Drones and Shadow Wars

I ended my lecture at the Drone Imaginaries conference in Odense this week by arguing that the image of the drone’s all-seeing ‘eye in the sky’ had eclipsed multiple other modalities of later modern war:

Simply put, drones are about more than targeted killing (that’s important, of course, but remember that in Afghanistan and elsewhere ‘night raids’ by US Special Forces on the ground have been immensely important in executing supposedly ‘kill or capture’ missions); and at crucial moments in the war in Afghanistan 90 per cent of air strikes have been carried out by conventional aircraft (though intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from remote platforms often mediated those strikes).

To sharpen the point I showed this image from a drone over Afghanistan on 15 April 2017:

This showed the detonation of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB or ‘Mother Of All Bombs’):

This is a far cry from the individuation of later modern war, the US Air Force’s boast that it could put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and that often repeated line from Grégoire Chamayou about ‘the body becoming the battlefield’.

And, as I’ve been trying to show in my series of posts on siege warfare in Syria, there are still other, shockingly violent and intrinsically collective modalities of later modern war.  Drones have been used there too, but in the case of the Russian and Syrian Arab Air Forces targeting has more often than not avoided precision weapons in favour of saturation bombing and artillery strikes (see here).

All this means that I was pleased to receive a note from the brilliant Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the widening of its work on drones (which will continue, to be sure):

Under President Donald Trump the US counterterrorism campaign is shifting into another phase, and the Bureau is today launching a new project to investigate it – Shadow Wars.  The new phase is in some ways a continuation and evolution of trends seen under Obama. The same reluctance to deploy American troops applies, as does the impetus to respond militarily to radical groups around the world. But as extremist groups spread and metastasise, the US’s military engagements are becoming ever more widespread, and complicated. Peter Singer, a senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, who is a leading expert on security, says: “Shadow wars have been going on for a long time, but what’s clearly happened is that they’ve been accelerated, and the mechanisms for oversight and public notification have been peeled back. The trend lines were there before, but the Trump team are just putting them on steroids.”

A new US drone base has been built in Niger, but its ultimate purpose is unclear. In Afghanistan, the US is trying to prevail over the Taliban, without committing to a substantial increase in troop numbers, by waging an increasingly secretive air war. In Yemen, the US is leaning on the United Arab Emirates as its on the ground counterterrorism partner, a country with a troubled human rights record. Meanwhile, proxy confrontations with Iran are threading themselves into the mix.

Our Shadow Wars project will widen the focus of the Bureau’s drone warfare work. Over the next year, we will bring new and important aspects of US military strategy to light, of which drones are just one troubling aspect.

We aim to explore issues such as America’s increasing reliance on regional allies, the globalisation of the private military industry, the blurring of lines between combat and support missions and the way corruption fuels a state of permanent conflict. As with our work on drones, our primary concern in this new project is to publicise the effects these evolving practices of war have on the civilians on the ground.

Transnational war and international law

New from Hurst: Jack McDonald‘s Enemies known and unknown: Targeted killings in America’s transnational war:

President Obama was elected on an anti-war platform, yet targeted killings have increased under his command of the ‘War on Terror’. The US thinks of itself as upholding the rule of international law and spreading democracy, yet such targeted killings have been widely decried as extra-judicial violations of human rights. This book examines these paradoxes, arguing that they are partially explained by the application of existing legal standards to transnational wars.

Critics argue that the kind of war the US claims to be waging — transnational armed conflict — doesn’t actually exist. McDonald analyses the concept of transnational war and the legal interpretations that underpin it, and argues that the Obama administration’s adherence to the rule of law produces a status quo of violence that is in some ways more disturbing than the excesses of the Bush administration.

America’s interpretations of sovereignty and international law shape and constitute war itself, with lethal consequences for the named and anonymous persons that it unilaterally defines as participants. McDonald’s analysis helps us understand the social and legal construction of legitimate violence in warfare, and the relationship between legal opinions formed in US government departments and acts of violence half a world away.

No shortage of books on targeted killing, I know, but this one stands out through its focus on the entanglements between law and violence in the very idea of transnational war and its interest in the individuation of later modern war.  Here’s the Table of Contents:

Introduction: The Balkan Crucible

1. The Cleanest War
2. The Lens of War
3. In Washington’s Shadow
4. Lawful Annihilation?
5. Unto Others
6. Individuated Warfare
7. Killing through a Monitor, Darkly
8. The Body as a Battlefield
9. Gyges’ Knife

That said, I do have reservations about the claim that the US ‘thinks of itself as upholding the rule of international law’ – or, more precisely, about the reality that lies behind that rhetoric.

