Tag Archives: civilian casualties

Killing them like Flies: the Enduring Myth of Precision Strikes

The American-led war against the Islamic State began in August 2014. …In the effort to expel ISIS from Iraq and Syria, the coalition has conducted more than 27,500 strikes to date [Nov. 2017], deploying everything from Vietnam-era B-52 bombers to modern Predator drones. That overwhelming air power has made it possible for local ground troops to overcome heavy resistance and retake cities throughout the region. “U.S. and coalition forces work very hard to be precise in airstrikes,” Maj. Shane Huff, a spokesman for the Central Command, told us, and as a result “are conducting one of the most precise air campaigns in military history.”

The US military planners describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. Intelligence analysts pass along proposed targets to “targeteers,” who study 3-D computer models as they calibrate the angle of attack. A team of lawyers evaluates the plan, and — if all goes well — the process concludes with a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.

The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.

NY Times reporting…found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history. Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes, people like…remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.

Excerpts from A The Uncounted, New York Times, Nov. 16, 2017

Trapped to Death

By the start of 2017 the Taliban was pushing hard to take Sangin city’s district centre, Afghanistan, a fortified compound which housed the local security and administrative officials, just a few miles from Hamid Gul’s family home. The compound was the only thing stopping the Taliban from claiming the whole district as their own. The US, which had lost at least 70 of its own troops keeping Sangin out of insurgent hands over the years, scrambled to respond with scores of airstrikes.  Hamid was convinced that his family were still safer behind Taliban lines than in Laskhar Gah, one of the Taliban’s prime targets. But on the morning of February 10 2017, he got an unexpected phone call from a neighbour in Sangin: the family’s house had been flattened.  In that one night Hamid Gul lost his 50 year-old mother, Bibi Bakhtawara, six brothers and a sister. All seven children were under 16 years of age. Bibi Rahmania, his niece, also died. She was just two years old.

By the end of those three days, five women and 19 children were dead
Hamid was not the only person given devastating news on that day. On the same night, a few hours later, a second civilian house, just a few miles away from his own, was also hit. The following night a third one was struck.

To this day, there is no consensus about what happened to those three houses and why. What is clear, however, is that by the end of those three days in early February five women and 19 children were dead, among a full toll of 26 civilians, a Bureau investigation has established.

Three local officials interviewed by Bureau reporters on the ground claimed US airstrikes had destroyed the houses and killed their inhabitants. The United Nations (UN) said the same, in its biannual accounting of Afghan civilians killed in the war, released in July 2017, adding that there appeared to have been no fighting in the area at the time, meaning the attacks may have been pre-planned.

A spokesperson for Resolute Support, the US-led Nato mission in Afghanistan, told the Bureau that after four investigations the organisation could not confirm or deny responsibility for killing the civilians, though he pushed back strongly against the UN’s claims that there was no fighting in the villages at the time. Resolute Support has officially concluded the case as “disputed”, one of four categories for recording allegations of civilian casualties. It was used in this case because Resolute Support cannot decide if insurgents or the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were responsible for the casualties, the spokesperson told the Bureau.

The fact that no-one has taken responsibility for the deaths of 24 women and children offers an insight into the lack of accountability of America’s longest-running conflict, which it now fights largely from the air under opaque rules of engagement against 20-odd armed groups.

Excerpts from  Caught in the crossfire
Civilians are bearing the brunt of conflict in Afghanistan, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Sept. 30, 2017

Destroying ISIS Cash: death toll

In an extremely unusual airstrike, the U.S. dropped bombs on January 10, 2016 in central Mosul, Iraq, destroying a building containing huge amounts of cash ISIS was using to pay its troops and for ongoing operations, two U.S. defense officials told CNN.  The officials could not say exactly how much money was there or in what currency, but one described it as “millions.”Two 2,000-pound bombs destroyed the site quickly. But the longstanding impact may be even more significant. The officials said the U.S. plans to strike more financial targets like this one to take away ISIS’s ability to function as a state-like entity.  This is a similar expansion to the target list as happened several weeks ago, when U.S. warplanes began hitting ISIS oil trucks…U.S. aircraft and drones watched the site for days trying to determine when the fewest number of civilians would be in the area.  Because civilians were nearby during the daylight hours, and ISIS personnel were working there at night, the decision was made to strike at dawn on Sunday.

U.S. commanders had been willing to consider up to 50 civilian casualties from the airstrike due to the importance of the target. But the initial post-attack assessment indicated that perhaps five to seven people were killed.  In recent weeks, the U.S. has said it will assess all targets on a case-by-case basis and may be more willing to tolerate civilians casualties for more significant targets.

Excerpts from U.S. bombs ‘millions’ in ISIS currency holdings, CNN, January 11, 2016

UN as a Lost Cause in Darfur

[V]illagers in Darfur say their lives can scarcely get any worse if Sudan insists on international peacekeepers leaving their region.  UNAMID, the joint United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, was deployed seven years ago to stem violence against civilians during a civil war in which the Sudanese government was accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.  With fighting still dragging on, UNAMID’s shortcomings have drawn criticism from the very people it was deployed to protect and Sudan has told it to devise an exit strategy.

Khartoum’s move elicited indifference rather than opposition in northern Darfur, where much of the violence now rages.  “We won’t be affected if UNAMID leaves because it doesn’t play a significant role in protecting civilians,” said Mohamed Abdullah, a local civilian. “We only hear about UNAMID submitting reports. We don’t know what they do for us….

“Our lives are very difficult since the war began. We cannot grow crops except in a very small area because rebels and gangs come and loot our fields,” said Mohamed Ismail, a resident.Pointing to nearby mountains, Ismail added: “Just six kilometres from here, rebels and bandits dominate the region.”

The Darfur conflict, which erupted in 2003 when mainly African tribes took up arms against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced over two million, according to the United Nations.

Tabit was under rebel control for eight years of the war, with the government reasserting its authority in 2010.  But much of that authority is nominal, with gunmen stalking dirt roads to attack military and civilian vehicles alike, preventing villagers from travelling even for healthcare….  With officials standing by during the government-organised press trip, it was difficult to speak freely about the alleged rape of 200 women and girls by Sudan’s forces in Tabit, highlighting the hurdles faced by UNAMID investigators.  UNAMID’s conclusion that there was “no evidence” of the rapes triggered an outcry from rights activists. Khartoum had delayed UNAMID’s first visit to the area in early November and denied it permission to visit a second time…

Last month, an internal U.N. review said UNAMID had failed to provide U.N. headquarters with full reports on attacks against civilians and peacekeepers.The review was ordered after media reports alleged that UNAMID had covered up details of deadly attacks to avoid provoking the government.  “UNAMID is something of a lost cause,” said a Sudan analyst with a conflict-monitoring organisation, asking not to be named.

