Satyagraha

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Decision Support Systems for Just War Deliberations

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Unless one is a pure pacifist, the general assumption is that some wars are justified. For centuries a body of literature called just war theory has developed concerning what distinguishes a just from an unjust war.  The criteria come under several headings, like (1) just cause, (2) right intention, (3) last resort, (4) legal authority, (5) probability of success, and (6) that the war not produce greater harms than it intends to solve.

If these criteria, which conform to common sense and moral philosophy alike, were applied scrupulously, most wars would be avoided. The problem comes in practice:  governments, if they consider these criteria at all, typically pay mere lip service to them. For example, to satisfy the just cause criteria, threats posed by foreign powers are greatly exaggerated; and the predicted costs of a war, both economically and in terms of human life and suffering, are greatly minimized. Further, as happened in the case of the 2001 Afghan War and the 2003 Iraq War, intellectuals spend more time arguing tedious fine points about the precise technical meanings of just war criteria than in applying them in a practical and sensible way.

Considering this, it struck me how there is a close similarity between the decision to make war and a medical decision to perform some drastic and risky procedure  say, a dangerous operation. In the latter case, because of the complexity of the choices involved and the fallibility of human decision-makers, expert systems and artificial intelligence have been used as decision support tools. In fact, I’ve developed one or two such systems myself.

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Computerized medical decision-support systems offer several benefits. First, they can help a physician decide how to treat a particular patient. For example, based on such variables as the patient’s age, health, genes, and physiology, the system might supply the physician with the estimated probabilities of success for several treatment options (e.g., surgery, medication, naturalistic treatment, or perhaps no treatment at all). The physician isn’t required to follow the recommendation but he or she can take it into account. Usually it is found that, in the long run, incorporating such a system into medical practice reduces the number of unnecessary procedures and improves practice overall.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the process of developing of a medical decision support system is itself very valuable. It requires physicians and medical scientists to focus attention on how actual treatment decisions are made. Ordinarily, diagnosis and treatment selection can be a very subjective and ad hoc thing  something physicians do based on habit, wrong practices, or anecdotal evidence. Developing an expert system forces physicians to explicitly state how and why they make various decisions  and this process not infrequently reveals procedural errors and forces people to re-think and improve their practices.

Both of these advantages might accrue were we to similarly develop a computerized support system to decide whether a war is just. From the technical standpoint, it would not be difficult to do this; a functional prototype could easily be developed in, say, 6 weeks or less. Off-the-shelf software packages enable the rapid development of such a system.

Another advantage of such systems is that they do not produce yes/no results, but rather a probability of success. That is, they are inherently probabilistic in nature. All inputs  for example, whether a foreign power has weapons of mass destruction  would be supplied as probabilities, not definite facts. Probabilities can be estimated based on mathematical models, or expert consensus (e.g., the Delphi method).

A decision support system helps one see how uncertainties accumulate in a complex chain of inferences. For example, if the success of choice C depends on facts A and B both being true, and if A and B are only known as probabilities, then a system accordingly takes uncertainty concerning A and B into account in estimating the probability of C’s success. In a medical decision based on a dozen or more variables, none known with complete certainty, the net uncertainty concerning success or failure of a particular treatment option can be considerable. In that case, a physician may elect not to perform a risky procedure for a particular patient. The same principle would apply for a just war decision support system.

Such, then, is my proposal. From experience, I’ve learned that it is better to start with a simpler decision support system, and then to gradually increase its complexity. Accordingly, I suggest that we could begin with a system to model only one part of just war theory  say, just cause, or ‘no greater harms produced.’ I further propose that we could take the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as guiding example. My guess is that were such a model produced, it would show that the likelihood of success, the immediate necessity, and the range of possible harms were all so uncertain in 2003 that we should have not intervened as we did.

A final advantage of such a system is that it would connect moral philosophy with science. Science is cumulative: one scientific or mathematical advance builds on another. The same is not true of moral philosophy. Philosophers can go back and forth for centuries, even millennia, rehashing the same issues over and over, and never making progress.

Perhaps this is a project I should pursue myself. Or it might be an excellent opportunity for a young researcher. In any case,  I’m throwing it out into cyber-space for general consideration. If anyone reads this and finds it interesting, please let me know.

