judge Advocate also acts as ‘a second pair of eyes’ scrutinising the co-ordinates of the target and provides legal recommendations to the Target Engagement Authority.

It seems clear, even with the redactions, that in this case the Judge Advocate was not consulted about the (verbal) amendment to the initial targeting package because the procedure was amended as a direct consequence of the incident under investigation.  Instead of ‘returning to his or her desk’ once approval had been obtained from the Target Engagement Authority, the Judge Advocate is now required to observe ‘the passing of the Joint Targeting Message and [to] monitor the strike by remaining close to the Dynamic Targeting cell.’

There is also a wider responsibility: the deputy legal adviser made it clear that ‘anyone in the chain or the Dynamic Targeting cell has the responsibility to call an abort on the strike if the conditions change.’  In this case, clearly, they did – but nobody intervened.

The Dynamic Targeting Chief claims he telephoned the Battle Director for permission to extend the original Joint Targeting Message, but the exchange took just 80 seconds.  One witness – who may well have been the Battle Director: it’s impossible to know for sure – thought this highly unlikely: 80 seconds would have been ‘very, very quick for [him] to take a call, gather the information, relay it to the Targeting Engagement Authority, get approval, and then relay it back down to [the Dynamic Targeting Cell].’  And the CAOC director was adamant: ‘even if the aviators could identify the vehicles as hostile … there was still no authority to strike without requesting authorization for a Joint Targeting Message change‘ from him.


The A-10’s sensor remained ‘padlocked on these vehicles’ and when the pilot was finally cleared to engage he naturally assumed that the Target Engagement Authority had been satisfied by their inclusion in the target package.  Six seconds before they were hit, four people got out; the ISR analyst reviewing the post-strike video concluded that one of them was possibly a child.  But the investigating officer emphasised that they were only visible on the weapons system video and only after being played back at slow speed: ‘There is no reasonable expectation that [the pilot] could have seen, assessed and called for ABORT on the strike through real-time viewing of his targeting pod display inflight.’  The A-10 has a targeting pod under one wing which, as Andrew Cockburn reports, ‘ in daylight transmits video images of the ground below, and infrared images at night. This video feed is displayed on the plane’s instrument panel.’  As the pilot approached the target and entered his ‘weapons engagement envelope’ – again, note the geometric disposition – the investigating officer accepts that neither could he have ‘been able to discriminate between combatant and non-combatant personnel’.

The vehicles were attacked with the A-10’s 30mm rotary cannon – ‘a good weapon for reducing collateral damage’, according to one pilot (see the image below!) – and soon after a second A-10 dropped a single GBU-38 bomb and destroyed the guard shack; this is a conventional 500 lb bomb converted into a ‘guided bomb’, a ‘precision munition’, through the incorporation of a GPS/inertial navigation system so that it can attain a circular error probable of between 10 and 30 metres (which means that, assuming a bivariate normal distribution and all other things being equal, then 50% of the time it will land within that radius: which also means that the other half of the time it won’t, even under ideal experimental conditions).


Here is how that same pilot (who was not, so far as I know, flying this mission) characterised these operations against IS to Tom Philpott in April:

A-10 pilots are trained to find a target, seek verification and do on-the-fly targeting and strike. While that sounds like a solo operation, Stohler says “the coalition flying up there is enormous and we work as a team.”

Almost all targets get vetted up to higher command to determine validity. “As you can imagine this is complex,” Stohler says… The most challenging moment “is the weapon employment phase of the flight,” says Stohler. “Our number one focus is to deliver the ordnance on target, on the first pass, while minimizing collateral damage. This takes a great deal of skill that our pilots train to daily back home.”

“I tell our guys this is like trying to drop bombs on bad guys in your hometown. Your goal is not to hurt anyone else, or destroy anything that you don’t have to destroy. It’s a constant challenge to do that and we do it very well.”

But while collateral damage is key it might not be “a showstopper,” says Stohler. “Clearly if the target we need to hit is significant we will employ on it wherever it is – if we have the approval.”

In this case it took under an hour from first observing the checkpoint to striking the target; only eight minutes elapsed between the confirmation of the Joint Targeting Message and the execution of the strike; and it took just three or four seconds ‘from trigger squeeze to impact’.  According to the e-mail, at least two women and three children were killed.  The military decided not to award the writer of that message any compensation for the destruction of her vehicle and no solatia payments will be made to the families of the deceased since no survivors have come forward to ask for them.

CENTCOM’s press release summarising the investigation is a model of complacency and fails to include any of the qualifications and mis-steps I’ve noted in the previous paragraphs:

Based on the actions being observed, aircrew and CAOC personnel assessed that the checkpoint, additional vehicles, and additional personnel were lawful targets consistent with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) at the time the weapon was released on the target area.

