Thursday, 31 October 2013

Droning On: Amnesty and the efficacy of drone strikes

As the evidence I’ve previously presented shows: drones rarely kill civilians and they are quite effective at reducing terrorism. This shouldn’t be surprising: there is a general trend for Western military action to cause very little civilian loss and the latter proposition is only surprising to people who still believe in the idea of blowback. But two things have made me want to write this post: firstly, the report from Amnesty and secondly, laying out the evidence on effectiveness far more thoroughly than I previously had.

Amnesty International

The debate about drones is fundamentally about effectiveness and civilian causalities –and once those issues have been handled, the bulk of the debate is over – which is why I think the latest report by Amnesty doesn’t change much about that general debate. Glenn Greenwald stated that the report shows that the report shows ‘far more civilians than the USG claims’ have been killed. But thats been pretty much accepted by everyone outside of the US government. A meta-analysis showed the civilian casualty rate to be 8-17% (when you took out the lowest estimate). The main concern is civilian casualties not what the U.S says – and on that count, they are low. In fact, if you look at the appendix of the Amnesty report which lists drone strikes, only two (the ones documented below) are said to have killed civilians only (p.62).

The Amnesty report is not completely irrelevant as it can, however, raise specific incidents in attempt to spark a debate about those incidents. This is despite the general debate being settled. But it is my view that even in this narrower endeavour it fails. The report draws particular attention to two incidents: the drone strike on October 24 2012 which killed Mamana Bibi and the drone strike on 6 July 2012 which killed 18 individuals. Amnesty is, to its credit, aware of the limitations of their conclusions:

Because the US government refuses to provide even basic information on particular strikes, including the reasons for carrying them out, Amnesty International is unable to reach firm conclusions about the context in which the US drone attacks on Mamana Bibi and on the 18 laborers took place (p.8)

But, as we will see, this doesn’t go far enough. Mamana Bibi’s grandson told Amnesty that his grandmother was outside her home ‘gathering okra to cook that evening’ on October 24 2012. It was then that ‘before her family’s eyes, Mamana Bibi was blown into pieces by at least two Hellfire missiles’ (p.18-19). Amnesty states the following about the incident:

Witnesses and family members, interviewed separately and by different research teams at different times, all denied that any militants were anywhere near Mamana Bibi at the time of the attack. Amnesty International’s investigation found no evidence of military or armed group installations or fighters. (p.22)

It goes without saying that an innocent civilian’s death is regrettable. There does, however, seem to be more to the incident than Amnesty describe. The only thing that Amnesty cites that can be construed as a defence of the action is that a Pakistani source states there was signal intelligence which placed a Taliban fighter on a nearby road. Amnesty states that this is not enough to go on because (i) drones would have had time to see that Mamana Bibi was not a militant and (ii) the nearest roads were over 930ft away. I’m not sure how persuasive these responses really are (the first requires an assessment of the evidence and the second doesn’t seem relevant at all) – but that’s not the main thing thats wrong with their description.

After the drone strikes, source after source came out saying that there were militants not only in the area but were killed in the strike. As noted by the New America Foundation, different sources told CNN, AFP, Dawn, Associated Press and The News that militants had been killed. I stress that this (and everything that follows) is not conclusive. There are, however, two main reasons for siding with the New America Foundation over the Amnesty (and, unfortunately, the family of the victim). First, is the general trend of drone strikes and U.S military policy toward civilians. I have already written a full post on that so will only state the conclusion: U.S policy does not target civilians and does everything to minimise the loss of civilian life.

Second is a fact that Amnesty draws attention to. The reliability of witnesses is in doubt particularly on the question of whether militants are in the area (this response is, for reasons that will become apparent, extremely pertinent to the next incident). Amnesty gives the following example of a drone strike on 24 May 2012:

It is virtually impossible for residents to complain to the authorities about armed groups. For example, four foreign fighters and four local Taliban were killed instantly in a village in Esso Khel when a series of drone strikes hit the building they were resting in on the evening of 24 May 2012. While local residents confirmed details of the incident, most refused to confirm the presence of these fighters or whether they had any choice about them residing in their village (p.34)

There are no good reasons for thinking that the situation changes when Amnesty and their researchers enter the town, it remains ‘virtually impossible’ for people to share what really happened. Additionally, we know that militants were operating in Tappi over the long term, using the area as a shelter. Again, I stress this only gives good, not conclusive, reasons for discounting the Amnesty account.

