This Week in War. A Friday round-up of what happened and what’s been written in the world of war and military/security affairs this week. It’s a mix of news reports, policy briefs, blog posts and longform journalism. Subscribe here to receive this round-up by email.
- War deaths in Syria now top 100,000.
- The US plans to begin directly supplying arms to the opposition force within the month.
- Experts say that sarin gas use in Syria still cannot be genuinely proved, since the process can’t control for tampering.
- Fighting between rival armed militias in Libya’s capital have killed five and wounded nearly 100.
- Monday saw Israeli air strikes carried out against Gaza in retaliation for Palestinian rocket fire.
- At least 16 Lebanese soldiers were killed in fighting with Sunni militants in Sidon.
- A series of bomb attacks in Iraq on Monday killed at least 42.
- A Taliban attack on Kabul has put peace talks on edge.
- The annual report (PDF) from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime shows Afghanistan remains the world leader in opium cultivation and production.
- Pakistan’s former leader Pervez Musharraf’s treason trial has been adjourned indefinitely and a four-member committee has been created to probe treason charges.
- A video of two Czech women captured in Balochistan a couple of months ago surfaced, along with demands by their unidentified captors, that neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui be released by the US. It has not been verified.
- Head of NGO For Human Rights, Lev Ponomaryov, was forcibly evicted from his offices along with staff and beaten by Russian law enforcement.
- China will send peacekeeping troops to Mali.
- HRW says that China has resettled 2 million Tibetans over the past seven years.
- Violence and rioting in the Western region of Xinjiang left 27 dead.
- In response to US threats to end trade benefits over Snowden, Ecuador waived the benefits and offered the US $23 million worth of human rights training.
- Protesters continued to take to the streets in Brazil, facing off against police.
- Dzokhar Tsarnaev has been formally charged with killing four people and using a weapon of mass destruction.
- Marine Gen. James Cartwright, formerly the vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is apparently the target of a DOJ leak investigation regarding information leaked about Stuxnet.
- A new Guardian scoop revealed that the Bush administration email record collection continued for two years under the Obama administration.
- The administration insists anyway, that Bush era data collection ended in 2011, but as The Guardian went on to report, massive metadata mining continues through the program EvilOlive (what?).
- Here’s a pdf of a 2009 draft report of the NSA inspector general regarding the surveillance program, thanks to The Guardian.
- Leaks also reveal massive online data collection by the British counterpart to the NSA, the GCHQ, of information obtained by tapping fibre-optics cables. The info is shared with the US.
- The Army is restricting access to The Guardian’s website in an Armywide filter.
- McClatchy on how memories of Stasi affect Germans’ views of US surveillance practices.
- Glenn Greenwald addresses attempts to smear his reputation and attack his work. David Carr and Jay Rosen both came to his aid earlier this week.
- Two law school professors say the NSA data collection programs “violate both the letter and the spirit of federal law.”
- The Snowden leaks have brought WikiLeaks back into the news.
- A CIA inspector general’s report (PDF) reveals there have been four CIA embeds with the NYPD since 9/11 and raises questions about the limitations they had, the assistance they offered, and the relationship between the two organizations.
- Former US National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke rather astonishingly acknowledged to the Huffington Post that the circumstances of Michael Hastings’ crash were “consistent with a car cyber attack.” He was careful to say that he was not saying he thought there had been such an attack.
- The Daily Beast profiles the life and work of incoming deputy director of the CIA, Avril Haines.
- A video interview with journalist and Dirty Wars author Jeremy Scahill on national security oversight, whistleblowers and the effect of surveillance on journalists and journalism.
- A military court overturned a Marine’s conviction in the murder of a retired Iraqi policeman because Sgt. Hutchins was held in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer.
- The Army plans to cut 12 combat brigades and reduce force size by 80,000.
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Photo: Kabul, Afghanistan. An Afghan soldier stands guard at the presidential palace on June 25th following a Taliban attack. Shah Merai/AFP/Getty
This Week in War. A Friday round-up by Torie Rose DeGhett of what happened and what’s been written in the world of war and military/security affairs this week. It’s a mix of news reports, policy briefs, blog posts and longform journalism. Subscribe here to receive this round-up by email.
- The UN death toll estimate for Syria is over 60,000 now.
- Freelance journalist James Foley has been missing in Syria since Thanksgiving Day, having been abducted by gunmen in Syria’s northwest. His family has just this week gone public with his abduction and a plea for his release.
- US troops have arrived at the Turkey-Syria border to man Patriot missile defense batteries.
- The war for neutral reporting in Syria.
- Turkey has begun discussion of disarmament with Kurdish rebel leaders.
- There were 17 US drone strikes in Yemen in 2011 and 54 in 2012.
- An excellent drone strike/Yemen interactive by Azmat Khan on PBS Frontline, freshly updated.
- Israel has completed most of its border fence with Egypt.
- Mohannad Sanir, an Egyptian activist, was shot by unknown assailants while in Tahrir Square and has been declared clinically dead.
- A dispatch from Yasmine El-Rashidi at the NYRB on Egyptian politics.
- Satirical Egyptian television host Bassem Youssef, who has drawn comparisons to Jon Stewart, is facing investigation based on alleged insults to President Morsy.
- Rebels in the Central African Republic have halted their advance and agreed to peace talks.
- The M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been placed under UN sanctions.
- Two Jordanian peacekeepers who were kidnapped in Darfur four months ago have been freed.
