Archive for the ‘Afghan war’ Category
Last night I happened to see ‘The Amazing Race’ on television. This week’s episode took place in Bangladesh — and amazing it was, an eye-opening witness to the utter poverty and privation of the people there, and their determined energy. The vividness was heightened by having the opportunity to watch the episode on HDTV.
It made me want to go there myself, on the rationale that such an experience would change me. When considered from vantage point of our living rooms or dens, the suffering of the third world seems merely an abstraction. It elicits a mild concern — maybe enough to send a check to a charitable organization, but not much more than that. In contrast, to actually live in a place like this brings the full force of human misery, and our instinctive urge to help, to the surface. If one has any skill at all, anything to offer other human beings by way of service, one could not face these people in person without the conscience commanding one to think or say, “How can I help? How can I be anything like a complete human being if I do not commit myself to assisting such people with my all!”
Yet, I imagine that if I were to go there and ask some sage elder, “How can I help?”, the answer might well be: “Why travel here? Could you not do more in your own country? Can you not apply yourself to changing hearts and minds there?”
Indeed, tonight two presidential candidates will posture and pretend to meaningfully address the foreign policy of the United States. Both represent a pitiless status quo which thinks nothing of killing thousands or millions of Iraqis, Afghans, or Pakistanis in pointless wars. And more telling: we spend trillions of dollars on war, when for 1/10 that amount in humanitarian assistance we could attain complete national security by winning the friendship, admiration (and imitation) of every nation on earth.
It is fitting that we should recall the words of that great American practitioner of satyagraha, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke as follows in 1965:
All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… And then he goes on toward the end to say: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution. (“Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, Commencement Address for Oberlin College, June 1965, Oberlin Ohio)
The beginning of change is education. Despite its potentially negative aspects, modern technology is making the world one. If you’d like to get a picture of life in Bangladesh, you can see the episode (complete or clips) at the CBS website, here.
My latest letter to Sen. Boxer (D-CA), requesting an official rationale for our continued military involvement in Afghanistan. I will post her reply, whenever it arrives.
September 12, 2012
The Honorable Barbara Boxer
United States Senate
112 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-0505
Dear Senator Boxer,
Subject: Please explain US goals in Afghanistan
I request a communication from your office that explains why the US is still fighting in Afghanistan.
In previous letters, you have (1) acknowledged that Al Qaeda has little if any presence in Afghanistan, and (2) suggested that our goal there is not so much to prevent domestic terrorism as it is “geopolitical” in nature.
You also alluded to “volatility” in the region.
At this time I request clarification of your references to geopolitics and volatility, as these vague terms have a wide range of possible meanings. What, specifically, is the concern of the US in Afghanistan? Are we trying to counter potential influence of China in the region? Or perhaps of Russia? Or Iran? Or Pakistan? Is this necessary for our national security? Why?
Or is our goal to prevent Pakistani nuclear arms from falling into the hands of terrorists?
Or is the thinking that we need to set up a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan in order to support the general Westernization of the Caspian Sea region? And if that is the case, are our motives humanitarian, or selfishly economic?
Rather than continue to speculate as to motives, I would prefer that you, my Senator, kindly inform me as to what they are.
I would also strongly encourage you to investigate the possibility of including moderate factions of the Taliban in negotiations aimed at ending hostilities.
John S. Uebersax
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
~ George Santayana (The Life of Reason)
We don’t need to make this post any longer than necessary – the title makes the message plain enough. Just as it is obvious to anyone with common sense that the war in Afghanistan is pointless (if not suicidal) and should end.
Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 and a prime architect of the Vietnam war, admitted that the Vietnam war was a mistake, and had the good sense to reflect on where the nation went wrong in pursuing it. In 1995, he published his reflections in a book, titled, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Vintage Books, 1996. ISBN: 0679767495). The chapter titled, “The Lessons of Vietnam” (pp. 319–336) explained eleven specific mistakes. These mistakes are summarized below, along with obvious parallels to the current US involvement in Afghanistan. [Note: McNamara's words are italicized and in quotes; headings and bold text are my additions.]
“If we are to learn from our experience in Vietnam, we must first pinpoint our failures. There were eleven major causes for our disaster in Vietnam.”
1. Exaggerated dangers
“We misjudged … the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries (in this case, North Vietnam and the Vietcong, supported by China and the Soviet Union).”
