Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced that they have shortened their name to simply “the Islamic State,” Western media have had difficulty knowing what to call them, especially because they are also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But this name-change is not simply an attempt at re-branding: the terrorist group also prohibits anyone under their governance from calling them by the common Arabic abbreviation Da’ash (داعش, for الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام). The penalty for using the proscribed, but common colloquial, acronym is 80 lashes. What’s going on here? Continue reading
Yemen does not exactly loom large in the world consciousness, and certainly not among the many Westerners who would have a hard time placing it on a map. US foreign policy toward the country has often been an adjunct to US relations with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s far richer and larger neighbor to the north and a key US ally.
But a recent flight afforded me the time to begin reading Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, which places Yemen and Yemeni politics in the center of global politics and terrorist networks, from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to 2012, when the book came out, and from jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya to bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Although Yemen is often portrayed as a remote backwater of the Arabian peninsula, Johnsen brings together many strands of international history over the past three decades by drawing links from his detailed familiarity with Yemen’s great families. Even Osama bin Laden, usually identified as a Saudi, was a younger son of a Yemeni pauper-turned-billionaire who made some useful connections with the Saudi royal family.
I am only about a quarter of the way through the book, but it is a real eye-opener regarding the numerous connections between disparate parts of the contemporary Arab world and the inner workings of various different terrorist organizations. I am particularly struck by the degree to which family, clan, and tribe shape such a large portion of organizations usually designated religious, which may reveal my own blindspots as a member of an anonymizing and impersonal modern Western society. Johnsen also points out occasional clues missed or misunderstood by counter-terrorism officials, and analyzes a dispute between the lead FBI investigator and the US ambassador to Yemen following the bombing of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000. But he does so without succumbing to 20/20 hindsight; instead, his narrative helps readers understand the ambiguity of many of the pieces of evidence before their interpretation became indelibly clear in specific attacks.
The book is very readable and engaging. The action is fast. Readers unfamiliar with Arabic names may have trouble keeping track of the many actors involved, often with similar names. Such readers will find a helpful appendix with brief bios of “Principal Characters”; no doubt the author would have liked to include more than made it in. There is also a very useful map of Yemen just after the table of contents, which will be essential for readers who have not familiarized themselves with the terrain of the southernmost tip of the Arabian peninsula.
Today I read a commentary by Fr. Samir Khalil Samir on the sections regarding Islam in Pope Francis‘s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium from last November. Fr. Samir is a well-regarded scholar of Muslim-Christian relations and Islamic Studies, as well as a Jesuit from Egypt. As usual, I do not agree with everything he says about Islam, but he does have more experience than most people in actual inter-religious dialogue. It is necessary to warn that the summary at the top just under the title significantly skews the balance of Fr. Samir’s remarks as a whole, so do not judge the whole based solely on the abstract. I link to the article here as a thought-provoking perspective.
On Wednesday hundreds of people (some sources say as many as 1400) died in Syria, evidently related to a chemical attack on a rebel-held area north-east of the capital, Damascus. Apart from the scale of the casualties, there is much in this news which is not new or surprising. As usual in Syria, rebels and regime accuse each other of deploying chemical weapons while denying their own use thereof. Internationally, various governments support their chosen factions, as , , and all publicly blamed the Assad regime, while Russia’s Foreign Ministry suggested that rebels staged the attack in order to provoke international intervention. American rhetoric in favor of military intervention in Syria has certainly ramped up as a result of the attack. Nevertheless, the Assad government puts forward a bold face, indicating that an American attack is very unlikely given the current international impasse.
What is more surprising is that Russia also called upon the Syrian regime and opposition to cooperate with UN chemical weapons investigators already in Damascus and permit them access to this fresh site. The Syrian government has reportedly agreed to do just that.
