Tag: collateral damage

An Interesting Pattern in the Wikileaks Data

I have recently read a book entitled Inventing Collateral Damage in which the authors argue, among other things, that that concept of collateral damage was created for and in fact serves the purpose of allowing military officials to shrug off or gloss over the civilians they are indifferently killing in high-tech wars.

I found this rather interesting argument poorly substantiated in the book for reasons I will outline at greater length in a forthcoming essay, but this got me to thinking about how you would substantiate or disconfirm such a hypothesis, which would be an example of what scholars of international relations refer to as a “permissive effect” of a norm.

So since the Iraq War Logs allow a user to search the database with keywords, I figured I’d type in “collateral damage” and see for myself what sort of passages in military documents are associated with the term. It’s quite remarkable what one finds: contrary to the claim made by Rockel, Halpern and their contributors, the term is generally used to explain why US service-personnel do not fire on otherwise legitimate military targets.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


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?”


Homeland Security Heads Roll in Pennsylvania—But the GWOT Keeps on Rolling

 Two weeks ago, I wrote about Pennsylvania’s Perverted War on Terror.   This week the state’s Homeland Security Director James Powers, Jr. resigned.  Governor Ed Rendell had refused to fire him, saying Powers was not the only one responsible for hiring the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR).  True, enough:  Rendell had command responsibility, and Robert French, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, apparently had oversight too (neither has resigned).  But it appears that Powers was the person who okayed the $103,000 contract that resulted in numerous “intelligence reports” on everyday political activities here in the Keystone State, including environmental meetings against natural gas drilling—then passed some of those reports on to natural gas companies.  

In his resignation statement, Powers still seems confused—not about our country’s First Amendment this time, but about his former office’s responsibilities.  He wrote that “the primary goal of commonwealth preparedness strategies” and “our greatest challenge” is “to prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from incidents resulting from all hazards (terrorism attacks, major disasters and other emergencies).”  With such an unlimited conception of homeland security’s role, it is little wonder that his department happily paid ITRR for its “intelligence reports.”  Of course, the far bigger scandal remains the “global war on terror’s” waste, hubris, and threat to our liberties.

For those of you worried about Mr. Powers, who did at least have the decency to resign:  the ex-Special Forces man will no doubt find a job with one of the many “homeland security” operations still feeding at the public trough.  Indeed ITRR is probably looking for a few like-minded employees.  
When I wrote my original post, I was unable to find their website; my mistake perhaps, but ITRR may have suspended it themselves (or perhaps been hit by the Stuxnet worm).  In any case, ITRR’s website appears to have re-appeared.  Check it out!  As a birdwatcher, I do have to say I was taken by the owl on the website’s frontpage (Great Horned, I think)–though wisdom does not seem ITRR’s strong suit.  In any case, ITRR links to an article justifying the surveillance on Pennsylvania’s environmentalists, written by Anthony L. Kimery, who describes himself as a “respected award-wining editor and journalist who has covered national and global security, intelligence and defense issues for two decades.”   It is also reassuring to see that ITRR,  along with Philadelphia University, will be holding a Hometown Crisis Management Series program on Oct. 22.  
I have not had time to peruse ITRR’s website fully, though it looks to make fascinating reading–perhaps worthy of another post one day.


Pennsylvania’s Perverted “War on Terror”

How does America’s bloated anti-terror bureaucracy spend its time and our money? A story out of Pennsylvania last week throws light on the earth-shakingly important work these saviors of our soil perform, defending us all from the scary monsters who pose such a dire menace to America.

Or rather it illustrates, yet again, the myriad ways in which our homeland security hogs work to rationalize their existence and perpetuate their wallow in the “homeland security” slops-trough—even while eroding our civil liberties.