The investigation concluded that the airstrikes resulted in the destruction of the intended target, and that the two vehicles parked at the checkpoint were also hit. Upon further review, it was determined that all ordnance functioned properly and accurately struck the intended target.

The investigation concluded that the airstrikes were conducted in accordance with applicable military authorizations, targeting guidance, and LOAC. The target engaged was a valid military target, and the LOAC principles of military necessity, proportionality, and distinction were observed. All reasonable measures were taken to avoid unintended deaths of or injuries to non-combatants by reviewing the targets thoroughly prior to engagement, relying on accurate assessments of the targets, and engaging the targets when the risk to non-combatants was thought to be minimized.

Micah Zenko has an analysis of this strike here, and he adds these chilling paragraphs:

To intensify the U.S.-led coalition’s war against the Islamic State … the Pentagon is considering further loosening the rules of engagement (ROEs) that are intended to minimize civilian casualties and expanding the target sets that can be bombed…

The first problem with this theory is that large militant armies are not defeated, either exclusively or primarily, with air power. Military and civilian policymakers repeat the mantra that “you can’t kill your way out” of the problem posed by such adversaries, but then continue to call upon air power to do just that. This is despite the fact that all of the militant armies and terrorist groups that have been bombed and droned for the past 14 years have survived. None have been completely destroyed, which is allegedly the strategic objective against the Islamic State. Moreover, the size of the al Qaeda-affiliated groups that the United States claims to be at war with have either stayed flat or grown, while the total number of State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations has grown from 34 in 2002 to 59 in 2015.

However, the larger concern with this mindset is the assured growth of collateral damage and civilian casualties that will accompany significantly loosened ROEs. Last month, Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, the U.S. Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, observed that the coalition was “challenged in finding enough targets that the airplanes can hit that meet the rules of engagement.” However, he added an important caveat: “If you inadvertently — legally — kill innocent men, women, and children, then there’s a backlash from that. And so we might kill three and create 10 terrorists.”

And yet, as Micah emphasizes, there have been only two military investigations into civilian casualties throughout the air campaign against IS:

8,300 airstrikes, 16,000 Islamic State targets destroyed, more than 20,000 Islamic State fighters killed — and only two claims of collateral damage. Either the U.S.-led coalition is really, really, really good at bombing these days, or they are shooting first and not asking questions later.

More in the same vein from Joseph Trevithick at War is Boring here.  You can access the US Air Force’s own (secret) tabulation of CIVCAS allegations here, which lists 45 separate incidents, far in excess of the two that have been officially acknowledged to date.  Joseph notes that most of them were dismissed within 48 hours as ‘not credible’ because there was ‘insufficient evidence’ or ‘insufficient information.’  Al Hatra was number 44:

CIVCAS allegation 44 al Hatra

The  Airwars team has provisionally estimated that from 8 August 2014 to 24 November 2015 ‘between 682 and 977 civilian non-combatants are likely to have been killed in 113 incidents where there is fair reporting publicly available of an event, and where Coalition strikes were confirmed in the near vicinity on that date.’  I’ve pasted their map of total claimed civilian casualties in Iraq (to 30 June 2015) below; you can find their full report, Cause for Concern, here.

Civilian casualties claimed Iraq 8 August 2014-30 June 2015

To be continued.  Sadly.

Paris of/in the Middle East


Islamic State has claimed responsibility for last night’s co-ordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, calling them the ‘first of the storm’ and castigating the French capital as ‘the capital of prostitution and obscenity’.   Walter Benjamin‘s celebrated ‘capital of the nineteenth century’ has been called many things, of course, and as I contemplated the symbol that has now gone viral (above), designed by Jean Jullien, I realised that Paris had been the stage for the 1919 Peace Conference that not only established the geopolitical settlement after the First World War but also accelerated the production of today’s ‘Middle East’ by awarding ‘mandates’ to both Britain and France and crystallising the secret Sykes-Picot agreement struck between the two powers in 1916 (more on that from the Smithsonian here).

Margaret MacMillan has a spirited summary of the conference here, with some lively side-swipes at the astonishing lack of geographical knowledge displayed by the principal protagonists.  Much on my mind was the French mandate for Syria and Lebanon:

French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon

For as I watched Friday night’s terrifying events in Paris unfold, I had also been reminded of the horrors visited upon Beirut the evening before.

Two suicide bombers detonated their explosives in Burj el-Barajneh in the city’s southern suburbs; the attacks were carefully timed for the early evening, when the streets were full of families gathering after work and crowds were leaving mosques after prayers: they killed 43 people and injured more than 200 others.