Incidentally, military analysts have developed many such computerized systems to aid combat decisions.  (When working at the RAND Corporation, I worked on a system to help US forces avoid accidentally shooting at their own aircraft  something called fratricide.) Since it is clearly in the interests of the military to avoid pursuing unwinnable wars, possibly it is they who could take a lead in developing the line of research proposed here.  US Naval War College and West Point are you listening?

Ending Drone Attacks by Appeals to Conscience

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A news story today reports how activists in the Pakistan tribal areas have constructed a huge photograph of a child casualty visible to US attack drone operators.  The action is described at notabugsplat  [the meaning of 'notabugsplat' is that drone strikes are killing real human beings, made in God's image and likeness; yet US policy dehumanizes them so thoroughly as to treat them as no more than insects.]

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I would like to commend those responsible for this idea.  They have rediscovered an important truth: that when one meets aggression with anger and accusations, the climate merely continues to be aggressive: the aggression not only continues, but the aggressor feels vindicated.

The most effective response, therefore, is to take the high road.  Change the rules of the game, the narrative, the context.  Appeal to conscience, and in so doing, force the aggressor to come to his or her senses.

This approach dovetails with a judicial response to drone strikes to produce maximum results.  Like the appeal to conscience, the judicial approach is a peaceful means that pleads the principles of the case in court.  This again places the entire problem in the light of higher reason, where solutions may be found.

Yet a third approach, based on similar principles and which complements the preceding two, is prayer for ones oppressors.

If Pakistanis in the affected areas were to hold public prayer meetings, asking God to forgive drone operators and commanding officers and to help them see their error, and then publicize this activity, it may well, in addition to meeting with God’s favor, mobilize considerable world public opinion against the illegal and immoral US drone attacks.

We can be certain that the consciences of drone operators and their superiors are devastated by their participation in drone attacks.  They genuinely deserve our sympathy.  These unfortunate men and women are the unwitting tools of the US political system.  Many will have mental difficulties later in life, and then their government will turn its back on them.

Written by John Uebersax

April 8, 2014 at 12:00 am

The Significance of the Peshawar High Court Drone Ruling

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A Milestone in the History of Human Rights

In May of this year (2013), the Peshawar High Court, the highest judicial institution in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, ruled that the deadly US drone strikes in  Pakistan’s Tribal Areas are illegal.

Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan, who headed a two-judge bench that heard the case, declared the drone strikes to be illegal, inhumane, a violation of domestic and international law, and a transgression of the UN charter on human rights.

The Court also ruled that “The government of Pakistan must ensure that no drone strike takes place in the future.”

Following the Court decision, cynical, ‘legal experts’ in the US dismissed it as unimportant and as carrying no weight.  In this they displayed unmitigated arrogance, and revealed the moral bankruptcy underlying the entire US, CIA-run drone campaign in Pakistan.

In fact, the Peshawar High Court ruling is a major milestone in the advancement of human rights.  If one takes time to read the ruling, one cannot help but be impressed with the lucidity of its reasoning and analysis.  Unlike the American legal analyses, this one demonstrates moral and intellectual integrity.

It is very significant, then, that this “little” Court in the remote regions of Pakistan has produced a legal document that is an order of magnitude better, on every important dimension, than the pro-drone justifications drafted by the American legal system – with its prestigious professors of law at Harvard, Duke University, and Georgetown, its White House legal advisors, John Yoo’s, and armies of paid legal analysts.

On the battlefield of Truth, Conscience, and Justice, the Peshawar High Court has defeated the US government.  For this I applaud them.  They have my respect as scholars of law and defenders of human rights.

This has significance far beyond the actual case of drone strikes.  It signifies that a great equalization is happening.  I refer to the new parity of peoples in all nations on the plains of truth and law.  No more can we think of a distinction between the “advanced nations” and those that are merely “developing” or “third-world.”

No.  By God’s goodness we have reached the point in the development of the human race where higher education and the resources necessary for scholarly and legal research are available to all.  The natural goodness and genius of each nation, no matter how poor economically, may now manifest itself.  A group of dedicated analysts and jurists in any part of the world, how matter how ‘remote’, may now issue truths that challenge the lies and complacency of the economic super-powers.

