Distinction and the ethics of violence

In another lifetime, or so it seems, I wrote a short essay on ‘The death of the civilian’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and I seem to have spent much of the intervening years developing those early ideas.  So I’m thrilled to see an important new paper from Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon, ‘Distinction and the Ethics of Violence: on the legal construction of liminal subjects and spaces’, available online now at Antipode:

This paper interrogates the relationship among visibility, distinction, international humanitarian law and ethics in contemporary theatres of violence. After introducing the notions of “civilianization of armed conflict” and “battlespaces”, we briefly discuss the evisceration of one of international humanitarian law’s axiomatic figures: the civilian. We show how liberal militaries have created an apparatus of distinction that expands that which is perceptible by subjecting big data to algorithmic analysis, combining the traditional humanist lens with a post-humanist one. The apparatus functions before, during, and after the fray not only as an operational technology that directs the fighting or as a discursive mechanism responsible for producing the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a force that produces liminal subjects. Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—we show how the apparatus helps justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war.

Their two case studies focus on US drone attacks in Pakistan and the use of human shields in Gaza (the image below, taken from the article, shows the Israeli Defence Force’s ‘Laboratory of Discrimination’ (sic)).

You can watch a video where Nicola and Neve discuss their ideas on the Antipode website here, which also provides a less formal gloss:

[Their paper] examines how militaries actually make distinctions in the battlefield, given that today most fighting takes place in urban settings where distinguishing between combatant and civilian is becoming increasingly difficult.

Their paper shows how liberal militaries are utilizing new technologies that aim to expand that which is perceptible within the fray. Combining the more traditional forms of making distinctions such as binoculars and cameras with cutting edge hi-tech, militaries subject big data to algorithmic analysis aimed at identifying certain behavioral patterns. The technologies of distinction function before, during, and after the fray not only in order to direct the fighting and to help produce the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a mechanism that identifies and at times creates new legal figures.

Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—Nicola and Neve show how technologies of distinction help justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war. Ultimately, they maintain that distinction, which is meant to guarantee the protection of civilians in the midst of armed conflict, actually helps hollow the notion of civilian through the production of new liminal legal figures that can be legitimately killed.

For more on the intersections between international law, military protocols and the (in)visibility of the civilian, I also recommend the insightful work of Christiane Wilke (see ‘Seeing Civilians (or not)’ here).

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: derek.gregory@ubc.ca.

 

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.

Hacking.001

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.

The prosthetics of military violence

Neve Gordon‘s review of Grégoire Chamayou‘s A theory of the drone on Al-Jazeera is now available in a more extended form at Counterpunch here.  It’s a succinct summary of the book’s main theses, though there’s not much critical engagement with them (you can access my own series of commentaries here [scroll down]).  He closes his review like this:

Because drones transform warfare into a ghostly teleguided act orchestrated from a base in Nevada or Missouri, whereby soldiers no longer risk their lives, the critical attitude of citizenry towards war is also profoundly transformed, altering, as it were, the political arena within drone states.

Drones, Chamayou says, are a technological solution for the inability of politicians to mobilize support for war. In the future, politicians might not need to rally citizens because once armies begin deploying only drones and robots there will be no need for the public to even know that a war is being waged. So while, on the one hand, drones help produce the social legitimacy towards warfare through the reduction of risk, on the other hand, they render social legitimacy irrelevant to the political decision making process relating to war. This drastically reduces the threshold for resorting to violence, so much so that violence appears increasingly as a default option for foreign policy. Indeed, the transformation of wars into a risk free enterprise will render them even more ubiquitous than they are today.

Neve is the author of the indispensable Israel’s occupation, and while these paragraphs closely follow A theory of the drone the title of the book is in the singular – and so I’m left wondering about military violence that isn’t orchestrated from Nevada or Missouri and what other ‘theories of the drone’ are needed to accommodate a ‘drone state’ like Israel (not that I’m sure what a ‘drone state’ is…)?

Shoot and Strike

The Israeli military is no stranger to what, following Joseph Pugliese, I’ll call prosthetic violence. While Israel remains a leading manufacturer of drones (see here and here), and routinely deploys them over the occupied territories, it also enforces its ‘Death Zone‘ in Gaza through an automated, ground-based ‘Spot and Strike’ shooting system:

The soldiers, trainees in the course for the “Spot and Strike” system, sit in a tower facing the wilderness of the southern Negev, at the far edge of the Field Intelligence School at the Sayarim base, not far from Ovda. Between their tower and the wide-open desert stands another tower topped by a metal dome. With the press of a button the dome opens to reveal a heavy machine gun. Small tweaks of the joystick aim the barrel. To the right of the gun is a camera, which transmits a clear picture of the target onto a screen opposite the soldier. A press of the button and the figure in the crosshairs is hit by a 0.5-inch bullet.

This dovetails (wrong bird) with a discussion of online shooting in A theory of the drone, but here is risk-transfer war waged over extremely short distances.  ‘Remoteness’ is as much an imaginative as a physical condition, and one that is constantly manipulated so that the threat from Hamas’s rockets and tunnels becomes ‘danger close’ even as the hideous consequences of Israel’s own military offensives become distanced (unless, of course, you choose to turn killing into a spectator sport).  In Israel, it seems, these prosthetic assemblages – of which drones are a vital part – serve to animate a deeply militarised society in which evidence of a martial stance is precisely a prerequisite for its claims to legitimacy.