Islamic State issued a statement saying that ’40 rafideen– a pejorative term for Shiite Muslims used by Sunni Islamists – were killed in the “security operation”’ and claimed the attacks were in retaliation for Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war.


In the 1950s and 60s Beirut was known as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ (above) – widely seen as more chic, more cosmopolitan than the ‘Paris-on-the-Nile’ created by Francophile architects and planners west of the old city of Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Now I’ve always been troubled by these city switchings – the ‘Venice of the North’ is another example – because they marginalise what is so distinctive about the cities in question and crush the creativity that is surely at the very heart of their urbanity.

And yet, after last night, I can see a different point in the politics of comparison (from Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner to the post 9/11 insistence that “we are all New Yorkers…”).  More accurately, in the politics of non-comparison: as Chris Graham asks (and answers): why the silence over what happened in Beirut on Thursday?  Why no mobilisation of the news media and no interruptions to regular programmes on TV or radio?  Why no anguished personal statements from Obama, Cameron or, yes, Hollande?


Nobody has put those questions with more passion and justice than Elie Fares writing from Beirut:

I woke up this morning to two broken cities. My friends in Paris who only yesterday were asking what was happening in Beirut were now on the opposite side of the line. Both our capitals were broken and scarred, old news to us perhaps but foreign territory to them….

Amid the chaos and tragedy of it all, one nagging thought wouldn’t leave my head. It’s the same thought that echoes inside my skull at every single one of these events, which are becoming sadly very recurrent: we don’t really matter.

When my people were blown to pieces on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, the headlines read: explosion in Hezbollah stronghold, as if delineating the political background of a heavily urban area somehow placed the terrorism in context.

When my people died on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, world leaders did not rise in condemnation. There were no statements expressing sympathy with the Lebanese people. There was no global outrage that innocent people whose only fault was being somewhere at the wrong place and time should never have to go that way or that their families should never be broken that way or that someone’s sect or political background should never be a hyphen before feeling horrified at how their corpses burned on cement. Obama did not issue a statement about how their death was a crime against humanity; after all what is humanity but a subjective term delineating the worth of the human being meant by it?

Here we might pause to remind ourselves that most of the victims of Islamic State have been Muslims (see, for example, here and here).

Here Hamid Dabashi‘s reflections are no less acute:

In a speech expressing his solidarity and sympathy with the French, US President Barack Obama said, “This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

Of course, the attack on the French is an attack on humanity, but is an attack on a Lebanese, an Afghan, a Yazidi, a Kurd, an Iraqi, a Somali, or a Palestinian any less an attack “on all of humanity and the universal values that we share”? What is it exactly that a North American and a French share that the rest of humanity is denied sharing?

In his speech, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking as a European, was emphatic about “our way of life”, and then addressing the French he added: “Your values are our values, your pain is our pain, your fight is our fight, and together, we will defeat these terrorists.”

What exactly are these French and British values? Can, may, a Muslim share them too – while a Muslim? Or must she or he first denounce being a Muslim and become French or British before sharing those values?

These are loaded terms, civilisational terms, and culturally coded registers. Both Obama and Cameron opt to choose terms that decidedly and deliberately turn me and millions of Muslims like me to their civilisational other.

They make it impossible for me to remain the Muslim that I am and join them and millions of other people in the US and the UK and the EU in sympathy and solidarity with the suffering of the French.

As a Muslim I defy their provincialism, and I declare my sympathy and solidarity with the French; and I do so, decidedly, pointedly, defiantly, as a Muslim.

When Arabs or Muslims die in the hands of the selfsame criminal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gangs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon, they are reduced to their lowest common denominator and presumed sectarian denominations, overcoming and camouflaging our humanity. But when French or British or US citizens are murdered, they are raised to their highest common abstractions and become the universal icons of humanity at large.

Why? Are we Muslims not human? Does the murder of one of us not constitute harm to the entire body of humanity?

BUTLER Frames of WarElie’s and Hamid’s questions are multiple anguished variations of Judith Butler‘s trenchant demand: why are these lives deemed grievable and not those others?

To ask this is not to minimise the sheer bloody horror of mass terrorism in Paris nor to marginalise the terror, pain and suffering inflicted last night on hundreds of innocents – and also affecting directly or indirectly thousands and thousands of others.

In fact the question assumes a new urgency in the wake of what happened in Paris – where I think the most telling comparison is with Beirut and not with the attacks on Charlie Hebdo (see my commentary here) – because the extreme right (the very same people who once elected to stuff “Freedom Fries” down their throats) has lost no time in using last night’s events to ramp up their denigration of Syrian refugees and their demands for yet more bombing (and dismally failing to see any connection between the two).  You can see something of what I mean here.

