Tag Archives: drone strikes

There shall be no next war

TW: nuclear war, colonialism

“[T]here shall be no next war” is what President Truman remarked 71 years ago to the day. He announced that publicly after having approved a second nuclear strike against Japan. He was motivated by leaked Japanese intelligence suggesting they were unlikely to agree to unconditional surrender in the nightmarish aftermath of Hiroshima on August 6th.

History makes a mockery of that sentiment, of course, as Truman used that speech to lay the groundwork for a US military presence around the world that has remained to this day. That is a presence that exacerbated Cold War tensions and ignited several proxy conflicts. It is a presence that today has morphed into the bulwark against terrorism and other inheritors of the not-so-long-lived forever war against communism. They are among the bases from which drones today take off and at which they land, having done their deadly work in unmanned skies.

In many ways, the US has seen nothing but war after Truman’s pronouncement.

800px-Nagasaki_1945_-_Before_and_after_(adjusted)(Nagasaki, Japan – before and after nuclear bombing.)

To attribute this militarization of the US to that single decision by Truman – to use nuclear weapons to force a total, complete, and unconditional surrender by Japan – is to inflate it unrealistically. But, still, it seems a notable stop along our way into the modern situation. This was the beginning of the presidency as a position that has a finger eternally perched on top of a button labeled “end the world.”

It was already pushed once with no adequate justification – 71 years ago today. Hiroshima, of course, only has paper thin excuses, of ignorance, of the heat of battle, of the seeping paranoia of a rising Soviet Union. But what happened 71 years ago today, in Nagasaki, followed the tearing down of all of those weak claims. The president by that time had the information key to understanding the pointless inhumanity of nuclear strikes, yet strike he did.

The risk the world faces in November is not our arsenal falling into unwise hands, but it returning to them. We have been here before, and tens of thousands of civilians died in one of the worst ways imaginable.

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The Afghanistan made by the US

In the wake of a recent attack on US service members in Afghanistan, the long ignored issue has come to the fore in national discussions. For the many in mainstream media who particularly highlight veterans’ and military issues, like Rachel Maddow, this was an opportunity to ask if we’re still an occupying presence in Afghanistan (technically, no; effectively, maybe).

Even in reporting focused beyond the experiences of US military, there’s a looming expectation. The attacks on not only the few US service members remaining in the country but also on religious and ethnic targets, namely the Hazara minority, are presented as the alternative to a larger US military presence. The implication is that they’re on the ends of a fulcrum, with US presence dampening the terrorism and related violence, which proliferates in our absence.

Another, more seldom presented, way of understanding the situation is that perhaps the recent attacks – against Hazara and US military – are themselves the result of the way that US became involved in the country. Far from opposites, they essentially encourage each other.

Long before the US’s presence there under the auspices of the War on Terror, the funding of counter-Soviet jihadists armed radical Sunni groups in Afghanistan to the teeth. Long hostile to Hazara and other ethnic groups who are predominantly Shia, this already threatened to tip the already militarized balance of ethnic power within the country against the Hazara and others. The Soviet invasion was, of course, a colonial nightmare, like most of the Soviet escapades through central Asia. This one, however, has reached even more nightmarish heights because of how another power, the US, perpetuated the internal conflicts.

Even as the Cold War melted away and new global struggles captured the US’s interest, Afghanistan remained a site of proxy war. A number of ethnic groups, including the Hazara to some extent, were the backbone of the Northern Alliance, the primary opponents to Taliban rule – the ultimate state-like incarnation of those same radical Sunni circles. Supported by many neighbors, primarily those further north and with similar ethnic compositions, this and other groups fighting against the Sunni supremacist and largely Pashtun-run Taliban were effectively off the US’s radar until Sunni supremacists hit here. Suddenly, those same largely Pashtun Sunni supremacists transformed from militants upsetting another empire to militants striking within the heart of ours.

With the overwhelmingly US-driven NATO presence then arriving in Afghanistan, you might expect the US’s alignments to change. Not so, as Pashtun politicians rode the wave of US-backed democratization into a new form of power. Even outside of positions explained by the formidable Pashtun voting bloc, they tended to rise to the top. Hamid Karzai, later the president of Afghanistan, rose to power first as an appointed interim leader at least to some extent condoned by the US military occupation.