Excerpts, War-weary Darfuris see grim future with or without UN peacekeepers, Reuters, Nov.25. 2014

Explosive Weapons: Deaths and Damages

Data released by Action on Armed on Violence  (AOAV) on May 14, 2014 shows that civilian deaths and injuries in 2013 from explosive weapons have increased by 15%, up from 2012.Civilians bore the brunt of bombings worldwide. AOAV recorded 37,809 deaths and injuries in 2013, 82% of whom were civilians. The trend was even worse when these weapons were used in populated areas. There civilians made up a staggering 93% of casualties.  These stark figures mean that civilian casualties from bombings and shelling worldwide have gone up for a second consecutive year.  This data is captured in AOAV’s latest report, Explosive Events, which analyses the global harm from the use of explosive weapons like missiles, artillery and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

KEY FINDINGS
•Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Lebanon were the most affected countries in the world. More than a third of the world’s civilian casualties from explosive weapons were recorded in Iraq, where AOAV saw a dramatic escalation in bombings with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
•Seventy-one percent (71%) of civilian casualties from explosive weapons worldwide were caused by IEDs like car bombs and roadside bombs.
•Civilian casualties in Iraq increased by 91% from 2012, with more than 12,000 deaths and injuries recorded in the country in 2013.
•Market places were bombed in 15 countries and territories, causing 3,608 civilian casualties.
•Ballistic missiles, used only in Syria, caused an average of 49 civilian casualties per incident, the highest for any explosive weapon type.

Naming the Dead in the CIA Drone War

Naming the Dead is a project run by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit research organisation based in London. The project aims to identify those killed in CIA drone strikes on Pakistan.  Over the past nine years, the tribal region of Pakistan’s north west has been hit by hundreds of drone attacks as the CIA has sought to stamp out al Qaeda fighters and the militant groups that have given them shelter.  Missiles launched from these high-tech, unmanned aircraft have hit homes, cars, schools, shops and gatherings. At least 2,500 people have been killed, according to data already collected by the Bureau as part of our wider Covert Drone War research.

Senior US officials have described drones as highly precise weapons that target and kill enemies of the US. John Brennan, who oversaw the development of the drone campaign and is now director of the CIA, has called drone technology an ‘essential tool’ for its ‘surgical precision – the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumour called an al Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it.’

Those killed by drones include high-ranking militant leaders – figures such as Abu Yahya al Libi, al Qaeda’s feared second-in-command, or Baitullah Mehsud, commander of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP).  But according to credible media reports analysed by the Bureau, the dead also include at least 400 civilians. Some were unlucky enough to be nearby when militants were attacked. Others were killed alongside their husbands or fathers, who were believed to be militants. Still others were mistaken for terrorists by drone operators sitting thousands of miles away.

In most cases, there is little information available about who the drones are really killing. Most of the dead – an estimated four-fifths of those killed – are believed to be militants. But their deaths are typically reported as a number – their names, origins and livelihoods remain a mystery.  For so many people to die in obscurity, unnamed and unacknowledged, is a tragedy. But it is a further tragedy that the public, and even policy makers, are unable to properly test whether drones are ‘highly precise weapons’ when so little is known about who is actually dying.

Through Naming the Dead, the Bureau aims to increase the transparency around this conflict and inform the public debate. Initially this project will record all names published in open-source material – in credible reports by journalists, in legal documents presented in court, in academic studies and in field investigations carried out by human rights groups.  In the future, the Bureau aims to identify more of the dead on a regular basis, and to uncover more details of those who have been killed. Where possible we will provide further identification – where they were killed, and their occupations, full names and ages. In the remote areas of Pakistan where drone strikes take place, official identification is rare. Few people possess identification cards, birth certificates, or even documents recording their relatives’ deaths. But wherever possible this project will provide documentation recording a person’s death.

Photographs of the destruction of a particular site are included in the database. Affidavits, photos, hospital records, student identification and transcripts of interviews with researchers are all provided when available. Over time, the Bureau aims to build on such currently scarce records in an attempt to properly scrutinise the little that is reported, and the claims being made – on all sides.

Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Secret Info: 94 kids killed by US drones in Pakistan

A secret document obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism  reveals for the first time the Pakistan government’s internal assessment of dozens of drone strikes, and shows scores of civilian casualties.  The United States has consistently claimed only a tiny number of non-combatants have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan – despite research by the Bureau and others suggesting that over 400 civilians may have died in the nine-year campaign.

The internal document shows Pakistani officials too found that CIA drone strikes were killing a significant number of civilians – and have been aware of those deaths for many years.  Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes outlined in the document, at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated to be civilian victims, 94 of those are said to be children.

The confidential 12-page summary paper, titled Details of Attacks by Nato Forces/Predators in FATA was prepared by government officials in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  Based on confidential reports from a network of government agents in the field, it outlines 75 separate CIA drone strikes between 2006 and late 2009 and provides details of casualties in many of the attacks. Five attacks alleged to be carried out by Nato or other unspecified forces are also listed.

The numbers recorded are much higher than those provided by the US administration, which continues to insist that no more than 50 to 60 ‘non-combatants’ have been killed by the CIA across the entire nine years of Pakistan bombings. New CIA director John Brennan has described claims to the contrary as ‘intentional misrepresentations‘.  The document shows that during the 2006-09 period covered, when Pakistan’s government and military were privately supporting the CIA’s campaign, officials had extensive internal knowledge of high civilian casualties.

Excerpt, Chris Woods, Exclusive: Leaked Pakistani report confirms high civilian death toll in CIA drone strikes, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, July 22, 2013

Operation Nomad Shadow: Spying Drones

Operation Nomad Shadow, a …[classified but widely advertised] U.S. military surveillance program. Since November 2011, the U.S. Air Force has been flying unarmed drones from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey…. The camera-equipped Predators hover above the rugged border with Iraq and beam high-resolution imagery to the Turkish armed forces, helping them pursue PKK rebels as they slip back and forth across the mountains.

As the Obama administration dials back the number of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. military is shifting its huge fleet of unmanned aircraft to other hot spots around the world. This next phase of drone warfare is focused more on spying than killing and will extend the Pentagon’s robust surveillance networks far beyond traditional, declared combat zones.

Over the past decade, the Pentagon has amassed more than 400 Predators, Reapers, Hunters, Gray Eagles and other high-altitude drones…Some of the unmanned aircraft will return home with U.S. troops when they leave Afghanistan. But many of the drones will redeploy to fresh frontiers, where they will spy on a melange of armed groups, drug runners, pirates and other targets…

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the U.S. Air Force has drone hubs in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to conduct reconnaissance over the Persian Gulf. Twice since November, Iran has scrambled fighter jets to approach or fire on U.S. Predator drones that edged close to Iranian airspace.

In Africa, the U.S. Air Force began flying unarmed drones over the Sahara five months ago to track al-Qaeda fighters and rebels in northern Mali. The Pentagon has also set up drone bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Seychelles. Even so, the commander of U.S. forces in Africa told Congress in February that he needed a 15-fold increase in surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering on the continent.  In an April speech, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said the Pentagon is planning for the first time to send Reaper drones — a bigger, faster version of the Predator — to parts of Asia other than Afghanistan. He did not give details. A Defense Department spokeswoman said the military “hasn’t made any final decisions yet” but is “committed to increasing” its surveillance in Asia and the Pacific.

One possible destination for more U.S. drones is Colombia. Last year, Colombian armed forces killed 32…[drug traffickers]  after the U.S. military helped pinpoint the targets’ whereabouts with manned surveillance aircraft and other equipment, according to Jose A. Ruiz, a Southern Command spokesman.The U.S. military has occasionally operated small drones — four-foot-long ScanEagles, which are launched by a catapult — in Colombia.

In the fall of 2011, four disassembled Predator drones arrived in crates at Incirlik Air Base in… [Turkey], a joint U.S.-Turkish military installation.The drones came from Iraq, where for the previous four years they had been devoted to surveilling that country’s northern mountains. Along with manned U.S. aircraft, the Predators tracked the movements of PKK fighters, sharing video feeds and other intelligence with the Turkish armed forces.  The Kurdish group has long fought to create a [state]…, launching cross-border attacks from its hideouts in northern Iraq….

