Tag: war on terror (page 1 of 2)

Guantanamo in the Rearview Mirror

Here at the Duck and elsewhere, there has been much discussion of the gaps between academia and the policy world.  I took part in a program that seeks to bridge that gap–the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship–which I have mentioned here before.   One thing I did not discuss here before is that such experiences can put one in morally challenging situations.   Whenever Guantanamo comes up in the news, I am reminded of this.  Why, see my tale belowe:

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Obama, Drones, and the Matter of Definitions

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Tobias T. Gibson, an associate professor of political science and security studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. 

In the buildup to President Obama’s speech at National Defense University on May 23, the administration suggested that the speech would clarify US policy on the use of drones in targeted killing. Although the president took pains to describe the limitations set forth by his administration, the speech provided little genuine clarity.

The working definitions of three very important words play a key role in undermining the putative “transparency” provided by the speech.  In a key passage, the President states that

Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. Even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists – our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set. [emphasis mine]

These three key constraints on the administration may amount to very little in the way of genuine barriers to the use of drone strikes.

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What We’re All Missing in the “Zero Dark Thirty” Debate

This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He formerly worked as a national security consultant. His research focuses on terrorism and religious conflict; he has also written on the role of faith in US foreign policy. During 2012-2013 he is a fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia

I appreciated Jeffrey Stacey’s recent post on the debate over “Zero Dark Thirty.” It’s useful to point out what is being obscured by the criticism of the movie’s depiction of torture. But I think his piece missed a broader aspect of the movie, as well as director Katherine Bigelow’s other war, “The Hurt Locker” (which focuses on an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq): what it reveals about the civilian-military divide in the United States.

Many critics have praised Bigelow’s work for its artistic value, and its significance for understanding the post-9/11 era. Much of this has to do with her filmmaking skills. But a good amount of praise focused on her ability to faithfully tell the story of contemporary military activities. In The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday exclaims that Bigelow demonstrates early in the film that “she will not turn away from the most unsavory aspects of the history she’s chronicling.” The New York TimesManohla Dargis discusses the movie as “a seamless weave of truth and drama.” Similarly, many praised “The Hurt Locker” for its “authenticity.”

At the same time, many critiques of these movies focus on their lack of authenticity. By now, we are all familiar with the attacks on “Zero Dark Thirty” for misrepresenting the role torture played in the hunt for bin Ladin. But similar attacks arose after “The Hurt Locker” came out. The film was full of inaccuracies in its depiction of EOD teams, resulting in the head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America calling it “disrespectful.”

Now, I realize the obvious response is: “it’s a movie.” That’s correct, but if the biggest selling point of a movie—or two—is their faithfulness to reality, and they get that wrong, then we’re all missing something, right? No one worries about inaccuracies in “Apocalypse Now” because of, well, Marlon Brando. But we should worry about inaccuracies in Bigelow’s war movies.

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Magical Thinking in the Sahel

This time last week, international intervention plans in Mali consisted of a rather under-powered African (ECOWAS) force, which was expected to arrive no earlier than September.  This force was not backed by overpowering consensus. Nigeria and Mauritania, the two best-equipped militaries in the region, were reluctant to pledge serious troops. The United States insisted that free and fair presidential elections must precede any international intervention, even after a December coup rendered this unrealistic.  And the Malian government itself seemed an obstacle.  The December coup signaled the resurgence of hardliners within the junta, who claimed that the Malian military – broken and demoralized as it was – could deal with northern insurgents on its own.  Tweets out of Mali (and even statements in the press) took a nationalist turn, and international intervention, even by an African force, began to seem fraught.

And now, seven days later, we’re in a brand new world.*

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Liberalism all the way down? …. six hours on a plane with Judith Butler’s Frames of War

On a plane ride a couple of days ago, I picked up Judith Butler’s Frames of War, perhaps a couple of years after I should have. Though there is a lot of the book that I disagreed with, reading it was a transformative experience. It is perhaps particularly relevant to the subject and content of Megan MacKenzie’s latest post, given Butler’s suggestion that “specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living” such that “if certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then those lives are never lived or lost in the full sense” (p.1).

Butler spends the book carefully considering the relationship between precarity, violence, and war – considerations that made me think a lot, about the book, about gender/violence more generally, and about the role of reading in our lives as scholars. My thoughts about the book are below the fold, and a separate post about reading is forthcoming.

Frames of War is to me a frustrating combination of absolute and piercing brilliance and letdown …

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Newly Disclosed Memo Proves Ben Shapiro’s a Partisan Hack

The assassination of Osama bin Laden by US special forces certainly has created a political problem for the Republican party. They spent years demagoguing the war on terror, but now the symbol of that struggle is dead. The man who green-lighted the operation wasn’t George W. Bush or John McCain, but Barack Obama. And you can bet that the Democrats are going to beat that drum from now until November. For example (via):

My own view is kind of “meh.” The death of Osama bin Laden resulted from years of intelligence and military activities; the President’s approval of the operation marked a culmination of a great deal of work, no small measure of which was done under the prior administration. But this is the way American politics work — the President gets credit and blame for what happens under the President’s watch — and the video pretty much sums up the rationale for why Obama can claim a share of the spoils. 
Regardless, conservative opinion-leaders have plenty of options for minimizing or otherwise handling the political difficulties created by bin Laden’s death. But the one being peddled by Ben Shapiro at Breitbart is… well… read on.

It starts with a memo recently published in Time magazine:

Received phone call from Tom Donilon who stated that the President made a decision with regard to AC1 [Abbottabad Compound 1]. The decision is to proceed with the assault.

The timing, operational decision making and control are in Admiral McRaven’s hands. The approval is provided on the risk profile presented to the President. Any additional risks are to be brought back to the President for his consideration. The direction is to go in and get bin Laden and if he is not there, to get out. Those instructions were conveyed to Admiral McRaven at approximately 10:45 am.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? The President approves the operation based on the “risk profile” he was presented. If new risks emerge, he wants to be made aware of them and given the opportunity to reconsider the operation. In other words, Obama didn’t take himself out of the decision loop. Sounds like the kind of thing that a hands-on-this-is-my-call-and-it-remains-my-call executive would do, right?