The common assumption is that we are fighting in Afghanistan to prevent terrorist attacks here. Yet Al Qaeda is effectively removed from Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden is dead. We are now fighting the Taliban, an Afghan cultural and political faction, which has never attacked the US, and would appear to be only concerned with affairs in Afghanistan.
2. Misjudged people and leaders
“We totally misjudged the political forces within the country…. We [mistakenly] saw in them a thirst for – and a determination to fight for – freedom and democracy.”
What do we know about the intentions and determination of the political leaders in Kabul, except that all evidence points towards their corruption and greed?
3. Underestimated patriotism
“We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people (in this case, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong) to fight and die for their beliefs and values.”
The common assumption is that the Taliban is merely a front for warlords who wish to exploit and oppress the people of Afghanistan. But would it not conform with common sense to suppose that they see the US as an imperialistic invader, and are at this point strongly motivated by a genuine and realistic sense of nationalism and patriotism? Our government and political system is today so plainly out of control that we ourselves seem unable to control its vicious advances. Who, then, could doubt that there are people in Afghanistan who would fight to the death to prevent this same machine from taking over their country and subjecting them to the same dehumanizing institutional forces. We shouldn’t suppose that the Taliban are saints, or that their motives are completely honorable. But whatever their other failings, they are human beings, and human beings are well known to die rather than surrender their homeland to an invading force.
4. Ignorance of history and culture
“Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.”
What do we know about the culture and politics of Afghanistan? Are we truly so naive as to think that the cultural dynamics are as simple as the formula “Taliban = bad guys, anti-Taliban = good guys”? In what area of life is such primitive, black-and-white thinking correct or adequate to solve a problem?
5. Machines vs. men
“We failed … to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine in confronting unconventional, highly motivated people’s movements.”
All available evidence and testimony points to the rural and rugged terrain of Afghanistan as decisively favoring the guerilla tactics of the Taliban, and making our approach there, based on superior technology and conventional troop actions, an impossible logistical nightmare.
6. No honest debate
“We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia before we initiated the action.”
The American public bought into the Afghanistan operation under the stated premise that it was to be a short-term operation (e.g., 90 days), designed to destroy terrorist training camps and to capture Osama bin Laden. Since then there has been no “full and frank discussion” about our goals, objectives, and strategy. Rather, the war has dragged on by institutional momentum, and by the irrational yet widespread belief that we should continue precisely because we began, and to leave would be unpatriotic or a sign of weakness.
7. No public communication
“We failed to retain popular support in part because we did not explain fully what was happening and why we were doing what we did…. A nation’s deepest strength lies not in its military prowess, but, rather, in the unity of its people. We failed to maintain it.”
The war has created (or, we should say, increased) a deep chasm between citizens and government. At present, polls show (as they have for some time) that most Americans oppose our continued involvement in Afghanistan.
More fundamentally, the public has no idea (and, likely, neither do members of Congress) as to the true reasons for our involvement. Upon repeated inquiry to my US Senator (Barbara Boxer D-CA), I finally received a short response alluding to “geopolitical objectives.” In the face of such vague government communications, the public can only speculate. Are our “geopolitical objectives” to place a US-style democracy adjacent to Iran? ; or next to China? Is it to get our foot in the door of the mineral-rich Caspian Sea area?
And why have we let the war spill over into Pakistan with drone strikes? Are we trying to keep Pakistan’s nuclear arms out of the hands of Pakistani terrorists? Have factions of the Pakistani government secretly asked our help to control their internal terrorist problem in exchange for other concessions, while at the same time they publicly denounce our drone strikes to quell the indignation of their citizens?
Or do the AfPak military operations continue merely because they line the pockets of war profiteers, who, by making large campaign contributions, control US foreign policy?
8. False sense of omniscience
“We did not recognize that neither our own people nor our leaders are omniscient. Where our own security is not directly at stake, our judgment of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.”
Clearly the US government still labors under the burden of a false sense of omniscience. And while our leaders continue to say that the Afghanistan war is not an effort in nation building, our actions and massive siphoning off of US funds – while our own infrastructure deteriorates – shows beyond doubt that this is exactly what we are attempting.
“We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action – other than in response to direct threats to our own security – should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.”
It is no secret that the so-called multinational effort in Afghanistan is indeed merely cosmetic. Several members of the original coalition have at least had the decency to withdraw their support.
10. No easy solutions
“We failed to recognize that … there may be problems for which there are not immediate solutions…. At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.”