As I continue to work on ‘The Death of the Clinic‘, and the assaults on hospitals and healthcare in Syria and beyond, I’ve been drawn into debates that circle around the selective impotence of international law and appeals to the International Criminal Court.  In the Syrian case, the geopolitics of international law are laid bare: the jursdiction of the ICC is limited to acts carried out in the territory of a state that is party to the Rome Statute [Syria is not] unless the crimes are referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council – where Russia has consistently exercised its veto to protect its ally/client.  But it is important not to lose sight of what Patrick Hagopian called ‘American immunity’; based on a close reading of Korea and Vietnam he shows how the United States has consistently sought ‘to police a system of law universally binding on others from which it reserves the right at any moment to exempt itself.’  Similarly, Jens David Ohlin has traced a persistent American scepticism towards international law that was redoubled in the years after 9/11 and, as I’ve suggested before, the US is by no means alone in what Jens identifies as a sustained ‘assault on international law‘.

I don’t say this to detract from Enemies known and unknown: it’s just really a promissory (foot)note to my continuing work on spaces of exception in Syria (where it isn’t intended to give succour to the legions of Putin/Assad trolls inside and outside the academy either – on which see this long overdue, forensic take-down of one of the most egregious offenders by Brian Slocock here).

Fragments

The flu has restricted me to not so much light reading as lighter-than-air reading, so here are some short contributions and notices that appeared during the Christmas break and which address various aspects of (later) modern war and military violence:

Peter Schwartzstein on ‘The explosive secrets of Egypt’s deserts‘ – the recovery of military maps, aerial photographs, personal journals and sketchbooks from the Second World War to plot the vast minefields that continue to haunt ‘one of the most hotly contested killing fields of the twentieth century’.  You can find more in Aldino Bondesan‘s ‘Between history and geography: The El Alamein Project’, in Jill Edwards (ed) El Alamein and the struggle for North Africa (Oxford, 2012).

I discussed those minefields in ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and that essay intersects in all sorts of ways with my good friend Gastòn Gordillo‘s project on terrain, so here is a short reflection from him entitled Terrain, forthcoming in Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen.

Not the ‘war on drugs’ but the war through drugs: Mike Jay‘s sharp review essay (‘Don’t fight sober’) on Łukasz Kamieński‘s brilliantly titled Shooting Up: a short history of drugs and war and Norman Ohler‘s over-the-top Blitzed: drugs in Nazi Germany (for another, equally critical take on Ohler, see Richard J Evans‘s splenetic review here; more – and more appreciative – from Rachel Cooke‘s interview with Ohler here).

Here’s an extract from Mike’s review:

9780190263478In Shooting Up, a historical survey of drugs in warfare that grew out of his research into future military applications of biotechnology, Łukasz Kamieński lists some of the obstacles to getting the facts straight. State authorities tend to cloak drug use in secrecy, for tactical advantage and because it frequently conflicts with civilian norms and laws. Conversely it can be exaggerated to strike fear into the enemy, or the enemy’s success and morale can be imputed to it. When drugs are illegal, as they often are in modern irregular warfare, trafficking or consumption is routinely denied. The negative consequences of drug use are covered up or explained away as the result of injury or trauma, and longer-term sequels are buried within the complex of post-traumatic disorders. Soldiers aren’t fully informed of the properties and potency of the drugs they’re consuming. Different perceptions of their role circulate even among participants fighting side by side.

Kamieński confines the use of alcohol in war to his prologue and wisely so, or the rest of the book would risk becoming a footnote to it. A historical sweep from the Battle of Hastings to Waterloo or ancient Greece to Vietnam suggests that war has rarely been fought sober. This is unsurprising in view of the many different functions alcohol performs. It has always been an indispensable battlefield medicine and is still pressed into service today as antiseptic, analgesic, anaesthetic and post-trauma stimulant. It has a central role in boosting morale and small-group bonding; it can facilitate the private management of stress and injury; and it makes sleep possible where noise, discomfort or stress would otherwise prevent it. After the fighting is done, it becomes an aid to relaxation and recovery.

All these functions are subsidiary to its combat role and Kamieński’s particular interest, the extent to which drugs can transform soldiers into superhuman fighting machines. ‘Dutch courage’ – originally the genever drunk by British soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War – has many components. With alcohol, soldiers can tolerate higher levels of pain and hardship, conquer fear and perform acts of selfless daring they would never attempt without it. It promotes disinhibition, loosens cultural taboos and makes troops more easily capable of acts that in civilian life would be deemed criminal or insane. The distribution of alcohol and other drugs by medics or superior officers has an important symbolic function, giving soldiers permission to perform such acts and to distance themselves from what they become when they’re intoxicated.