Well, thank goodness Shaprio is here to correct such an obvious misreading. What the memo really shows is that Obama is a weasely weasel who most certainly can’t claim a smidgen of credit for authorizing a high-risk operation.

Only the memo doesn’t show a gutsy call. It doesn’t show a president willing to take the blame for a mission gone wrong. It shows a CYA maneuver by the White House. 

The memo puts all control in the hands of Admiral McRaven – the “timing, operational decision making and control” are all up to McRaven. So the notion that Obama and his team were walking through every stage of the operation is incorrect. The hero here was McRaven, not Obama. And had the mission gone wrong, McRaven surely would have been thrown under the bus. 

The memo is crystal clear on that point. It says that the decision has been made based solely on the “risk profile presented to the President.” If any other risks – no matter how minute – arose, they were “to be brought back to the President for his consideration.” This is ludicrous. It is wiggle room. It was Obama’s way of carving out space for himself in case the mission went bad. If it did, he’d say that there were additional risks of which he hadn’t been informed; he’d been kept in the dark by his military leaders.

You see, if Obama were a real leader he would green-lighted McRaven and then retired to the White House den to watch a baseball game. Or better yet, he would not only have taken operational command of the mission, but been the first into the compound. Hell, he would have killed Obama himself. With his bare hands! That’s what George W. Bush would have done. Now that man was a real decider.

“Truth to Power”: Louise Arbour on Human Rights and International Justice

CBC – CP file photo

The Canadian International Council recently organized an interesting public event with Louise Arbour on her role in speaking “truth to power.” The talk is available on line at Open Canada.org. (starts around 22min mark, after the introductions) and is constructed as a dialogue with Stephen Toope, President of the University of British Columbia and notable international law scholar.

Madam Arbour is known for being outspoken on the ICC’s prosecutorial strategy, shortcomings in the human rights regime, and advocacy on the Responsibility to Protect and especially the case of Sri Lanka. Arbour’s authoritative voice on these issues stems from her professional credentials and experience: former Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and presently the President of International Crisis Group.

It’s worth a listen. But for those interested in just the human rights and international justice stuff here are my selective highlights on the issues mentioned above.
(Note: these are not exact quotes as i’m a sloppy transcriber).

Human Rights
There is a need for adequate institutions, specifically an international human rights court. As long as the protection of human rights is in the hands of the duty bearers – the states – not surprisingly we’re not going to get very far.

Peace vs. Justice
The timing (of the Milosevic trial) was dictated exclusively by prosecutorial considerations. Some were concerned that a peace deal would put him out of reach…What it did to the peace process was not part of my brief.

The indictment of Gaddafi was very precipitous…it’s not an unfair assumption that it might have contributed to closing some doors to a negotiated settlement….The same actors in the Security Council that referred the Libya case to the ICC have not moved on Syria…The tensions between peace and justice are very present and will remain so until and unless we segregate the justice agenda from the political one.

Joseph Kony…probably accurate that the fact that he was indicted, at the end of the day, made it impossible for him to participate in peace talks…Political negotiators cannot deliver on that. The ICC process is a parallel track. It is not negotiable in peace talks.

What we need to do is what we do in domestic systems – we make it very clear that politicians don’t run indictments.

ICC and Africa
It would have been imminently predictable that the docket of the ICC would be heavily African. Apart from the cases of Security Council referral, all the other cases have come from countries that have ratified the Rome Treaty….That is the fundamental premise…The ICC was not engaged when there was, in my opinion and with lots of evidence, massive slaughter of civilians on the beaches of Sri Lanka. Well, Sri Lanka has not ratified the Rome Treaty.

The ICC might have been better advised, rather than try to downplay (the African bias) to really embrace it and engage with African governments – open offices, be there, be very present. As opposed to staying in The Hague and be very defensive that it’s only engaged in African issues.

Cooperation of authorities in the DRC with the International Criminal Court has been problematic from the beginning. It’s very unfortunate that the ICC only has jurisdiction in the Congo since the Court was created in 2002 when in fact the most catastrophic loss of life in the Congo took place in the decade before, from 1993-2003. When I was High Commissioner (for Human Rights) I launched what we called the “mapping exercise” to try to document that decade where between 3-5 million people were killed in the east of the Congo and there’s no legal regime to deal with it. The ICC has no jurisdiction so the idea was to hand this over to the Congolese authorities to try to encourage them to launch some kind of mechanism.

Accountability there (DRC), even with the ICC in place, it’s not almost ten years since the ICC has been in place and what? There are five, six people charged?….The ICC has a long way to go before it can be reflective of its mission in that environment

War on Terror and Sri Lanka
One of the most tangible and perverse effects of the War on Terror is the treatment of the war in Sri Lanka. The last few months, in 2009, of the thirty year old war whereby the government of Sri Lanka finally eradicated the LTTE was achieved at an unconscionable cost to civilian lives, which generated virtually no adverse response because it was under the agenda of the War on Terror. The LTTE had been depicted, quite accurately I might add, as a terrorist organization which had preyed on its own population. There’s not much to be said very positively about its methodology. And a lot of casualties in the last few months of the war are attributable to the LTTE itself – it’s not just government forces. But the way this was achieved would not have been tolerable if it had not been under the umbrella of one of the few so-called success stories of the War on Terror.


A View to Kill: Should states engage in assassination?

I have a lengthy piece on targeted killing/assassination up at the Canadian International Council’s Open Canada blog. It touches on some of the issues I’ve raised in previous posts here and here.

The short version is that targeted killing/assassination advocates tend to rest their arguments on three assumptions: first, that it is morally legitimate on the basis of reciprocity, that it is easier than launching full-scale invasions or sending in troops to difficult/hostile terrain, and finally that it is effective.