There are no longer any ‘third-world’ nations in the sphere of law and morality.  All nations are fully grown.

Would that I could remove the anger, frustration, anxiety, suffering and sheer terror of those affected by these strikes!  But I cannot.

I can, however, do this much: to suggest how there may be meaning in the suffering caused by these drones strikes.  Out of the crucible of this suffering and horror comes the advancement of human rights.  Right will prevail over might in the long run.  This will happen by a succession of steps like this – in which the people of the world learn to assert their rights using the legal means and institutions available.   It is by this kind of advancement that human beings will learn to achieve their objectives by law, not by war.

Therefore the Peshawar High Court are heroes of humanity, so are those innocent people in Pakistan who suffer because of these drones.  God bless them!

My suggestion to those in Pakistan would be this: continue to bring this matter before progressively higher judicial tribunals.  Be fully confident and believe in your mission.  Work with the power that comes from knowing that you are right, and that your actions truly serve a higher power.  Not for nothing is my blog named satyagraha.  This word, coined by Gandhi, has several interpretations, all featuring some conjunction of the “Truth” with “force” or “power”. But in this context it has a special meaning:  Truth itself is an insurmountable force for good.  Continue to promote Truth by laying out in plain and clear terms the case against drones, and why current US policies are illegal.

Written by John Uebersax

December 26, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Rev. James Bicheno — The Consequences of Unjust War (1810)

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The Rev. James Bicheno (1751-1831) was the father of James Ebenezer Bicheno, a British author, naturalist and colonial official in Australia (Tasmania).  The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1851 (Vol. 190, p. 436) describes the elder Bicheno as “an eminent dissenting minister of the Baptist persuasion and was the author of several publications of a politico-religious character.”   From the website Dissenting Academies Online we learn that Rev. Bicheno studied at Cambridge and the Bristol Baptist Academy, and are told this interesting detail: “kidnapped to America and sold to a planter in Virginia. Returned around 1774.”  His discourse on ‘The Consequences of Unjust War’ shows his eloquence and piety, as well as his knowledge of the Bible.  The work is somewhat peculiar in the strong anti-Catholic sentiments it expresses throughout.  For example, one of his concerns about the British war against Napoleon is that the French Republic had at least been a victory against “Popery.”  These expressions of personal prejudice, which remind us that even the saintliest and noblest writers retain a capacity for human error, do not, however, detract from the substance of the sermon’s message — a message clearly relevant for Americans today.

Source: Rev. James Bicheno.  The Consequences of Unjust War. London:  J. Johnson & Co., 1810.  (Subtitle:  A Discourse Delivered at Newbury, February 28, 1810, being the Day appointed by Proclamation for a General Fast.)

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“The duty of religious fasting, on suitable occasions, has been sanctioned by the practice of all ages, and is inculcated in the New Testament, as well as in the Old; and [that] national fasts, when kept without hypocrisy, and for ends worthy of God, possess that peculiar solemnity, which is calculated to impress the mind with extraordinary judgments, no enlightened Christian can doubt. And I hope there is no one here, who does not think it his duty to pray for our … government, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty. [1Tim 2] There is not one of us, I hope, who does not consider it as his duty, habitually to pray for the peace and prosperity of our beloved country. This is an essential duty of religion; but, convinced that nothing so contaminates devotion as the passions which spring from partial self-love; knowing, that he to whom we pray is equally the father of all, and no respecter of persons or nations, neither the love of our country, nor the power of self-interest, can exclude even our enemies from an interest in our prayers; nor induce us anxiously to solicit any favour at his hand, which is inconsistent with universal charity.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 1-2)

If we come with hearts fired with anger and revenge against our enemies, and, perverted by pride and self-love, call for fire from heaven to destroy them we hate; or, without devout consideration, not caring whether our cause be just or unjust, pray to the Father of mercies, because we may think we are commanded to do so, to go forth with our fleets and armies, and enable them to kill and burn and destroy; such services will be despised, and be more likely to bring down judgments than to avert them.
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 2-3)