Amnesty’s account of July 6 2012 incident has the same shortfalls. According to Amnesty a ‘group of laborers from Zowi Sidgi village had gathered at a tent after a long day of work in the summer heat’ (p.24). Then multiple drones carried out strikes against the individuals in this tent. After this first strike, individuals gathered to ‘search for survivors.’ A few minutes after this initial strike, more strikes were carried out and killed, according the Amnesty account, 18 people – going on to state:

All of the people who spoke to Amnesty International – each interviewed separately in detail and at different times and locations to corroborate testimony as accurately as possible – were adamant that all of those killed in the strikes were ordinary villagers, not fighters, and that none had engaged in attacks against US or Pakistani forces. Most of the victims worked as labourers (p.26)

In this incident the two reasons why we should discount the Amnesty account converge. According to the New York Times account of the incident:

At least 15 people suspected of being Taliban militants were killed by an American drone strike late Friday in northwestern Pakistan, according to a Pakistani intelligence official and local residents.

This goes to underscore the point about the reliability of the witnesses that Amnesty interviews. This is not just a general accusation about the reliability of witnesses but clear inconsistency. Aside from local residents, as the New America Foundation notes different sources – including ‘local tribesman’ - told AFP, The Guardian and Dawn that militants were killed in this attack. To really reinforce the point – and to give explanation for the second strike - compare these two statements from the Amnesty account and the New York Times:

Local residents said that soon after the strike Taliban militants cordoned off the area around the compound and searched for bodies in the debris (New York Times)

While residents said the area is not under the direct control of any armed group, it is not effectively governed by the Pakistani state either. Residents of Zowi Sidgi said some locals were sympathetic to the Taliban (Amnesty, p.26).

The last factual element of the report is about the effect of drone strikes on the Pakistani population. Amnesty quotes an individual stating the following:

“Local tribal people generally live in fear and stress and feel psychological pressure. They think they could be the target of a drone attack because wrong information might be given to drone operators” (p.31)

This is quite strange because I have only seen one poll asking about the accuracy of drone strikes and the results do not confirm this at all. A poll carried out by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy carried out a poll of those that lived under drone strikes and found the following:

– Do you see drone attacks bringing about fear and terror in the common people? (Yes 45%, No 55%)
– Do you think the drones are accurate in their strikes? (Yes 52%, No 48%)
– Do you think anti-American feelings in the area increased due to drone attacks recently? (Yes 42%, No 58%)

There is no doubt that if you poll across Pakistan, the last result is the opposite. But the quoted results do align with a general trend of other accounts and academic papers of people who actually live under the Taliban and other Al Qaeda affiliated groups (i.e., those who live under drone strikes).  The Economist recently went around the area and found that ‘surprising number of Pakistanis’ (‘many’) support drone strikes. Hussain Nadim found the similar results when asking individuals who actually suffer under the Taliban as he wrote in Foreign Policy:

Although no official polls have been conducted in Balochistan due to the lack of access in the area, I conducted an unofficial survey of 1,500 people from Balochistan, of which only 38% had a negative stance towards the United States.

While these reports should bring some comfort to people who support the use of drones, they should not be used as a determining factor in supporting strikes. If the question of efficacy (handled below) and civilian casualties (handled in these posts and above) is sorted to put it as diplomatically as I can: we must act in self-defence regardless and by ‘we’ I do not just mean the West.

Efficacy of drone strikes

There are two separate positions on drone strikes – the first is that they lead to radicalisation and thus further militancy and the second is that they reduce violence. For breadth, both claims will be handled quantitatively and qualitatively – and in proving the second, the first is further weakened.  

The academic literature and research on drones is fairly conclusive on the first question: drones do not lead to blowback. In a meta-analysis of the available research (specifically) on drones, Walsh (2013) concludes ‘from the existing research is that drone strikes that result in civilian deaths appear to have little relationship with subsequent insurgent violence’ (p.45). His own research is consistent with this view. By ‘plotting the number of civilians killed in drone strikes along with the number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan,’ Walsh finds that ‘no clear patterns emerge[s]’ (p.32).