The most notable exception to that trend was Mohammed Fahim – a prominent leader within the Northern Alliance and a non-Pashtun. His exceptional status is dampened somewhat when it’s pointed out that he was Tajik, not Hazara, and like many Tajiks, he was a Sunni Muslim, and at that one who studied Sunni Islamic law. What’s more, his role within the nominally moderate Karzai administration was to find as much common ground as possible with radical Sunnis and draw them back into non-violent politics. He died of natural causes just before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

Beyond the political world as well, the part Pashtun Khaled Hosseini captured the US’s interest with The Kite Runner. While not fully Pashtun and quite vocally in favor of expanding the opportunities for Hazara and other ethnic minorities, his non-Pashtun ancestry is apparently Tajik, like Fahim. In his most prominent of several well-received stories, he painted a sympathetic picture of the Hazara as a uniquely constrained minority within Afghanistan, even as he at once embodied the greater attention paid by the US to the other groups within and from the country.

Perhaps most iconically however, there’s Sharbat Gula, better known the world over as simply “the Afghan girl”:

Sharbat_GulaSteve McCurry’s “The Afghan Girl” taken in December 1984.

She is also Pashtun, and like a large number of Pashtun people in the part of the world, even though not a Taliban supporter, she was sympathetic to their causes and was essentially open to their return. As she put it, quite accurately for many Sunni Pashtuns in all likelihood, under the Taliban “there was peace and order”.

That Pashtun-designed peace and order disintegrated with the US shifting from Cold War proxy support, to 1990s disinterest, to War on Terror occupation. The many modern militant groups currently threatening Hazara and US military members alike, are all committed to recreating some small slice of that in an era in which US drones can and regularly do coldly strike their villages along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

It’s a rather indirect path from US intervention to a toxified Afghanistan, in which the political choices are often between Pashtun-dominated/Sunni supremacist rule and an anemic centrist government that regularly negotiates with that precise political bloc. That said, there are recurrent patterns here – about whom the US chooses to arm, to fund, to advance, and otherwise to support. Our relationship with the many different Pashtun communities in the world is one riddled with inconsistency, but that stands in sharp contrast to a monolithic disinterest towards all things Hazara, which clearly extends out into higher standards for other non-Pashtuns too.

There are other, more common ways of noting that the US presence isn’t necessarily a check against extremism. If nothing else, our military presence anywhere in the Islamic world serves as a reason to radicalize. Beyond that, however, there’s a very simple question of which people in Afghanistan have been the recipients of our resources.

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The featured image for this article is an ethnographic map of Afghanistan, from here.

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The year a third mainstream security stance emerged

TW: racism, abilism, drone strikes, mass surveillance, imperialism

I wrote at the end of last year that gun control had, at least in some way, become a more visible issue within the US over the course of 2012. At the time, I didn’t realize the potential for a similar set of politics to emerge on other similarly security-focused issues. A number of events over the past year, however, suggest that we’re in the midst of a messy, shuttering political realignment on security issues – with risks faced by both major political parties and the two pre-existing main political camps. What started last year with rising interest in gun control measures designed to restrict access to weapons or ammunition for people of color and people with documented mental illnesses, has become a full set of policy prescriptions that indelibly reflect discussions about rights cloaking opinions about power and privilege.

The most obvious incarnation of this is the rise of the Rand Paul-style opposition to drone strikes, which is always careful to drop mentions of strikes being unnecessary on US citizens or within US territory, or Stop Watching US-style opposition to mass surveillance, which inevitably drops references to the invasive nature of spying on “suspicionless Americans”. The familiar debates of the Bush era have apparently disintegrated in the past few years, with the issue no longer being whether existing anti-crime and anti-terrorism systems were “keeping us safe” or had contributed to drastic restrictions on people’s rights. Against the by-the-book moderate politics of many Democrats and the more hawkish interest in more police and military actions that otherwise dominates US politics, a new third bloc has emerged. It’s radically opposed to the current state systems of policing and targeting people, but fundamentally only on a contextual basis.

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(I am far from the only person who noticed this way of thinking about state power this year, from here.)

There’s been something of a Faustian exchange that’s happened. Criticism of the policies and systems that have been grossly misused and expanded in the past few years have suddenly coalesced into a viable and identifiable political wing, even in the US government. But that new political force is at its core separate from the far longer outcry against these systems that’s been a part of the politics of many marginalized populations for centuries now. This new political faction’s ideas seem to be about shoring up differences between people in how these laws effect them. Rather than critical of state power, they’re predicated on merely making its fallout more guided.

There’s a question we should all ask ourselves as this new force continues to disrupt the old conversation about security: is it drawing supporters and support from those that previously have advocated for more violence or is it taking from and taking over a nascent movement that could have challenged the violation of rights of non-citizens, of people of color, of the mentally disabled or ill?