PUGLIESE State violence

So we clearly need a more inclusive analysis of the prosthetics of military violence – the bio-technical means by which its range is extended – that acknowledges the role of drones for more than ‘targeted killing’ and which incorporates other emergent modalities altogether, including cyberwarfare.  One of the best places to start thinking through these issues, in relation to drones at any rate, is Joseph’s tour de force, State violence and the execution of law (2013), which emphasises how ‘through a series of instrumental mediations, the biological human actor becomes coextensive with the drone that she or he pilots from the remote ground control station’ (p. 184) (I connected this to Grégoire’s theses here).

The experience may be more conditional than this allows, though.  Timothy Cullen‘s study of USAF crews training to operate the MQ-9 Reaper found that the sense of ‘co-extension’ – or bioconvergence – was much stronger among sensor operators than pilots:

After a couple hundred hours of flight experience and a sense of comfort with the modes, interfaces, and capabilities of the sensor ball, sensor operators began to feel like they were a part of the machine. With proficiency as a “sensor,” sensor operators found themselves shifting and straining their bodies in front of the [Heads Up Display] to look around an object.  As pilots flew closer to a target, the transported operators tilted their heads in anticipation of the camera’s [redacted].  Feelings of remote presence helped sensor operators move their bodies, and instructors believed that operators who felt as if they were “flying the sensor” could hold their attention longer on a scene…

Both pilots and sensor operators said pilots did not transport themselves conceptually into the machine to the same extent as a sensor operator. Nor did pilots attain similar feelings of connection and control with Reaper as they did with their previous aircraft.

The term ‘prosthetics’ implies these are at once extensions and embodiments of a military violence whose prosthetics also assume more mundane bioconvergent forms.  This is an obvious but in most cases strangely overlooked point.  Joseph mentions it in passing, juxtaposing his ‘mobilisation of the prosthetic trope’ with ‘the material literality of prosthetics: drones as the militarized prosthetics of empire inherently generate civilian amputees in need of prosthetic limbs’ (p. 214).  There’s also a suggestive discussion in Jennifer Fluri‘s ‘States of (in)security’, which devotes a whole section to what she calls ‘prosthetics biopower’ and the multiply corporeal geographies of contemporary wars [Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 32 (2014) 795-814].  Although Jennifer doesn’t directly connect these intimacies to distant vectors of military violence, the implication (and invitation) is clearly there.

So let me try to supplement her observations, drawing in part on my project on military-medical machines that treats (among other theatres of war) the evacuation of injured soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan.  It’s important to trace the two pathways, as I’ll show in a moment (and I’ll say much more about this in a later post), but it’s also necessary to remember, as Sarah Jain crisply observes in her classic essay on ‘The prosthetic imagination‘ (p. 36), that ‘it usually is not the same body that is simultaneously extended and wounded’  [Science, technology and human values 24 (1) (1999) 31-54].  That said, there is a distinctively corporeal geography to those that are.

US military Limb amutations in Afghanistan and Iraq PNG

Major limb amputations (US military) in Iraq (OIF) and Afghanistan (OEF) 2001-2014 (Source: Congressional Research Services US Military Casualty Statistics, November 2014)

The incidence of devastating injuries to the limbs of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (see the graph above; for comparable UK figures, see here) – mainly from IEDs – has been acknowledged in the role played by amputees in mission rehearsal exercises and pre-deployment training since 2005 (see here for an excellent general account).

Peter Bohler:Fort Irwin training

Private contractors like Amputees in Action pride themselves on providing ‘de-sensitising’ exposure to ‘catastrophic injury amputations’ and replicating the latest field injuries for these exercises.  There is a risk in re-enrolling war veterans, as the company concedes:

Every amputee is vetted and put through specialist training beforehand to see if they are up to the job. For some it is too close to the mark, too realistic. The last thing we want to do is traumatize someone, stymie their rehabilitation.

These simulations have been used to prepare ordinary soldiers for the situations they will face – today it’s not only the ‘golden hour’ between injury and surgery that is crucial but also (and much more so) the ‘platinum ten minutes’ immediately following the incident, so the first response is vital. They have also been used to ready trauma teams for the war zone: the BBC has a report on the Royal Army Medical Corps’s mock ‘Camp Bastion’ at Strenshall in Yorkshire here.

These various exercises incorporate the latest advances in evacuation and trauma care, which have meant that today’s soldiers are far more likely to survive even the most life-threatening wounds than those who fought in previous conflicts, but the horrors experienced by young men and women in the military who lose arms and legs – sometimes all of them – are truly hideous:  read, for example, Anne Jones‘s mesmerising and deeply moving account of  They Were Soldiers: How the wounded return from America’s wars (you can get an idea from her ‘Star-spangled Baggage’ here).  Their road to rehabilitation is far longer, and infinitely more painful, than the precarious journey through which they returned to the United States (see also my ‘Bodies on the line‘).

Zac Vawter at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

Researchers unveiled the world’s first thought-controlled bionic leg  on 25 September 2013  funded through the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command’s (USAMRMC) Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) and developed by researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) Center for Bionic Medicine. 