This has put the western governments who have been consistently calling for Assad’s removal in something of a difficult position. Before the Syrian regime announced it would allow UN investigators access to the site, the argument was made that they “must have something to hide.” (The argument, though widespread, is always the argument of the group which controls the courts. As the history of American criminal courts amply demonstrates, one can be found guilty of a crime one did not commit based on being the wrong color.) Now that the Syrian government says it will facilitate the investigation, Western hawks are forced to argue that this cooperation is “too little, too late,” and that an investigation five days after an attack is worthless. This despite the fact that the UN investigators were already in Damascus to investigate attacks from March. If five days is too late for an investigation, it is unclear what good the UN investigators could do in Syria at all.
As Paul Thomas Chamberlin commented on the day of the chemical weapons attack, the US has a very bad track record for intervention in Muslim areas of Asia and Africa, a history of counter-productive intervention spanning decades. The parallels between the proposed US support for rebels in Syria and the US sponsored Mujahhidun fighting against the Soviet-sponsored government in Afghanistan, which reduced Afghanistan to the rubble we see today, are frightening. Of course, the Russians didn’t come out of Afghanistan looking like heroes either.
But the US track record even in the current Syrian conflict does not inspire confidence. Given the long-standing hostility between the US and the Assad regime, a byproduct of Syria’s alliance with the USSR and cold antagonism to Israel, the US rashly called upon Bashar al-Assad to step down as soon as the protests started in March 2011. Thus the US lost whatever positive influence it might have had over the regime (not that it ever had much). With the recognition of the and the progressive revelations how much the SNC has cooperated with the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the US has provided its critics with the easy tagline that the American government is supporting terrorism. When the US and the Russians agreed about the importance of holding peace talks in Geneva “to find a political solution,” the Russians got the Assad government to agree to the talks, while the US-backed rebels refused to participate. The Syrian government is still touting its willingness to participate in Geneva. The US hasn’t mentioned Geneva recently.
I think it would be very foolish for the US to intervene militarily without waiting for word from the UN chemical weapons investigators. To strike at Assad without UN support would convince many in the Middle East of American arrogance and willingness to act as judge, jury, and executioner for a “justice” tailored to suit its own ends. (And although I prefer to give governing bodies the benefit of the doubt, I find myself troubled by the rising prominence of “defending our national interests” in US government statements about Syria.) The mess in Syria will have no easy solutions, and for the US to enter Syria now will simply ensure that the mess which follows the war is blamed on the US intervention. And as media reports almost invariably indicate, the information coming out of Syria could not be verified, meaning we really have little idea who is doing what to whom in the countryside around Damascus.
But I am not a quietist, and I certainly do not believe that the US should just “let them kill each other,” as certain callous Islamophobic westerners are arguing. The US can certainly help now by continuing to provide defensive technology, by providing humanitarian assistance to refugee camps, and by helping the countries hosting the refugee camps provide police presence in those camps. Although media reports have depicted Western politicians repeating the mantra of “no boots on the ground,” if a military intervention is needed, I think putting “boots on the ground” may be the best way to humanize the process, far better than raining terror from the skies. “Boots on the ground” may deliver humanitarian assistance in ways that hellfire missiles cannot.
But in order to facilitate the end of the violence in Syria, and particularly of the secularist vs. jihadi rebel infighting which will inevitably follow Assad’s departure, the US needs to work diplomatically with Russia and wait for the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job. When the US intervenes, I think it needs to do so as part of an international coalition including Russia. Moscow has been much more effective about influencing the situation in Syria than the US has been. If the US can get over its spat that Russia provided temporary asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden (which led President Obama to cancel his state visit to Putin, evidently because revealing that a government is flagrantly breaking its own laws is treasonous), then it just may be able to work with Moscow over how to bring the Syrian conflict to a halt. Now, Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s civil rights record is also a problem, but if Russia can be disengaged from supporting Assad, Iran will not be in a position to hold up Assad, and China is unlikely to invest what Russia has been doing in order to keep Assad in power. That is probably the surest way to ensure that Syria does not turn into an al-Qa’ida stronghold training terrorists for the next twenty years.