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Again, mild reforms for some

TW: racism, racist criminalization, islamophobia, drone strikes, stop and frisk

In anticipation of a rally tomorrow in Washington, DC, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have put together a video about their organizations’ stand on the issue:

I think we’re seeing a total convergence of their center-left civil libertarian view with that of libertarian-leaning conservatives (such as Ron Paul) – and that’s not a good thing. There’s repeated, consistent contours to whose rights they’re interested in protecting and restoring, if this clip is any indication. They’re quick to specify that their concern is for US citizens who are under “suspicionless surveillance”. I’ve written before about the frequency with which non-citizens of the US are left out of discussing the US surveillance state, but the “suspicionless” addition is uniquely intriguing.

The ACLU works generally with people who aren’t suspicionless but who rather have come under suspicion for reasons that violate the law (namely, racial discrimination) or with elaborate rationalizations for invasions of privacy that are extra-legal. The emphasis on the “suspicionless” nature of some modern surveillance detaches those from many other issues that are absolutely related. The arguments for everything from drone strikes to stop-and-frisk are typically built around racist, classist, and islamophobic explanations of suspicion. Those unique forms of violence which overwhelmingly apply to people of color have been deliberately filtered out of this explanation of how dangerous the modern surveillance state is.

The overall narrative to this film was one of restoration – which was delivered primarily by older White men. I’ve asked in other contexts where these politics have cropped up whether a motivating factor has been to properly direct government surveillance, which is seemingly namely towards people of color, Muslims, and non-citizens of the US. This theme of restoration seems to confirm that, as it points to Nixon’s crimes in an abstract way – not to the contemporaneous mass surveillance of Civil Rights workers. What people across the political spectrum – now from Rand Paul to the ACLU – seem to be asking for is a guarantee that these systems won’t be used against the most privileged.


(Amnesty International seems to have joined them when they published the above headline to an article today.)

This seems particularly so within the on-going fascination with how few online communication systems free of NSA surveillance exist. It’s as though the issue many people take isn’t with the violation of privacy, but the inability to buy their way around it with a unique site subscription or other loophole. Many of those in power, whether inside or outside of government, seem to want some guaranteed system of privacy in electronic communication. The broader question about anyone’s right to access that, means to access that, and subsequent impacts on their lives if they don’t or can’t have apparently fallen by the wayside.

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Update: still the same, but here’s how to change it

TW: US national security apparatus, mass surveillance

Alright, do you remember this? There’s a cross-party consensus of sorts in the US in terms of the need for and legitimacy of most of the hallmarks of the growing national security state (drone warfare, mass surveillance, indefinite detention, and so on). The unsuccessful vote last Wednesday on whether or not to begin restricting the surveillance program is simply another demonstration of that, as significant numbers of both parties voted against the amended bill, allowing the program to stand as is.

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(The voting results – 205 for the limiting amendment, 217 against, and 12 not present. In terms of party composition, 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats were in favor, while 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats were against. Those who didn’t vote split evenly between the two parties, six votes on each side. From here.)

But likewise, it’s also rich in the same indications, in terms of how best to solve this problem. The vote breaks down not only with more favorable proportions of the Democrats compared to the Republicans voting for initial restrictions, but also with some indications of which Democrats are more likely to be supportive of these measures. From congressional representatives Pelosi (the minority leader), Wasserman Schultz (chair of the Democratic National Committee), and Hoyer (the minority whip), nearly every leadership figure voted against this. The major rift this reveals isn’t between libertarian and authoritarian wings of the Republicans but between the majority of Democrats and their leadership.

Frankly, the same could be said of the Republicans, whose speaker (Boehner), majority leader (Cantor), most recent Vice Presidential candidate (Ryan), majority whip (McCarthy [CA]), and a nationally contender for their nomination for the presidency (Bachmann) all voted in favor of it as well, in spite of it being introduced by a Republican.

The most important fact here however is that not only did Democrats break about 6-to-4 for the bill, but they did so against the indication of their leaders. The Republicans broke about 6-to-4 against the bill ostensible because of the signalling from their leadership. Not only do the raw data indicate that a lazy “both sides do it” argument is flawed, but the context indicates how ripe the Democratic Party is for the emergence of any leader who would break from the Republicans on this issue.

Besides the leadership, the unfortunate many other Democrats who voted in favor of the bill was full of many currently serving their first term (to name all 23 of them, representatives Bera, Castro [TX], Delaney, Duckworth, Enyart, Etsy, Frankel, Gallego, Garcia, Heck [WA], Kelly, Kennedy, Kilmer, Kuster, Sean Maloney, Meng, Murphy [FL], Peters [CA], Ruiz, Schneider, Sinema, Vargas, and Veasey). The indications of the Democratic leadership likely hold the highest sway over these representatives, so the appearance of any alternative position within the leadership appears likely to change many if not all of these representatives’ minds. Even without a key Democrat that could come forward and push this through, direct lobbying would still be best concentrated on these representatives.