Opium, cannabis and coca all played supporting roles on the premodern battlefield but it was only with the industrialisation of pharmaceutical production that other drugs emerged fully from alcohol’s shadow. Morphine was widely used for the first time in the American Civil War and the 19th-century cocaine boom began with research into its military application. Freud was first alerted to it by the work of the army surgeon Theodor Aschenbrandt, who in 1883 secretly added it to the drinking water of Bavarian recruits and found that it made them better able to endure hunger, strain and fatigue. During the First World War cocaine produced in Java by the neutral Dutch was exported in large quantities to both sides. British forces could get it over the counter in products such as Burroughs Wellcome’s ‘Forced March’ tablets, until alarms about mass addiction among the troops led to a ban on open sales under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1916.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707During the 1930s a new class of stimulants emerged from the laboratory, cheap to produce, longer-acting and allegedly less addictive. Amphetamine was first brought to market in the US by Smith, Kline and French in 1934 in the form of a bronchial inhaler, Benzedrine, but its stimulant properties were soon recognised and it was made available in tablet form as a remedy for narcolepsy and a tonic against depression. As with cocaine, one of its first applications was as a performance booster in sport. Its use by American athletes during the Munich Olympic Games in 1936 brought it to the attention of the German Reich and by the end of the following year the Temmler pharmaceutical factory in Berlin had synthesised a more powerful variant, methamphetamine, and trademarked it under the name Pervitin. As Norman Ohler relates in Blitzed, research into its military applications began almost immediately; it was used in combat for the first time in the early stages of the Second World War. Ohler’s hyperkinetic, immersive prose evokes its subjective effects on the German Wehrmacht far more vividly than any previous account, but it also blurs the line between myth and reality.

This too blurs the line between myth and reality, or so you might think.  Geoff Manaugh‘s ever-interesting BldgBlog reports that the US Department of Defense ‘is looking to develop “biodegradable training ammunition loaded with specialized seeds to grow environmentally beneficial plants that eliminate ammunition debris and contaminants”.’  Sustainable shooting.  But notice this is ammunition only for use in proving grounds…

shotgun

At the other end of the sustainable spectrum, John Spencer suggests that ‘The most effective weapon on the modern battlefield is concrete‘.  To put it simply, you bring today’s liquid wars to a juddering halt – on the ground at any rate – by turning liquidity into solidity and confounding the mobility of the enemy:

Ask any Iraq War veteran about Jersey, Alaska, Texas, and Colorado and you will be surprised to get stories not about states, but about concrete barriers. Many soldiers deployed to Iraq became experts in concrete during their combat tours. Concrete is as symbolic to their deployments as the weapons they carried. No other weapon or technology has done more to contribute to achieving strategic goals of providing security, protecting populations, establishing stability, and eliminating terrorist threats. This was most evident in the complex urban terrain of Baghdad, Iraq. Increasing urbanization and its consequent influence on global patterns of conflict mean that the US military is almost certain to be fighting in cities again in our future wars. Military planners would be derelict in their duty if they allowed the hard-won lessons about concrete learned on Baghdad’s streets to be forgotten.

When I deployed to Iraq as an infantry soldier in 2008 I never imagined I would become a pseudo-expert in concrete, but that is what happened—from small concrete barriers used for traffic control points to giant ones to protect against deadly threats like improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and indirect fire from rockets and mortars. Miniature concrete barriers were given out by senior leaders as gifts to represent entire tours. By the end my deployment, I could tell you how much each concrete barrier weighed. How much each barrier cost. What crane was needed to lift different types. How many could be emplaced in a single night. How many could be moved with a military vehicle before its hydraulics failed.
Baghdad was strewn with concrete—barriers, walls, and guard towers. Each type was named for a state, denoting their relative sizes and weights. There were small barriers like the Jersey (three feet tall; two tons), medium ones like the Colorado (six feet tall; 3.5 tons) and Texas (six feet, eight inches tall; six tons), and large ones like the Alaska (12 feet tall; seven tons). And there were T-walls (12 feet tall; six tons), and actual structures such as bunkers (six feet tall; eight tons) and guard towers (15 to 28 feet tall).

concrete-barriers-stored-at-bagram-afb-january-2015

But it’s nor only a matter of freezing movement:

Concrete also gave soldiers freedom to maneuver in urban environments. In the early years of the war, US forces searched for suitable spaces in which to live. Commanders looked for abandoned factories, government buildings, and in some situations, schools. Existing structures surrounded by walled compounds of some type were selected because there was little in the environment to use for protection—such as dirt to fill sandbags, earthworks, or existing obstacles. As their skills in employing concrete advanced, soldiers could occupy any open ground and within weeks have a large walled compound with hardened guard towers.

Now up into the air.  My posts on the US Air Force’s Bombing Encyclopedia (here and here) continue to attract lots of traffic; I now realise that the project – a targeting gazetteer for Strategic Air Command – needs to be understood in relation to a considerable number of other texts.  Elliott Child has alerted me to the prisoner/defector interrogations that provided vital intelligence for the identification of targets – more soon, I hope – while those targets also wound their way into the President’s Daily Brief (this was an era when most Presidents read the briefs and took them seriously, though Nixon evidently shared Trump’s disdain for the CIA: see here.)  James David has now prepared a National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book (No 574) which provides many more details based on redacted releases of Briefs for the period 1961-77.