There is some light in the darkness – ongoing experiments with state-of-the-art, ‘bionic’ prosthetics animated by microprocessors in the US, the UK and elsewhere that restore far more stability, mobility and movement than would have been possible even five years ago (see above, and here and here for the US, here and here for the UK).  In the 1980s less than 2 per cent of US soldiers who had suffered major limb amputations returned to duty; by 2006 that had increased to over 16 per cent (see also here and here).  There are several reasons for the change, but in 2012 Jason Koebler reported:

According to the Army, at least 167 soldiers who have had a major limb amputation (complete loss of an arm, leg, hand, or foot) have remained on active duty since the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, with some returning to battle. Many others have returned overseas to work in support roles behind the lines.

“When we have someone we know wants to return, their rehab is geared that way,” says John Fergason, chief of prosthetics at the Army Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam in Houston, Texas.

Kevin Carroll, vice president of Prosthetics at Hanger, a company that makes artificial limbs, says prosthetics have become more comfortable to wear and closer in range of motion to natural limbs.  “Unfortunately, when you have war, you have casualties, but with that comes innovation,” he says. Artificial joints are getting better at approximating the knee, elbow, wrist, and ankle, and microprocessors embedded in prostheses are able to pick up and adjust for impacts from walking, running, jumping, and climbing.

“The person doesn’t have to worry about the prosthetic device, they’re worrying about the task in front of them,” Carroll says. “If they want to go back to be with their troops, that’s an option for many soldiers these days.”

Notice, though, that these advances in prosthetic design and manufacture are part of an intimate conjunction between military violence and military medicine, in which materials science, bio-engineering, electronics and computer science simultaneously provide new means of bodily injury and new modalities of bodily repair.  This is captured in the title of David Serlin‘s thought-provoking essay, ‘The other arms race’ [in Lennard Davis (ed), The Disability Studies Reader (second edition, 2006) 49-65; this essay is not included in the latest edition, but see also the collection David edited with Katherine OttArtificial parts, practical lives: modern histories of prosthetics (2002) and his own Replaceable You: engineering the body in postwar America (2004)].  You can also find an excellent brief historical review of ‘Prosthetics under trials of war’ here.

War XAnd, given the circuits within the military-medical machine, there may be more to come.  There are those who anticipate a future in which prosthetics will not only reinstate but also increase a soldier’s capabilities.  Koebler cites Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, who ‘talks about a future where prosthetics are “enhancers” that allow soldiers to be stronger, faster, and more durable than their peers.’  These fantasies feed through the masculinist imaginary of the post-human cyborg soldier (sketched an age ago by Chris Hables Gray and revisited here) to the prosthetics of military violence with which I began. Here Tim Blackmore‘s War X: Human extensions in battlespace (2011) is also relevant.

But Koebler is quick to add that all this is still a distant prospect:

“I know the question is often, ‘How close are we to true bionic or having artificial limbs that are more versatile than natural ones?'” Fergason says. “Frankly, we’re not that close. You’re not going to see anyone decide, ‘Boy, I think I’d like to get a bionic leg because they’re so fantastic.’

“We love to read about the super-soldier, but that’s not the case right now. Amputation is so complex in what it does to your body that it’s a very long recovery,” he adds.

So what, then, of civilians?  Under ISAF’s Medical Rules of Eligibility Afghan civilians who were injured during military operations and/or needed ‘life, limb or eyesight saving care’ could be admitted to the international medical system, and were eligible for emergency casualty evacuation and treatment at one of the Category III advanced trauma centres at Bagram or Camp Bastion.

Medical Rules of Eligibility PNG

As soon as possible, however, Afghans were to be treated by Afghans and so, after surgical intervention they had to be transferred to the local healthcare system.  The same applied to the Afghan National Army and police.  In consequence, the drawdown of international forces – which also includes their medevac and trauma teams – has left the local population desperately vulnerable to the after-effects of continuing and residual military and paramilitary violence (see here and here).

The inadequacies and insufficiencies of the Afghan healthcare system have prompted a number of NGOs to fill the gap between the radically different systems, and they have done – and continue to do –  immensely important work.

But compare the prosthetics available to US soldiers with those supplied to Afghan civilians.  I don’t mean to minimise the invaluable work done by hard-pressed and underfunded NGOs, but the image below is from the ICRC‘s Orthopedic Center in Kabul (see also here).  There are other centres supported by the ICRC in Faizabad, Gulbahar, Herat, Jalalabad, Lashkar Gah, and Mazar-e-Sharif, together with a manufacturing facility in Kabul, and other NGOs are active elsewhere  – Médecins sans Frontières runs a similar facility in Kunduz, for example.

ICRC Orthopedic Center Kabul PNG

In addition to these facilities, there have been some ingenious work-arounds.  Carmen Gentile describes how US soldiers at Forward Operating Base Kasab in Kandahar were moved by the plight of Mohammed Rafiq, an eight-year old boy whose legs were blown off by an IED.  ‘Since we couldn’t get a supply of commercially made legs, we decided that maybe we could make them ourselves,’ explained Major Brian Egloff, a US Army surgeon at the base.

Using scrap tubing and some ingenuity, Egloff fitted Rafiq with small prosthetic legs. Rafiq was now able to get around the village…

Egloff did not end his work with Rafiq. He knew there must be other amputees living in the area…  Soldiers on patrol had noticed “a lot of guys with amputations that had no prosthetic legs and were reduced to crawling around on the ground and relying on the charity of strangers just to get by,” he says.  Afghans heard about what was done for Rafiq and asked for help for others. Egloff made the legs from material readily available in any welding shop, he says, mostly scrap aluminum tubing for the legs and aluminum plates for the prosthetic feet. A spring-loaded hinge served as the ankle joint.  “It’s a very simple design, nothing complicated,” he says.