I question these assumptions – first, tit-for-tat/”Golden Rule” justification and logic has been rejected by Western military forces for many decades. Second, while drones may be a more viable option in areas such as the mountainous regions of Afghanistan/Pakistan, you can’t generalize a rule out of this one particular example. Finally, that there is no reliable evidence that targeted killing/assassination actually works (or, to be fair, that it doesn’t work.) And even if we wanted to evaluate whether or not targeted killing is effective, what criteria should be used? The actual elimination of terrorists? The subsequent numbers of operations.? Or should we look at second and third order effects: impact on morale, recruitment, etc. And how could these factors be measured? Further, given the wide variety of actors, circumstances and context, and the many different historical cases, it is virtually impossible to extrapolate from one case to another.

If 2011 is any indication, drone strikes, targeted killing and “assassination” will be here to stay for some time. As such, it is worth asking certain question of our political and military leaders to encourage democratic accountability. What are the criteria to render someone a target? To what degree are these decisions subject to judicial review? And under what framework of law are these operations considered to fall under?

Be Concerned but not Informed: Radical Islamic Terrorism and Mainstream Media since 9/11

The website e-IR asked me to review how mainstream media have represented radical Islamist media in the past decade, and what this means for the spread of radical discourses more broadly. Here is my reply, and you can read the original at e-IR here.

Mainstream media’s presentation of radical Islamic terrorism since 11 September 2001 is simply a continuation of how mainstream media have represented political violence for many decades. Moral panics about enemies within, journalists following agendas set by ministers, scandalised yet sensationalist coverage of violence, victims and perpetrators – all familiar from the post-9/11 period, but also thoroughly documented in the classic studies of media and violence in the 1970s and 80s. The focus on Islam has been hugely damaging for many people across a number of countries, but what is at stake is more fundamental. Modern societies have not found a way to manage the boundaries between their mainstreams and margins. In 20 years’ time, other groups will be demonised, journalists will continue to fail to explain why violence occurs, and many people trying to go about their daily lives will find themselves anxious, suspicious, and ill-informed.

Each society imagines its mainstream differently. Media are the condition for imagined communities, as Benedict Anderson put it, but also imagined enemies. Russia, Israel, France, Thailand – in any country we find journalists, artists, and political leaders routinely making representations of their own values and of groups that might threaten those values. The ‘war on terror’ label enabled a diverse range of states, each with their particular social antagonisms and historical enmities, to represent their struggles as part of an overarching conflict between themselves and radical Islam. They imagined their own community, and an international community, at war. Although some journalists challenged this, journalism as a general institution was a delivery mechanism for the very idea of a war on terror and for all its local manifestations. Reporters on newspapers, 24 rolling news and even ‘highbrow’ news analysis shows accepted the framing assumptions given by military and political leaders, and repeatedly and unthinkingly stitched together disparate attacks into one global narrative.

One of the most striking aspects of this decade was that the enemy became a visual presence as never before. ‘Radical Islam’ could be seen. Indeed, Islam itself became a spectacle for all around the world to gaze upon and think about, the historian Faisal Devji argues. Al-Qaeda took advantage of real-time 24 hour media to project violent events onto all our screens in sporadic but spectacular ways. At the same time, religious views returned to everyday political debate as religious leaders and communities used the internet and TV to promote and discuss their dialogues, concerns and beliefs. This increased visibility created difficulties for many ordinary Muslims, who on the one hand wanted to argue that Islam is one religion and Muslims a united body of people, but on the other complained when the resulting single image grouped together Al-Qaeda’s terrorist iconography with everyday multiculturalism in the West, the rich diversity of Muslim-majority countries, and the terrible suffering of Palestinians. The struggle for the image of Islam took place in large part through mainstream media; if a Muslim person appears in Western news, statistically there is a higher chance it is in a story about terrorism and criminality than if it was an individual of another ethnicity. Lone figures – the angry bearded man and the veiled woman – are the stereotypes media reporting has bequeathed us from the 2000s. While many herald the emergence of social media and the shift from mass communication to what Manuel Castells calls ‘mass self-communication’, it is likely that mainstream media will continue to be a chief venue for the struggle for Islam’s image in the next decade.

Ironically, despite the routine presence of Al-Qaeda in mainstream news, journalists have not always been willing or able to explain what or who Al-Qaeda is, or how it functions. Equally, the term ‘radicalisation’ only became a public term in the 2000s, but journalists have used the term as if its meaning is obvious without actually explained how radicalisation works. Admittedly, these two confusions both stem from the fact that security policymakers lack reliable knowledge about Al-Qaeda and radicalisation themselves, or at least won’t release full information to journalists. Meanwhile a ‘radicalisation industry’ of so-called experts has emerged, willing to speculate on air about radical Islamic terrorism (witness the first 24 hours after Anders Breivik’s killings in Norway this year).These people are rarely challenged by journalists.

As a consequence of these media failings, audiences are routinely presented with the image of an angry bearded man, possibly a clip from a video linked to Al-Qaeda, and then an unspecific warning of an imminent threat. Audiences are asked to be concerned, but not allowed to be informed.

What does this mean for the spread of radical and radicalising groups in the future? Three interlocking, structural tendencies must be considered. First, the state will continue to assimilate all non-state violence as a single threat to international order and the domestic social mainstream. “Violence must not be allowed to succeed”, remarked a British official in the 1970s. It is a simple, unchanging principle. In April 2011 in London, Patrick Mercer OBE, Conservative MP for Newark and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic and International Security, warned that the three security threats facing Britain are Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism, violence ‘attached’ to student protests, and ‘Irish terrorists’ attacking the royal wedding. Drawing a parallel between students and those engaged in terrorism suggests a failure to appreciate that vibrant democracy requires space for dissent and disagreement. From the point of view of the state, however, it is all actual or potential non-state violence. Meanwhile, the latest version of Prevent, the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, has switched attention from addressing violent extremism to simply ‘extremism’. Extremism is understood as divergence from ‘mainstream British values’, defined as ‘democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind’. Society is asked to imagine itself as a community bounded by shared values, but this necessarily puts some people on or outside that boundary. Even if they are not violent, they might one day consider violence, and violence must not be allowed to succeed.