Two of the most critical intelligence targets throughout the Cold War were Soviet missile and space programs. U.S. intelligence agencies devoted a huge amount of resources to acquiring timely and accurate data on them. Photoreconnaissance satellites located launch complexes and provided data on the number and type of launchers, buildings, ground support equipment, and other key features. They located R&D centers, manufacturing plants, shipyards, naval bases, radars, and other facilities and obtained technical details on them. The satellites also occasionally imaged missiles and rockets on launch pads. There were four successful photoreconnaissance satellite programs during the four administrations in question. CORONA, a broad area search system, operated from August 1960 until May 1972. The first successful high resolution system, GAMBIT-1, flew from 1963-1967. The improved GAMBIT-3 high resolution satellite was launched from 1966-1984. HEXAGON, the broad area search successor to CORONA, operated from 1971-1984. High-resolution ground photography of missiles and rockets displayed at Moscow parades and other events also proved valuable at times.

sigint-targets-ussr

Signals intelligence platforms [above] also contributed greatly to understanding Soviet missile and space programs. Satellites such as GRAB (1960-1962), POPPY (1962-1971), and AFTRACK payloads (1960-1967) located and intercepted air defense, anti-ballistic missile, and other radars and added significantly to U.S. knowledge of Soviet defensive systems and to the development of countermeasures. Other still-classified signals intelligence satellites launched beginning around 1970 reportedly intercepted telemetry and other data downlinked from missiles, rockets, and satellites to Soviet ground stations, and commands uplinked from the stations to these vehicles. Antennas at intercept sites also recorded this downlinked data. During the latter stages of missile and rocket tests to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Pacific, ships and aircraft also intercepted telemetry and acquired optical data of the vehicles. Analysis of the telemetry and other data enabled the intelligence agencies to determine the performance characteristics of missiles, rockets, and satellites and helped establish their specific missions. Radars at ground stations detected launches, helped determine missile trajectories, observed the reentry of vehicles, and assisted in estimating the configuration and dimensions of missiles and satellites. Space Surveillance Network radars and optical sensors detected satellites and established their orbital elements. The optical sensors apparently also photographed satellites.

And for a more recent take on sensors and shooters, coming from Yale in the Spring: Christopher J Fuller‘s See It/Shoot It: The secret history of the CIA’s lethal drone program:

An illuminating study tracing the evolution of drone technology and counterterrorism policy from the Reagan to the Obama administrations.

This eye-opening study uncovers the history of the most important instrument of U.S. counterterrorism today: the armed drone. It reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the CIA’s covert drone program is not a product of 9/11. Rather, it is the result of U.S. counterterrorism practices extending back to an influential group of policy makers in the Reagan administration.

Tracing the evolution of counterterrorism policy and drone technology from the fallout of Iran-Contra and the CIA’s “Eagle Program” prototype in the mid-1980s to the emergence of al-Qaeda, Fuller shows how George W. Bush and Obama built upon or discarded strategies from the Reagan and Clinton eras as they responded to changes in the partisan environment, the perceived level of threat, and technological advances. Examining a range of counterterrorism strategies, he reveals why the CIA’s drones became the United States’ preferred tool for pursuing the decades-old goal of preemptively targeting anti-American terrorists around the world.

You can get a preview of the argument in his ‘The Eagle Comes Home to Roost: The Historical Origins of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program’ in Intelligence & National Security 30 (6) (2015) 769-92; you can access a version of that essay, with some of his early essays on the US as what he now calls a ‘post-territorial empire’, via Academia here.

Finally, also forthcoming from Yale, a reflection on War by A.C. Grayling (whose Among the Dead Cities was one of the inspirations for my own work on bombing):

grayling-warFor residents of the twenty-first century, a vision of a future without warfare is almost inconceivable. Though wars are terrible and destructive, they also seem unavoidable. In this original and deeply considered book, A. C. Grayling examines, tests, and challenges the concept of war. He proposes that a deeper, more accurate understanding of war may enable us to reduce its frequency, mitigate its horrors, and lessen the burden of its consequences.

Grayling explores the long, tragic history of war and how warfare has changed in response to technological advances. He probes much-debated theories concerning the causes of war and considers positive changes that may result from war. How might these results be achieved without violence? In a profoundly wise conclusion, the author envisions “just war theory” in new moral terms, taking into account the lessons of World War II and the Holocaust and laying down ethical principles for going to war and for conduct during war.

The Drone Memos

jaffer-drone-memos

From the New Press on 15 November, Jameel Jaffers The Drone Memos: targeted killing, secrecy and the law:

The Drone Memos collects for the first time the legal and policy documents underlying the U.S. government’s deeply controversial practice of “targeted killing”—the extrajudicial killing of suspected terrorists and militants, typically using remotely piloted aircraft or “drones.” The documents—including the Presidential Policy Guidance that provides the framework for drone strikes today, Justice Department white papers addressing the assassination of an American citizen, and a highly classified legal memo that was published only after a landmark legal battle involving the ACLU, the New York Times, and the CIA—together constitute a remarkable effort to legitimize a practice that most human rights experts consider to be unlawful and that the United States has historically condemned.

In a lucid and provocative introduction, Jameel Jaffer, who led the ACLU legal team that secured the release of many of the documents, evaluates the “drone memos” in light of domestic and international law. He connects the documents’ legal abstractions to the real-world violence they allow, and makes the case that we are trading core principles of democracy and human rights for the illusion of security.