Considering that the amendment was shot down by a simple majority with only 12 more votes than the opposition, targeting that group of senators is not only likely to produce different votes but also different votes that could sway the outcome of votes like these. In short, this is the most pragmatic approach to the current predicament, but it involves acknowledging differences between the parties’ representatives’ behavior and working within one of their established structures.

The question before this country’s civil libertarians is whether those are acceptable costs for changing US policy. Or rather, do they prefer decrying both parties in favor of a fairly good chance at changing the status quo?

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There’s the how and there’s the against whom

TW: PRISM, government surveillance, drone strikes

The Ed Bott Report beat me to the punch on how (among other developments in the PRISM scandal) The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and various Washington Post reporters have started surreptitiously qualifying their statements on the basic functions of the extensive and arguably unconstitutional information-gathering network. In a nutshell, most electronic surveillance requires information to come directly from a particular company, which the government cannot access without their knowledge or even cooperation (although, under those conditions, they do share significant amounts of information). PRISM has been used to supplement that data with what the NSA can pick up directly on their own, but under similar legal restrictions (namely the requirement of a warrant or court order).

Admittedly, I’m a bit skeptical of Bott’s conclusion that these data-amassing companies are privacy’s plucky canary in the internet coalmine, but his analysis of the shifting reporting on what programs are key to surveillance and how they operate is much less ideological and seems rooted in factual analysis.


(Image from one recent anti-PRISM protest, where the protester’s sign reads: “Hands off my meta-data”. From here.)

The legal system that surrounds the surveillance mechanisms that Snowden helped maintain was something that he appears to have remained ignorant of, like too many US citizens, since its failures are pivotal to understanding the risks and problems with PRISM. There’s a real missed opportunity in that, given how its already shaped how Snowden, and consequently Greenwald, and as a result many civil libertarians. In the second video of Greenwald’s interview with Snowden, which was released this week, Snowden opened with a frankly bizarre statement (in response to what response he anticipated from the US government): “That argument [that his leak aided and abetted enemies of the United States] can be made against anybody who reveals information that points out mass surveillance systems, because fundamentally they apply equally to ourselves [presumably meaning US citizens] as they do our enemies [presumably non-citizens].”

Actually, much like the legal standards of what’s cruel and unusual punishment and what’s a public and speedy trial, this entire debate is informed by radically different attitudes and procedures towards US citizens and non-citizens. This implied fear that that distinction is eroding at this point seems fundamentally central to the modern civil libertarian movement. From Rand Paul’s filibuster to Snowden’s analysis, lots of White men with US passports seem to be worried that drone strikes and excessive surveillance could become their reality in spite of their citizenship (and not, you’ll notice, their humanity – this is about the rights of citizens not all people).

The fact that the biggest threats are to those without US citizenship (or, complicating the issue, people of color who are presumed to lack US citizenship) is essentially missing from that political movement’s consciousness and specifically the picture that Snowden painted of US-run surveillance. Court orders and warrants to take the information of US citizens and non-citizens alike generally flow through the FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court), which has frankly terrifying legal standards, but that’s not the only information that that unique court system handles. As the Washington Post reported, it was a member of the FISC who ruled that the Obama administration could keep a secret list of non-citizens it wanted killed. The same system is indeed spying on us all, but under court orders which view secret murder as a fair use of information gathered of non-citizens. In only one case, for this moment, have standards remotely akin to that been applied to a US citizen.

The system is predicated on a political distinction, which civil libertarians seem loath to acknowledge.

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Too much death

TW: drone strikes, islamophobia

Let’s talk about drone strikes for a minute. For personal reasons, this is going to be a comparatively brief post. It’s important to note, in any case, that the US Senate is conducting hearings on the drone policies of the (Bush and) Obama administration, which included testimony by a man born and initially raised in a Yemeni village which was struck by a US drone. His testimony is poignant and impacting, so I urge you to give Farea al-Muslimi a listen:

But I think one important thing is to examine how his argument is understood in a wider context. The article that I initially came across which discussed his testimony worryingly focuses on the section where al-Muslimi explained, “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.” Naturally enough, that’s the pull quote for a blog focused on the plight of Julian Assange, rather than Private Manning.

It’s important to note that al-Mulimi also explained, “My village was struck by an American drone in an attack that terrified the region’s poorest farmers” and so they now experience “terror [which] they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time.” Does the invalidity of the use of drones rest on its ineffectiveness or on its inhumanity?


(The aftermath of a drone strike in Yemen in September 2012, from here. The Yemeni government claims 13 civilians were killed, while the US government claims it was instead six islamist militants.)