In December 2011, Turkish jets bombed a caravan of suspected PKK fighters crossing from Iraq into Turkey, killing 34 people. The victims were smugglers, however, not terrorists — a blunder that ignited protests across Turkey.  The Wall Street Journal reported last year that American drone operators had alerted the Turkish military after a Predator spotted the suspicious caravan…

[In 2013 the PKK claimed to have shot down an American drone patrolling the Turkey/Iraq border as part of Operation Nomad Shadow.]

Excerpts, By Craig Whitlock, U.S. military drone surveillance is expanding to hot spots beyond declared combat zones, Washington Post, July 20, 2013

Civilian Deaths from Drone Strikes

Despite the touted precision of drone strikes by the Obama Administration, drones were found to be statistically more likely to cause civilian casualties than manned aircraft in Afghanistan, said Center for Civilians in Conflict today.  The finding appeared in an article for PRISM, a journal of the Center for Complex Operations by Dr. Larry Lewis, a CNA analyst advising the US military, and Sarah Holewinski, executive director for Center for Civilians in Conflict. Based on Dr. Lewis’ analysis of air engagements from mid-2010 through mid-2011, strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones were approximately ten times more likely to cause casualties than strikes by manned aircraft.

The data was taken when air engagements during the war in Afghanistan were at their peak and following General McChrystal’s 2009 push to reduce civilian casualties. Drone operators and analysts had limited training on minimizing civilian harm compared to manned aircrews, and faced additional challenges including a limited field of view (the “soda straw” effect) and communications challenges for operators in different locations from the analysts looking at the target.

“We’ve been told over and over that drones by their very nature are better at avoiding civilians, but these findings show that simply isn’t the case,” said Holewinski. “The point is, drones aren’t inherently good or bad for civilians living under them. It all depends on how those drones are used. Without the right inputs and training and directives on civilian protection, drone pilots behind their joysticks have no more advantage in saving civilian lives than any other pilot.”

The study found that in Afghanistan initial battle damage assessments following air strikes are not always accurate with regard to what civilian harm had been caused. On the ground follow-up in some instances contradicted official US assessments of zero civilian casualties. In remote drone operations, such as those found in Pakistan and Yemen, such assessment challenges are compounded by the absence of troops on the ground to investigate any incident and a lack of transparency about the operations generally. According to the Center, this makes claims by the US government on minimum civilian harm from drone strikes outside of Afghanistan questionable.

Excerpt from Press Release Drones More Likely to Harm Civilians than Manned Aircraft in Afghanistan, Center for Civilians in Conflict, July 2, 2013

Hunter and Killer Drones

The Pentagon is discussing the possibility of replacing human drone operators with computer algorithms, especially for ‘signature strikes‘ where unknown targets are killed simply because they meet certain criteria. So what characteristics define an ‘enemy combatant’ and where are they outlined in law?

Drone strikes and targeted killings have become the weapon of choice for the Obama administration in their ongoing war against terrorists. But what impact is this technology having, not only on those who are the targets (both intended and unintended), but on the way we are likely to wage war in the future?

John Sifton is the advocacy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, and says that while drones are currently controlled remotely by trained military personnel, there are already fears that the roving killing machines could be automated in the future.  ‘One of the biggest concerns human rights groups have right now is the notion of a signature strike,’ he says. ‘[This is] the notion that you could make a decision about a target based on its appearance. Say—this man has a Kalashnikov, he’s walking on the side of the road, he is near a military base. He’s a combatant, let’s kill him. That decision is made by a human right now, but the notion that you could write an algorithm for that and then program it into a drone… sounds science fiction but is in fact what the Pentagon is already thinking about. There are already discussions about this, autonomous weapons systems.’‘That is to human rights groups the most terrifying spectre that is currently presented by the drones.’

Sarah Knuckey is the director of the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at New York University Law School and an advisor to the UN. She says the way that drones are used to conduct warfare is stretching the limits of previous international conventions and is likely to require new rules of engagement to be drawn up…The rules of warfare built up after World War II to protect civilians are already hopelessly outdated, she says. The notion of border sovereignty has already been trashed by years of drone strikes, which she estimates have targeted upwards of 3,000 individuals, with reports of between 400 and 800 civilian casualties.

Excerpt from Annabelle Quince, Future of drone strikes could see execution by algorithm, May 21, 2013

What is the High Energy Liquid Laser?

Enemy surface-to-air threats to manned and unmanned aircraft have become increasingly sophisticated, creating a need for rapid and effective response to this growing category of threats. High power lasers can provide a solution to this challenge, as they harness the speed and power of light to counter multiple threats. Laser weapon systems provide additional capability for offensive missions as well—adding precise targeting with low probability of collateral damage. For consideration as a weapon system on today’s air assets though, these laser weapon systems must be lighter and more compact than the state-of-the-art has produced.

The goal of the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) program is to develop a 150 kilowatt (kW) laser weapon system that is ten times smaller and lighter than current lasers of similar power, enabling integration onto tactical aircraft to defend against and defeat ground threats. With a weight goal of less than five kilograms per kilowatt, and volume of three cubic meters for the laser system, HELLADS seeks to enable high-energy lasers to be integrated onto tactical aircraft, significantly increasing engagement ranges compared to ground-based systems.

The program has completed laboratory testing of a fundamental building block for HELLADS, a single laser module that successfully demonstrated the ability to achieve high power and beam quality from a significantly lighter and smaller laser. The program is now in the final development phase where a second laser module will be built and combined with the first module to generate 150 kW of power.

The plan is for the laser to be transported to White Sands Missile Range for ground testing against rockets, mortars, surface-to-air missiles and to conduct simulated air-to-ground offensive missions.

High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS)

Afghanistan: 2012 Report of US Department of Defense

From the Executive summary of 2012 Report

During the period of April 1 to September 30, 2012, the Coalition and our Afghan partners blunted the insurgent summer offensive, continued to transition the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) into security lead, pushed violence out of most populated areas, and coalition member nations signed several international agreements to support the long-term stability and security of Afghanistan…

Despite these and other positive trends during the reporting period, the campaign continued to face challenges, including a rise in insider attacks. The rise in insider attacks has the potential to adversely affect the Coalition’s political landscape, but mitigation policies and a collective ISAF-ANSF approach are helping to reduce risks to coalition personnel, and to sustain confidence in the campaign. The cause of and eventual solution to this joint ISAF and ANSF problem will require continuous assessment; it remains clear that the insider threat is both an enemy tactic and has a cultural component. The many mitigation policies recently put in place will require additional time to assess their effects, although the number of insider attacks has dropped off sharply from the peak in August.

The insurgency’s safe havens in Pakistan, the limited institutional capacity of the Afghan  government, and endemic corruption remain the greatest risks to long-term stability and sustainable security in Afghanistan. The Taliban-led insurgency and its al-Qaida affiliates still operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan, however, the insurgency and al-Qaida continue to face U.S. counterterrorism pressure within the safe havens. U.S. relations with Pakistan have begun to improve following the re-opening of Pakistani Ground Lines of Communication (GLOCs), and  there has been nascent improvement with respect to cross-border cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Although the insurgency’s kinetic capabilities have declined from their peak in 2010, the insurgents remain resilient and determined, and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and  influence through continued assassinations, intimidation, high-profile attacks, and the  emplacement of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Widespread corruption continues to limit  the effectiveness and legitimacy of the Afghan government. Despite these challenges, the  Coalition continued to make measured progress toward achieving its strategic goals during the  reporting period.