From Jameel’s introduction:

This book is possible because the secrecy surrounding American drone strikes has begun, at the margins, to erode. The documents collected here shed light on how a president committed to ending the abuses associated with the Bush administration’s “war on terror” came to dramatically expand one of the practices most identified with that war, and they supply a partial view of the legal and policy framework that underlies that practice. But while many of the documents collected here were meant to be defenses of the drone campaign, ultimately they complicate, at the very least, the government’s oft-repeated argument that the campaign is lawful.

To be sure, even the existence of these documents is an indication of the extent to which the drone campaign is saturated with the language of law. Perhaps no administration before this one has tried so assiduously to justify its resort to the weapons of war. But the rules that purportedly limit the government’s actions are imprecise and elastic; they are cherry picked from different legal regimes; the government regards some of them to be discretionary rather than binding; and even the rules the government concedes to be binding cannot, in the government’s view, be enforced in any court. If this is law, it is law without limits—law without constraint.

Ryan Goodman provides ’10 Questions to Ask Yourself When Reading Jameel Jaffer’s “The Drone Memos”’ here.  For me, the two most crucial on the list – which anyone writing about drones and limiting the discussion to targeted killing needs to ask themselves (and rarely does) – are these:

Despite the title of the book, how much of the discussion and issues raised are really about drones per se? How much applies to cruise missiles, night raids, and other forms of direct lethal action? What analytic or rhetorical work is being done by focusing on “drones”?

Despite the title of the book, how much of the discussion and issues raised are limited to pre-planned targeted killing? What about dynamic strikes when a moment of opportunity arises, or so-called signature strikes? What analytic or rhetorical work is being done by focusing on “targeted killing”?

UPDATE:  For an excerpt from Jameel’s introduction, see this article, ‘How the US justifies drone strikes: targeted killing, secrecy and the law‘, from The Guardian:

As the 2016 presidential primaries were getting under way, sporadic and sketchy reports of strikes in remote regions of the world provided a kind of background noise – a drone in a different sense of the word – to which Americans had become inured.

Senior officials in the administration of President Barack Obama variously described drone strikes as “precise,” “closely supervised,” “effective,” “indispensable,” and even the “only game in town” – but what they emphasized most of all is that the drone strikes they authorized were lawful.

In this context, though, “lawful” had a specialized meaning. Except at the highest level of abstraction, the law of the drone campaign had not been enacted by Congress or published in the US Code. No federal agency had issued regulations relating to drone strikes, and no federal court had adjudicated their legality. Obama administration officials insisted that drone strikes were lawful, but the “law” they invoked was their own. It was written by executive branch lawyers behind closed doors, withheld from the public and even from Congress, and shielded from judicial review…

Now the lethal bureaucracy whose growth Obama personally oversaw will be turned over to a new administration. The powers Obama claimed will be wielded by another president. Perhaps as significant is the jarring fact that the practice of targeted killing – assassination, as it would once have been called, without a second thought – no longer seems remarkable, and the fact that the United States now boasts a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure to sustain this practice. Eight years ago the targeted-killing campaign required a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure, but now that infrastructure will demand a targeted-killing campaign. The question the next president will ask is not whether the powers Obama claimed should be exploited, but where, and against whom.

Game of Drones

creechcasino_0

Joe Pugliese has sent me a copy of his absorbing new essay, ‘Drone casino mimesis: telewarfare and civil militarization‘, which appears in Australia’s Journal of sociology (2016) (online early).  Here’s the abstract:

This article stages an examination of the complex imbrication of contemporary civil society with war and militarized violence. I ground my investigation in the context of the increasing cooption of civil sites, practices and technologies by the United States military in order to facilitate their conduct of war and the manner in which drone warfare has now been seamlessly accommodated within major metropolitan cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada. In the context of the article, I coin and deploy the term civil militarization. Civil militarization articulates the colonizing of civilian sites, practices and technologies by the military; it names the conversion of such civilian technologies as video games and mobile phones into technologies of war; and it addresses the now quasi-seamless flow that telewarfare enables between military sites and the larger suburban grid and practices of everyday life. In examining drone kills in the context of Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, I bring into focus a new military configuration that I term ‘drone casino mimesis’.

I’m particularly interested in what Joe has to say about what he calls the ‘casino logic and faming mimesis’ of ‘the drone habitus’.  Most readers will know that ‘Nellis’ (more specifically, Creech Air Force Base, formerly Indian Springs), for long the epicentre of the US Air Force’s remote operations, is a short drive from Las Vegas – and those who have seen Omar Fast‘s 5,000 Feet is Best will remember the artful way in which it loops between the two.

drone-pilots

Two passages from Joe’s essay have set me thinking.  First Joe moves far beyond the usual (often facile) comparison between the video displays in the Ground Control Station and video games to get at the algorithms and probabilities that animate them:

‘…there are mimetic relations of exchange between Las Vegas’s and Nellis’s gaming consoles, screens and cubicles.