These legs were intended to be temporary replacements until ‘a professionally fitted prosthetic’ was available, but the same report notes that ‘getting to a provincial capital, where most hospitals are located, is not easy for many Afghans and the routes are dangerous.’  There’s much more about inaccessibility in MSF’s Between rhetoric and reality: the ongoing struggle to access healthcare in Afghanistan (February 2014).

Like Mohammed – and many ISAF and Afghan soldiers – many of these amputees are the victims of IEDs or even land mines left over from the Soviet occupation (for a global review of the rehabilitation of people maimed by the explosive remnants of war [ERW], see this 2014 report from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines–Cluster Munition Coalition).

But some of them will be the victims of air strikes from or orchestrated by Predators and Reapers: in recent years Afghanistan has been the most heavily ‘droned’ theatre of operations in the world.  In some cases they were caught in the blast, but in others they were the victims of what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence‘.  According to a report by Sune Engel Rasmussen in the Guardian:

Since 2001, the coalition has dropped about 20,000 tonnes of ammunition over Afghanistan. Experts say about 10% of munitions do not detonate: some malfunction, others land on sandy ground. In rural areas, children often bring in vital income to households, but collecting scrap metal or herding animals can be fraught with unpredictable risks. Of all Afghans killed and maimed by unexploded ordnance, 75% are children…

Their future is usually bleak.  Erin Cunningham reports that ‘even as the population of Afghans who are missing limbs grows, amputees face discrimination and the harsh stigma of being disabled.’

“Socially and financially, their lives are destroyed,” Emanuele Nannini, program director at the Italian nonprofit Emergency, which operates health-care centers across Afghanistan, said of Afghan amputees.

From January to June [2014], Emergency’s Center for War Trauma Victims in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, performed 69 amputations. The fiercest fighting between the two sides usually takes place in the warmer summer months.

Emergency then sends the amputees to the nearby International Committee for the Red Cross orthopedic facility for long-term rehabilitation. The patients receive vocational training and other support to reintegrate them into society. The ICRC said that between April and June this year, it admitted 351 amputee patients to its facilities across Afghanistan.

But for the most part, amputees “are completely dependent on their families, and they become a huge burden,” said Nannini, who is based in Kabul. “The real tragedy starts when they go home. If they don’t have a strong family, they become beggars.”

Emergency runs two other surgical centers, in Kabul and Anabah, as well as a number of clinics and first aid posts in the villages; at Lashkar Gah six out of every ten admissions are victims of bombs, land mines or bullets.

The story is, if anything, even worse across the border in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, whose inhabitants are also subject to explosive violence from the Taliban and other groups, and from CIA-directed drone strikes and air and ground attacks by Pakistan’s military.  As Madiha Tahir has shown, the victims usually disappear from public attention, at least in the United States:

What is the dream?

I dream that my legs have been cut off, that my eye is missing, that I can’t do anything … Sometimes, I dream that the drone is going to attack, and I’m scared. I’m really scared.

After the interview is over, Sadaullah Wazir pulls the pant legs over the stubs of his knees till they conceal the bone-colored prostheses.

The articles published in the days following the attack on September 7, 2009, do not mention this poker-faced, slim teenage boy who was, at the time of those stories, lying in a sparse hospital in North Waziristan, his legs smashed to a pulp by falling debris, an eye torn out by shrapnel….

Did you hear it coming?

No.

What happened?

I fainted. I was knocked out.

sadulla1As Sadaullah, unconscious, was shifted to a more serviceable hospital in Peshawar where his shattered legs would be amputated, the media announced that, in all likelihood, a senior al-Qaeda commander, Ilyas Kashmiri, had been killed in the attack. The claim would turn out to be spurious, the first of three times when Kashmiri would be reported killed.

Sadaullah and his relatives, meanwhile, were buried under a debris of words: “militant,” “lawless,” “counterterrorism,” “compound,” (a frigid term for a home). Move along, the American media told its audience, nothing to see here. Some 15 days later, after the world had forgotten, Sadaullah awoke to a nightmare.

Do you recall the first time you realized your legs were not there?

I was in bed, and I was wrapped in bandages. I tried to move them, but I couldn’t, so I asked, “Did you cut off my legs?” They said no, but I kind of knew.

Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani and Hira Bashir listed some of the long-term implications in a report completed last December for the Costs of War project:

Drone injuries are catastrophic ones.  Wounded survivors of drone attacks have often lost limbs and are usually left with intense and unmanaged pain, and some desire death. Those who survive with severe disabilities face a difficult situation given lack of accommodation for people with disabilities in Pakistan. FATA is an extremely difficult terrain for a disabled person. A walk out for the morning naan (traditional bread) may require navigating through a twisty mud track, with regular dips and bumps. The traditional mud houses of the area themselves have a mud floored haweli (an open-air area onto which all the rooms usually open up). A person with a leg amputation cannot use a regular wheel chair, go to school or hospital, or even use a toilet on his own. Disability of the primary breadwinner can change the course of life for an entire family, since most village jobs are physical ones.

Here too the barriers are more than physical.  In 2011 Farooq Rathore and Peter New described how disability remains a stigma in many sectors of Pakistani society, and rehabilitation medicine is still underdeveloped.