Second, it is a challenge for journalists to observe how political leaders are re-drawing and redefining these boundaries, since they – as responsible, professional insiders – will be asked to categorise and condemn those deemed on the radical outside. News values endure. The drama, simplicity and immediacy of acts of political violence will keep terrorism and violent protest on the news agenda while allowing a new cast of radicals to come to the fore.

Finally, radical Islamic terrorists or any radical group will play cat-and-mouse with security agencies as they try to use digital media to mobilize potential recruits and supporters. This game will be largely invisible to ordinary people. Nevertheless, we will be asked to endorse cybersecurity policies and work within modified internet infrastructures without being given any systematic data on connections between radicalism, radicalisation and cybersecurity. Journalists will be no better informed, but will be obliged to report as if there are connections.

These intersecting pathologies might leave the reader pessimistic. Opportunities for change seem minimal. On an immediate level, it is a question of changing behaviours. Can security journalists bring a more informed manner of reporting to mainstream audiences? Will the state decide it has a stake in a more informed citizenry? Will citizens themselves bypass mainstream media to find alternative ways to be informed? On a more profound level, it is a question of finding new ways to conceive and manage the relationship between social mainstreams and margins. The implicit equivalence of margin with radical and radical with violence makes for perpetual insecurity. Finding a more mature approach, however, opens up fundamental questions about the state, society and individual which few have begun to ask. This is where the challenge lies.

Making me Mlad: Why you can’t compare the Mladic and Osama bin Laden raids

Charli has been writing about international justice, arguing against ‘myths’ – and comparing the efforts to bring Mladic to justice as opposed to the rush to shoot Osama bin Laden in the face. Others, such as John Feffner at Foriegn Policy in Focus have made similar arguments.

I agree and disagree with some of the points being made. However I am concerned that that many of these arguments seem to completely ignore or fail to appreciate the different context of the Mladic and OBL raids. I just don’t think we can pretend these are at all similar situations – even looking beyond “status” issues, (who was/is a combatant/civilian etc). Rather, I think the core issue here is time and context.

For lack of a better term, bin Laden was caught and killed “during” the War on Terror, a period of active hostilities between the US and al-Qaeda. Mladic was captured over a decade and half after the Dayton Accords. The situation in the Balkans is far from perfect, but it’s certainly calmer. People have been able to get on with their lives as they rebuilding their homes, villages – even if scars can never perfectly heal.
The ICTY was established in 1993 (- a great way for the West/UN/European countries to look like they were doing something about the ethnic slaughter when they really weren’t). Mladic was indicted in July 1995 and surely was eligible to be captured and extradited from that point on.


There’s no question that it’s been a painful and horrible wait, but I wonder if it is also one that has allowed cooler heads to prevail? There have been protests in Serbia, of course. But they have not been on a truly significant scale. Mladic has been caught, charged, extradited (despite appeals) in under a week. Would this have actually been possible in 1995? Possible without tearing apart a freshly signed peace treaty? Aggravating a tense situation? And an angry population?

I’m not saying that international justice does not work – but I do not think 1) it always needs to take the form of an international court 2) that it should be done immediately.

Although it’s been nearly a decade since 9/11, the fact that the War on Terror has been ongoing makes the OBL situation different. bin Laden was a leader of a terrorist group actively planning attacks against the United States and other targets. Mladic, clearly a jerk of international proportions, was guilty of crimes but had returned to civilian life – and so have many others. The Hague will not become the centre of terrorist attacks or even protests. I’m not sure the same could have been said for OBL. Does this mean a trial for both was impossible? No. Does this mean the circumstances were very, very different? Yes.

The bottom line – you can’t make a fair comparison between Mladic and bin Laden when it comes to international justice.

The other reason this consideration is important is that the UN has released a report saying that both sides have conducted war crimes in Libya. Is it the best idea to indict individuals now? Or wait until the conflict is over, the country has a chance to catch its breath and then begin to take a good hard look at what has happened on its territory? Time may or may not tell.

The bin Laden Killing and Assassination Explained in 4 Paragraphs Not By Me

At the risk of beating a dead terrorist horse, I want to cite W. Hays Parks (former Special Advisor to the Office of Legal Counsel on Law of War Issues at DoD, JAG and possible stand in for Clint Eastwood in that Grand Torino movie) on the Osama bin Laden assassination/murder/killing debate that has kind of been driving me nuts.

In a response letter in the Washington Post, Parks writes:

The May 2 lead story by Scott Wilson and Craig Whitlock on the death of Osama bin Laden was well written and reported. But on the continuation, the story referred to the deadly attack as an “assassination.” It was not.
Executive Order 12333 prohibits but does not define assassination. In 1988, as a civilian attorney in the Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Army, I researched the issue to define assassination. I coordinated my draft opinion with the judge advocates general of the Navy and Air Force; the general counsel of the Defense Department; the general counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency; and the legal adviser of the State Department. In 1989, the Army’s judge advocate general signed an unclassified memorandum defining assassination to provide clarity to the prohibition. It was provided to the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees and was published in the State Department’s volume of significant international law documents.
Assassination is murder committed for political purposes. The killing of enemy military personnel in time of armed conflict is not assassination.
Nor is it assassination to attack the leadership of armed non-state actors such as Osama bin Laden who have been and remain engaged in planning and executing armed attacks against a sovereign state. Because bin Laden was a lawful target, the attack was neither murder nor assassination.

I think this pretty much sums it up for me. Well that and this line from Roger Cohen:

If there is greater fatuity than second-guessing the split-second decisions of commandos confronted by gunfire, knowing the compound may be wired to explode, and hunting a serial mass murderer unwilling to surrender, then I am unaware of it. Let post-modern, pacifist Germans agonize, and whoever else wishes to writhe on a pin. The rest of us can be satisfied.