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‘Iconographically and infrastructurally, casino gaming and drone technologies stand as mirror images of each other. My argument, however, is not that both these practices and technologies merely ‘reflect’ each other; rather, I argue that gaming practices and technologies effectively work to constitute and inflect drone practices and technologies on a number of levels. Casino drone mimesis identifies, in new materialist terms, the agentic role of casino and gaming technologies precisely as ‘actors’ (Latour, 2004: 226) in the shaping and mutating of both the technologies and conduct of war. Situated within a new materialist schema, I contend that the mounting toll of civilian deaths due to drone strikes is not only a result of human failure or error – for example, the misreading of drone video feed, the miscalculation of targets and so on. Rather, civilian drone kills must be seen as an in-built effect of military technologies that are underpinned by both the morphology (gaming consoles, video screens and joysticks) and the algorithmic infrastructure of gaming – with its foundational dependence on ‘good approximation’ ratios and probability computation.’

And then this second passage where Joe develops what he calls ‘the “bets” and “gambles” on civilian life’:

‘[Bugsplat’ constitutes a] militarized colour-coding system that critically determines the kill value of the target. In the words of one former US intelligence official:

You say something like ‘Show me the Bugsplat.’ That’s what we call the probability of a kill estimate when we are doing this final math before the ‘Go go go’ decision. You would actually get a picture of a compound, and there will be something on it that looks like a bugsplat actually with red, yellow, and green: with red being anybody in that spot is dead, yellow stands a chance of being wounded; green we expect no harm to come to individuals where there is green. (Quoted in Woods, 2015: 150)

Described here is a mélange of paintball and video gaming techniques that is underpinned, in turn, by the probability stakes of casino gaming: as the same drone official concludes, ‘when all those conditions have been met, you may give the order to go ahead and spend the money’ (quoted in Woods, 2015: 150). In the world of drone casino mimesis, when all those gaming conditions have been met, you spend the money, fire your missiles and hope to make a killing. In the parlance of drone operators, if you hit and kill the person you intended to kill ‘that person is called a “jackpot”’ (Begley, 2015: 7). Evidenced here is the manner in which the lexicon of casino gaming is now clearly constitutive of the practices of drone kills. In the world of drone casino mimesis, the gambling stakes are high. ‘The position I took,’ says a drone screener, ‘is that every call I make is a gamble, and I’m betting on their life’ (quoted in Fielding-Smith and Black, 2015).

There is much more to Joe’s essay than this, but these passages add considerably to my own discussion of the US targeted killing program in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan in ‘Dirty dancing’.  You can find the whole essay under the DOWNLOADS tab, but this is the paragraph I have in mind (part of an extended discussion of the ‘technicity’ of the US targeted killing program and its reliance on kill lists, signals intercepts and visual feeds):

The kill list embedded in the [disposition] matrix has turned out to be infinitely extendable, more like a revolving door than a rolodex, so much so that at one point an exasperated General Kayani demanded that Admiral Mullen explain how, after hundreds of drone strikes, ‘the United States [could] possibly still be working its way through a “top 20” list?’  The answer lies not only in the remarkable capacity of al Qaeda and the Taliban to regenerate: the endless expansion of the list is written into the constitution of the database and the algorithms from which it emerges. The database accumulates information from multiple agencies, but for targets in the FATA the primary sources are ground intelligence from agents and informants, signals intelligence from the National Security Agency (NSA), and surveillance imagery from the US Air Force. Algorithms are then used to search the database to produce correlations, coincidences and connections that serve to identify suspects, confirm their guilt and anticipate their future actions. Jutta Weber explains that the process follows ‘a logic of eliminating every possible danger’:

‘[T]he database is the perfect tool for pre-emptive security measures because it has no need of the logic of cause and effect. It widens the search space and provides endless patterns of possibilistic networks.’

Although she suggests that the growth of ‘big data’ and the transition from hierarchical to relational and now post-relational databases has marginalised earlier narrative forms, these reappear as soon as suspects have been conjured from the database. The case for including – killing – each individual on the list is exported from its digital target folder to a summary Powerpoint slide called a ‘baseball card’ that converts into a ‘storyboard’ after each mission. Every file is vetted by the CIA’s lawyers and General Counsel, and by deputies at the National Security Council, and all ‘complex cases’ have to be approved by the President. Herein lies the real magic of the system. ‘To make the increasingly powerful non-human agency of algorithms and database systems invisible,’ Weber writes, ‘the symbolic power of the sovereign is emphasised: on “Terror Tuesdays” it (appears that it) is only the sovereign who decides about life and death.’ But this is an optical illusion. As Louise Amoore argues more generally, ‘the sovereign strike is always something more, something in excess of a single flash of decision’ and emerges instead from a constellation of prior practices and projected calculations.

Zombie law

Britain's Kill List cover JPEGOver at ESIL [European Society of International Law] Reflections [5 (7) 2016], Jochen von Bernstorff has a succinct commentary on ‘Drone strikes, terrorism and the zombie: on the construction of an administrative law of transnational executions‘.