Perhaps we don’t like the Taliban, and perhaps with good reason. But, ultimately, what happens in Afghanistan is not our business. Can we not trust the innate capacity of the Afghan people to gradually work out their problems? And if we wish to save the world, why not do so with positive efforts, like ending famine or eradicating disease – goals which, unlike a military victory in Afghanistan, are attainable?
11. Executive branch disorganization
“Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues… Such organizational weakness would have been costly had this been the only task confronting the president and his advisers…. [But] it coexisted with the wide array of other domestic and international problems confronting us. We … failed to analyze and debate our actions in Southeast Asia – our objectives, the risks and costs of alternative ways of dealing with them.”
Two successive administrations have shown an utter lack of ability to confront the war in Afghanistan in an honest and sensible way. And today we have even more pressing social problems than existed during the Vietnam era, problems which demand an even greater proportion of government attention.
McNamara followed his list of these errors by noting how they all interacted in a negatively synergistic fashion:
“These were our major failures, in their essence. Though set forth separately, they are all in some way linked: failure in one area contributed to or compounded failure in another. Each became a turn in a terrible knot.”
He then concluded with important observations that modern Americans should take to heart:
“Above all else, the criteria governing intervention should recognize that, as we learned in Vietnam, military force has only a limited capacity to facilitate the process of nation building. Military force by itself cannot rebuild a ‘failed state.’… External military force cannot substitute for the political order and stability that must be forged by a people for themselves.”
“We must recognize that the consequences of large-scale military operations – particularly in this age of highly sophisticated and destructive weapons – are inherently difficult to predict and to control. Therefore, they must be avoided, excepting only when our nation’s security is clearly and directly threatened.”
“These are the lessons of Vietnam. Pray God we learn them.”
Finally, he said:
“Can we not go beyond the culture of war that saw so many deaths from war in the 20′th century? Surely that must be not only our hope, not only our dream, but our steadfast objective. Some may consider such a statement so naive, so simplistic, and so idealistic as to be quixotic. But as human beings, citizens of a great nation with the power to influence events in the world, can we be at peace with ourselves if we strive for less?”
These last words deserve special attention. As mankind has never found the ability to learn from history, we should not be greatly surprised that the same myopia afflicts the current generation. But there is a radical difference between Americans today and during the Vietnam era. At least then people were able to set peace – and an eventual end to war – as a conscious, if distant objective. Now the voice of conscience is utterly absent in the news media and in social discourse. We must not compound our present errors by succumbing to the further sin of what psychologists call learned helplessness. While under the oppression of the present political system, let us at least denounce it, and work by whatever avenues – including but not limited to prayer – are available to us to build a better world.
Regrettably, the US government is continuing its shell game of distraction, disinformation, and shifting definitions to thwart any serious attempts to impose transparency on its drone killing campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. A good example is found in the headlines of Monday, May 21, 2012. One news story reported that several anonymous government officials disclosed (off the record) certain new regulations concerning selection of drone strike targets. The new regulations probably mean very little, since, as we shall observe below, targeted strikes of terrorist kingpins are relatively infrequent. But ironically, a second story summarized the latest brief issued by the CIA in its ongoing legal battle with the ACLU (the ACLU is suing, under the Freedom of Information Act, for the government to supply more information about drone strikes, including data on civilian casualties.) The gist of the CIA response is that, even though the existence of drone strikes is common knowledge, and the government informally acknowledges the strikes, it does not officially acknowledge them, and to do so would somehow jeopardize national security. So, in short, on the same day the government is both leaking carefully prepared propaganda about the strikes in an evident move to assuage public opinion; and also refusing to admit that the CIA conducts strikes in Pakistan or elsewhere.
In the face of such contradictory and confusing tactics, we, the American public have only one recourse: to doggedly pursue the truth, and to not cease asking questions until we are entirely satisfied with the answers.
We must begin with clear terms, and that is the purpose of the present article. Drone strikes, that is, the launching of explosive missiles from a remotely operated aerial vehicle, come in four varieties: targeted killings, signature strikes, overt combat operations, and covert combat operations. We shall consider each in turn.
- Targeted killing. This occurs when a drone strike is used to kill a terrorist whose identity is known, and whose name has been placed on a hit list, due to being deemed a ‘direct and immediate threat’ to US security. The government would like people to think this means these strikes target a terrorist literally with his or her hand on a detonator. But, in actuality, the only real criterion is that the government believes the target is sufficiently closely affiliated with terrorist organizations (e.g., a propagandist or financier) to justify assassination. This is likely the rarest form of drone strike. However it receives the most publicity, because the government likes to crow when it kills a high-ranking terrorist.