Excerpt from Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, (DOD,  Dec. 2012)

How the UN failed Sri Lanka Civilians

Between August 2008 and May 2009, as the war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) entered its final stages, an estimated 360,000 or more civilians were crowded into an ever smaller part of ‘the Wanni’ area of Northern Sri Lanka where many died as a result of sustained artillery shelling, illness and starvation. Almost 280,000 survivors were forcibly interned in military-run camps outside the area of conflict. The UN responded mainly through its humanitarian assistance and development frameworks; its political and human rights roles were limited. Despite the gravity of events, UN Member States did not formally consider the situation until the war ended. During the final stages, and the aftermath from May 2009 onward, the UN provided assistance to IDPs in internment camps, even as IDP rights and UN principles of intervention were not respected. Most IDPs were eventually allowed to return home. (Annex III provides a detailed account of events and UN actions)

In April 2011, the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts (POE) on accountability in Sri Lanka issued a report recommending a review of the UN’s own actions. In a letter to the Secretary-General, the POE described UN action as a low point for the organization as a whole, and said that some UN agencies and individuals had failed in their mandates and did not uphold the UN’s founding principles. Pursuant to the POE’s recommendation, the Secretary-General established an “Internal Review Panel on UN action in Sri Lanka” (the Panel), led by Charles Petrie, tasked with providing an assessment of UN action during the final stages of the conflict and its aftermath, identifying institutional and structural strengths and weaknesses, and making recommendations to ensure a more effective UN response in similar situations. The Panel began work in late April 2012 and submitted the present report at the end of September.

For the UN, the last phase of the conflict in Sri Lanka presented a major challenge. The UN struggled to exert influence on the Government which, with the effective acquiescence of a post-9/11 world order, was determined to defeat militarily an organization designated as terrorist. Some have argued that many deaths could have been averted had the Security Council and the Secretariat, backed by the UN country team (UNCT), spoken out loudly early on, notably by publicizing the casualty numbers. Others say that the question is less whether the UN should assume responsibility for the tragedy, but more whether it did everything it could to assist the victims.

The Panel’s conclusion is that events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond to early warning and the evolving events during the final stages of the conflict and its aftermath, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of civilians and in contradiction with the principles and responsibilities adopted by Member States and the Secretariat, agencies and programs.

Decision-making across the UN was dominated by a culture of trade-offs – from the ground to UN headquarters (UNHQ). Options for action were seen less as responsibilities and more in terms of dilemmas. Choosing not to speak up about Government and LTTE broken commitments and violations of international law was seen as the only way to increase UN humanitarian access. Choosing to focus Security Council briefings on the humanitarian situation rather than the causes of the crisis and the obligations of the parties to the conflict was seen as essential to facilitate Secretariat engagement with Member States. There was a sustained and institutionalized reluctance among UNCT actors to stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist. In Colombo, many senior UN staff simply did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility; and agency and department heads at UNHQ were not instructing their staff in Sri Lanka otherwise.

The UN’s failure to adequately counter the Government’s under-estimation of population numbers in the Wanni, the failure to adequately confront the Government on its obstructions to humanitarian assistance, the unwillingness of the UN in UNHQ and Colombo to address Government responsibility for attacks that were killing civilians, and the tone and content of UN communications with the Government and Member States on these issues, contributed to the unfolding of dramatic events.

UNHQ engagement with Member States regarding Sri Lanka was ineffective and heavily influenced by what UNHQ perceived Member States wanted to hear, rather than by what States needed to know if they were to respond. Reflection on Sri Lanka by UNHQ and States at the UN was conducted on the basis of a mosaic of considerations among which the grave situation of civilians in Sri Lanka competed with extraneous factors such as inconclusive discussions on the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ and Security Council ambivalence on its role in such situations. In the absence of clear Security Council support, the UN’s actions lacked adequate purpose and direction amid the many competing factors.

Most crucially, the UN did not use all the political and advocacy tools at its disposal. In particular, it did not keep Member States or the public fully informed. Nor did it warn the Sri Lankan Government or the LTTE of the consequences of their actions, including their responsibility for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Systemic failure in Sri Lanka can be distilled into the following:

(i) a UN system that lacked an adequate and shared sense of responsibility for human rights violations;

(ii)  an incoherent internal UN crisis-management structure which failed to conceive and execute a coherent strategy in response to early warnings and subsequent human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL) violations against civilians, and which did not exercise sufficient oversight for UN action in the field;

(iii)  senior staff on the ground who lacked the necessary armed conflict, political and IHL experience to deal with the challenge presented by Sri Lanka, and who were given insufficient support;

(iv) the ineffective dispersal of coordination of UN action and monitoring of human rights and IHL violations across several different UNHQ entities in Geneva and New York with overlapping mandates;

(v) inadequate political support from Member States and inadequate efforts by the Secretariat to build such support;

and (vi) a framework for Member State engagement with human rights and IHL protection crises that is outdated and often unworkable.

Overview of Recommendations

The Panel’s Terms of Reference imply that it should gather lessons from an historical event that has passed. However, the magnitude of the violence in the Wanni, following decades of strife and injustice, continue to be felt by Sri Lanka’s communities. Sri Lanka’s peaceful and stable progress will require a process of accountability and reconciliation and a political solution to the long-standing grievances of all communities, as well as a response to ongoing and new concerns, and prevention and protection in the future. Working closely with the Government of Sri Lanka, the UN needs to take on this further challenge.

This report’s recommendations for the UN system are designed to be politically feasible and resource neutral, while encouraging profound changes in the institution’s approach to similar situations in the future. The broad lines of the recommendations include the need to:

Restate the vision of the UN: The Secretary-General should restate a vision of the UN’s most fundamental responsibilities to include the defence of human rights. The vision should help frame strategy and policy responses by senior levels of the organization to situations of massive human rights violations.

Embed a UN human rights perspective into UN strategies: The UNHQ needs stronger capacity to include human rights, IHL and international criminal law perspectives in overall analysis and strategy for any situation. It should also have stronger capacity to build political support from Member States for addressing grave concerns.

Strengthen the management of the UN’s crisis response: To ensure coherent UNHQ oversight for UN strategy and action, the Secretary-General should strengthen management of the whole-of-UN response to situations of massive human rights violations.

Promote accountability and responsibility: All staff should be fully informed of, and have easy access to, procedures under which allegations of serious misconduct by staff can be reported and promptly investigated.

Improve UN engagement with Member States and building of political support: For every such crisis, the Secretary-General must have an array of options that will permit him to fully inform Member States and suggest appropriate actions.

Better address violations of privileges and immunities: When a Member State engages in sustained actions against UN personnel and institutions, including violations of UN privileges and immunities, the Secretary-General should review options for response by the Secretariat and invite Member States to consider what action they could also take.

Coming at the beginning of his second term, the Secretary-General’s decision to commission an internal review is an extremely courageous step. The Panel believes that the report’s findings and recommendations provide an urgent and compelling platform for action. The UN’s failure to adequately respond to the events in Sri Lanka should not happen again. When confronted by similar situations, the UN should be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities. In support of this effort, the Panel strongly urges that its report be made public.