The swine this time: International Terrorism Research and Resources (ITRR), a recently formed company with the right sounding name and the right sounding “experts.” ITRR was hastily hired last year by the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security, just weeks before the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh.
(It’s not exactly news, but in these times of national budget woes it’s worth noting again: With the gusher of Homeland Security funding since 9/11, every state and numerous localities have formed their very own Mini-DHS’s pledged to defend their very own patch of the homeland. Austin Powers’s Mini-Me would be most proud of his pork-barrel protégés.)
The $103,000 annual contract called for ITRR to file reports three times per week about “credible threats” to “critical infrastructure.” ITRR apparently performed that contract to the letter—though its definitions of “credible” and “critical” may have been just slightly aggressive. But no matter, “intelligence bulletins” must be filed–and thrice weekly at that!
So ITRR began digging for threats—any threats. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, these included crowds expected at a Michael Moore film screening, gay activists promoting same-sex marriage, a protest against Arizona’s immigration law–and (shudders!) a rally against the mistreatment of a killer whale at a Florida aquarium. A particular favorite of ITRR’s monitoring: the budding environmental movement against natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale deposits.
Conveniently enough, ITRR sent some of the latter “intelligence bulletins” to companies planning to drill for the gas. In a memo leaked to the Post-Gazette, state Homeland Security Director James Powers, Jr. made his priorities (and profound understanding of “homeland security”) clear: “We want to continue providing support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against these same companies.”
But it was not just suspects on the Left who ITRR monitored. With three bulletins a week that must be written to keep the government checks rolling in, even an “intelligence” company must get creative. In fact, ITRR was an equal opportunity homeland defender—targeting activism of any political stripe. Its bulletins also covered tea partiers, gun rights proponents, right to life groups, and white supremacists.
All of this may seem a sideshow— a puny and pathetic one at that. A “deeply embarrassed” Governor Ed Rendell quickly terminated the company’s contract. Just as quickly, ITRR and its top officials dropped a Get Smart-style cone of silence around themselves.
But this case is in fact a microcosm of the whole “homeland security” cesspool. ITRR transformed legal political activity—the heart and soul of the homeland—into “credible threats.” It inflated nothing, literally nothing, into ominous “intelligence bulletins” emailed to various Pennsylvania government offices, corporate intelligence bureaus, and god knows who else.
It is little solace that a spokesperson for the state Attorney General claimed that his office saw “no value” in the bulletins and deleted them from in-boxes when they arrived. (For ITRR, of course, the value of those emails was $103,000 in taxpayer money.) Nor is it comforting that Gov. Ed Rendell felt shame—not when Pennsylvania doubtless has contracts with other similar outfits and the other 49 states certainly do as well.
But the bigger scandal is how the bottomless pit of “homeland security” dollars generates unstoppable demand for its own consumption. Consider the trillions spent or earmarked for “homeland security” and for the wars in Aghanistan and Iraq: When CIA Director Leon Panetta admitted a few months ago that “we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less” al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and when National Counterterrorism Center czar Michael Leiter asserted that there may be somewhat “more than 300” in Pakistan, the eye-poppingly irrational dollars-to-“terrorist” ratio caused no embarrassment and generated no outrage. Nor, of course, did the collateral carnage regularly wreaked by what Colin Powell has called our “terror industrial complex.”
There are just too many proud “defenders of the homeland,” like ITRR, feeding at the trough to end the waste. And in any case it is simple to invent a new existential threat–the latest in, of all places, Yemen, one of the poorest and most backward countries on earth.
But, in fact, portraying Yemen as a “national security threat” is easy in the current craven climate–even to a country with the world’s largest military spending and biggest economy. After all, for the last nine years we’ve been waging war to the tune of billions per year in Afghanistan, also one of the poorest and most backward countries on earth.
Keep that gravy train rolling–all the way from Scranton to Sana!


Tallying Collateral Damage

Earlier I blogged about the importance and absence of data disaggregating unintentional civilian deaths from total civilian deaths in wars worldwide. To get a preliminary handle on this question, I examined a dataset on civilian victimization developed by Alexander Downes at Duke University for his study on why governments target civilians in war. His dataset includes 100 interstate wars and runs from 1823-2003. It includes low, medium and high estimates for the number of civilian deaths for each party in each conflict, based on available secondary sources. It also includes a separate binary variable for whether there is evidence that governments targeted civilians directly. His not uncontroversial methodological appendices are here. Wars are coded as including evidence of intentional civilian victimization if hostilities included indiscriminate bombardment of urban areas, starvation blockades or sieges, massacres or forced relocation. Civilian deaths in wars not using these techniques can be roughly assumed to be unintentional, or “collateral damage.”*

So are unintentional civilian deaths trending up or down in absolute terms and / or as a percentage of all civilian deaths? This analysis – which is a rough first cut, mind you – suggests that collateral damage rather than war crimes may now constitute the majority of civilian deaths in international wars worldwide, and that the total number of collateral damage deaths is 20 times higher than at the turn of the last century.

The ratio of collateral damage victims to war crimes victims has dramatically increased since the end of the Cold War. According to Downes’ dataset, between 1823 and 1900, unintentional deaths constituted 17% of all deaths in war. Since 1990, that number has risen to 59%.

In other words, the majority of civilian deaths since 1990s have not been war crimes but have been perfectly legal “accidental” killings. Of course this could partly be a result of a decrease in direct targeting of civilians over time, which would be a good thing.

But collateral damage is not only increasing as a percentage of all civilian deaths.
The number of collateral damage victims is also increasing over time in absolute terms. Between 1823 and 1900, 84 civilians per year on average were the victims of collateral damage. Since 1990, the number is 1688 per year – a twenty-fold increase.

So it’s not just a question of collateral damage staying constant while war crimes drop. According to this data, at least, collateral damage is actually taking many more lives than ever before – despite purported increases in precision munitions.

What does this all mean? First, because this cut at the numbers is so rudimentary and so based on data designed to track actual civilian victimization rather than collateral damage, it seems crucial to gather some genuine data on the actual problem. Human rights and humanitarian law organizations should launch cross-national studies aimed at determining the actual numbers. They should also regularly disaggregate their civilian casualty data into intentional v. unintentional in their reporting.