- Large protests in western Iraq in the primarly Sunni-populated province of Anbar have blocked off a highway between Jordan and Iraq. Demonstrators are turning out against PM Nouri al-Maliki and what they say is sectarian, anti-Sunni activity.
- Iran claims to have captured two small US RQ-11 drones.
- Gen. John Allen has outlined post-2014 options for the US in Afghanistan.
- In the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, 2014 has echoes of 1989.
- The Taliban are designing new forms of reprisal for drone strikes.
- Hakimullah Mehsud, chief of the Pakistani Taliban, has said that the group will negotiate but will not disarm.
- High-level Pakistani militant commander Maulvi Nazir, also known as Mullah Nazir, was killed along with other deputies (the number is variable by report) in a drone strike.
- Iran tested a new generation of surface-to-air missiles during naval drills.
- Myanmar admitted to having conducted air strikes against the Kachin rebels in the north.
- 13 Colombian FARC rebels were killed in a military airstrike during ongoing peace negotiations.
- Abid Naseer, accused of being the leader of an Al Qaeda plot to attack Manchester, has been extradited to the US.
- A New York district court has rejected the ACLU/NYTimes Freedom of Information Act Request for documents related to the criteria for targeted killings. The judge ruled that while she thought that the information about drone strikes ought to be public, the government had not violated FOIA in its refusal to turn over the information.
- The Washington Postreports on rendition practices under the Obama administration.
- The Senate passed a five year reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act, which allows for warrantless wiretapping (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act).
- The $633bn defense authorization bill was signed into law by Obama Wednesday, despite the administration’s objections to a number of key components of the legislation.
- The Senate plans to probe interaction between the CIA and “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmakers.
- John Sheardown, the Canadian immigration officer who helped shelter and smuggle 6 Americans out of Iran during the hostage crisis in 1980, has died at 88.
In remote areas of Pakistan, Al Qaeda and Taliban-supported death squads accuse local tribesmen of collaborating with the United States, and often force them to confess on video before executing them.
On Sunday the New York Times reported that the Obama administration, prompted by the possibility of losing the election, has been developing a “formal rule book” to govern the use of drone strikes, which have killed roughly 2,500 people under President Obama.
One aspect of the piece in particular caught our eye: While administration officials frequently talk about how drone strikes target suspected terrorists plotting against the U.S., the Times says the U.S. has shifted away from that. Instead, it has often targeted enemies of allied governments in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan. From the Times:
[F]or at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.
In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.
To learn more about this underappreciated aspect of U.S. drone policy, I spoke to Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been critical of U.S. drone policy and was quoted in the Times piece. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You were quoted over the weekend arguing that the U.S., with the campaign of drone strikes, is acting as the “counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” How did you come to this conclusion?
Under the Obama administration, officials have argued that the drone strikes are only hitting operational Al Qaeda leaders or people who posed significant and imminent threats to the U.S. homeland. If you actually look at the vast majority of people who have been targeted by the United States, that’s not who they are.
There are a couple pieces of data showing this. Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation has done estimates on who among those killed could be considered “militant leaders” u2014 either of the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, or Al Qaeda. Under the Bush administration, about 30 percent of those killed could be considered militant leaders. Under Obama, that figure is only 13 percent.
Most of the people who are killed don’t have as their objective to strike the U.S. homeland. Most of the people who are killed by drones want to impose some degree of sharia law where they live, they want to fight a defensive jihad against security service and the central government, or they want to unseat what they perceive as an apostate regime that rules their country.
Why does this distinction matter so much?
This is a huge outstanding dilemma. Is the primary purpose of the drone attacks counter-terrorism, or is it counter-insurgency? If it’s counter-insurgency, that is a very different mission, and you have to rethink the justifications and rethink what the ultimate goal is of using lethal force.
There was a February article in the New York Times reporting that the goal of U.S. policy in Yemen was to kill about two dozen Al Qaeda leaders. There’s been about 50 drone strikes in Yemen since that article. Meanwhile, according to U.S. government statements, the size of AQAP has grown from “several hundred” to “a few thousand members.” So the question is, who is actually being targeted, and how does this further U.S. counterterrorism objectives?
Is this use of drone strikes to kill people who are not imminent threats to the U.S. new?
No. The marked shift was in summer 2008 when the Bush administration decided to significantly lower the threshold of who could be attacked.
The purpose of this change was to reduce threats to U.S. servicemembers in southern Afghanistan and to intervene where some suicide attacks were organized in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This was the time when the “signature strikes” really became ingrained. Bush administration officials called this the “u2018reasonable man’ standard,” and if you were displaying what are called “patterns of behavior,” you could be killed.
People mistakenly think that this policy started under Obama, but it didn’t. It did accelerate markedly under Obama. He has had more drones to do this, was much more vigorous about authorizing their use, and expanded the signature strikes into Yemen.
How does this use of drone attacks square with official administration statements describing the policy?
They will never say that the United States uses drones to fight local insurgencies. If they made that case, they would have to create a new bastion of justifications. The current stated justifications are very carefully thought out and very deliberate to loosely adhere to the post-9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force and principles of Article 51 of the UN Charter, governing the use of force.
There has been a long-term fight with people within the administration who want to reform the policy and think the U.S. needs to be more transparent u2014 both for domestic reasons and because of the precedents being set for the use of drone strikes. If other countries follow our practice in how they will use drone strikes, that would be a very unstable, dangerous world to live in.
Note: We asked White House spokesman Tommy Vietor to respond the notion that drones strikes often involve those who are not a threat to the U.S. He declined to comment.