The qualitative element of this first point has been handled before and I will not repeat it (needless to say that the poll results quoted above are further evidence of the positions I have previously outlined: people do not suddenly become militant when they perceive themselves to be wronged). But both elements lead to the same conclusion stated by Aaron Y Zelin in Foreign Policy: ‘there is scant evidence that drones strikes have been mobilizing AQC to conduct attacks in response.’

On the question of whether the drone strikes reduce violence, Johnson and Sarbahi find that ‘drone strikes are associated with decreases in both the frequency and the lethality of militant attacks overall and in IED and suicide attacks specifically.’ Walsh own research finds that (i) pre-2011, the relationship between drones strikes and terrorist activity is the converse of what is claimed (thereby proving the first statement to be correct) and (ii) post-2011, drones strikes lead to a decline in terrorist activity:

[Until early 2011...] the pattern is one in which increases in terrorism are followed by more drone strikes. Something similar characterizes the data for Pakistan through 2010. After this date, though, a spike in drone strikes is closely associated with a decline in terrorist activity, suggesting that drones may have had their desired effect.

It’s worth stressing that drones were intensified in the periods where Walsh finds that they had their deterrent effect. Despite these two findings Walsh’s meta-analysis of available research (which includes the aforementioned empirical findings) states that ‘research efforts have not yet produced a consen­sus on how drones influence insurgent organizations’ and that ‘between drone strikes and terrorist attacks in Pakistan are quite variable’ (p.38, 46). This conclusion still supports the first proposition but not the second.

Why has Walsh concluded, contrary to his own findings and Johnson and Sarbahi, that it has little positive effect? Because of a paper by Jaeger and Siddique which finds that drone strikes have different effects on different organisations in Pakistan – including negative effects. My view is that less weight should be given to this paper for two reasons – firstly because as Walsh notes ‘Jaeger and Siddique’s findings on these relationships are not very robust’ (p.38) and secondly because it is inconsistent with the wider academic literature. Indeed, when we look at the academic literature outside of drone use, we see that wiping militants out works.

Instead of just linking to two old posts which show that this is the case, the study undertaken by Johnson which looks at 90 counter-insurgencies since 1970 finds that

when militant leaders are captured or killed militant attacks decrease, terrorist campaigns end sooner, and their outcomes tend to favor the government or third-party country, not the militants

Bearing in mind that ‘an estimated 3,300 al Qaeda, Taliban, and other jihadist operatives in Pakistan and Yemen’ have been killed, the second proposition seems to be a reasonable conclusion on the basis of all the quantitative evidence.[1] The qualitative evidence is just as clear and answers the questions as to why violence in FATA is still so frequent. The International Crisis Group in their report on drones makes the following conclusion:

The main causes for the spread of militancy in FATA are not drone strikes but domestic factors. These include the absence of the state and insecurity due to resulting og political, legal and economic vacuum; and the military's support of, provision of sanctuaries to, and peace deals with militant groups (p.24)

This really shouldn’t be controversial: not only is it the conclusion of our very own MI5, rather surprisingly it is the conclusion of The Guardian. In an editorial they state that

The public discourse in Pakistan suffers from a false binary that the TTP is a function of the drone strikes. The challenge it poses the state is more fundamental than that. Fundamentalism is a product of decades of official complicity, cowardice and appeasement. Sooner or later, Mr Sharif will be forced to realise that. Until then, he is merely kicking the can down the road.

It must have been Seamus Milne’s day off. Incidentally, this is exactly the same as the academic literature on the terrorist campaign in Yemen. Gregory Johnsen has repeatedly stated drones have increased Al Qaeda membership in Yemen on the basis of interviews he conducted. This is wrong not only because of the academic literature of drone strikes and leader incapacitation and the far larger samples of interviewers who found the opposite result but because it ignores the real causes of increased militancy.

Watts and Cillufo (2012) in a brilliant paper note that ‘several phenomena occurring outside Yemen’s borders have been the primary catalyst for AQAP’s emergence.’ First, after the Surge took effect in Iraq, foreign fighters returned home – and for many fighting in Iraq, home was Yemen. Second, Saudi military operations pushed AQ members from Saudi Arabia to Yemen. Third, the ‘intermittent military commitment’ of the Yemeni military has helped Al Qaeda. As Peter Bergen notes when the Yemeni military, in conjunction with the use of drones, conducts military operations Al Qaeda ‘lost all of these gains within about a year.’ Watts and Cillufo conclude the ‘logic behind this assertion [i.e., Johnsen’s] appears horribly backwards.’