Maybe it’s not enough to view the drone strikes as bad, but instead to criticize the underlying assumptions behind them, with regard to the worth and dignity of the lives of Muslims?

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A run down of the wars

TW: Korean War, Philippine-Malaysian tensions, Argentinian “Dirty War”, drone strikes

War was all over the news today, let’s just take a quick assessment of it all.

  • Just before joint military exercises between South Korea and the US, North Korea has sent several signals suggesting that they might be interested in reengaging the South in another armed conflict. The last time everyone considered that they were likely to do so (in 2010) more than a few people cited analysis from 2005 (again, when everyone expected something to happen) that suggested huge casualties would be likely if the war did reignite. Buried under all the paranoia is an actually important point: if the war, which technically has only ceased rather than ended, started again in earnest, hundreds of thousands are likely to die. That, among other pieces of evidence, does point towards this being yet another bluff on the part of the North Korea leadership. Unfortunately, there seem to be diminishing returns as North Korea has to increasingly concern China, South Korea, and the US in order to not be easily labeled as only being aggressive to jockey for aid.
  • Military conflicts between East Malaysians and militarized Filipin@ groups in the Sabah province have gotten the Philippine state involved now as unaffiliated Filipin@ individuals have been targeted by the Malaysian police. Ironically, exacerbating the land conflict wasn’t the intention of the Sulu Sultanate, the Filipin@ group in question, who simply wanted the regular allowance paid by the Malaysian government for having displaced their government to be raised. As tensions have worsened, that actually seems to be becoming a less likely outcome.
  • With the selection of the Archbishop of Argentina to hold papal office, many old wounds about the “Dirty War” in Argentina have been reopened. Was Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) among the high-ranking Catholics that sought to soften the blow of the military regime by keeping pregnant political prisoners alive, only to kill them after they gave birth? Is his sense of fidelity to Christian principles so thin?

What’s striking is how many of the instigators (or alleged accessory in Pope Francis’ case) were loath to actually initiate or perpetuate conflicts. They didn’t seem to be interested in killing or causing the death of anyone, but their political interests allowed them to risk that, or even cause or participate in it to maintain an unsustainable class division within North Korea, to lobby for greater dispensation from the Malaysian government, and to protect some perceived victims in the midst of state-sponsored killings.


(A Pakistani woman protesting the use of drones in 2011, from here.)

I think that’s an important thing to meditate on, when examining your own beliefs. Would they let you get to the same place as Kim Il-Sung, the Sultanate of Sulu, or Pope Francis?

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But why a talking filibuster?

TW: drone strikes

This week, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) engaged in the first talking filibuster in quite a long time over the nomination of John Brennan to CIA director (from his current position as Counter-Terrorism Adviser). Quite a few people have raised serious issues in response to yesterday’s events – one important thing to call attention to here is that Paul is showboating on the issue rather than shaping policy.

What precipitated this all was a simply letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Rand Paul who wanted to know what the Obama Administration considered to be the legality of a very specific time of drone warfare: against US citizens in the United States. Holder’s response is complex if brief – while he essentially claimed the President only had that power in emergencies (why is that argument so familiar?), it still prompted quite a bit shock from both more liberal and conservative voices in the US. In reply to that explanation, Paul filibustered, in an unusually public way, the nomination of John Brennan.

The problem with that response is that it’s not actually tailored to Brennan’s actual statements on the issue. While he is enthusiastically supportive of the US’s right to incorporate drone warfare into the larger war on terror and assorted invasions and occupations that has entailed, he’s also explicitly said that it should be understood as part of the military’s arsenal, not the intelligence community’s. He’s called for transparency. His departure from the Bush administration actually heralded the expansion of the drone program. In short, if he were installed in the position he’s been nominated to, he would reduce the CIA’s freedom to use of drone strikes. In a very real sense, blocking him from that position at best distracts from more substantive opposition to the secretive, CIA-driven use of drones that Paul has presented himself as focused on. At worst, it actually detracts from it.

In fact, this very public opposition to a specific potential use of drones says quite a bit about the form of Paul’s political approach. Unlike Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), he hasn’t been instrumental in actually challenging the policies that have permitted the secretive use of drones against people of varying nationalities in locations outside of the United States. Instead, he’s finding flaws in the Obama Administration’s wording with regards to strikes that they’ve essentially declared unacceptable.

Naturally enough, with the appearance of a second letter from Holder clarifying that no, seriously, drone strikes against US citizens in the US are exceptional circumstances that cannot be said to be part of the President’s explicit powers, and Paul has folded. His opposition was very vocal and very public, but it was also a flash in the pan.