“Our business to-day, then, is to satisfy ourselves (if we have not already done so) as to the character of the war we are engaged in, and what part of our conduct it is, that has been the more immediate cause of exposing us to those judgments which we are called upon to deprecate; that thus our devotions may be guided by that reason, which our Maker has given us to exercise; and have their foundation in that genuine, enlightened, piety, without which our religious services are mockery. If it should appear, on a candid examination, that our cause is decidedly just, and the war originally necessary for the defence of our country, our lives, and liberties; or should it appear to be quite the reverse, neither just nor necessary; or should the question be involved in doubt; in either of these cases, we shall then know how to order our speech before our judge [Job 37:19]; and, what to pray for as we ought [Rom 8:26].”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 3)

“It appears to me to be the duty … of every man, however humble his station, who knows any thing of the worth of our constitution and liberties; and particularly of the ministers of religion, on such a day as this, to do all in their power to enable the people to form a right judgment as to the character of the present war and times; and to show them their errors and transgressions, that high and low may be undeceived, and repent, and turn, and live [cf. Ezek 18:32]. This would be to keep an acceptable fast to the Lord [cf. Isa 58:5]. But woe to them who endeavour to prolong and propagate delusion! woe to them who wish to deceive, or who are willing to be deceived!”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 4)

“Now, though the dispensation of God, in different ages, and towards different people, may be dissimilar; yet he is, through all generations, the righteous governor among the nations, and the principles of his government must always be essentially the same; making a difference between the righteous and the wicked, as it respects nations, as well as individuals. And the people who maintain the purity of God’s worship and the freedom of conscience, and whose political institutions promote the distribution of impartial justice, and which are formed for the promotion of general good and happiness, may for ever be said to be on the Lord’s side; whilst the corrupters of his worship, the persecutors of conscience, and the people whose institutions are formed for the oppression of mankind, must ever be considered as the ungodly, and as those who hate the Lord.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 10)

“National departures from humanity and justice; forgetfulness of God, and contempt of the obligations of religion, we may expect to be followed by national calamities. Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people [Prov 14:34]. They bend their tongues, like their bow, for lies; but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the Lord [Jer 9:3].  — Shall I not visit them for these things? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this? [Jer 9:9]“
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 18)

“Never was the hand of God more evidently displayed, than in the surprising occurrences which have so rapidly succeeded each other in the course of the last twenty years…. If events have not convinced us that the providence of God is against us, then nothing can. Would you war yet seventeen years more to ascertain the fact? … Every expectation has been disappointed. By every effort which we have made, we have contributed to the aggrandizement of the enemy, and hastened the ruin of those we attempted to help. Calamity or dishonour has been the only fruit of all our measures. Every new exertion has only served to place us at a greater distance from every object of the war.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 18-19)

“And after all this, are we still unconvinced, or without suspicion, that we have been fighting against the providence of God? Must you see greater calamities than you have seen, and still more striking accomplishments of God’s word, before you believe? Then, neither would you believe, though one rose from the dead [Luke 16:31]. “
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 20)

“The success, or non-success, of a cause, simply and alone, proves nothing. The cause itself must be examined, and judged of by the principles of eternal wisdom and justice. This being done, then, if there appear to be those remarkable interpositions, which, as far as mortals are able to judge, bespeak the finger of God, piety will allow them their due weight. And if the judgment hang in doubt, as, to the justice or injustice of a cause, a course of very extraordinary occurrences, such as we have seen, will weigh much with every man who feels the presence of the Deity, and truly believes in this moral and Providential government.  The ways of Providence are unsearchable. The designs of Heaven are operated by a complication of means, which human penetration can but very imperfectly trace, or comprehend. We ought to adore the long-suffering mercy of God for the exclusive protection we have hitherto experienced; and we cannot be too thankful for the safety we have thus far enjoyed, from the protection of our navy. But we cannot hence conclude, either that our cause is originally or essentially good; or that our safety is likely to be perpetual. I wish not to discourage the humble hopes of the good, but it would be criminal to flatter the confidence of the presumptuous, who are ingenious to find out arguments to encourage the continuance of those measures, which have brought the nation to the brink of ruin. But is it not easy to suppose, that our temporary preservation, and naval successes, may make a part of the great scheme of divine Providence, without implying either the justice of our cause, or our perpetual safety. It is probable that, whilst our enemy is the great instrument to break to pieces the nations, we may be the instrument of Providence, at once to chastise him, and, by the aid which we afford to those to be destroyed, and by the measures we pursue, to operate, indirectly, the destruction of those whom we intended to help. They who have attentively observed the progress of things, for the last seventeen years, will not be disposed to reject this hypothesis, as undeserving of all notice.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 21-22)