[1] One further study which helps support this conclusion (beyond the vast academic literature in my previous posts) is this Journal of Conflict Resolution paper which finds that ‘(1) when the leader of a rebel group is captured or killed, wars are 398 percent more likely to end, (2) conflicts are less likely to end while rebel groups are being led by their founder.’ The reason that this is not quoted in the main body is that this study is specifically about leaders but the logic, it is submitted, is the same. Indeed, even if it weren’t, 51 militant leaders have been knocked out. 

Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Fall of the Soviet Union and Suicide Bombing

Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 by Leon Aron (Yale University Press, 2012), pp.483

The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters and Other Self-Destructive Killers by Adam Lankford (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp.272

This post will be kind-of-reviewing the two books listed above. I say kind-of-reviewing because the review of the first book is more of an overview but with a few comments. The reason for the overview is twofold: first I think the book’s arguments can and should be used in future debates. Second, it is the approach of the first book that shows how wrong the second book really is. This is despite the fact they have no similarities aside from attempting to provide qualitative accounts of their subject matters (the Russian Revolution in 1991 and the trend of suicide bombers).

Roads to the Temple

The reason why I own and read this book is, I hope, obvious: I want to learn lessons from the Russian experience of bringing down unabashed socialism so that when Ed comes to power, I know how to act. Just kidding, I’m not a maniac. The real reason is because Leon Aron wrote one of my favourite essays. In that essay published in Foreign Policy, Aron persuasively rejected the material explanations for the Fall of the Soviet Union and stated that it was a ‘intellectual and moral quest’ undertaken by writers, intellectuals and then the population

beginning with a merciless moral scrutiny of the country's past and present [which] within a few short years hollowed out the mighty Soviet state, deprived it of legitimacy, and turned it into a burned-out shell that crumbled in August 1991.

Roads to the Temple is an elaboration of this essay and it doesn’t disappoint. Aron is now the author of not just one of my favourite essays but one of my favourite non-fiction books. The book is an attempt to explain the collapse of the Soviet state as a result of the ideological change that warped the country in the aftermath of Glasnost policy which, finally, allowed a modicum of freedom of speech and press.

First, Aron seeks to explain why the economic and (materially) political factors were not significant in the downfall. As he points out, ‘no key parameter of economic performance prior to 1985 pointed to a rapidly advancing disaster’; GDP while slowing was still at a respectable 1.9% throughout the period (p.13). None of this should be taken as endorsing Soviet economic policy, merely that the material conditions cannot be a persuasive explanation for what happened and particularly how it happened.[1]

Incidentally, you’ll find the same record if you look at Arab countries prior to the Arab Spring in 2011. GDP growth slowed – not least in the aftermath of the 2008 – but their growth levels were not different from the late 90s and earlier 2000s (see here). That the economic explanation for the Arab Spring seems wrong is apparent when you ask the people themselves: 59% of Egyptians say the main reason for the uprising was freedom and human rights, only 25% say economic. This is in line with empirical evidence (which Aron unfortunately doesn’t quote). As Jay Ulfield, a brilliant forecaster of regime downfalls has said:

Statistical forecasting of democratic transitions supports the supposition that, far more than leadership change or a slumping economy, the mobilization of nonviolent uprisings is what could tip China toward deep political reform

But it is not just the empirical record that shows that arguments like this are lacking – it is the approach itself, the ‘structuralist approach.’ As Aron explains structuralists ‘emphasise [the] state... as collective political actors’ and the causes of social revolutions are ‘traced back to state’s inability... to effect the necessary economic, social and political reforms.’ The main point is that these events are ‘independent of (or ‘exogenous to’) people and people’s ideas.’ This is a Weberian development on Marx’s historical materialism - the idea that the ‘causal scheme is centred on the ‘forces of production’ (the economic system)’ (p.16-17). The reason this approach fails?

If a revolutionary process is represented by a line on which letters from... a to d mark the stages of the revolution from first stirrings to triumph, the structuralist approach may be very helpful in uncovering what happened in the c-to-d stretch [but not...] what happens between a and c...