This executive summary was obtained fromhttp://www.innercitypress.com/

Final redacted version of UN report

BBC initial report (unfortunately does not contain the leaked version as a pdf)

The Covert War in Sudan: Yarmouk Weapons Factory

Satellite images of the aftermath of an explosion at a Sudanese weapons factory this past week suggest the site was hit in an air strike, a US monitoring group said Saturday (Oct. 27, 2012) The Sudanese government has accused Israel of bombing its Yarmouk military complex in Khartoum, killing two people and leaving the factory in ruins.  The images released by the Satellite Sentinel Project to the Associated Press on Saturday showed six 52-foot wide craters near the epicenter of Wednesday’s explosion at the compound.  Military experts consulted by the project found the craters to be “consistent with large impact craters created by air-delivered munitions”, Satellite Sentinel Project spokesman Jonathan Hutson said.  The target may have been around 40 shipping containers seen at the site in earlier images. The group said the craters center on the area where the containers had been stacked.

Israeli officials have neither confirmed nor denied striking the site. Instead, they accused Sudan of playing a role in an Iranian-backed network of arms shipments to Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel believes Sudan is a key transit point in the circuitous route that weapons take to the Islamic militant groups in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.  Sudan was a major hub for al-Qaida militants and remains a transit for weapon smugglers and African migrant traffickers. Israeli officials believe arms that originate in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas go through Sudan before crossing Egypt’s lawless Sinai desert and into Gaza through underground tunnels.

The Satellite Sentinel Project is a partnership between the Enough Project, a Washington-based anti-genocide advocacy group and DigitalGlobe, which operates three commercial satellites and provides geospatial analysis.  The project was founded last year with support from actor George Clooney, and in the past has used satellite images to monitor the destruction of villages by Sudanese troops in the country’s multiple war zones.

Opened in 1996, Yarmouk is one of two known state-owned weapons manufacturing plants in the Sudanese capital. Sudan prided itself in having a way to produce its own ammunition and weapons despite United Nations and US sanctions.  The satellite images indicate that the Yarmouk facility includes an oil storage facility, a military depot and an ammunition plant.

The monitoring group said the images indicate that the blast “destroyed two buildings and heavily damaged at least 21 others”, adding that there was no indication of fire damage at the fuel depot inside the military complex.  The group said it could not be certain the containers, seen in images taken 12 October, were still there when explosion took place. But the effects of the blast suggested a “highly volatile cargo” was at the epicenter of the explosion.  “If the explosions resulted from a rocket or missile attack against material stored in the shipping containers, then it was an effective surgical strike that totally destroyed any container” that was at the location, the project said.  Yarmouk is located in a densely populated residential area of the city approximately 11km southwest of the Khartoum international airport.  Wednesday’s explosion sent exploding ammunition flying into homes in the neighborhood adjacent to the factory, causing panic among residents. Sudanese officials said some people suffered from smoke inhalation.  A man who lives near the factory said that from inside their house, he and his brother heard a load roar of what they believed was a plane just before the boom of the explosion sounded from the factory.

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s explosion, Sudanese officials said the government has the right to respond to what the information minister said was a “flagrant attack” by Israel on Sudan’s sovereignty and right to strengthen its military capabilities.  In a Friday speech marking Eid al Adha, Islam’s biggest holiday, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir called Israel “short-sighted,” according to comments published by the Egyptian state-owned paper Al Ahram. The president likened the incident to the 1998 bombing by American cruise missiles of a Khartoum pharmaceutical factory suspected of links to al-Qaida.

Some Israeli commentators suggested that if Israel did indeed carry out an airstrike causing Wednesday’s blast, it might have been a trial run of sorts for an operation in Iran. Both countries are roughly 1,000 miles (1,600km) away from Israel, and an air operation would require careful planning and in-flight refueling.

Satellite pictures suggest Sudanese weapons factory hit by air strike, Associated Press, Oct. 27, 2012

The Yemen Drone War

A U.S.-backed military onslaught may have driven Islamist militants from towns in Yemen they seized last year, but many have regrouped into “sleeper cells” threatening anew the areas they vacated, security officials and analysts say.  The resilience of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), despite increased U.S. drone strikes to eliminate militants, is worrying for top oil exporter Saudi Arabia next door and the security of major shipping lanes in the seas off Yemen.

When a nationwide uprising against autocratic rule erupted last year, tying up security forces and causing a power vacuum, militants charged into the major south Yemen towns of Zinjibar, Jaar and Shuqra and set up Islamic “emirates”.  To broad their appeal, the militants renamed themselves Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), appointed spokesmen to deal with the media and put up signposts and flags. Poverty, unemployment and alienation from a central government seen as aloof and corrupt spurred some young men to join the cause.  Residents said the militants included Saudis, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Chechens and Somalis, hinting at the international scope of the jihadi threat to Saudi and Western interests.

After President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally bowed to popular revolt and stepped down in February, the U.S.-backed Yemeni military swept in and wrested back southern towns from the militants, sometimes after heavy fighting.  But the south, where resentment of tribal domination from the north has long run high and a separatist movement revived in 2007, has since become a more dangerous place, residents say…A rash of deadly violence in the major southern province of Abyan ensued, indicating that Ansar militants were still lurking in the vicinity of the towns they had once controlled.  Nine jihadis including the head of the Jaar “emirate” Nader al-Shaddadi were killed by a U.S. drone missile fired into a farmhouse where they were hiding just outside town on October 19.  Five of the militants were teenagers from Jaar itself who had quietly moved into the farmhouse as a typical sleeper cell, a Yemeni security source told Reuters.

The next day, militants ambushed an army base in Shuqra, killing 16 soldiers, after apparently slipping out of lairs in the barren rugged mountains rearing up above the town.  “Most people are concerned about sleeper cells. We’re aware of it and people have started to be more careful,” said Hasan Ali Hasan, 35, from the Mansoura district of Aden where security forces raided some suspected “safe houses” this month.

In June, the commander of the army’s southern division, a southerner who replaced a Saleh ally from north Yemen in March, was killed by a car bomb in a suburb of Aden, the sprawling main city and port in the south. Security forces subsequently uncovered numerous caches of suicide belts in the area.  There have been dozens of other attacks and kidnappings by undercover militants targeting security and military officials.

Yemeni security sources said the two leading figures in Ansar al-Sharia, Nader al-Shaddadi and Galal Bil-Eidy, are believed to be sheltering in mountains around Shuqra where they form the link between urban cells in Aden and AQAP commanders like Nasser al-Wuhayshi tucked away in mountains to the north.  They said such regional militant chieftains had activated sleeper cells to carry out assassinations of security officials in Aden and attacks like the one in Shuqra.

Formed in 2009, AQAP has carved out a reputation as al Qaeda’s most formidable regional wing with suicide attacks on tourists, diplomats and operations against neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and U.S. targets abroad….

Excerpt, Andrew Hammond, Al Qaeda goes underground in Yemen against U.S.-driven crackdown, Reuters, Oct 23 2012

Covert Operations in Pakistan Yemen and Somalia

United States Air Dominance

The Pentagon is inviting the aerospace industry to help brainstorm the next era in U.S. air- combat superiority after the F-35 and F-22 fighters are retired, decades from now.  Reflecting the rise of drone warfare, an 18-month evaluation will consider both piloted and unmanned aircraft working in tandem with a network of weapons, sensors, electronic warfare and command-and-control capabilities, according to a memo by Frank Kendall, the under secretary of defense for acquisition, obtained by Bloomberg News.  The intent of the “concept definition” initiative is to start preparing the Pentagon for a time when today’s F-22 jets and the new F-35s still being developed reach the end of their service lives. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will sponsor the effort, providing $20 million to $30 million in funds, according to Kendall…

The Pentagon assumes 8,000 hours of flying time for each of the planned 2,443 F-35s over 30 years. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have their own variations of the aircraft, with the last in the fleet to be produced in 2035.