The leading prosthetics center is the Armed Forces Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine at Rawalpindi – whose rehabilitation services for injured soldiers are reportedly ‘the best in the country‘ – but it ‘still manufactures prostheses and orthoses with wood, leather, and metal.’  For injured civilians, the outlook is still more grim.  In 2012 a plan was announced to appoint orthotic specialists and physiotherapists at district hospitals throughout the FATA:

The prolonged United States-led war against terrorism has left a large number of people disabled in Pakistan, compelling the government to institute a rehabilitation plan that will include imparting vocational skills…

“We plan to enhance the physical rehabilitation services for the victims of terrorism to save them from permanent disability,” [Mahboob ur Rehman, head of the physiotherapy department at the Hayatabad Medical Complex (HMC)in Peshawar] told IPS.

The decade-long armed conflict has resulted in injuries to thousands of people from blasts, shelling and drone attacks, with the majority of the victims needing prosthetic and orthotic management to help regain the ability to walk, he said.

But it turns out that the emphasis is as much on ‘wheelchairs and sewing machines’ as it is on even the most basic prosthetics.

Once again, NGOs have provided vital services in the most difficult circumstances.  In 1979 the ICRC established a Paraplegic Rehabilitation Center in Peshawar for victims of the Afghan war, for example, which was subsequently transferred to the control of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government.  It has achieved some notable successes, but here too the focus is on physical therapy and it is outside the FATA so that access is difficult for many people.

And so, finally, to Gaza.  Here the differences with Afghanistan and Pakistan are striking.  Throughout the Israeli assault last summer, as I showed in detail here, medical services were severely compromised, and hospitals and medical centres actively targeted.  The only rehabilitation hospital, El-Wafa, was destroyed.  The injuries were also aggravated by the use of Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME) – developed for the US Air Force in 2006 – and which, according to a Briefing Note issued by the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq, were fired from Israeli drones.

DIME blast injuries

These experimental weapons are supposed to decrease collateral damage by constricting the lethal blast radius.  But inside that perimeter the explosive blast is concentrated and magnified:

The injuries of victims who have been in contact with experimental DIME weapons are distinguishable from injuries sustained by non-experimental weapons. While signs of solid shrapnel or metal fragments are typical of amputations sustained from traditional explosives, physicians in the Gaza Strip are witnessing gruesome amputations caused by a metal vapor or residue which indicate the detonation of an extreme force in a small radius. In fact, as a result of these weapons, reported cases in the Gaza Strip include entire bodies cut in half, shattered bones, and skin, muscle and bones turned into charcoal due to the destructive burns associated with the weaponry’s extreme force and high temperature.

The lacerations are so severe that many victims bleed out and die.

The scale of destruction in Gaza also presents a radically different landscape for survivors of blast injuries.  If the terrain in FATA is formidably difficult for anyone using prosthetics or in a wheelchair, imagine what it must be like to be confronted with this:

al Shejaiya Gaza 2014

When you look at that, bear in mind that when the assault came to an end there were still around 7,000 unexploded bombs and other explosive remnants of war beneath the rubble.

These are all dreadful effects and yet, compared to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the situation for prosthetics and rehabilitation seems somewhat better.  The prosthetics are more advanced, and some patients have been able to travel to Beirut, Amman and on occasion into Israel for treatment.  But there are still formidable obstacles in the essential provision of continuing local care.  Bayan Abdel Wahad reports from the Artificial Limb Centre, the only one of it kind in Gaza:

The number of patients who have benefited from the service of prosthetic replacement which the Centre provides for free is about 300 people who have been injured as a result of the Israeli bombardments in the past five years. However, a number of people injured in the last war – Operation Protective Edge – have not been able to come to the center yet because they are still bed-ridden due to several injuries whose treatment takes precedence over prosthetic replacement…. The technical coordinator at the center, Nivine al-Ghusain, said that “despite all the difficulties we face in funding and getting the materials necessary to manufacture the artificial limbs, we will continue in our work.” She [said] that the Centre takes upon itself the maintenance of the prosthesis from time to time “in addition to changing it based on the patients’ needs.”

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The Centre relies on the ICRC for components and raw materials from France, Germany, Switzerland and the United States, but there are continuing difficulties in importing these via Israel or Egypt.  In December 2014 the Center was treating around 950 amputees.

Reports about the cultural and social response to these visible victims of military violence are mixed. Guillaume Zerr, who directs Handicap International’s operations in Gaza, told Reuters that ‘there can be less acceptance of their condition than in other regions of the world’, whereas one young man – a double amputee – insisted that ‘I feel more love, support and sympathy from people now than before my injuries, and Gazan society is non-discriminating toward me.’  Perhaps this is, at least in part, because he, like others wounded in Gaza, can provide an unambiguous narrative, ‘to tell the story behind the loss of his legs’.  I remember Omar Dewachi explaining to me how patients from Iraq, Libya or Syria who are treated in Beirut for their wounds have to return home with a narrative that can explain what happened to them in terms that will satisfy whichever side in those civil wars might call them to account.  Such narratives are important not only for their rehabilitation (and here they are vital) but also for their very survival.  This is presumably more straightforward in Gaza, but this ‘politics of the wound’ is also always a geopolitics of the wound.

One last thought.  I’m struck by how often the term ‘asymmetric war’ is used to imply that conflicts of this sort are somehow unfair – to those who possess overwhelming firepower.  But war is about more than firepower, more even than killing, and I hope I’ve shown that the differences between the continuing care and rehabilitation available to those who are maimed in these wars reveal not only a different prosthetics of military violence but also a new and grievous asymmetry in its enduring consequences.