Me, and my fake-lawyer self could not care any less about this issue, unless it somehow involved the Royal Wedding.

The 2003 Iraq War will not be forgotten

The killing of Osama bin Laden allows political leaders to further disentangle Iraq, Afghanistan and the whole war on terror concept; to wind down some operations and refocus others; to bring some stories to light and push others aside, to be forgotten. But how do those who served in these wars feel about this? In today’s New York Times Captain Shannon P. Meehan, a US veteran of the 2003 Iraq War, published a powerful statement of alienation on this matter. Meehan felt no closure on hearing of bin Laden’s death. It only brought a sense of distance and disconnection. It reminded him he had been part of the bad war, the war whose meaning is already settled in what he calls the ‘shifting public memory of war’. And he must live with the severe injuries he suffered regardless. He writes: 


So, as much as I want to feel a part of this moment, to feel some sense that I contributed to it, I do not. As a veteran of the Iraq war, I do not feel entitled to any sort of meaningful connection to this achievement. Years of political and public criticism of the Iraq war has pushed me to believe that I did not fight terror, but rather a phantom.
With all the physical, mental and emotional pains I still have, I feel like a dying man who fought in a dying war, and that my body braces and hearing aids serve as a reminder that my greatest “achievement” in life will be remembered as a mistake.
This same week the last British male veteran of WW1 died. Claude Choules, who went on to spend most of his life in Australia, also seemed to remember his war with critical distance. In its public notice of Choules’ death, the UK Ministry of Defence noted, ‘Despite his impressive military career, Mr Choules became a pacifist. He was known to have disagreed with the celebration of Australia’s most important war memorial holiday, Anzac Day, and refused to march in the annual commemoration parades.’ Although WW1 is settled in public memory as the ‘Great War’, Choules resisted this interpretation. What is interesting, today, is that Meehan is publicly reflecting on such a settled narrative. His challenging article is in mainstream media and being spread through social media. Choules had no such opportunity in his day. The new media ecology seems to accelerate both the creation and the contestation of war memory.
But memory is not just about media. Meehan draws attention to his physical pain, to injuries that remind him daily of the Iraq War. In Diffused War Andrew Hoskins and I explored Jay Winter’s concept of ‘embodied memory’ as something that is shared by the body of the sufferer and the gaze of the onlooker. If we have an obligation to remember, we must also look at veterans’ bodies and not just war films, news photos and milblogs. War memory is inscribed on bodies, and there are a lot of bodies from Iraq.
The killing of bin Laden and drawing back from Iraq won’t make the Iraq War disappear. The US and its allies will have to decide how they want to remember it, what memorials will be built, and how to deal with the ambiguities and divisions within the shifting public memory of the war.

Osama Dead: Are We There Yet?


My reaction to the news was essentially that of a five year old after a long car ride — can we be done now? I am very tired of the war on terror, on multiple levels.

First, the obvious irritations. The airport security with two children, whose liquids must be regarded a priori as toxic substances. The shoes and the belts. Can’t I at least keep my coat on? Don’t we have scanners that can pick out an explosive device from my inside pocket? This from the country that put a man on the moon? Yes, I would feel differently if there were another attack tomorrow using fake breast milk as a combustible substance. So this isn’t really rational. But still.

Second, I find the war on terror really boring. This is a really terrible thing to say to those who lost loved ones on 9/11. But intellectually I do not get much satisfaction out of this. We never really have an idea what is going on. We can’t interview the participants, unless we are Indiana Jones. There will never be Al Qaeda archives to go through, so I don’t think we will ever really understand this era in history. And I think that compared to our last great challenge– the Cold War — or the ones that face us now — global financial catastrophe — there is just not much to chew on here. I know that many find this all fascinating, and I am glad they do. If my department hires next year, I will push them to find someone who works on these topics. But I really think it is overblown.

Third, it really brings out the worst in us. I think that during the Cold War Americans would have been shocked to hear allegations that we directly tortured say, East German spies. But after 9/11, this really doesn’t bother quite a few people. I don’t really recognize this country and I’d like it to return to normal. Maybe this is just a structural value shift that has nothing to do with terrorism, but if so, I think it was latent and only revealed by the war on terror. I feel this as I watch people celebrate outside the White House. What would John Wayne do (WWJWD)? I think he would have killed Osama but not crowed about it. He’d have put his gun back in the holster and hung his head. It is one thing to celebrate Hitler’s death in the streets because that meant the end of the fighting and a terrible regime. But this probably doesn’t mean that. So the celebration is just vengeance. And that is unappetizing.

Fourth, we will never really know when it is over, which is irritating. And there is always this nagging sense that it could be over if we just decided it were over. Obviously we will always be involved in disrupting Al Qaeda. But it feels like we are the ones who put the capital letters in the War on Terror.

So I guess I am waiting for the President to tell us, as I tell my kids — just ten more minutes. But I know he won’t. And if he did, he would be, like me, lying.

Cause and Effect in the “War on Terror?”

 It is impossible to know at this point whether there is any connection between these two disturbing events reported yesterday:  NATO forces’ mistaken killing of nine boys gathering firewood in Afghanistan; and, a few hours later, the killing of two American soldiers at Frankfurt airport, apparently by a Muslim man of Kosovar origin.   We do know that other terror suspects have stated that they acted in response to U.S. policies in the GWOT, in particular the frequent killings of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.  It would therefore not be surprising if this were true in the German case.  And it is at least possible that the impetus was in fact the horrific NATO shootings in Afghanistan just hours before.  