His starting-point is the UK report on the government’s policy on the use of drones for targeted killing that was published in May 2016 in response to the killing of Reyad Khan in Syria last August: you can find more in REPRIEVE’s report on Britain’s Kill List (April 2016) and in two commentaries at Just Security from Noam Lubell here and Kate Martin here.

In Jochen’s view, the UK has effectively endorsed the policies of the Obama administration and in doing so has hollowed out fundamental legal regimes that supposedly constrain state violence.

First is the concerted attempt to legitimise the unilateral killing of suspected terrorists outside ‘hot’ battlefields – in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, for example – as a new form of pre-emptive self-defence to be invoked whenever the state whose sovereignty is transgressed is ‘unwilling or unable’ to take appropriate counter-measures.  I discuss other dimensions of this in ‘Dirty dancing’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and pay attention to its colonial genealogy, but Jochen emphasises another even more starkly colonial inflection:

‘The main protagonists in this discursive effort take it for granted that the new legal regime will not be applied among us, which is among Western states and the five permanent Security Council members. There will be no US-drone attacks in Brussels or Paris to kill ISIS-terrorists without the consent of the Belgian or French government, even if these governments proved to be unable to find and arrest terrorists. The new regime is a legal framework for what can be called the “semi-periphery”, consisting of states that do not belong to the inner circle or are not powerful enough to resist the application of the regime.’

Second, and closely connected, is the claim that armed conflict follows the suspect – that the individuation of warfare (‘the body becomes the battlefield’, as Grégoire Chamayou has it) licenses the everywhere war: simply, wherever the suspect seeks refuge s/he becomes a legitimate target of military violence.  But there is nothing ‘simple’ about it, Jochen contends, because this involves a wholesale exorbitation of the very meaning of armed conflict that completely trashes the role of international human rights law in limiting violence against those suspected of criminal wrong-doing.

Finally, Jochen concludes that the arguments adduced by the UK and the USA (and, I would add, Israel) demonstrate that international law is so often transformed through its violation: in Eyal Weizman‘s ringing phrase, ‘violence legislates‘.  Here is Jochen:

 ‘The Zombie is created by a fundamental reconceptualization of the notion of self- defence and armed conflict in international law with the aim to get rid of all legal constraints on state violence imposed by the law enforcement paradigm. Is this a new legal regime? Are we really moving towards an administrative law of transnational executions? It is an inherent problem of international legal discourse that measures of Great Powers violating the law will often be reformulated as an evolving new legal regime and legal scholars should be extremely sceptical of any such claims, since whoever says “emerging” in an international legal context very likely wants to cheat.’

Death sentences

Living under drones is both a chilling report and a nightmare reality.  In November 2014, in a New Yorker essay called ‘The unblinking stare‘, Steve Coll reported a conversation with Malik Jalal from North Waziristan:

‘Drones may kill relatively few, but they terrify many more…  They turned the people into psychiatric patients. The F-16s might be less accurate, but they come and go.’

Now Reprieve has put a compelling face to the name – to a man who believes, evidently with good reason, that he has been included in the CIA’s disposition matrix that lists those authorised for targeted killing.

Malik Jalal JPEG

‘Malik’ is an honorific reserved for community leaders, and Jalal is one of the leaders of the North Waziristan Peace Committee (NWPC).  Its main role is to try to keep the peace between the Taliban and local authorities, and it was in that capacity that he attended a Jirga in March 2011.  He says this was on 27 March, but I think it must have been the strike that killed 40 civilians at Datta Khel on 17 March (see the summary from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism here and my post here).

Here are the relevant passages from my ‘Dirty dancing’ essay, following from a discussion of Pashtunwali and customary law in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (I’ve omitted the footnotes and references):

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‘In short, if many of the Pashtun people in the borderlands are deeply suspicious of and even resentful towards Islamabad (often with good reason) they are ‘neither lawless nor defenceless.’

‘Yet the trope of ‘lawlessness’ persists, and it does important work. ‘By alleging a scarcity of legal regulation within the tribal regions,’ Sabrina Gilani argues, ‘the Pakistani state has been able to mask its use of more stringent sets of controls over and surveillance within the area.’ The trope does equally important work for the United States, for whom it is not the absence of sovereign power from the borderlands that provides the moral warrant for unleashing what Manan Ahmad calls its ‘righteous violence’. While Washington has repeatedly urged Islamabad to do much more, and to be less selective in dealing with the different factions of the Taliban, it knows very well that Pakistan has spasmodically exercised spectacular military violence there. But if the FATA are seen as ‘lawless’ in a strictly modern sense – ‘administered’ but not admitted, unincorporated into the body politic – then US drone strikes become a prosthetic, pre-emptive process not only of law enforcement but also of law imposition. They bring from the outside an ‘order’ that is supposedly lacking on the inside, and are reconstituted as instruments of an aggressively modern reason that cloaks violence in the velvet glove of the law.