There were plenty of structural reasons why the Soviet Union should have collapsed but these fail to explain fully how it happened. In explaining the Soviet collapse we have no choice but to stray outside the universe of the ‘objective’ factors and take into consideration the enormous and subversive influence of ideas (p.17-18).

It is Aron’s approach that makes this book great. The structuralist idea has permeated public discourse. It exists in the idea that crime or terrorism is caused by poverty or foreign policy, that the choices of individuals are of little relevance. It is clear from my posts that I have an issue with structuralism (see my post on the riots and every single one of my posts on terrorism). The reason English law has given is because it ignores the role of an individual’s ‘free, informed and deliberate action’ and the authorship of that act (a view I adhere to). Aron says much the same:  ‘it is ‘ideas and actors’ rather than structures... that are the primary engines of revolution.’ As Issiah Berlin has stated

these great movements began with ideas in people’s heads... We cannot confine our attention to impersonal forces, natural and man-made, which act upon us (p.18-9).

It is these ideas that ‘provide alternatives to the current view’ and explain how ‘pre-revolutionary situations become revolutionary crises’ (p.20). Freedom of speech allowed ‘every institution – political economic and social – to be subjected to trial by truth and conscience’ (p.51). It is following this process of self-discovery and criticism that surveys showed ‘solid majorities favour some key features of liberal capitalism’ (p.32-3).

Aron then engages in a comprehensive social history of the change of ideas. So comprehensive is Aron’s study – it is based on ‘8,000 pages of Russian originals: newspapers, magazines and books’ (p.4) – that it is better described as a rigorous qualitative study. Prior to Glasnost, it was not just the concealment of the truth but the ‘hourly construction and maintenance of a parallel, brilliant reality’ (p.64). The first element of the qualitative study, then, is justifiably targeted the Russian people, ‘relearning Soviet history became a national pastime’ (p.72).

Aron  spends three chapters on the deconstruction of the myths of the Soviet Union – each page of these chapters tries to move away from the monotonous history that everyone knows to fascinating details that were being published in newly liberated Soviet papers. Each Soviet construction crumbles:  the myth of outstanding healthcare (‘the number of scalpels made in the country was 62% of the amount needed’ (p.119)); the myth that the U.S paled USSR poverty levels (‘131 million people, or 46% of Soviet citizens were [earning around $200 per month]’ (p.127)); the myth of technological development (‘India was said to have more paved roads’ (p.136)); the myth of worker efficiency (the Soviet worker ‘had to labor 10-15 times [longer] for eggs, 18-25 times for bananas and oranges’ (p.137)).

In the third part of the book, the question of who is to blame for this state of affairs is handled. For Russian intellectuals and the people the blame lay with Stalin and  Marxist-Leninist ideology. Stalin’s death didn’t affect his legacy which was found ‘in the economic, political and ideological and moral threads that riddled the society’ (p.200). The ‘cause of communism’ justified everything for Stalin (p.219) – and here ‘everything’ included the consequences described above. This ideological framework had two fundamental consequences: ‘de-individualisation’ and the complete control of the economy.

‘De-individualisation’ or the ‘nationalisation of conscience’ was a process by which the people lost their rights to define their own interests, autonomy and rights to liberty. One cause of this illiberal process was directly related to an orthodox interpretation of Marxist thought:

His [the Soviet man’s] “petty bourgeois” insistence on a better life now and for himself was an impediment to history’s glorious future for all. [It was based on] the coming of the kingdom of peace and justice (p.212-3).[2]

The Soviet economy – based on centralisation and nationalisation of the means of production – was also a cause of the deepening misery of the people. It was both a cause of the de-individualisation and a consequence. The political act of de-individualisation can only be completed by taking away of people’s private property and the scope to take control of their own lives – which inevitably leads to nationalisation of property (p.206-7). But, similarly, the economic control (which led to de-individualisation) was a ‘fundamental principle’ of the ideology (p.202).