(A visual depiction of senatorial filibusters from this exploration of the word’s etymology.)

What this wasn’t was a challenge to the core components of drone policy (primarily, that in its current form, it’s a legitimate use of violence against non-US-citizens). It wasn’t a demand for specific changes. It wasn’t an expansion of protections current afforded to US citizens in their own country, but a check that those privileges would be maintained. This wasn’t a revolutionary speech against power, but a speech making certain that a counterrevolution isn’t needed among conservatives.

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Drones are cheaper – I mean, save lives

TW: drone strikes

Apparently I wasn’t the only one that noticed President Obama’s understated reference to drone strikes during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, as Professor Lisa Hajjar provided an excellent analysis of the issue over at Al Jazeera. There’s a number of different issues that she covers, but I think one of the cores of Hajjar’s argument is that while the security improvement for US soldiers is obvious, the ostensible reduction in civilian casualties is little more than hypothetical. She explains-

What distinguishes drones from other killing technologies employed in war is that drones are unmanned. For proponents of drone warfare, that is their greatest advantage. They also tout that drones are highly accurate, precision weapons capable of taking out targets and nothing else. That contention, while popular in the halls of power in Washington, manifests as the disputable claim that civilian casualties are rare.” (link and emphasis in original)

She’s written this as a direct retort to how the initial concern driving the switch to drone strikes is presented as reducing the risks to US personnel. She quotes Obama from Tuesday, who said, in the talking-about-drones-without-saying-drones section of the address:

We don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

Part of the problem with that argument is the way it prioritizes the safety of US service members to the eclipsing of the safety of civilian non-combatants in the assorted countries whose skies the United States evidently now patrols. Hajjar excellently breaks apart that whole argument, and I recommend that anyone interested in the use and impact of drone strikes should read her analysis. That being said, that argument that this is for the troops, is honestly quite the distraction.

It’s been part of the conversation, but less obviously that drones are, from a certain economic perspective, much cheaper than the use of ground troops and other alternatives. The reasons for that are complex, from the fact that nation-wide occupation requires far more people to be involved (and hence, paid) to the almost nonexistent risk of US service members who pilot drones to become injured on the job compared with actual soldiers on the ground (and thus, the injured compensated in addition to the training and fielding of a replacement).

In fact, the Democrats have long touted the use of drones, since the Clinton era actually, because of that politically useful combination of benefiting service members while cutting costs. As far back as in his 2003 book, now Senator Al Franken defended Clinton’s military spending and policies, explaining, that his administration had “invested so heavily” in these new technologies which collectively could be “called Network Centric Warfare” and which Clinton “brought to fruition”. He treated that as (in addition to the end of the Cold War) the explanation for why the Clinton era had seen militaries with fewer high-cost military investments. Franken explained, that for a typical drone strike “take a look at how many tanks were involved: 0. Ships: 0.”

Franken went on to compare on the same page the purportedly “$100,000 each” missiles typically used during the first Gulf War with the missiles used by the Clinton administration as part of their new military strategy which were typically a fifth of that cost. The overall message was thrift, and any additional security for US troops as a result of using drones was pretty much incidental.


(A US drone that crashed in Djibouti before reaching the US base there, in 2011. Fortunately, no one was harmed by its crash into a vacant lot. From here.)

To his credit, Franken does mention the use of drones and related technologies as having benefited the troops, but in the context of having given them “a foundation in ‘stability support ops'”. He specifies that that means avoiding the worst impacts from paramilitary forces and similar combatants in asymmetrical warfare, but he doesn’t exactly explain the causality. Presumably, training in how to dispose of non-state combatants while in the Balkans proved useful to our troops who needed to dispose of non-state combatants in Afghanistan and later Iraq (and subsequently throughout the world). A decade ago, this technology was already impacting warfare, but no one felt the need to present it in terms of preventing casualties among our troops – instead it was merely efficient and cost effective.

The ramifications of drones in terms of our troops security seems to have been invisible until it started to be pointed out that it had a clear impact on the safety of civilian non-combatants throughout the world. Why could we only perceive of that ethical benefit only after the technology’s major ethical failings were made apparent?

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Guiding violence

TW: drone strikes, abilist criminalization

It’s hard not to reach certain conclusions given recent polling among Americans on what uses of military drones we approve of. In a remarkable display of hypocrisy, some 75 percent of us are fine with them targeting anyone the US government deems a threat who’s outside of the country. When the target, however, is specified to be a US citizen (as was Anwar al-Awlaki), that number precipitously falls to 24 percent. We’re quite comfortable dishing it out, but the idea that there should be a uniform rule on the acceptability of drone strikes independent of the targets’ citizenship statuses scares us quite considerably. We’re fine with violence, just as long as it’s not directed at us.