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And yet the CIA’s own willingness to submit to the principles and procedures of modern law is selective and conditional; we know this from the revelations about torture and global rendition, but in the borderlands the agency’s disregard for the very system it purports to defend also exposes any group of men sitting in a circle with guns to death: even if they are gathered as a Jirga. On 27 January 2011 CIA contractor Raymond Davis was arrested for shooting two young men in Lahore. The targeted killing program was suspended while the United States negotiated his release from custody, agreeing to pay compensation to the victims’ families under Sharia law so that he could be released from the jurisdiction of the court. On 16 March, the day after Davis’s release, a Jirga was convened in Dhatta Khel in North Waziristan. A tribal elder had bought the rights to log an area of oak trees only to discover that the land also contained chromite reserves; the landowner was from a different tribe and held that their agreement covered the rights to the timber but not the minerals, and the Jirga was called to resolve what had become an inter-tribal dispute between the Kharhtangi and the Datakhel. Maliks, government officials, local police and others involved in the affair gathered at the Nomada bus depot – a tract of open ground in the middle of the small town – where they debated in two large circles. Agreement was not reached and the Jirga reconvened the next morning. Although four men from a local Taliban group were present, the meeting had been authorised by the local military commander ten days earlier and was attended by a counsellor appointed by the government to act as liaison between the state, the military and the maliks. It was also targeted by at least one and perhaps two Predators. At 11 a.m. multiple Hellfire missiles roared into the circles. More than forty people were killed, their bodies ripped apart by the blast and by shattered rocks, and another 14 were seriously injured.

Dhatta Khel before and after drone strike (Forensic Architecture)

There is no doubt that four Taliban were present: they were routinely involved in disputes between tribes with competing claims and levied taxes on chromite exports and the mine operators. But the civilian toll from the strike was wholly disproportionate to any conceivable military advantage, to say nothing of the diplomatic storm it set off, and several American sources told reporters that the attack was in retaliation for the arrest of Davis: ‘The CIA was angry.’ If true, this was no example of the dispassionate exercise of reason but instead a matter of disrespecting the resolution offered by Sharia law and disordering a customary judicial tribunal. Even more revealing, after the strike an anonymous American official who was supposedly ‘familiar with the details of the attack’ told the media that the meeting was a legitimate military target and insisted that there were no civilian casualties. Serially: ‘This action was directed against a number of brutal terrorists, not a county fair’; ‘These people weren’t gathering for a bake sale’; ‘These guys were … not the local men’s glee club’; ‘This was a group of terrorists, not a charity car wash in the Pakistani hinterlands.’ The official – I assume it was the same one, given the difference-in-repetition of the statements – provided increasingly bizarre and offensively absurd descriptions of what the assembly in Datta Khel was not: he was clearly incapable of recognising what it was. Admitting the assembly had been a properly constituted Jirga would have given the lie to the ‘lawlessness’ of the region and stripped the strike of any conceivable legitimacy. The area was no stranger to drone attacks, which had been concentrated in a target box that extended along the Tochi valley from Datta Khel through Miran Shah to Mir Ali, but those responsible for this attack were clearly strangers to the area.

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‘Like others that day,’ Jalal concedes, ‘I said some things I regret. I was angry, and I said we would get our revenge. But, in truth, how would we ever do such a thing? Our true frustration was that we – the elders of our villages – are now powerless to protect our people.’

This was the fourth in a series of strikes that Jalal believes targeted him:

‘I have been warned that Americans and their allies had me and others from the Peace Committee on their Kill List. I cannot name my sources [in the security services], as they would find themselves targeted for trying to save my life. But it leaves me in no doubt that I am one of the hunted.’

He says he is an opponent of the drone wars – but if that were sufficient grounds to be included on the kill list it would stretch into the far distance.

He also says that the Americans ‘think the Peace Committee is a front’ working to create ‘a safe space for the Pakistan Taliban.’

‘To this I say: you are wrong. You have never been to Waziristan, so how would you know?’

And he describes the dreadful impact of being hunted on him and his family:

‘I soon began to park any vehicle far from my destination, to avoid making it a target. My friends began to decline my invitations, afraid that dinner might be interrupted by a missile.

‘I took to the habit of sleeping under the trees, well above my home, to avoid acting as a magnet of death for my whole family. But one night my youngest son, Hilal (then aged six), followed me out to the mountainside. He said that he, too, feared the droning engines at night. I tried to comfort him. I said that drones wouldn’t target children, but Hilal refused to believe me. He said that missiles had often killed children. It was then that I knew that I could not let them go on living like this.’

And so he has travelled to Britain to plead his case:

‘I came to Britain because I feel like Britain is like a younger brother to America. I am telling Britain that America doesn’t listen to us, so you tell them not to kill Waziristanis.’

You can hear an interview with him on BBC’s Today programme here.

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In you think Britain is distanced from all this, read Reprieve‘s latest report on ‘Britain’s Kill Listhere (which focuses on the Joint Prioritised Effects List in Afghanistan and its spillover into Pakistan) and Vice‘s investigation into the UK’s role in finding and fixing targets in Yemen here.