“If mere preservation and partial success be the marks of divine favour, what favourites must our enemies be!”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 23)

“Let me intreat you to turn your attention to those intimations of Divine displeasure, and to those signs of hastening calamities, which exist in the very bowels of the empire, and affect its most vital parts…. Reflect on the vast accumulation of our national debt; the immensity of our annual expenditure … and the consequent burdens under which the nation groans.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 23-24)

“Reflect on the obstinate resistance which is made to all that reform, which might preserve our constitution from degenerating into tyranny; and restore it to be in practice, what it is in theory: and thus prevent that indifference to the public welfare, in the mass of the people, which is more to be dreaded than all the legions of the enemy.—Reflect on the infatuation and imbecility which seems to direct our public affairs, and on the narrow policy and ill-timed bigotry, which insults and divides, when the common danger so imperiously demands measures of conciliation and union. Are liberal measures proposed for uniting the energies of men, of all religious opinions, and for extinguishing in the common flood of patriotism, that spirit of discord which divides and weakens?
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 24-25)

“Reflect on the general insensibility of the people, both to their danger, and to their public duties; on the dissipation and universal corruption of manners; on the great forgetfulness of God, and neglect of religious duties; and say, are there no signs of hastening ruin? are there no reasons to fear that the wrath of God is upon us, and that he hath, turned our wise men backward, and made their knowledge foolishness [Isa 44:25]? “Although the great body of the people are still blind to the hand of God; and although too many still cry for war, yet the more thoughtful are recovering from their delusion: — the mists have begun to disperse. You begin to perceive the mighty danger, as a giant advancing towards you; you feel the hollow ground on which you stand tremble; you begin to perceive the peril into which our country is brought. Ah! our Sion spreadeth forth her hands, and there is none to comfort her [Lam 1:17a]. There is none to guide her among all the sons she hath brought forth; neither is there any that taketh her by the hand of all the sons that she hath brought up [Isa 51:18]. “O my country! when we contemplate thy varied character, thy conduct, and the dangers which threaten thee, how mingled are our sensations? How many are thy charms to inspire our love, and make us cling to thy destinies! But many are the blemishes which deface thy beauty, and the magnitude of thy vices threatens thy life! — How many great and amiable qualities adorn thy character! How wise are many of thy institutions! — How pure thy courts of justice! — How numerous and extensive are thy charities! — How great thy care for the poor and needy! — But, thy children in the midst of thee, have forgotten God. There is a conspiracy of thy prophets, like a roaring lion; and thy great men are like the wolves, ravening the prey [Ezek 22:25]. — How charming are thy precepts of liberty: and under the protection of thy shield, the persecuted have found safety! But, thou hast forgotten thine own precepts, and what it was that made thee great; and for which we chiefly loved thee.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 25-27)

I think I should sin against God and my country, if on this day, I were not to bear a faithful testimony, and say, that, unless we cleanse ourselves from our corruptions, personal and national, in church and state; unless we cease from the career we have long been running, and are directed by wiser counsels than those which have brought us to the brink of ruin, a heavy visitation must be expected.  Yes, it is our duty to humble ourselves before God, against whom we have sinned by the misimprovement of the extraordinary light with which he has distinguished us, and the abuse of our power and wealth. It is our duty to pray to God, that that delusion, which has led the nation astray, may be dissipated before it be too late; that the errors into which the nation or government may have fallen, may be pardoned; and that our great and many sins may not issue in our ruin; that all may be enlightened to know what is good to be done in this time of danger, and that every heart may be inspired with those just sentiments which are necessary to a right conduct. It is our duty to repent, and immediately enter on a thorough reformation, as the best means of averting those judgments which have fallen upon the surrounding nations…. By such a conduct, if general and sincere, we might derive a good hope that these judgments will not be necessary to our renovation; will not be necessary to bring us to that purity of manners, and to reduce us to that just and benevolent temper, that piety towards God and charity to all mankind, which our religion inculcates, as essential to the favor of God; and without which, no nation can be truly and permanently happy and prosperous; without which, wars, and commotions, and revolutions, must be expected, as the fruit and chastisement of their follies and sins.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 27-28)