In a number of ways, the attitude seems to derive from a similar principle of the on-going debate about the right to access and use firearms, namely that those rights might conceivably be rescinded or more tightly regulated for those deemed a threat. In other recent polls, nothing comes close in terms of support to actually enforcing existing laws, except for creating discriminatory laws about who can and who can’t own weapons. The appeal of that harshly contrasts with the lowest support for an across the board ban on “safer” weapons in US history. Equality under the law is a rapidly declining concept apparently.


(Pakistani children at rubble from their destroyed homes in Buner, Pakistan, following a drone strike. From here.)

The message here seems to be that a growing number of Americans believe that our nation can shape the direction of violence. The proposed policies would be comical if not so threatening. Our country is seriously discussing preventing groups that are actually more likely to be victimized from having the weapons that the country accepts deregulated purchases of because of the need for self protection. Our country somehow believes that citizenship is a brightline between an us and a them, and that non-combatant deaths are either non-existent or unimportant.

It makes you wonder what would have to happen for us to ponder whether we’re the deluded ones, whether we’re the aggressors, or whether we’re the ones who need to examine what we’re doing in the world.

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What’s a better term for this than ‘islamophobia’?

TW: cissexism, islamophobia, drone strikes

I’m sorry if I’m spending too much time on the controversy surrounding Julie Burchill’s cissexist opinion piece defending Suzanne Moore’s cissexist comment, but there’s a lot to sift through there. Last week, I had to rant about how both of them were using the same silencing and dehumanizing techniques that are routinely used against all women, and so it was worth asking whether they really wanted equality and liberation or simply personal empowerment. Earlier today, over at Velociriot! it felt pertinent to note that if we’re going to have a conversation between flavors of feminism about appropriation of femininity, transgender women aren’t really the people Burchill in particular seems to be thinking about. Instead, the image that she seems to be conjuring up has mostly been created by cisgender men performing drag routines, which is maybe a phenomenon we can talk about as having potentially misogynistic readings.

But going back to the heart of it – Moore’s original comment and subsequent twitter arguments – there’s even more going on. For instance, we get this lovely argument:


(Moore casting doubt on twitter about the existence of transphobia and islamophobia, from here.)

Now, I’m willing to concede that transphobia and islamophobia are terms that I’m not entirely convinced of the usefulness of. For one thing, they conflate what for many people are chronic psychological conditions (agoraphobia and acrophobia, among others) with bigoted philosophies, which seems virulently abilist. For another, the obvious alternative to “transphobia” is “cissexism,” which I strongly prefer as it emphasizes the belief in the superiority and default status of cisgender people. So, my issue with both of those words is the terminology, not the underlying concept.

And, while I have a whole lengthy backlog of posts about that issue, I think it’s rather chilling to insist that there is no bigotry against (actual or perceived) Muslim people on the basis of their religious background. In the past three days alone, there’s been more than enough incidents of hostility towards the mere existence of Muslims that it’s difficult to even conceptualize the privileged bubble within which Moore must live. On Saturday, a future member of Israel’s Knesset, Jeremy Gimpel, on a hybrid radio-television show called for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, the mosque on the otherwise barren Temple Mount in Jerusalem. His reasoning was quite illuminating, as he explained that other non-Jewish religious sites in the city “blended in” with the rest of the city, but the Dome of the Rock was just too distinctive and too dissonant. Prominent Muslim sites apparently have a special sort of non-Jewishness to them that even the Church of the Holy Sepulchre doesn’t. So far, Gimpel’s political party has continued to support him in spite of his various controversial statements on the issue.

On Sunday, the US government fired on a group of eight people in Yemen, with only two of them (at least by public announcement at this moment), having been confirmed members of an Al Qaeda affiliate. The remaining six, presumed to be Muslims, were deemed acceptable losses of life. Whether this is because they were Muslim, because the intended targets were Muslim extremists, or some combination of the two is unclear. Still, it’s hard not to see either a devaluation in the “collateral damage” to Muslim communities in the parts of the world subject to drone strikes or a uniquely panicked reaction to extremists who are Muslims.

Today, President Obama was sworn in for the fourth time and his second presidency. The last time around he officially took the oath as Barack Hussein Obama, keeping both with the tradition of most past presidents of using their full name and the Arabic-origin name his Muslim father bestowed on him. This time, however, he was merely Barack H. Obama. His middle name, an indicator of his kinship to Muslims, is a liability, rather than an incidental facet of his life. It’s evidently quite important (and politically toxic) that his middle name can be traced back to the language in which more than a millenium ago a certain Mohammed (peace be upon him) preached.