The F-35 program has been subject to criticism for its ballooning cost, which at $395.7 billion is up 70 percent percent from the $233 billion projected when Lockheed Martin won the program from Boeing Co. (BA) in late 2001, after adjusting for inflation.  The plane, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, has been the Pentagon’s only high-performance aircraft in development for a decade.  The Pentagon has spent $67 billion to buy 188 of the supersonic F-22 jets from Lockheed Martin. The military plans to spend an additional $11.7 billion to upgrade the planes, which were conceived during the Cold War as a fighter for the 21st Century.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, is the Pentagon research arm dedicated to maintaining the U.S. military’s technology edge. The agency, which played a role in developing the Internet, displays on its website the slogan, “Creating & Preventing Strategic Surprise.”  Agency spokesman Eric Mazzacone said Darpa “is in the early stages of working” with the Navy and Air Force to develop an implementation plan, including the timing of the competition among contractors.  Kendall said the new competition can help sustain the U.S. defense industry’s expertise in military aviation design, which he called “an important national resource.”  “Our ability to design cutting-edge platforms of this type is already atrophying” and the “potential for viable future competition in this area will shrink or be eliminated” if the Pentagon “doesn’t take action soon,” Kendall said.

Excerpt, By Tony Capaccio, U.S. Launches Air-Combat Brainstorm: What’s After F-35?, Bloomerg Businessweek, Oct. 22, 2012

Drones: the Politics of Fear and Complacency

Excerpt from the Executive Summary Living Under Drones Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan (Stanford and NYU, Sept. 2012)

In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false…

The US publicly describes its drone program in terms of its unprecedented ability to “distinguish …effectively between an al Qaeda terrorist and innocent civilians,” and touts its missile-armed drones as capable of conducting strikes with “astonishing” and “surgical” precision. First, while civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians. In public statements, the US states that there have been“no” or “single digit” civilian casualties.” It is difficult to obtain data on strike casualties because of US efforts to shield the drone program from democratic accountability, compounded by the obstacles to independent investigation of strikes in North Waziristan. The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization.

TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through mid- September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children. TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals….

US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury. Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves….

Publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best. The strikes have certainly killed alleged combatants and disrupted armed actor networks. However, serious concerns about the efficacy and counter-productive nature of drone strikes have been raised. The number of “high-level” targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%. Furthermore, evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks…..

Drone strikes have also soured many Pakistanis on cooperation with the US and undermined US-Pakistani relations. One major study shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy.

Current US targeted killings and drone strike practices undermine respect for the rule of law and international legal protections and may set dangerous precedents. This report casts doubt on the legality of strikes on individuals or groups not linked to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, and who do not pose imminent threats to the US. The US government’s failure to ensure basic transparency and accountability in its targeted killing policies, to provide necessary details about its targeted killing program, or adequately to set out the legal factors involved in decisions to strike hinders necessary democratic debate about a key aspect of US foreign and national security policy. US practices may also facilitate recourse to lethal force around the globe by establishing dangerous precedents for other governments….

In light of these concerns, this report recommends that the US conduct a fundamental re-evaluation of current targeted killing practices, taking into account all available evidence, the concerns of various stakeholders, and the short and long-term costs and benefits. A significant rethinking of current US targeted killing and drone strike policies is long overdue. US policy-makers, and the American public, cannot continue to ignore evidence of the civilian harm and counterproductive impacts of US targeted killings and drone strikes in Pakistan….

The US should fulfill its international obligations with respect to accountability and transparency, and ensure proper democratic debate about key policies. The US should.

–Release the US Department of Justice memoranda outlining the legal basis for US targeted killing in Pakistan;

–Make public critical information concerning US drone strike policies, including as previously and repeatedly requested by various groups and officials: the targeting criteria for so-called “signature” strikes; the mechanisms in place to ensure that targeting complies with international law; whichlaws are being applied; the nature of investigations into civilian deathand injury; and mechanisms in place to track, analyze and publicly recognize civilian casualties;

–Ensure independent investigations into drone strike deaths, consistent with the call made by Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism in August 2012

–In conjunction with robust investigations and, where appropriate,prosecutions, establish compensation programs for civilians harmed by US strikes in Pakistan.

–The US should fulfill its international humanitarian and human rights law obligations with respect to the use of force, including by not using lethal force against individuals who are not members of armed groups with whom the US is in an armed conflict, or otherwise against individuals not posing an imminent threat to life. This includes not double-striking targets as first responders arrive.

–Journalists and media outlets should cease the common practice of referring simply to “militant” deaths, without further explanation. All reporting of government accounts of “militant” deaths should include acknowledgment that the US government counts all adult males killed by strikes as “militants,” absent exonerating evidence. Media accounts relying on anonymous government sources should also highlight the fact of their single source information and of the past record of false government reports

Excerpt from the Executive Summary Living Under Drones Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan (Stanford and NYU, Sept. 2012)
See also http://livingunderdrones.org/

Drones: Rules and Reality

In his most comprehensive public comments yet on the US covert drone war, President Barack Obama has laid out the five rules he says the United States uses to target and kill alleged terrorists – including US citizens.  The president has also warned of the need to avoid a ‘slippery slope’ when fighting terrorism, ‘in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means.’  Obama’s comments were made in an on-camera interview with CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Only once before has the president publicly discussed the US covert drone policy, when he spoke briefly about strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  Now Obama says there are five rules that need to be followed in covert US drone attacks. In his own words:

1 ’It has to be a target that is authorised by our laws.’

2 ’It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative.’

3 ’It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.’

4 ‘We’ve got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties.’

5 ‘That while there is a legal justification for us to try and stop [American citizens] from carrying out plots… they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.’

Obama twice referred to what he claims has been ‘misreporting’ by the media of his drones policy.  Apparently responding to recent allegations that his administration prefers to kill rather than capture suspects, the president said that ‘our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence’ but that it’s sometimes ‘very difficult to capture them.’  CNN’s Yellin did not bring up the issue of civilian casualties – despite CNN itself reporting multiple civilian deaths in a suspected Yemen drone strike just hours earlier. However Obama insisted that ‘we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties, and in fact there are a whole bunch of situations where we will not engage in operations if we think there’s going to be civilian casualties involved.’

Obama also took on the contentious targeted killing of US citizens – the subject of a number of high profile legal cases. Insisting that there was ‘legal justification’ for such killings, the president conceded that ‘as an American citizen, they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.’  The US Department of Justice (DoJ) is presently trying to block publication of administration legal opinions which allegedly provided the justification for the killing of US citizen Anwar al Awlaki and others.  In a recent court submission the DoJ insisted that Obama’s January comments on the covert drone war could not be taken as an admission that it was taking place: ‘Plaintiffs speculate that the president must have been speaking about CIA involvement in lethal operations…. This is insufficient to support a claim of official disclosure.’  With Obama now publicly laying out the ground rules for the covert drone war, the DoJ’s position appears further damaged.

The president also discussed in some detail his moral concerns regarding the campaign, admitting that he ‘struggle[s] with issues of war and peace and fighting terrorism.’  Our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence.’  He said that he and his national security team needed to ‘continually ask questions about “Are we doing the right thing? Are we abiding by the rule of law? Are we abiding by due process?”‘  If that failed to happen, the president warned, there was the risk of a ‘slippery slope… in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means.’  The continuing deaths of civilians – and CIA tactics such as the deliberate targeting of rescuers – have led some to argue that the US is already bending or even breaking those rules.