But if these numbers are anywhere close to correct (and I suspect if anything they are conservative) this analysis suggests an urgent need for a rethinking the laws of war designed to protect civilians. In the 1970s, when the [added: Additional Protocols to the] Geneva Conventions were hashed out, a key concern of governments’ was to protect civilians from intentional attack. War crimes are dropping in part because international laws against targeting civilians are working. Collateral damage is increasing in part because of the absence of such clear-cut rules. It’s time for this to change.
*It’s a crude measure because in any given conflict, some civilians may be targeted directly and others may be “collateral damage;” but collateral damage counts here show up only for wars in which there was not also intentional civilian victimization. The data is also limited to interstate wars. But assuming Downes’ data is more or less accurate, we can derive a very conservative set of collateral damage numbers by tallying all civilian deaths for each war in which the state killing civilians was coded as not having done so intentionally. (I used the mid-level estimates in the dataset).


How Many of War’s Civilian Casualties are “Collateral Damage”?

This is an important question from a legal and humanitarian perspective.

In legal terms, targeting civilians is a war crime. Accidentally killing or maiming them in the pursuit of legitimate military objectives is, well, just too bad. So in judging government’s records of compliance with the law, one needs to measure the difference.

There are policy ramifications to such measurements as well. Over time, atrocities against civilians seem to be falling. But at the same time, some governments seem more complacent than ever about accidental deaths. The assumption behind the wiggle room in the law is that if countries do their best not to hit civilians, then collateral damage will always be the least of the problem for civilian populations. And perhaps this was true in earlier times. But what if in fact the majority of civilian deaths worldwide now come from these “accidents of war”? If so, this would suggest that the laws of war are woefully outdated – that even if fully implemented they do not, in fact, do enough to protect civilians. In that case, humanitarian organizations really should be in an uproar.

So what percentage of total civilian deaths are “collateral damage” and is this percentage trending up or down over time? I’ve begun investigating the answer as part of my current book project, and as far as I can tell, no one really knows. Human rights reporting generally doesn’t distinguish intentional from unintentional deaths, treating all civilian casualties as the tragedies that they are. Neither do academic tools such as the Dirty War Index or various datasets on conflict fatalities in general or civilian victimization. Even databases that count casualties for specific wars, like the Iraq Body Count, tend to break down the data into the type incident (suicide bombing v. shooting) rather than the intent of the perpetrator. And if a comprehensive study exists tracking unintentional civilian deaths worldwide, I haven’t heard of it.

So if any of you has, please let me know.


Drone Wars Kill on Average 33% Civilians

Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann published an analysis at the New America Foundation a couple of days ago on civilian deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan. Key points from the callout on the site:

“The Obama administration has dramatically ratcheted up the American drone program in Pakistan. Since President Obama took office, U.S. drone strikes have killed about a half-dozen militant leaders along with hundreds of others, a quarter of whom were civilians.”

Actually, the call-out understates the percentage of dead civilians: if you read the piece it looks like the study shows civilians comprise actually around 33% of those killed in drone strikes. That’s a third, not a quarter, folks.

Three other quick reactions below the fold, and more once I’ve had the chance to crunch some numbers of my own.

1) It’s good to see a measured analysis of collateral damage from drone deaths, since the numbers are wildly over or underreported by the parties to the conflict. Their Methodology is here; the Appendix with their data is here. We need some tracking like this for collateral damage at the global level. Unfortunately most studies of civilian deaths either aggregate all civilian deaths or focus on intentional deaths which are war crimes. It’s hard to know what percentage of all civilian deaths and injuries are “collateral damage” of this type, but it would be useful to ignite a policy discussion about acceptable levels of damage.

2) This goes to a second point of the article: the shaky legality of drone strikes. Unlike willfully targeting civilians, accidental harm to civilians is permitted by the law, as long as it’s proportionate to the military gains achieved by these strikes. So, does hitting militants in civilian areas constitute a “proportional” means of attack if you know approximately 1/3 of your victims are civilians? To me this seems unreasonably high, particularly since the drones are justified on the basis that they are more discriminate than other weapons systems. In legal terms, the problem is there’s not an internationally-agreed-upon means to judge proportionality. I wonder how Duck readers would answer this question.

3) Ethics aside, a related point is the political impact of so many civilian deaths, which has made US drone policy quite unpopular in Pakistan, even among those who would prefer the Taliban be driven out of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas; and they provide militants with ready-made propaganda fodder. Bergen and Tiedemann write:

While there is little doubt that the strikes have disrupted al Qaeda’s operations, the larger question is to what extent they may have increased the appeal of militant groups and undermined the Pakistani state. This is ultimately a lot more worrisome than anything that could happen in Afghanistan, given that Pakistan has dozens of nuclear weapons and is one of the world’s most populous countries.

Given that President Obama has expanded this drone program in the FATAs since he took office, it’s probably time we had a discussion of the costs and benefits, in human security and national security terms.


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