A critical component of the rule of law is due process, and due process takes time. That time is costly, as thousands are dying in Syria. But due process is precisely what distinguishes seeking the common good from self-serving bullying. If the US is serious about seeking what is best for Syrians, then it needs to support all Syrians and not just its favored faction, and it needs to allow the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job.
A more expected headline for this post might be “Lost in Afghanistan,” given Afghanistan’s recent history and press, but while reading around today I came across some lighter fare than the standard news about the standoff in Egypt and the war in Syria. The following two sites which depict life in Afghanistan as it once was (the second one re-uses some of the material of the first, which is a few years old now):
The former is a photo story by Mohammad Qayoumi, an Afghani engineer who is now president of San Jose State University, reflecting the Afghanistan he grew up in during the 1950s and 1960s, and (as he indicates) somewhat sanitized by mid-century government propaganda. These two certainly do not reflect the whole breadth of Afghanistan’s society in the mid-twentieth-century, but they document a portion of the young, urban, professional culture of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul before the proxy war fought between the Soviet-backed government and the US-supported Mujahideen from 1979-1989, which was followed by Afghanistan’s Civil War in the 1990s which brought the Taliban to power.
These photos demonstrate many things, even with their great selectivity. They reveal that the direction of “modernization” (which often means “Westernization”) is not one-directional, nor assured victory in any given context, despite the triumphalist narratives trumpeted from European and North American capitals. They indicate the fragility of social structures which were taken for granted at that time, and how within a generation cultures and expectations can change so drastically that what was the norm can quickly become unthinkably risky.
One thing these photos do not show, and obscured in Qayoumi’s nostalgic captions, is the racial inequalities which at that time and still today privilege lighter-skinned ethnic Pashtuns at the expense of the darker-skinned Hazaras (although the section in the Hazara Wikipedia page is somewhat out of order). But these photos show the pro-Western pre-Soviet government of Afghanistan “putting their best foot forward,” and the fact that many of these images would not even be desired by portions of the Afghani population today also indicates the failure of that government’s project of Westernization to take hold among much of the population. What some people value, after all, should never be mistaken for what all people value, even when it is also what I value.
This is the third part of my discussion of President Obama’s speech defending the use of drone attacks, given last Thursday (a transcript of the whole speech is here). I was interrupted by other interesting posts that I wanted to write. Having discussed the moral and legal dimensions of the argument in favor of drones, now I would like to raise an issue regarding the evaluation of drone strikes’ effectiveness.
President Obama highlighted the effectiveness of the US drone attacks on al-Qa’ida and insurgents in Afghanistan as a strong argument in favor of using them (although he himself noted, “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance”). His summary of their effectiveness is worth quoting in full:
To begin with, our actions are effective. Don’t take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote, “we could lose the reserves to the enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.” Other communications from al Qaeda operatives confirm this as well. Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.
That last sentence is worth repeating: “Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.” Earlier he had put it, “In sum, we are safer because of our efforts.”
On one level, it would be foolish to dispute the efficacy of drone strikes. Just today Pakistani sources reported that a US drone strike killed the Taliban’s #2 commander. As President Obama euphemistically put it, “Dozens of [al-Qa’ida terrorists] have been taken off the battlefield.” President Obama argued that sending in soldiers (“putting boots on the ground”) would kill more civilians and make more enemies, so on this logic the drones are positively effective with less risk than conventional military means. They were designed to enable “targeted killing” and they were designed well for that goal.
But on another level, the effects of drone strikes after the initial death are not so clear. The effects of the strike do not end there, but play out among the people (both terrorists and non-terrorists) who knew the people killed. The effects continue to play out among the people who live near the spot of the attack, or among people who could imagine a drone flying over their own heads. Even when the person(s) killed were the intended targets (usually the case), is it true that “these strikes have saved lives” and “we are safer” because of drone strikes?