This raises yet again the question of what is cause and what effect in the “war on terror.”  Are American policies, which predictably result in large numbers of civilian casualties no matter how great the military’s precautions, in fact reducing the number of terrorists?  Do our heartfelt apologies in the wake of such wholly foreseeable errors in fact have any effect on the families of the victims, let alone on the small number of angry and extreme–but not yet violent Muslims–elsewhere in the world?  The answer seems likely to be, No.  The GWOT is a self-perpetuating policy that increases the amount of terrorism in the world, even as it enriches military establishments, COIN bureaucracies, and all manner of private suppliers of questionable anti-terror services and technologies.  (Read the prior article–an amazingly depressing story of yet more waste, fraud, and gullibility in the GWOT.)
My question for Duck readers is:  How does such folly come to an end?  On the surface, when cause becomes effect, there would seem ample, rational basis to change policies.  And there have been any number of additional reasons to halt it recently too:  the obvious marginality of al-Qaeda in the massive popular upheavals that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa; recent statements by American officials that the number of al-Qaeda fighters is vanishingly small; Robert Gates’s tacit admission last week that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars should never have been fought; and reports that the military is propagandizing U.S. politicians and thereby citizens to believe that the wars are succeeding.  (This article too is worth a full read to see both how some in the military confuse the “mission” with their own ambition–and, a ray of hope, how others sometimes stand up against them). 
Any suggestions from Duck readers about literature on this kind of conundrum?  How are senseless but self-perpetuating policies, backed by hugely vested interests, ever brought to a halt?

The “drug war” is over?

Over the years, the so-called global “war on terror” (or “war on terrorism”) has had its ups and downs as a foreign policy framing device. The George W. Bush administration, of course, relied upon the frame to sell virtually all its major foreign policies over a period of many years — even though the Pentagon at one point preferred “struggle against violent extremists.” Britain stopped using the phrase some years ago (at least in the Labor government).

Barack Obama’s administration allegedly abandoned the phrase very early in his term — in favor of alternatives like “overseas contingency operations.” However, with a little searching, it’s not difficult to find official spokespersons (like Robert Gibbs)  — or even the President himself — continuing to use those words after announcing that they wouldn’t.

Somehow, I missed the Obama administration’s similar early announcement that it was also going to stop using the phrase “war on drugs.” The Wall Street Journal reported this story May 14, 2009:

The Obama administration’s new drug czar says he wants to banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting “a war on drugs,” a move that would underscore a shift favoring treatment over incarceration in trying to reduce illicit drug use.

In his first interview since being confirmed to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske said Wednesday the bellicose analogy was a barrier to dealing with the nation’s drug issues.

“Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” he said. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”

We haven’t discussed the “war on drugs” very much here at the Duck of Minerva, but it has long had a significant effect on public policy — especially domestic policy as recently demonstrated in a drug-themed issue of The Nation. This is an excellent summary of the costs from Ohio State Law Professor Michelle Alexander’s piece in that issue:

More than 30 million people have been arrested since 1982, when President Reagan turned Nixon’s rhetorical “war against drugs” into a literal war against poor people of color. During the past few decades, African-American men, in particular, have been arrested at stunning rates, primarily for nonviolent, relatively minor drug offenses—despite data indicating that people of all races use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders admitted to prison have been African-American, and when released they find themselves ushered into a parallel universe where they are stripped of many of the rights supposedly won during the civil rights movement. People labeled felons are often denied the right to vote and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits—relegated to a second-class status for life simply because they were once caught with drugs.

She put the economic cost of the war at “more than $1 trillion in the past few decades.”

Clearly, America’s “carceral state,” which Charli recently mentioned, reflects the outcome of the drug war. Of course “contact with the criminal justice system” is going to be a “significant predictor of civic and political disengagement and mistrust of government.” Felons are frequently denied the freedom to vote.

I recall more than 20 years ago thinking about writing a rhetorical analysis about George H.W. Bush’s use of the phrase “war on drugs” to rally support for his domestic and foreign initiatives. But I didn’t. The cold war was still raging, my dissertation concerned strategic defense — and I needed to find a tenure track job. Members of the IR Copenhagen School have long discussed the securitization of this issue, but few American IR scholars have taken it very seriously — even when it occasionally spilled over into “hot” rather than merely metaphorical war.

The Obama administration doesn’t use the phrase “war on terror,” but has escalated American intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The “war in Iraq” has ended, but 50,000 American troops remain to help provide security.

I suspect the decision to stop using the phrase “war on drug” will have similar policy consequences. Indeed, that recent issue of The Nation demonstrates the continued failings of U.S. policy in this area.

Kandahar and My Lai; Drone Strikes and Carpet Bombing

 The New York Times recently posted reports about the U.S. military’s trial of soldiers accused of randomly killing civilians in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, “for sport.”  Apart from the horrors of the alleged crimes, there is a terrible irony in the stories.  This goes beyond the fact that these kinds of incidents are hardly news.  They are completely predictable in any war, even among the best-trained and most disciplined armies—let alone those in which governmental and military leaders provide signals that make incidents like Abu Ghraib possible.  

The irony also goes beyond the coincidence that this story appeared in the New York Times the same day as another, titled “CIA Steps Up Drone Strikes on Taliban in Pakistan.”  That story re-emphasized the open secret that Pakistan has become the new Cambodia.  Like that other unfortunate nation, Pakistan is being targeted because another of America’s wars is not going well.  But rather than accepting the original war’s folly, our military and civilian leaders, in their consummate wisdom, have expanded it to nearby countries.  Supposedly, it is these nations’ failures to control their populations and borders that explains the war’s failures.

But the real irony is the prosecution of these soldiers, when the architects of the war–responsible for placing the soldiers in Kandahar to begin with–are taking actions that predictably lead to large civilian casualties as well.  It is, of course, true that from a legal standpoint, there are differences in the intent of the killers:  in the first case, intentional; in the second, unintentional.  It is also true that in the first case, the soldiers allegedly knew their victims to be innocent.  In the second, military officers believe themselves to be targeting Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters—though of course their information is often faulty.  And, of course, the soldiers should be prosecuted for their alleged crimes.
But the strategic effects of these incidents is little different.  Who would you hate more if your home was destroyed and your children killed by Predators?  The Taliban fighters who the missiles were intended to kill and who were conducting operations in your area—or the American military and CIA personnel sitting at their desks in Creech Air Force Base?  Perhaps both equally—but, more likely, those who pulled the trigger.  Nor is a grieving Afghan likely to care about the legal niceties that help the drone controllers sleep at night–or be assuaged by the payments the U.S. government sometimes disburses to relatives of its collateral carnage.
To my mind, the closest analogy to this situation comes from Vietnam:  The well-deserved prosecution and conviction of Lieutenant William Calley for the My Lai massacre–at about the same time that the U.S. government was carpet-bombing Vietnam and Cambodia to the tune of untold thousands of civilian deaths—all with the broad rationale that we would thereby win hearts and minds.