Chris Woods, Obama’s five rules for covert drone strikes, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Sept. 6, 2012

CIA Operations in Syria: the leaks

The U.S. is ramping up its presence at Syria’s Turkish border, sending more spies and diplomats to help advise the rebel forces in their mismatched fight against the better armed Syrian regime, and to watch for possible al-Qaida infiltration of rebel ranks.  U.S. officials briefed on the plan said the modest surge in U.S. personnel in the past few weeks — estimated at fewer than a dozen people — has helped improve rebels’ political organizing skills as well as their military organization. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the plans publicly.

It’s part of a two-pronged effort by the Obama administration to bolster the rebels militarily without actually contributing weapons to the fight, and politically, to help them stave off internal power challenges by the well-organized and often better-funded hardline Islamic militants who have flowed into the country from Iraq and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region.  The increased intelligence gathered is intended to help the White House decide whether its current policy of providing only non-lethal aid is enough to keep momentum building in the nearly 18-month revolt against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Spokesmen for the Pentagon and White House declined to comment Thursday.

The diplomats and intelligence operatives from the CIA and other agencies stay outside war-torn Syria and meet with rebel leaders to help them organize their ranks, while also studying who makes up those ranks, how they are armed and whom they answer to, the officials say.  Information is also gathered from Syrian defectors and refugees as well as rebel troops, officials say.  “The model is to keep case officers away from conflict, and you collect through local forces,” said former CIA officer Reuel Gerecht, now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based policy group that focuses on terrorism.

The effort is concentrated on the Turkish border instead of the border with Jordan where many Syrian refugees are fleeing, a U.S. official said, because the traffic between Syria and Turkey is still far greater…. Syrian rebels have complained they are outgunned by the Syrian military and must rely on contributions in money and small arms from Gulf countries, and increasingly from hardline Islamic militants, including Iraq’s branch of al-Qaida.

US sends more spies, diplomats to help organize, train and study Syria’s rebel ranks, Associated Press, Sept. 6, 2012

Killing Civilians: the Crazyhorse

On July 12 2007 a US apache helicopter shot several Iraqi civilians in an incident that shocked the world when footage of the event was published by whistleblower website, Wikileaks.  The footage, taken from the helicopter, shows people fleeing for the safety of buildings being pursued, then the buildings they run to blown up. The attack resulted in 12 dead civilians, including a Reuters’ journalist and cameraman.

In ‘Permission to engage’, Al Jazeera tracks down families of the victims and a former US soldier to tell the story behind the Wikileaks ‘Collateral murder’ film.  But the footage leaked to Wikileaks is just one incident of several involving a unit relating to the call sign ‘Crazyhorse’. The particular incident filmed involved Crazyhorse 18. Through cables leaked to Wikileaks as part of its Iraq war logs cache of documents, the Al Jazeera documentary traces several other incidents involving the call sign. Many of these attacks also resulted in civilian deaths, or collateral damage as they are referred to by US army personnel.

Just 4 days after the death of the two Reuters’ journalists, in a neighbouring area of Baghdad, another incident occurred in which 14 civilians were fatally wounded in an operation involving two helicopter gunships responding to call signs ‘Crazyhorse 20’ and ‘Crazyhorse 21.’  In February 2007, two Iraqi insurgents were killed after attempting to surrender to a helicopter gunship. Soldiers aboard ‘Crazyhorse 18’ were given legal advice from a nearby military base: ‘Lawyer states they can not surrender to aircraft and are still valid targets’. The men fled to a nearby shack after Hellfire missiles were fired at their truck. The men were killed minutes later when the shack was destroyed by further missiles.

The pseudonym ‘Crazyhorse’ has its roots in US Army history. An ‘operation crazyhorse’ took place in Vietnam in 1966, after North Vietnamese plans to ambush a US Army foot patrol were intercepted. About 250 US soldiers from two airborne battalions, defeated and killed 500 NVA soldiers in a fierce firefight.  The commander of one of these battalions, Captain Mozey, instructed his men to put ‘Death from above’ cards on every enemy they killed. ‘Death from above’ and ‘crazyhorse’ were both referred to and made famous by the reckless Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in ‘Apocalypse now.’The Al Jazeera documentary talks to people directly affected by the reckless, gung-ho nature of the helicopter pilots of the ‘crazyhorse’ battalion, to produce a moving and personal account of the footage.

Excerpt, Permission to Engage: WikiLeaks collateral murder footage examined, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Aug. 30, 2012

Selling Weapons: US Dominance and Motivations

From 2008 to 2011, the United States and Russia have dominated the arms market in the developing world, with both nations either ranking first or second for each of these four years in the value of arms transfer agreements. From 2008 to 2011, the United States made nearly $113 billion in such agreements, 54.5% of all these agreements (expressed in current dollars). Russia made $31.1 billion, 15% of these agreements. During this same period, collectively, the United States and Russia made 69.5% of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations, ($207.3 billion in current dollars) during this four-year period.

In 2011, the United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements with developing nations with over $56.3 billion or 78.7% of these agreements, an extraordinary increase in market share from 2010, when the United States held a 43.6% market share. In second place was Russia with $4.1 billion or 5.7% of such agreements.

In 2011, the United States ranked first in the value of arms deliveries to developing nations at $10.5 billion, or 37.6% of all such deliveries. Russia ranked second in these deliveries at $7.5 billion or 26.8%.

In worldwide arms transfer agreements in 2011—to both developed and developing nations—the United States dominated, ranking first with $66.3 billion in such agreements or 77.7% of all such agreements. This is the highest single year agreements total in the history of the U.S. arms export program. Russia ranked second in worldwide arms transfer agreements in 2011with $4.8 billion in such global agreements or 5.6%. …..

In 2011, Saudi Arabia ranked first in the value of arms transfer agreements among all developing nations weapons purchasers, concluding $33.7 billion in such agreements. The Saudis concluded $33.4 billion of these agreements with the United States (99%). India ranked second with $6.9 billion in such agreements. The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E) ranked third with $4.5 billion…..

Whereas the principal motivation for arms sales by key foreign suppliers in earlier years might have been to support a foreign policy objective, today that motivation may be based as much, if not more, on economic considerations as those of foreign or national security policy.

Excerpt from, Richard F. Grimmett and Paul K. Kerr,  Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2004-2011, (pdf)-

Mini Bombs: the CLAW

Textron Defense Systems, announced  that it has entered into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Program Executive Office (PEO) Fixed Wing for development of standoff precision guided munition capability. Initial activities will focus on Textron Defense Systems’ Guided Clean Area Weapon (G-CLAW), a cost-effective, lightweight, guided precision unitary weapon providing anti-personnel and anti-material capabilities, as well as features for low collateral damage and hazardous unexploded ordnance (UXO) prevention.

Under the CRADA, the organizations intend to integrate the G-CLAW into PEO Fixed Wing’s common launch tube dispenser and complete the required testing to secure flight and weapons safety certifications. From there, Textron Defense Systems and USSOCOM will conduct inert and live-fire demonstrations of precision unitary munition delivery from a tactical carrier aircraft such as the MC-130W Dragon Spear. Integration activities will culminate in an end-to-end, live-fire demonstration.

Our G-CLAW allows users to shape the attack over a broad area, and to achieve precision effects using GPS targeting and a powerful warhead,” says Senior Vice President and General Manager Ellen Lord of Textron Defense Systems. “Further, it incorporates all of the safety features we’ve carefully designed, developed, tested and demonstrated to prevent UXO. Integrating this unitary system into the USSOCOM common launch tube could bring G-CLAW capabilities and performance to multiple new aircraft platforms for the gamut of irregular warfare missions.”