‘That others may die’

As I am (at last) moving into the finishing stages of my ‘Dirty Dancing’ essay on CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, it’s time to round up some of the latest work on drones and civilian casualties across multiple theatres.

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First, Afghanistan: the principal theatre of US remote operations.  I’ve noted Larry Lewis‘s remarkable work before (here and here), based on classified sources, and in particular this claim (see also here):

Drone strikes in Afghanistan were seen to have close to the same number of civilian casualties per incident as manned aircraft, and were an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement.

usaf_mq_9_reaper_1024x1024As I said at the time, the distinction between an ‘incident’ and an ‘engagement’ is crucial, though most commentators who have seized on Larry’s work have ignored it and focused on the dramatic difference in civilian casualties per engagement. Despite my best efforts, the Pentagon were unwilling to clarify the difference, so here is what Larry himself has told me:

An engagement is probably intuitively what you would expect – the use of force against a target. The distinction is the term incident, which is borrowed from ISAF definitions. I should have said “civilian casualty incident.” This refers to an engagement that results in civilian casualties.

This means that, if you look at the collection of civilian casualty incidents, the average number of civilian casualties is close to the same for manned and unmanned platforms. At the same time, the rate of civilian casualties for the two platforms is markedly different, with unmanned platforms being ten times more likely to cause civilian casualties than manned platforms. That doesn’t mean that drones caused more civilian casualties than manned aircraft, by the way, since the denominators (number of engagements of manned aircraft versus drones) can and in fact were very different. But it does suggest that the relative risk of civilian casualties was higher for one kind of platform versus the other.

And this is in the specific context of Afghanistan and for a specific time. I wouldn’t want to say that this specific rate would be repeated, necessarily. Yet there were certain risk factors I observed in the civilian casualty incidents that I would expect to continue to be factors unless steps were taken to mitigate them.

Larry’s most recent report, Improving lethal action: learning and adapting in US Counterterrorism Operations, is available here.  It includes an analysis of the Uruzgan air strike that is central to my ‘Angry Eyes’ essay (next on my to-do list).

[The short clip above is from Baden Pailthorpe‘s stunning animation MQ-9 Reaper (That Others May Die) (2014) – you can find much more here]

You might think that all of this is now of historical interest since President Obama has declared the end of the Afghanistan war.  Not so.  Here is John Knefel writing in Rolling Stone this week:

Though many Americans may not have realized it, December 28th marked what the U.S. government called the official end of the war in Afghanistan. That war has been the longest in U.S. history – but despite the new announcement that the formal conflict is over, America’s war there is far from finished. In fact, the Obama administration still considers the Afghan theater an area of active hostilities, according to an email from a senior administration official – and therefore exempts it from the stricter drone and targeted killing guidelines the president announced at a major speech at the National Defense University in 2013.

“Afghanistan will continue to be considered an ‘area of active hostilities’ in 2015,” the official tells RS. “The PPG does not apply to areas of active hostilities.” (PPG stands for Presidential Policy Guidelines, the formal name for the heightened drone rules.)

That perplexing distinction – that formal combat operations are over but that the U.S. still remains in an armed conflict – in many ways exemplifies the lasting legacy of Obama’s foreign policy.

If you assume the situation in Pakistan is somehow less ambiguous, read Ryan Goodman on ‘areas of active hostilities’ over at Just Security here (I’m having to sort all this out for ‘Dirty Dancing’, of course).

Second, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has released its end-of-year report on US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in 2014, which includes these tabulations of casualty rates for the first two countries:

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The Bureau comments:

While there have been more strikes [in Pakistan] in the past six years, the casualty rate has been lower under Obama than under his predecessor. The CIA killed eight people, on average, per strike during the Bush years. Under Obama, it is less than six. The civilian casualty rate is lower too – more than three civilians were reported killed per strike during the past presidency. Under Obama, less than one.  There were no confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistan in the past year, as in 2013….

The frequency of strikes [in Yemen] may have fallen in 2014 but more people were killed, on average, per strike than in any previous year.  The casualty rate for last year even outstrips 2012 – the bloodiest year recorded in the US’s drone campaign in Yemen when at least 173 people were reported killed in 29 strikes. In 2014 at least 82 people were reported to have died in just 13 strikes.

You can find the Long War Journal‘s tabulations for Pakistan here and Yemen here.

unammed-rogershillThird, Israel.  I’ve commented previously on an interview with an Israeli drone pilot, but it’s been difficult to put his observations in context (though see here and scroll down to the tabulations). Now Ann Rogers, who wrote Unmanned: drone warfare and global security (Pluto, 2014) with John Hill – as good an introduction to drone wars as you will find – has just released an essay on ‘Investigating the Relationship Between Drone Warfare and Civilian Casualties in Gaza‘.  It’s in a special issue of the open-access Journal of Strategic Security 7 (4) (2014) on ‘Future challenges in drone geopolitics’.  Here’s the abstract:

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are increasingly touted as ‘humanitarian’ weapons that contribute positively to fighting just wars and saving innocent lives. At the same time, civilian casualties have become the most visible and criticized aspect of drone warfare. It is argued here that drones contribute to civilian casualties not in spite of, but because of, their unique attributes. They greatly extend war across time and space, pulling more potential threats and targets into play over long periods, and because they are low-risk and highly accurate, they are more likely to be used. The assumption that drones save lives obscures a new turn in strategic thinking that sees states such as Israel and the US rely on large numbers of small, highly discriminating attacks applied over time to achieve their objectives. This examination of Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza argues that civilian casualties are not an unexpected or unintended consequence of drone warfare, but an entirely predictable outcome.