No doubt our new smart bombs and drones kill fewer innocents–though still far too many, given the futility of the “war on terror.”  But if I were an Afghan grieving over a drone’s dismemberment of my family, would I care about this sign of “progress?”

Another war on terror outrage: asylum denied

Did anyone else know about this additional outrageous consequence of the “war on terror”? You may have to be a subscriber to see this note from The Nation, September 20?

Deborah Amos’s Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East (PublicAffairs; $25.95) is a harrowing account of the pain and anguish suffered by the Iraqi Sunni diaspora in the Middle East. Especially perverse is a legal hurdle faced by exiles seeking asylum in the United States. Amos reports that Iraqis who have “paid ransom for the release of a loved one who had been kidnapped by a militia or criminal gang” have been barred from relocating to the United States by the Patriot Act, which considers “the paying of ransom in such cases—regardless of the circumstances—as constituting ‘material support’ for terrorists.” Iraq’s exiles have been left stranded by their putative liberators between a decimated past and a future not yet born.

I searched around and found an item from May in the NY Review of Books noting that Congress granted the State Department and DHS the right to waive the “material support” limit when it involved payments “under duress.” However, the authors claim that 1000s of potential refugees and asylum-seekers continue to be denied entry into the US because of anti-terror laws.

Driving Parents Crazy: Why are some violent radicals fathers?

My blogging has been light lately as I have been on the road travelling a lot. This recent period has had me travelling like something of a crazy person with trips all over the Centre/East Coast of North America.

Part of this trip included some time in Ottawa, where it was some interesting times. The week before I arrived there was a series of dramatic arrests here against individuals suspected of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks against the city. These are individuals who, from most media accounts, were largely raised in Canada and subsequently became radicalized.

This is not the first series of arrests that have been carried out by Canadian police and intelligence services in recent years. The case of the Toronto 18 (although only 11 were eventually charged) – seems to be similar in the sense that it was a bunch of individuals that became radicalized and eventually tried to carry out terrorist acts in Toronto. Although their efforts were almost comically bad – and full of screw-ups along the way – the plot to blow up Toronto office buildings was not really anything to laugh about.

This is kind of old news now, but a couple of thoughts on this latest series of arrests – with the caveat of course that I am no terrorism expert.

I suppose the main thing that has caught my attention is that one of the suspects, Khurram Sher, has young children. Initially, I found this somewhat shocking – but upon reflection I realized that this is not unlike recent London bombers (in the 7/7 attacks and the attempts of 21/7 ) – some of whom were married and some with children. And some of the lead suspects in the Toronto 18 case also had children.

I’ve been asking terrorism researching friends why this might be. Apparently the appropriate question is why, in these cases does having children not provide an “insulating” factor against radicalization? If there is some kind of parenting instinct, why is it not enough to overcome or prevent some individuals from wanting to carry out violent acts?

Based on some brief conversations, I’m not sure there is a straightforward answer. One explanation is that violent radicals have often married young and, naturally, have had children as a result. So in this sense it may just be something that has happened along the way, or during the process of violent radicalization.

Perhaps more interestingly it was also suggested to me that there is some research to support the idea that the women in the lives of violent radicals – such as their wives – may play a role in encouraging them to act. Kind of like a bad version of Macbeth, I guess. But in that case the question about the insulating effect of children then applies to the women as well – why don’t children discourage them from encouraging violent radicalism? Why would they prefer that their husbands act than their children to have a father?

But upon some (very light) investigation into this – it seems as though many women who actually execute terrorist acts (as opposed to only encouraging) are mothers as well. This is particularly the case with the Black Widdows of Chechnya where women are often in their mid-20s and may have 2-3 children. A depressing thought.

Another interesting question to come off of this is if there is a difference between fathers in the Middle East in harsh circumstances (such as Palestine) and Western radicals? While I could imagine that being the son/daughter/wife of a “martyr” might convey (however perversely) a certain social status in the Occupied Territories, would this hold true for the Canadian Muslim community (who have been very quick to denounce the supposed plot on a national level)?

I would be very interested in suggestions for research in this area. I’m fairly certain that if I asked my parents I would get some kind of sarcastic comment about myself and my brother being enough to drive anyone crazy. However, I have to think that there is more social-scientific research out there that doesn’t involve parental sarcasm.

This video of one of the London bombers holding his infant daughter is pretty chilling. He is literally making a video for her – spelling out exactly what he was about to do and that she should pray for him in heaven. I don’t like to think of myself as overly sentimental – but you would think that having kids would discourage someone from actively harming themselves?

The Latest in Mole Whacking

Yesterday, the New York Times had a story about huge proposed increases in military assistance to Yemen, framed around the “war on terror.” Since the Christmas day 2009 attempted airliner bombing that was linked to Yemen, the U.S. was allocated about $155 million in military aid for FY 2010 — up from about $5 million in FY 2006.

The Pentagon’s latest plan calls for $1.2 billion in the next six years, about $200 million annually. That’s nearly a 25% increase from 2010 and an enormous change in commitment over a short period of time.

Apparently, by comparison, Aghanistan is so 2009:

“Yemen is the most dangerous place,” said Representative Jane Harman, a senior California Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee who visited Yemen in March. “We’re much more likely to be attacked in the U.S. by someone inspired by, or trained by, people in Yemen than anything that comes out of Afghanistan.”

Since the Pentagon claims that there are only about 100 al Qaeda personnel in Afghanistan, this quote may well be literally true.