The short answer is that we cannot know for sure. Safety in the abstract is not measurable, and the number of lives that would have been lost if another choice had been taken is not knowable. When social scientists and policy analysts want to measure something that is not conveniently quantifiable or not accessible to measurement, they often identify a “proxy variable” that they can measure, and use the proxy variable as a stand-in for the unmeasurable end. This is the best way it is done, but it is important to remember that the proxy variable is only a proxy, decided by fiat to be related to some unmeasurable or inaccessible quantity. Failing to remember the distinction between the proxy and the real leads to bad reasoning and blind spots in the analysis.
In this case, President Obama seems to reason implicitly that since al-Qa’ida forces are trying to kill civilians, killing them first before they get to where they can kill civilians results in fewer civilian deaths. Thus the number of al-Qa’ida operatives killed by drones becomes a proxy variable for increased safety and saved lives achieved by drones. It sounds plausible, it makes sense, but is it true?
One can think of other proxy variables which are a bit closer to the desired goal of “safety.” The number of terrorist attacks attempted and/or committed in a given time frame within the US, for example. Has this gone down? I’m not so sure. (Someone with more patience or more time than I have could comb through Wikipedia’s List of Terrorist Incidents and count incidents per year in any given geography.) Other factors, less accessible or less quantifiable, certainly come into an assessment of increased or decreased safety. More accurate than the number of al-Qa’ida operatives killed might be the total number of al-Qa’ida operatives at a given time, although this is inaccessible because they are unlikely to tell us if we called them up to ask. But drone strikes do not necessarily result in a decrease of al-Qa’ida membership, as the retired Air Force general acknowledged in saying that drone strikes can contribute to “creating a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda.” There are also the intangibles such as the level of cultural repugnance against terrorist violence among societies from which al-Qa’ida operatives are recruited and the level of anti-American sentiment which al-Qa’ida, can leverage for recruiting or material support.
And the uniqueness of the US drone strikes program has put the US in a vulnerable position to erroneous reports of drone attacks. For example, yesterday in Somalia al-Shabab, the local branch of al-Qa’ida, claimed to have shot down a US drone. This is no doubt a tactic to recruit additional forces, and regardless of the veracity of the claim, it will work. As a potential example, since Iran has drones, all Tehran would need to do in order to stoke anti-American sentiment in Pakistan or Afghanistan would be to send a few drones and a few rockets over its borders eastward, and the US would be blamed for any resulting deaths. This is a vulnerability resulting from the US use of drone attacks.
Have drone strikes and “targeted killing” saved lives and increased safety? I’m not saying they have not. But the proxy variable needs to be recognized for what it is. All the evidence cited by President Obama for the effectiveness of drones demonstrates their military effectiveness. I’m just not sure that military effectiveness is a useful proxy for the goal of internal peace and civil safety. Rather more complex questions need to be asked before the affirmation of drone strikes’ effectiveness in attain those goals is justified.
Yesterday President Obama gave a speech defending drone strikes and “targeted killing” as part of a comprehensive defense strategy against terrorism (a full transcript of his speech is provided here). Now, on political matters I’m not usually dogmatic, but here I must forcefully disagree with the President’s defense of “targeted killing” as presented in the speech. I would not normally use this blog to advertise a disagreement over American policy, but since almost all drone strikes occur in the Middle East, policy decisions on that subject are immediately relevant to Middle East affairs and the perception of the US in the Middle East.
But let me first say that I applaud much of this speech. President Obama rightly highlights the impact of ideas and the importance of doing what is right, both as an instrumental means of achieving national security and as a matter of consistency with the democratic and constitutional values of American governance. Thus he said, “In an age in which ideas and images can travel the globe in an instant, our response to terrorism cannot depend on military or law enforcement alone. We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills and ideas.” Even more directly, “Force alone cannot make us safe.” And he highlighted the greater cost-effectiveness of foreign aid to give the lie to the notion that America is against Islam: the defense budget for foreign wars far exceeds the value of foreign aid, and yet foreign aid more effectively persuades real people that America is not evil, thus reducing the effectiveness of jihadi recruiting. These are good things.