And so I suggest we reflect on Jason Burke‘s commentary on Islamic State’s decision to ‘go global’ and its tripartite strategy of what he calls ‘terrorise, mobilise, polarise’.  The three are closely connected, but it’s the last term that is crucial:

In February this year, in a chilling editorial in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, Isis laid out its own strategy to eliminate what the writer, or writers, called “the grey zone”.

This was, Isis said, what lay between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned. It was home, too, to all those who had yet to commit to the forces of either side.

The grey zone, Isis claimed, had been “critically endangered [since] the blessed operations of September 11th”, as “these operations showed the world” the two camps that mankind must choose between.

Over the years, since successive violent acts had narrowed the grey zone to the point where by the end of 2014 “the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone everywhere”.


More from Ben Norton here.  The imaginative geographies of Islamic State overlap with those spewed by the extreme right in Europe and North America and, like all imaginative geographies, they have palpable effects: not fifty shades of grey but fifty versions of supposedly redemptive violence.

UPDATE (1):  For more on these questions – and the relevance of Butler’s work– see Carolina Yoko Furusho‘s essay ‘On Selective Grief’ at Critical Legal Thinking here.

As it happens, Judith is in Paris, and posted a short reflection on Verso’s blog here.  She ends with these paragraphs:

My wager is that the discourse on liberty will be important to track in the coming days and weeks, and that it will have implications for the security state and the narrowing versions of democracy before us. One version of liberty is attacked by the enemy, another version is restricted by the state. The state defends the version of liberty attacked as the very heart of France, and yet suspends freedom of assembly (“the right to demonstrate”) in the midst of its mourning and prepares for an even more thorough militarization of the police. The political question seems to be, what version of the right-wing will prevail in the coming elections? And what now becomes a permissable right-wing once le Pen becomes the “center”. Horrific, sad, and foreboding times, but hopefully we can still think and speak and act in the midst of it.

Mourning seems fully restricted within the national frame. The nearly 50 dead in Beirut from the day before are barely mentioned, and neither are the 111 in Palestine killed in the last weeks alone, or the scores in Ankara. Most people I know describe themseves as “at an impasse”, not able to think the situation through. One way to think about it may be to come up with a concept of transversal grief, to consider how the metrics of grievability work, why the cafe as target pulls at my heart in ways that other targets cannot. It seems that fear and rage may well turn into a fierce embrace of a police state. I suppose this is why I prefer those who find themselves at an impasse. That means that this will take some time to think through. It is difficult to think when one is appalled. It requires time, and those who are willing to take it with you – something that has a chance of happening in an unauthorized “rassemblement” [gathering].

UPDATE (2): At Open Democracy Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed has a helpful essay, ‘ISIS wants to destroy the “grey zone”: Here’s how we defend it’: access here.


Air strike sin Iraq and Syria to April 2015

Air strikes in Iraq and Syria to 17 May 2015

I’ve taken the maps above from the BBC, which rely on reports from the Institute for the Study of War and news releases from US Central Command on ‘Operation Inherent Resolve‘.

For readers wanting to follow and analyse the US-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria in more detail, I recommend Chris Woods‘ new project, Airwars.  Chris is a veteran of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Drone War Project and the author of Sudden Justice: America’s secret drone wars (2015) – which really is the gold standard for analysis of US remote operations. is a collaborative, not-for-profit transparency project aimed both at tracking and archiving the international air war against Islamic State (Daesh), in both Iraq and Syria. We also seek to highlight – and follow up where possible – those cases in which claims of civilian non-combatant casualties from coalition airstrikes have been indicated by credible monitoring agencies. In addition we track reported ‘friendly fire’ incidents.

The site includes tabulations and also an interactive, zoomable map (see the screenshot below).  You can find a detailed discussion of sources and methodology here.

AIRWARS 25 May 2015

I’m tracking all this for The everywhere war…  In case you are wondering why that is taking so long to finish: The colonial present started out as an essay on 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan; I then realised that Sharon was taking advantage of the ‘war on terror’ to ramp up Israeli dispossession and repression of the Palestinian people, and so started work on a second essay (I’m ashamed to say that at the time I knew as little about the West Bank and Gaza as I did about Afghanistan on 11 September 2001).  Then the US invaded Iraq…  Much the same is happening with The everywhere war, but I do have the end in my sights.  I hope.


Degrees of intimacy

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

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

And here is the Contents List:

Part I. Drones on the Ground:

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

Part II. Drones and the Laws of War:

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

Part IV. Drones and the Future of Warfare:

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

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

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

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

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

GREGORY Angry Eyes Extract.001

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

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

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

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

GREGORY Drones and the everywhere war 2014 Homeland insecurities.001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Air strikes in Iraq and Syria

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

Air strikes in Iraq and Syria August-November 2014

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

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

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

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


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

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

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