Drone-flying-above-me-Friday-afternoon-400-x-300It’s an interesting essay, but I fear that it takes the Israeli military at its word.  Ann repeatedly refers to Israel’s ‘discriminating’ targeting:

‘The central point is that drones enabled the IDF to undertake detailed, extensive, and discriminating targeting of Gaza, before and during the actual fighting. The killing of civilians may be down to differing interpretations of military necessity, or in some cases, in how combatants and non-combatants are distinguished from one another. But it is the drone gaze that enables these targets to be ‘called into being’ (p. 102)…

‘As Israeli targeting of Gaza appears to have been highly discriminating, a more serious problem may lie in how its view of legitimate attacks differs from the global “norm.” (p. 104).’

I commented on Israeli attacks on hospitals and ambulances last summer here, here and here, and on the wholesale destruction of  Gaza here and here, so I confess I am at a loss for words.  But she is right to emphasise the operative power of international humanitarian law and its protocols of distinction (discrimination) and proportionality – though, as often as not, these seem to have been inoperative in anything other than a rhetorical sense.  For much more on this, and the way in which military lawyers are incorporated into Israel’s kill-chains, you should click across to Craig Jones‘s War, Law and Space.  All of which makes the Palestinian decision to seek membership of the International Criminal Court all the more important (there’s a good commentary on the wider legal issues by David Luban at Jus Security here and by a clutch of commentators at the Middle East Research and Information Project‘s blog here).  Perhaps not surprisingly, Daniel Reisner, the former head of the Israeli military’s International Law Department, has condemned the Palestinian application as ‘a belligerent act within the framework of the non-physical and kinetic world of lawfare.’

Finally, the US-led air strikes on IS/ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria.  Here we know much less than we should, not least because the Pentagon knows much less than it should.  Here is Nancy Youssef reporting earlier this week:

In a war fought largely from the air and in places no one can safely go, the impact is as opaque as the war itself, making it difficult to measure whether the U.S. and coalition effort is working.

“We don’t have the ability to count the nose of every guy we schwack,” as Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, using military jargon [sic] for killing. “That’s not the goal.”

Presumably, that also means the Pentagon can’t count how many civilians it has accidentally killed in the name of ridding the region of ISIS.

Drone Wars UK has an excellent survey of the logistics of air operations over Iraq and Syria from Chris Cole here, and the New York Times has produced a useful interactive map of US-led air strikes from which I’ve snipped this summary:

Iraq:Syria air strikes 4 August to 31 December 2014

We don’t know how many of these were carried out by drones or even orchestrated by them, but as their limitations are becoming clearer it’s reasonable to assume that most involved conventional strike aircraft.  We do know that targeting involves the analysis of video feeds from both remote and conventional platforms, and that CENTCOM has had considerable difficulty in juggling the competing demands for ISR from Afghanistan and from Iraq/Syria.

According to a report this week from W.J. Hennigan, who visited the USAF’s 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia:

In a vast windowless room, several dozen intelligence analysts worked under the glow of more than 100 computer screens, quietly studying video streaming from U.S. drones and spy planes hunting for Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

One team searched the incoming video to find a firefight underway between Iraqi security forces and militants somewhere south of the insurgent-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq.

For four hours, the analysts pored over the imagery before identifying 20 positions where the militants were dug in with machine guns and other weaponry. After the analysts called in the coordinates, 15 jets from five countries pounded the targets with more than two dozen bombs.

The Dec. 5 airstrike, one of 462 last month, underscores the Pentagon’s increased reliance on personnel far from the battlefield…  Air Force analysts here stand — or rather sit — on the virtual front lines by tracking Islamic State fighters in a war zone some 6,000 miles away.

But here’s the rub:

Unlike in past wars, when U.S. troops on the ground helped provide targeting information and intelligence, commanders in the battle against Islamic State rely chiefly on airborne surveillance, captured communications chatter, signals intelligence and other material that is processed by analysts here.

U.S. officers said the video-watching analysts working half a world away are no match for spotters and other troops feeding intelligence from the front lines.

“We don’t have anywhere near the level of intelligence we used to,” Lt. Col. Marc Spinuzzi, a senior intelligence officer, wrote in an email from Baghdad. The analysts are under “a lot of pressure … to clearly distinguish friend from foe, and to pick out the enemy from the civilian population” on the battlefield.

That is precisely how mistakes are made and civilians killed.  And, as Robert Naiman pointed out,

“There is a big danger here that U.S. air strikes in Syria are going to resemble the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in the sense that there is no accountability for who is killed. We have reports of civilian casualties from people in the area and the U.S. government says, ‘No, they are bad guys.’ There has to be some public accountability for what happens when there are allegations of civilian casualties.”