Textron Defense Systems’ weapons incorporate multiple, redundant safety features, including self-destruct and self-neutralization mechanisms, to eradicate the threat of UXO. The G-CLAW is designed for flexible integration into tactical munitions dispensers, as well as from unmanned aircraft platforms.

Textron Defense Systems and USSOCOM Enter CRADA for Standoff Precision Guided Munitions, Globe Newswire, Aug. 27, 2012

Kamikaze Drones: Shortening the Kill Chain

The 2-foot-long Switchblade drone [unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)] is so named because its wings fold into the fuselage for transport and spring out after launch. It is designed to fit into a soldier’s rucksack and is fired from a mortar-like tube. Once airborne, it begins sending back live video and GPS coordinates to a hand-held control set clutched by the soldier who launched it.  When soldiers identify and lock on a target, they send a command for the drone to nose-dive into it and detonate on impact. Because of the way it operates, the Switchblade has been dubbed the “kamikaze drone.”

The Obama administration, notably the CIA, has long been lambasted by critics for its use of combat drones and carelessly killing civilians in targeted strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. In 2010, a United Nations official said the CIA in Pakistan had made the United States “the most prolific user of targeted killings” in the world.

The Switchblade drone appears to be an improvement as an alternative to traditional drone strikes, in terms of minimizing civilian harm, but it also raises new concerns, said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School.  She pointed out that when a drone strike is being considered there are teams of lawyers, analysts and military personnel looking at the data to determine whether lethal force is necessary. But the Switchblade could shorten that “kill chain.”  “It delegates full responsibility to a lower-level soldier on the ground,” she said. “That delegation is worrisome. It’s a situation that could end up in more mistakes being made.”  Arms-control advocates also have concerns. As these small robotic weapons proliferate, they worry about what could happen if the drones end up in the hands of terrorists or other hostile forces.

The Switchblade “is symptomatic of a larger problem that U.S. military and aerospace companies are generating, which is producing various more exotic designs,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn. “This technology is not always going to be in the sole possession of the U.S. and its allies. We need to think about the rules of the road for when and how these should be used so we can mitigate against unintended consequences.”

The Switchblade is assembled in Simi Valley by AeroVironment Inc., the Pentagon’s top supplier of small drones, which include the Raven, Wasp and Puma. More than 50 Switchblades will be sent to the war zone in Afghanistan this summer under a $10.1-million contract, which also includes the cost of repairs, spare parts, training and other expenses. Officials would not provide details about where the weapons would be used, how many were ordered and precisely when they would be deployed.  AeroVironment, based in Monrovia, developed the weapon on its own, thinking the military could use a lethal drone that could be made cheaply and deployed quickly by soldiers in the field, said company spokesman Steven Gitlin.

“It’s not inexpensive to task an Apache helicopter or F-16 fighter jet from a base to take out an [improvised explosive device] team when you consider fuel, people, logistics support, etc.,” he said.

About a dozen Switchblades were tested last year by special operations units in Afghanistan, according to Army officials, who said the drone proved effective.  The Army is considering buying $100 million worth of the drones in a few years under a program called the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System, Nichols said. The Air Force and the Marine Corps have also expressed interest in the technology.

AeroVironment is not the only company pursuing small, lethal drones. Textron Defense Systems is also working on a small kamikaze-style drone. Named the BattleHawk Squad-Level Loitering Munition, the drone is being tested at an Army facility in New Mexico.

Excerpts, W.J. Hennigan, Pentagon to soon deploy pint-sized but lethal Switchblade drones, LA Times, June 11, 2012

International Law-Making by Tacit Consent: Drone Killings

When Thomas de Maizière, the German defense minister, told a gathering of army reservists last month that he considered the U.S. strategy of using drones for targeted killings a “strategic mistake,” his remarks received almost no coverage.  Only the online news edition of the German public television broadcaster ARD carried the story.  According to their reporter, Mr. de Maizière said he thought it was unwise to have U.S. commanders direct such attacks from their base in the United States.  Repeated requests to the reservists’ association for a full transcript of the speech went unanswered. Nor did the Defense Ministry publish the remarks.  Mr. de Maizière is not the only politician in Europe to feel uneasy with the United States’ frequent use of unmanned drones to target what it says are terrorism suspects in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. But many are reluctant to speak out about their doubts.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel; the E.U. foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton; and the new French president, François Hollande, are among the many officials unwilling to publicly criticize the practice of remote control, targeted killings….Even when several German nationals — accused of being militants who had undergone training in terrorist camps in Pakistan — were killed in a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan in 2010, the German government played down the incident.  In an official reply to queries by opposition parties in the German Parliament, the government said on nearly every count that either it had no reliable information or that the information it did have was confidential.

In contrast, the Obama administration has had to start explaining the issue of drone attacks as human rights organizations, security experts and the military have begun asking the White House to justify their legality. John O. Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism chief, gave a major speech on the issue in April. He said that the targeted attacks did not breach international law because the United States has been acting in self-defense since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.  Mr. Brennan added that the White House was doing everything possible to balance security and transparency.

Legal experts say, however, that most of the targeted killings are carried out by the C.I.A. The agency is not subject to the same transparency or accountability as the military would be.  “The laws of war do not prohibit intelligence agencies from taking part in combat operations,” said James Ross, legal adviser to Human Rights Watch. “But states are obligated to investigate credible allegations of war crimes and actually provide redress for victims of unlawful attacks, and that is difficult in the case of intelligence agencies.”

Apart from the legal issues, the Obama administration has also been accused of leaking details from secret drone attacks to reap political mileage during the presidential election campaign.  Republicans sharply criticized the White House’s announcement last week that Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, had been killed during a drone attack in Pakistan.

Analysts suggest that European governments prefer to turn a blind eye to the drone attacks because they see the Islamist militants targeted by the United States as a danger to Europe, too. Having this threat eliminated outweighs what qualms they may have about the method employed.  “E.U. countries have their own interests in tacitly condoning these tactics,” said Nathalie Van Raemdonck, a guest researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, an independent research center in Rome. “Since they are not involved in any such operations, they cannot be accused of playing any role in targeted killings. The Europeans are content with letting the U.S. do their dirty work.”

European governments, however, are not united on this issue. Britain has armed drones in Afghanistan, and other European countries also employ them for surveillance purposes so the issue of targeted killings does not directly concern them. Government officials point to this to explain their silence.  Analysts say this approach is short-sighted. The United States intends to arm Italian surveillance drones in Afghanistan beginning next year. France has plans for military drones for reconnaissance and attack missions. NATO is trying to get member states to finance surveillance drones that eventually may also be armed.  Even more importantly, China, Russia and other non-Western countries are also working on developing armed drones.  This could lead to a free-for-all situation unless standards for the use of these weapons are agreed upon, legal experts say. It is time, said Mr. Bütikofer, the European Parliament lawmaker, for Europe to break its silence.

Excerpts, JUDY DEMPSEY, Europe Stays Quiet Despite Unease About Drones, NY Times,June 11, 2012

The Kill List and Body Count: Drones

Just days after taking office, the president [Obamaa] got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. “The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House adviser recounted.  In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.

The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.  It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.  Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.  “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

Excerpt, JO BECKER and SCOTT SHANE, Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will, NY Times, May 29, 2012