- Signature strikes. In signature strikes, the target is a person whose name is not known, but whose actions fit the profile (or ‘signature’) of a high-ranking terrorist. There is some ambiguity concerning the meaning of this term. Some use it in the sense just stated — i.e., a strike against an anonymous terrorist leader. Others use it more broadly to include killing of any non-identified militants, whether high-ranking or not. However from the moral standpoint it makes a major difference whether an anonymous targeted victim is a high-level leader, or simply an anonymous combatant. For this reason it is advantageous to restrict the term “signature strike” to the targeting of anonymous high-level leaders, and to assign strikes against anonymous non-leaders to the two further categories below.
- Overt combat operation. This category includes drone strikes conducted as part of regular military operations. These strikes are presumably run by uniformed military personnel according to codes of military conduct, and are, logically and legally, not much different from ordinary air or artillery strikes. As a part of routine warfare, such strikes are subject to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. Three items of the Geneva Conventions are of special interest here: (1) strikes should occur only in the context of a legally declared war; (2) they should be conducted by lawful combatants (which, many experts believe, excludes use of non-uniformed, civilian contractor operators); and (3) standard provisions concerning the need to report casualties, especially civilian casualties, are in effect.
- Covert combat operation. Finally, there are covert combat operations. These, like the former category, are launched against usual military targets – e.g., any hostile militant, not just high-ranking ones. But why should these strikes be covert? The obvious answer is: to mask something shady. Covert combat strikes can evade all those irritating constraints on military tactics imposed by the Geneva Conventions, International Law, public opinion, and basic human decency.
The specific terms used above to distinguish these four kinds of strikes are admittedly arbitrary, and perhaps some other nomenclature would be more advantageous. But we need some fixed set of terms to refer to these fundamentally different kinds of strikes. Without such terms, the US government will continue to have its way by relying on public confusion and terminological sophistry. For example, if there is only a single generic term, the government may issue a claim such as “drone strikes comply with international law.” This is perhaps technically true for, say, overt military drone strikes, but it is not true for signature strikes. With more precise terms, it would be more difficult for the government to mislead the public.
The last two categories of strikes correspond to what (according to the New York Times) the Department of Defense calls TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes. This term is a misleading euphemism, however. It invites the interpretation that such strikes aim to disrupt potential terrorist attacks on the US. But what these strikes actually seek to counter are things like cross-border raids from Pakistan to Afghanistan, attacks on supply lines, militant engagements with US forces, and actions of insurgents within their own countries.
Statistical tabulations compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and other sources show convincingly that most strikes in Pakistan must belong to the last category, covert combat operations. The sheer number (300 strikes, with thousands of casualties) rules out targeted killings and signature strikes: there simply aren’t that many high-level terrorists. What seems much more likely is that the US military feels the need to attack Taliban fighters within Pakistan – both to prevent Afghan Taliban members from hiding in Pakistan, and to counter strikes by the Pakistan Taliban and affiliated groups on NATO supply trains.
This, of course, is completely illegal, inasmuch as the US is not at war with Pakistan, or, for that matter, with the Pakistan Taliban.
“But”, drone strike zealots will plead, “what if we have the permission of the host government to conduct strikes in their territory?” This is bogus logic to begin with. Suppose some brutal dictator gives the US permission to launch drone strikes against innocent civilians in his country? Would that permission somehow make the strikes just and legal? And in any case, what good does such permission mean if it is not public, not acknowledged by the host country?
What really appears to be going on in Pakistan is this: the US military in Afghanistan has a decided military interest in launching combat operations against the Pakistan Taliban. However, this is illegal. Meanwhile, conservative factions of the Pakistani government would love to see the Pakistan Taliban eliminated. Unfortunately, the hands of this faction are tied by an uncooperative and unreliable military, and by other powerful Pakistani factions that are not so interested in seeing the Taliban destroyed, and certainly not at the price of trashing national sovereignty.
The solution is obvious. The Pakistani conservatives give a wink and a nod to the US to do the dirty work. “You launch the strikes, then we’ll officially disapprove of them.” This works until the toll of innocent civilians killed by the strikes becomes too great, and pressure mounts on the Pakistani government to denounce them. But, as modern politicians understand so well, the public has a short attention span. All that need happen is for the strikes to subside for a few weeks until the anger abates, only to begin again.