So while I might concede that the term is a poorly thought out neologism, I have to disagree that the phenomenon isn’t a real part of the world that impacts Muslims in myriad ways. This particular form of cultural racism should have a specific name by which we could refer to it, so I’ll ask Suzanne Moore and the internet at large to help me out and let me know if they have a better way of denoting the cultural racism against Muslims that’s quite fashionable as of now.

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Bungling life and death

TW: drone strikes/killings

While it’s astounding that US veterans have now been confirmed to be dying as a result of inadequate and delayed medical treatment from the Veterans Affairs office (VA), it’s perhaps reflective of the entire medical field in the US more than our government. In fact, poor records keeping means that we’re not entirely clear how many “never events” (extreme but often undetected mistakes) occur during surgeries, outside of the fact that the number is worryingly large.

But there is something profoundly unsettling when it comes to the power over life and death that the United States’ government (among other international forces) wields. Looking no further that the recently published description of the drone industry in Der Spiegel, it seems as though part of the problem is how deceptively applied those powers are. We’re told that the use of drones reduces casualties both among the local population of countries essentially occupied from the sky as well as among American ground troops when those are also present. Even if only anecdotally, this report challenges that – with drone operators being unable to determine who they’ve killed on the ground until its already too late and likewise often incapable of warning soldiers of threats.


(Site of suspected drone attack in Northern Pakistan in 2008, from here.)

There’s a lot of death no matter how you slice it, and the government doesn’t seem to be managing it very well.

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Broader skepticism towards some

TW: islamophobia, impact of sanctions, Iraq war, Bush-era impunity, drone strikes in Pakistan

One of the amazing turns of a phrase from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal article published a few weeks ago spoke to the very core of systemic bias. His examination of the continuing anti-Black racism in the US even into the Obama era questions the idea of racism as an easily challenged certainty in certain people’s inferiority, speaks instead of a racism that’s a “broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others”. A similar dynamic has become painfully obvious since early September with regard not only to race, but also religion, with a groundswelling of anti-Islamic bias.

Just over two weeks ago, it was reported that Dr. Shakir Hamoodi, an Iraqi American, was sentenced to three years in prison for violating the United States sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s former regime in Iraq. During the mid and late 1990s and first two years of the Bush administration, Shakir began sending funds through an intermediary bank account in Jordan to relatives who remained in Iraq, who were unable to buy basic medical supplies and trapped in cyclic poverty. He organized similar transfers for his wife’s family and families of close friends, ultimately funneling close to a quarter million dollars over a decade to at least fourteen Iraqi families, allowing them to access necessary goods from antibiotics to having greater food security. It’s worth noting, as reported, “[n]obody, including the US government, claims that these amounts were intended for anything other than humanitarian assistance”.

But as a person who prominently criticized the looming Iraq War while Muslim, Dr. Hamoodi fell under suspicion and was investigated by the FBI. He plead guilty to having sent funds into Iraq during the years the sanction was in effect, and consequently is now serving multiple years in prison. In contrast, other individuals who participated in economic exchanges with Iraqis during those years, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have not been charged with the same crime, despite clear documentation of it (under the section labeled “Halliburton”). Purportedly the fact that Cheney’s a Methodist, rather than a Muslim, has no bearing on the issue.

Over the past year, similar stories of major discrepancies have surfaced repeatedly. Most shockingly, the United States has silently (and rightly) stood behind the government of Israel for shooting down a drone in its airspace with unclear but almost undoubtedly unsavory intentions. It was an entirely different story for Pakistan, and when the origin of the drones established to have killed non-combatant civilians was known to be the United States. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta insisted earlier this year that the drone strikes were legitimated by Americans’ need “to defend ourselves” which connects worryingly with the common practice of categorically labeling all casualties as among combatants. The only way to be sure they weren’t terrorists apparently was to kill them. Many of Israel’s neighbors would undoubtedly feel the same concern for their security and consequently justification for drone strikes on Israel (just read the section in this report titled “Threat perceptions”). Does the mere suspicion of intent to kill justify preemptive strikes across borders? Or only if the targets are presumably Muslim? There’s many key differences that could be seen between these situations, but it seems salient that one country is predominantly Muslim and another is predominantly Jewish.

Drone strike wreckage in Janikhel, Pakistan
(Wreckage from a drone strike in Janikhel, Pakistan, from here.)

Why is the right of Pakistani civilians to not have death ran down on them from above up for discussion? Why is circumventing US sanctions only important if the criminal is Muslim? Why do we hold broader skepticism towards Muslims around the world, compared to broader sympathy for others?

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