Nevertheless I do disagree with President Obama’s reasoning about drone strikes, even as some news sources present the President as seeming to argue with himself. I will summarize my thoughts under three headings, moral arguments, legal arguments, and effectiveness arguments. Although I recognize that there is widespread disagreement on the nature of moral reasoning, I do regard the moral arguments as both the most straightforward and the most important, and so today’s post will focus on the moral arguments, while the arguments from law and from effectiveness will await another day. I also realize that in condemning all drone attacks outside of active battlefields, I am parting company with the majority of political voices in the US (whether red or blue) and the majority of legal experts. That fact does not make me doubt the positions I argue for here.
It is conspicuous that President Obama raises the question of morality but does not adduce any moral reasoning in his speech. He indicated that new technologies of warfare raise questions of morality, and later he said, “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.” Thereafter he avoided all reference to morality except in two instances. He asserted the moral obligation to carry out “targeted killings” through his statement, “I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki,” referring to Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen and Yemeni terrorist. In the context he does not indicate which presidential duty he has in mind. Finally, he asserted the dubious morality of alternatives to drone attacks: “So neither conventional military action, nor waiting for attacks to occur, offers moral safe-harbor.” In the immediate context he was indicating that more civilians were killed by conventional military action than by drones, and that conventional military action exposes more American lives to danger. It is conspicuous that this sentence is the only place where he alludes to “waiting for attacks to occur,” and he probably included it here only to give the illusion of considering all alternatives. The reasoning seems to be that the alternatives to drone attacks are just as morally questionable as “targeted killing” itself, so get over the moral qualms. This exhaustive summary of President Obama’s appeals to morality are why I must disagree with the Christian Science Monitor reporter who referred to “Obama’s moral arguments“; there were none.
Now, some people will argue that moral reasoning is impossible, either because (1) everyone knows deep down in their heart what is right and wrong, or (2) morality is merely a pious Victorian smokescreen for who you like and who you dislike (although it was that most affable and least sententious Victorian Oscar Wilde who put in the mouth of one of his villains, “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. You dislike me. I am quite aware of that. And I have always detested you.” — Mrs. Cheveley, An Ideal Husband, Act 2). Yet the branch of philosophy identified as “ethics” challenges the presumption of inability to reason about moral matters (even if the divergence of opinions expressed will not give us much confidence in sophistic arguments, so I will keep my arguments simple).
Governments very rarely seem to appeal to the nearly universally recognized moral principle that it is obligatory to treat others as you would wish to be treated. In the Christian tradition (which of course has no monopoly on the sentiment) the “golden rule” was expressed as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Most governments seem to operate by the modification in the style of Richard Rorty, “Do unto others what you can get away with,” and some have even adopted the dangerous principle, “Do unto others before they can do unto you!”
Now I do not believe that the golden rule is absolute in every instance, so I am not arguing that we should treat criminals and terrorists as we would want them to treat us (although I do think due process is morally obligatory). But what about the many innocent people in the countries where drone strikes take place? Raining death from the skies with impunity necessarily creates an environment of fear under which the people have no choice but to live. This is a form of widespread psychological harm for which they are receiving no recompense. The argument may be that these attacks only target terrorists, and their home countries are better off without them. That may be so, but the attacks sometimes miss (and the so-called “signature strikes” target anyone who “acts like a terrorist,” which in the minds of many Americans would include direct religious profiling to target any Muslim who prays too often in a mosque!). President Obama’s assertion that “Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces” provides scant comfort to the people of areas where drone strikes occur.