“It is incumbent on us, also, to rouse ourselves to an active attention to the duties of our several stations; and not only to those more common duties of life which occur every day, but to those political obligations that we are under…. Our duty is to bear testimony, in every legal way we can, against corruptions and war; and to lift up our voice for that political reformation, without which, neither our property, nor our liberties, nor our country, can long be safe.”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, p. 29)

“But my voice is too feeble to be heard; my efforts can be but of little use in so great a work as the salvation of [a nation] ….” True, if there were no voice but yours, it would be better to fly from danger than oppose it. But, let all the thousands who complain and murmur in solitude, discharge the duty which the constitution directs, and their voice will be powerful as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings [Rev 19:6], to appal corruption, and awake the nation from its fatal slumber. But does each, from motives of indolence, or of interest, or of fear, draw back from his duty? Of what practical worth, then, are the rights which we have received from our ancestors? If, absorbed in self, and dead to all public spirit, we fold our arms and stand silent, when the safety or the liberty of our country calls for our help, whom shall we have to accuse when the awful moment arrives, and calamities burst upon us as a flood? And whom will our children, and children’s children, have to accuse, if, regardless of our duty, and insensible to the value and use of our rights, we silently contemplate the approaching ruin without an attempt to repel its progress?”
~ Rev. James Bicheno (The Consequences of Unjust War; 1810, pp. 29-30)

On ‘The Amazing Race’ in Bangladesh

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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.

Written by John Uebersax

October 22, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Open Letter to Sen. Boxer (D-CA): Please Explain US Goals in Afghanistan

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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.

Respectfully yours,

John S. Uebersax

Written by John Uebersax

September 12, 2012 at 11:40 pm

Afghanistan: Vietnam 2 — And Still We Have Not Learned

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“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.

9. Unilateralism

“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.”

and:

“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 VietnamPray 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.

Written by John Uebersax

August 28, 2012 at 12:34 am

Drone Strikes: What are the Moral Issues?

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As suggested in a previous post, certain ambiguities associated with drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen make it difficult for the public to understand the issues, and for activists to mount effective opposition.

Above all we must not let this confusion distract attention from the basic moral issues and harms.  Therefore, in the face of constant double-talk by government officials, we respond with the potent weapons of simplicity and clear presentation of issues.

To repeat what was said previously, drone strikes are of four kinds:  (1) targeted killings, (2) signature strikes, (3) overt combat actions, and (4) covert combat actions.  The moral issues listed below apply in different degrees to each type of drone strike.

The specific moral harms can be broadly aggregated into two groups, according to seriousness.  We shall name these the top tier and second tier moral issues, respectively.  After presenting the issues, some brief suggestions will be made for how the US might conduct drone strikes — if they are truly necessary — in a more just and moral way.

Top tier issues

  • Civilian deaths/casualties. Clearly the most important moral issue is that drone strikes, especially in Pakistan, have killed or injured many innocent civilians.  Serious consideration must also be  given to the gruesomeness of the injuries and manner of death, and the associated effects of this on survivors and relatives of those killed or injured.
  • Terrorization. Very plausible reports have circulated concerning the mass terrorization of civilians in the Tribal Regions of Pakistan because of drones.  In some areas, drones, often several at the same time, can be heard constantly, even at night.  Whenever a drone is present, nobody can be sure they will not be killed in the next instant.
  • Racism. The civilian-to-militant casualty ratio deemed acceptable by US government officials is evidently very high.  This suggests that the life of civilian Pakistani or Yemeni has comparatively little value in the eyes of the US government.  So high a level of ‘collateral damage’ would be not be accepted were these British, German or French citizens.
  • Disregard of religious customs and principles. Particularly questionable is the use of follow-up drone strikes, which attack people who come to rescue or remove bodies from the scene of an initial strike, and strikes directed against funerals of slain militants.  Civilized and decent people have always granted enemies the right to collect and bury the dead.  In any case, a funeral is a religious ceremony, and no moral people would attack another during a religious service. Moreover, the US has launched strikes during its own religious holidays, such as on Good Friday, and on January 1, both holy days for Christians.  It is also reported that drone missiles travel faster than the speed of sound, and therefore kill victims without any advance warning.  If so, this removes the possibility of praying or collecting oneself in the moments before death (however ‘unfashionable’ it may be these days to mention such an issue, it is nonetheless a significant one).
  • Secrecy. If the strikes were just and honorable, the US government would conduct them in a transparent way, explaining its procedures and admitting and making restitution for collateral damage.  But the strikes are cloaked in secrecy. The secrecy is, then, evidence that the strikes are immoral:  otherwise the US government would more readily admit them and disclose details.  Moreover, the secrecy is a moral harm itself:  it reduces government credibility, fosters ill-will between nations, and alienates the US government from its own citizens.
  • Effects on drone operators. It is wrong for any nation to induce its citizens to act as cold-blooded exterminators of other human beings.  This is utterly incompatible with human nature, and must be producing terrible psychological damage in drone operators.