Of course, Harman says nothing about Pakistan, which has for some time been the real ground zero in the war on terrorism. The unpopular drone strikes demonstrate how that part of the AfPak war is being fought.

Those of us who have some doubts about the ability of military force to fight terrrorism (and achieve other foreign policy objectives) will be relieved to read this paragraph:

Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said in a policy talk last week that American-backed assaults by Yemeni forces on Al Qaeda may “deny it the time and space it needs to organize, plan and train for operations.” But in the long term, he added, countering extremism in Yemen “must involve the development of credible institutions that can deliver real economic and social progress.”

There is another big problem with the Pentagon’s plan — Yemen’s relative disinterest in the mission:

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton…said the priorities of President Saleh, an autocrat whose family has ruled [Yemen] for three decades, do not coincide with those of the United States.

“If we’re just pouring money and equipment into the Yemeni military in the hopes that it will be used against Al Qaeda,” Mr. Johnsen said, “that hope doesn’t match either with history or current reality.”

The whack-a-mole metaphor has been widely used by critics of U.S. foreign policy — to describe outcomes in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s radical, man.

Through the very good King’s of War blog I was directed to a post on Jihadica on the recent emergence of an apparent Al-Qaida affiliated English-language publication called “Inspire”. While the author suggests that this has thrown Western media into a panic, there was very little to actually be worried about (other than the fact that it might contain a computer virus).

The bottom line is that Inspire is a drop in an ocean of jihadi propaganda. The recent media coverage suggests that otherwise educated observers don’t seem to realise 1) how large and 2) how old that ocean is. I find this both disappointing and disconcerting. For a decade, militants have been pumping out sophisticated propaganda and genuinely dangerous training manuals to a vast Arabic speaking audience. In comes a sloppy magazine in English, and suddenly people speak of a new al-Qaida media offensive. This ignorance and linguistic myopia is inexcusable, since blogs and translation services have made information about jihadi propaganda more available than ever.
In my view, the only interesting thing about the release of Inspire is the fact that the PDF file is corrupt and rumoured to carry a Trojan virus… Personally I don’t see why either jihadis or intelligence services would deliberately disseminate viruses, given that a virus would hurt both friends and enemies. In any case, whoever created Inspire wanted attention, and they certainly got that – in spades.

I found this post particularly interesting because last week I attended a conference organized by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) in New York City. This isn’t necessarily in the realm of my normal academic work – other than the fact that I am interested in the way that democracies confront threats and the threat of terrorism. (But let’s face it – it didn’t take a lot of arm twisting to sell me on a conference to New York City in July.)

The conference was interesting for a number of reasons – it brought together academics, policy makers and political leaders to address questions like “are we any safer after 9-11” and thinking about what has been learned. On the one hand there have been two attempted attacks on the US within six months of each other on the United States. On the other hand, one was a guy who literally could not set his pants on fire and the other a failed car bomb. Maybe we’re just safer because the quality of “terrorist” has gone down in the last couple of years?

Given the organizers, the focus of the conference was on radicalization (and they launched a study on radicalization in prisons). I did, however, expect a little more on thinking about these issues within the context of human rights/democracies/constitutions. (Maybe this was a bit of a sore spot as there were many former Bush administration officials there?) However, the issue was touched upon by the third panel of the second day titled “Counterterrorism Cooperation: Is It Working?” (Short answer: yes and no.) The panellists all agreed that human rights played an important part in how counterterrorism cooperation is engaged in. Australian Ambassador for Counterterrorism, Bill Paterson suggested that his country had worked towards helping to improve conditions inside of Indonesian Prisons to diminish the threat of radicalization there. Richard Barrett, head of the UN Al Qaidea/Taliban Monitoring Team maintained that human rights are one of the main pillars of counterterrorism.

Eric Rosand, the Senior Advisor in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the US Department of State argued that for the US this meant increasing the capacity to prosecute individuals within the United States. Interestingly, he also later added that there was a problem with some multilateral efforts. He pointed out that all UN counterterrorism work is being done in New York and Vienna and not on the ground in the countries where it matters.

Another interesting panel was on “How Terrorism Ends” – seemingly named for Audry Kurth Cronin’s 2009 book on the topic. She was at the conference and noted that while terrorism “doesn’t end” that terrorist groups do – the important question is how. She argued that there were six ways: group leadership may be ‘decapitated’ and the group withers, negotiations, success in eradication, failure to eradicate (leading to massive problems in the state or achievement of terrorist goals), mass repression and reorientation of groups. She also noted that given the variations of groups and the different ways they can be approached and confronted that the term “global terrorist insurgency” is not very useful.

I regret to say that the low-mark of the conference for me were the two plenary speakers, Lord David Trimble and Leader of the Opposition in Israel Tzipi Livni. Trimble – who helped to bring about a solution to the Northern Ireland “troubles” and won the Nobel Peace Prize – did not seem to be able to present a coherent narrative about his experiences (and went on so long that there was not time for questions). The main points I took from his talk was that peace in Northern Ireland was possible because of state power – but state power also gave them room to participate in a political process. While the UK government could have left the IRA to just eventually disappear and dissolve into its own infighting, an approach which accommodated them, according to Trimble, helped to diffuse the underlying problems causing terrorism. In addition the process helped to create political structures to address grievances and problems.

Livni, gave a speech which basically amounted to a justification of Israeli policies rather than any kind of serious engagement with the issue – or how democracies can confront the threat of radical violence. Actually, she talked about the way that Hamas ‘uses’ democracy to gain power. She literally stated that everyone “must choose a side… you are either for us or against us” – without any sense of irony or the fact that she was paraphrasing George Bush. I have a lot of sympathy with Livini (and blogged about it in one of my first posts for this site here). But there was nothing new or interesting in her talk – in fact it was rather depressing way to end the conference. (But then maybe that was the point – none of this is going away.)

So terrorism wasn’t solved but I got a really nice dinner out of it. I like to think that means “we’re” winning.

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