To summarize, the US government thus far has promoted and capitalized on public confusion about the nature and purpose of drone strikes. Most strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are likely covert combat operations. The government, however, would gladly have the public believe these are targeted killings and signature strikes against high-level terrorists. As covert combat operations, the strikes are illegal under international law, and extremely harmful to US dignity and security. Further, unlike targeted killings or signature strikes, which might potentially prevent a terrorist act, collateral civilian damage of covert combat drone strikes is unacceptable.
John Uebersax is a psychologist, writer and former RAND Corporation military analyst.
On 30 April 2012, counter-terrorism czar John Brennan, in remarks delivered at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington DC, attempted to present the clearest legal and ethical justification so far for America’s anti-terrorism policies, including drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen.
An optimistic interpretation of the speech is that it signals a new attitude of openness and transparency in the Obama administration’s approach to drone strikes. A more cynical view is that Brennan’s remarks offer mere rationalizations for a policy pursued for more dubious motives. The truth is likely somewhere between these two extremes.
In any case, Brennan made several arguments to justify the ethics of drone strikes, and these deserve a response. The following are some of the points which Brennan’s speech did not adequately address:
1. It remains ambiguous as to whether the claimed legal and moral justification for drone strikes derives from a war paradigm, a criminal justice paradigm, or some different paradigm altogether. This administration, like the previous one, seems to flip-flop on this question, choosing either position to suit its interests. Brennan’s comments, which included references to the killing of German and Japanese commanders in World War II, seem to lean towards the war paradigm. However: if drone strikes are considered acts of war, then international law does not recognize civilian drone operators as lawful combatants. More generally, why wouldn’t the US be bound by the Geneva Conventions? These would require that the US be much more cautious to avoid civilian casualties (and, I believe, to report them when they occur.) Another particularly offensive point in this regard is the alleged follow-up strikes which target militants (or others) who come to recover bodies of victims of an initial strike.
2. Again, if we are following a war paradigm, is there not a moral requirement to attempt negotiations, or at least some sort of discussions, with al Qaida? This would seem to follow directly from the ‘war only as last resort’ principle of just war theory.
3. Brennan contended that drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are aimed at killing high-level commanders of al Qaida and affiliated groups – because they constitute a direct threat and are involved in planning or implementing terrorist acts against the United States. However, it is the general perception that the drone war in Pakistan is primarily an extension of the Afghanistan war – i.e., directed at least as much against Taliban militants (who pose no direct threat to the US) as against al Qaida. Failure to consider this point seems, at the least, somewhat disingenuous by Brennan.
4. The monochromatic portrayal of al Qaida as an international terrorist organization with no aim other than harming the United States is surely incomplete. Rather, it would seem that, at least as an immediate priority, al Qaida factions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, are more concerned with regime change in their own countries than in attacking the United States. It is hard to believe that an al Qaida field commander in Pakistan or Yemen, engaged in a dire struggle against domestic military forces, has much spare time to master-mind a terrorist attack within US borders.
5. Supporting the previous point, note that al Qaida actively participated in the Libyan coalition to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. In that sense, the Libyan al Qaida factions were de facto allies of the United States.
6. We must also not neglect to mention the role that the illegal Israeli occupation and virtual annexation of the West Bank plays as a motive in al Qaida activity. The Obama administration seems to accept that the occupation is illegal. Should this not then be seen as a mitigating factor in measuring our response to al Qaida (i.e., a reason to be proportionately less extreme in application of force)?
7. Brennan’s assertions that our drone strike and other counter-terrorist actions are working is less than fully credible. The strikes are winning no friends internationally. Clearly they are making Pakistanis angry; and, while there are no firm facts and figures available, the possibility that this is drawing new recruits to al Qaida and other insurgency groups must be taken seriously.
8. Brennan’s remarks do not indicate that he or President Obama recognize that drone strikes are morally different from other forms of warfare in these three important respects. First, the very presence of drones in the skies must be seen as terrorizing. Second, drone assassination is like shooting fish in a barrel or extermination of animals; their use is inherently inhumane. Third is the dehumanizing effects of requiring drone operators to act as exterminators — a far cry from what used to pass as ‘honorable warfare.’ If you’re being shot at yourself, risking life an limb, its undoubtedly easier to soothe a conscience over the killing of another human being. Drone operators do not have this remedy.