Second tier issues

  • Issues of international law. The drone strikes, especially in Pakistan (where citizens consistently voice their disapproval), are illegal because they violate the sovereignty of other nations. Civilian drone operators are illegal combatants under international law.  Drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia constitute a form of undeclared war, which is illegal both under international and US law.
  • Issues of democratic principles. All available evidence suggests that most Pakistan drone strikes are what an earlier post termed covert combat actions: they are targeting ordinary militants, not high-level terrorists.  The evidence also suggests that this is done by covert collusion between the US government and conservative factions of the Pakistani government.  Both governments must issue deceptive statements to their respective citizenries to cover things up.  This removes the citizens from oversight and direction of their own lives. In the case of the US, it is also probable that defense contractor lobbying is instrumental in expanding the drone strike campaigns.
  • Arms escalation.  Eager use of drones and rapid development of more advanced systems by the US is setting the stage for an international drone arms race.  Especially disturbing is the current development of autonomous drones, which may attack and kill without human input.
  • Inhumane treatment of enemy militants.  We are required to show respect for enemies, and to always regard them as human beings; killing by remote control is antithetical to this principle.
  • Nonexpedience. The aggressive drone strike campaigns are also immoral because they harm US national security: the strikes produce more new enemies than they neutralize.  They also erode the moral foundations of American society and damage its reputation abroad.  By producing new enemies, and, consequently, potentially new wars, they threaten America’s economy.
  • Evasion of responsibility.  The drone strikes (and the global ‘war on terror’ generally), demonstrate a reluctance by the US to admit its own partial responsibility for creating global instability.  The attacks of 9/11 and on the USS Cole in Yemen were morally evil, to be sure.  Yet the US must honestly consider the extent to which it helped provoke the attacks by a long standing policy of crass imperialism.  The US has also been complicit with the illegal efforts of Israel to functionally annex the West Bank territories of Palestine.  These things do not justify the terrorist attacks on the US, but should be considered as mitigating factors in determining our response to the attacks.
  • Dishonorable warfare.  When soldiers engage under more or less equal terms, there is potentially a kind of honor associated with warfare.  When one party has an immense advantage, killing becomes mere slaughter, with no trace of honor.

If the US wishes to conduct drone strikes in a more moral manner, then particular attention should be given to the top tier moral issues.  The main requirement is to reduce civilian casualties to an absolute minimum.  This can most effectively be done by limiting the number of strikes, such as by restricting them only to targets who are genuinely direct and immediate threats to US domestic security.  In any case, the CIA and Department of Defense obviously monitor strikes closely, and have data on civilian casualties.  They should routinely report these data (consistent with the Geneva Conventions).  If a strike is deemed genuinely necessary, the US should be able to defend it openly in the court of public opinion.  The US should also issue public statements of regret for civilian casualties, and make restitution.

Related:  Vatican statement on autonomous weapons and lethal drones (14 Nov 2013)

The Four Kinds of Drone Strikes

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Drone (appears to be General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper)

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.

Analysis of John Brennan’s Defense of US Drone Wars

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drone_strike

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.

Written by John Uebersax

May 1, 2012 at 8:05 pm

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