Turning the tables can reveal the moral lapse beyond all of our clever self-justifications: how many Americans would appreciate it if a Russian drone flew in and killed an American while he was at home, even if it was a widely acknowledged extremist such as David Koresh? Can you imagine the uproar if a Cuban fighter jet, without violating US airspace, destroyed a warehouse at Houston airport while flying over Mexico? The fact that either of these scenarios is presently unlikely does not change the sense of outrage and personal affront which the American people would feel at the violation of our national sovereignty and domestic security. These scenarios, and the real-life scenarios on which they are modeled, reveal the emptiness of appeals to “legitimate defense of national interests” when one country’s “national interests” conflict with another country’s “national interests.” The moral discourse of rights can sound dangerously like it is might which makes them.
Obama asserted in his speech that drone strikes “are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty” (emphasis added), yet he acknowledged that “Any U.S. military action [including drone strikes] in foreign lands risks creating more enemies, and impacts public opinion overseas.” Speaking of the Special Forces raid which killed Osama bin Laden, he acknowledged that “the cost to our relationship with Pakistan [of the raid that killed bin Laden] – and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory – was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership.” This acknowledgment also highlights the boldest lie uttered in the same speech: “Our alliances are strong, and so is our standing in the world.” Pakistan in particular has repeatedly and publicly objected to US drone strikes, even if the same government occasionally admits it has authorized strikes, and US-Pakistani relations have been very strained in the last few years.
The Pakistani people hear the government’s protests which seem to be ignored by the ruthless overseas aggressor, the US, and thus the drone strikes contribute, as one retired Air Force general put it, to “creating a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda.” The point here is not about the effectiveness of the strikes (that issue will be addressed later), but that the Pakistani public clearly feels wronged by the drone campaign. The fact that it is hard to imagine the US public not feeling even more violated and outraged if the tables were turned, including vocal demands for immediate military response against the country which sent the drone, reveals that this is a moral issue, and drones are on the wrong side of the moral calculus. (The irony, of course, is that some of the most vocal supporters of the drone program in Washington today would be, if the tables were turned, some of the most strident voices calling for military response to a drone strike on US soil, but politicians have very rarely been noted for a strong moral compass.)
The US government, CIA, and military seem to feel that at present they can act with impunity in the drone program, because no one else has the capacity to send a drone to the US. But this may change at any time. The inability to be forcefully brought to account for an action does not mean it is morally legitimate, as Obama himself noted by his remark that “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”
A sharp distinction must of course be drawn between the use of unmanned aircraft in a battle situation and their use off the battle situation. The use of unmanned aircraft in an active battle situation is clearly no more objectionable than the use of tanks (and although I am almost a pacifist, I am not convinced that war is the worst possible evil, and so I believe there are situations in which tanks and battles on one side can be justified). As several commentators have remarked, the use of targeted killings in the “War on Terror” treat the entire world as a constant battlefield, and various voices have called upon the President of the United States to repudiate the “global battlefield” doctrine.
I think ridicule might be a more effective approach: everyone knows that the whole world is not a battlefield all of the time. Although the locations of battles of the “War on Terror” are difficult to predict, they are not everywhere all the time, and it is sheer idiocy or willful neglect of reality to believe otherwise. Any particular place may become a battlefield, but it does so precisely when some party initiates violence there, as happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last month, and happens every time a drone strike attacks someone who is not actively committing violence. Note that it is the drone strike which transforms a place into a battlefield which was not a battlefield before. Plans to commit violence do not make a battlefield (as all army generals know, as they usually wish to avoid seeing direct combat), and surprise attacks as often as not will catch terrorists thinking about the weather and their worries about their social standing (provided the drone strike is actually targeting terrorists and not merely people having a social gathering).
My conclusion is therefore that drone strikes are always immoral when not used in a context of active combat between opposing armies. This seems to be readily apparent to everyone who has been nearby a drone strike, or where a drone strike is thought a real possibility. The obfuscation of this moral point to those who defend the “targeted killing” approach is merely a result of humans’ universal ability to fully exonerate themselves in their pursuit of their desires, whatever they happen to be. On the moral scale, yesterday’s speech by President Obama (although admirable at many other points) was simply bankrupt.