At least the Pentagon has now gone some way towards recognising the problem.  Previously it had insisted that it was unaware of any civilian casualties, which is disingenuous: it beggars belief that 1,000 air strikes could have resulted in no civilian casualties – but if your ISR is inadequate it’s scarcely surprising that you would be ‘unaware’ of the consequences.  Even so, on 6 January the Pentagon announced that it had investigated 18 allegations of coalition airstrikes causing civilian casualties between 8 August and 30 December.  It determined that 13 were ‘not credible’, but was continuing to review three others; a further two, one in Iraq and one in Syria, are now the subject of formal military investigations.  But before you gold your breath, both Iraq and Syria are also exempt from the Presidential Policy Guidelines that require a ‘near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’.  Here is Harold Koh (really):

‘They seem to be creating this grey zone…  If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value.’

The Federal Administration of Military Violence

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

NWA_PakMil_locations_all_1200

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

Green Ground Red Drones Blue PAF strikes DAWN 20 June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pakistan Displaced Persons June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Drones, militarized vision and civilian casualties

I’m just back from the AAG Conference in Tampa, and there’s a lot to catch up on.

First, an art installation in Pakistan called #NotABlugSplat that reverses the paramilitary gaze and ‘targets Predator drone operators sitting thousands of miles away who refer to kills as BugSplats.’  Now they’ll see on their screens the face of a child who lost her parents and two young siblings in a drone strike.

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It’s a collaboration between Pakistani and American artists, working with Reprieve and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, who also designed it ‘to be captured by satellites in order to make it a permanent part of the landscape on online mapping sites.’

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It’s an arresting project – but if you scroll through the comments that followed gizmodo‘s report you’ll see that ‘hope’ and ’empathy’ remain dismally distant for many people.

LEWIS Drone strikes in PakistanPerhaps some of them would benefit from a new report for the Center of Naval Analyses (CNA) by Larry Lewis, Drone strikes in Pakistan: reasons to assess civilian casualties.  I’ve noted his (largely classified) work on Drone strikes and civilian casualties in Afghanistan before, and in this – unclassified – report he leverages what we know about US military drone strikes in Afghanistan to address the cross-border attacks directed by the CIA.  Lewis makes two key points.

First, he notes that the US government’s claims about civilian casualties for its supposedly covert operations in Pakistan are significantly lower than ‘nearly every other estimate available’.  (En route, he draws attention to something that is usually overlooked in these calculations: under International Humanitarian Law, ‘the burden of proof is to determine whether a casualty is a combatant’, and where in doubt the casualty must be regarded and recorded as a civilian).  Based on his previous work in Afghanistan, Lewis suggests three overlapping reasons – apart from a disinclination to tell the truth – that ‘complicate the estimation process’:

  • An irregular enemy –  it is exceptionally difficult to distinguish combatants from civilians in irregular warfare, and this is exacerbated by combatants ‘co-locating with the local population’;
  • Misidentifications – ‘US forces mistakenly believe civilians to be enemy combatants’; I’m not sure how this is different from the first, but Lewis provides two examples that suggest he has in mind specific rather than general characteristics: mistaking men digging drainage ditches for militants burying an IED, for example, or assuming all those in close proximity to an engagement were involved (‘guilt by association’);
  • Battle Damage Assessments (BDA) based on aerial surveillance – determining the consequences of an air strike without ‘boots on the ground’ is likely to be defective

Of all of these, Lewis suggests that it is misidentification that is likely to be ‘the basis for the majority of civilian casualty incidents’ and cites the case that I discussed in detail in Tampa: the strike carried out by two attack helicopters following persistent surveillance from a Predator of a ‘convoy’ of three vehicles in Uruzgan province in Afghanistan in February 2010.  I’ll post my version of events shortly, since I think it is a mistake to collapse this episode into a monotonic ‘Predator vision’; there were other eyes in the sky [see the image below], and – still more significantly – military vision is not a uniquely technical process (which is why the concept of visuality is so important) and in this case involved different interpretations of the Full Motion Video Feed from the drone by different people at different locations. In short, there was a de-centralized, distributed and dispersed geography of militarized vision that was never resolved into a plenary (still less totalizing) frame.

AC 130 Gunship Imagery Afghanistan.001

 

That said, Lewis’s second point is about process not platform.  He has no truck with claims like Avery Plaw’s – ‘Where civilian casualties cannot be avoided they must be minimized.  This is what drone strikes do’ – because they mistake ‘platform precision for a comprehensive process that minimizes civilian casualties’ and are in fact ‘contradicted by operational data’.  He cites his earlier analysis of 2010-2011 data from Afghanistan, which ‘showed that several forms of attack, including engagements by manned air platforms, were less likely to cause civilian casualties than drone strikes’ (my emphasis; see my earlier discussion here). In his view, then, ‘minimizing civilian casualties is less a matter of platform or ordnance selection as it is using an approach that considers factors that lead to civilian casualties and then effectively takes them into account.’

The point is sharpened by Mark Gubrud in a response to a report from Charli Carpenter at the Duck of Minerva:

‘…drones use the same targeting pods and precision-guided weapons as the manned platforms they replace; in fact, the quality of imagery from the drones is degraded by the limited bandwidth and frequent interruptions of satellite links, as well as the transmission delay which can frustrate last-moment aborts. On top of the “soda straw” vision as compared with low-flying aircraft in close air support, these factors mean that, if anything, the drones are actually inherently less discriminate.’

Again, all of these factors were in play in the Uruzgan attack: degradations and interruptions of both video and audio transmissions were of critical importance – again, see the image from my Tampa presentation above – but even more significant was the way in which the military field of view expanded, contracted and even closed at different locations as the episode unfolded.  More to come.