The solution, realised by the populous and printed in newspapers, was a liberal democracy: ‘the individual was not to be the means of the party-state’s aims but a key objective himself’ and they were the rightful ‘subject[s] of the national economy’ (p.272-3). And this was translated into the political sphere: Yeltsin called for the regime to be dismantled. The Communist Party, of course, stood in the way but by now, the legitimacy of liberal democracy had made their position untenable:

The revolution culminated in August 1991 in the rallies and strikes throughout Russia in support of Gorbachev and Yeltsin against the communist coup.[3]

Despite a couple of minor gripes[4], this is, without question, one of the best non-fiction books I have read. Aside from my point above about the Arab Spring, I have only one more comment to make. Last year Chris Dillow and the late Norman Geras were debating about free speech. Norm echoing John Stuart Mill stated

It is a commonplace of political liberalism that discussion and debate are good; we learn through considering different points of view, including those to which we are opposed.

Chris Dillow disagreed:

Discussion and debate lead not so much to learning as the mere exchange of prejudice. Free speech gives us not a rational pursuit of truth but rather the mindless and often dishonest venting... Mill's defence of free speech seems to have been a rationalist Victorian optimism which isn't supported by the evidence.

And, as if by magic, the New York Times had a summary of the evidence of what happened when people were exposed to opposing views in that same week:

You might expect that people’s views would soften and that divisions between groups would get smaller. That is not what usually happens. On the contrary, people’s original beliefs tend to harden and the original divisions typically get bigger. Balanced presentations can fuel unbalanced views.

Above I referred to Roads to the Temple as a qualitative study – and I did so deliberately. This book supports the idea that free speech matters – it changed the views and then the actions of the Russian people. The studies that Chris cites are evidence of what seem to be short term confirmation bias. When confronted with the truth consistently, with good evidence and outside of short term lab conditions where results don’t matter, Norm and Mill are right. Recent human development – the constant moral progress, declining war and crime, the rise of liberalism and the decline of religion - is a testament to their correctness. Rest in peace, Norm.

Myth of Martyrdom

This was a disappointing book. Lankford is arguing against the prevailing view in the academic literature on the psychology of suicide terrorists. These are not normal terrorists but specifically the three percent who kill themselves as well as others (p.12). As Lankford explains:

[Experts] made the logical leap that in terms of their psychology, suicide terrorists were essentially just like ordinary people. “Sure, the 9/11 highjackers had extreme political and religious beliefs,” the experts admitted. But were they unstable? No. Were they suicidal? No (p.4)

Lankford believes that the “experts got it wrong” (p.2). And on his main thesis, he is right that the experts overstated that view. Robert Pape for example claims that in his study into suicide terrorists he ‘found no documented mental illness, such as depression, psychosis or past suicide attempts’ (p.29). Lankford notes the absurdity of such a position:

How likely is it that you could walk into a room with 462 people anywhere on the globe and not a single depressed person would be present? [The odds are] 1 in 19,574,665,823... Either Pape has unintentionally discovered that suicide bombing is the most remarkable cure for... mental illness or something is seriously wrong with his so-called “comprehensive and reliable research.” (p.30)

Lankford draws on a study carried out by Ariel Merari whose research looked at 12 regular terrorists (that is non-suicide bombers) and 15 suicide bombers who were stopped. The results show that Pape is wrong: 53.3% of would-be suicide bombers had depressive tendencies compared with 8.3% in regular terrorists; 20% of them had post traumatic stress disorder compared to 0%; 13.3% previous suicide attempts compared to 0%.

Clearly, despite Merari’s small sample, this is enough to disprove Pape’s idea that there are no documented cases of past suicide attempts or instances of depression. But Lankford goes beyond this and suggests that it is part of the explanation for terrorism. Lankford is clearly aware of the study carried out by Bryan and Araj (2012) (he quotes it on p.50) – and yet does not take their criticisms seriously. Here is what they say in their response to Merari:

Merari finds that one of four respondents who tried to activate their explosive device displayed suicidal tendencies in interviews, compared to five of eleven respondents who did not try to activate their explosive device. [But taking into account the margin of error] there is no statistically significant difference between the two categories of respondents in terms of their likelihood of displaying suicidal tendencies (p.435).

This severely weakens an attempt at ‘explaining’ terrorism using mental illness. Moreover, as Lankford rightly notes, even if we take Merari’s findings at face value, it is still only half of suicide terrorists that have depressive tendencies.[5] Lankford’s mistake is ignoring the role of ideas in these individuals. Clearly mental illness does not cause terrorism (not even Lankford makes this claim) and clearly it is not a necessary component in suicide terrorism (as Merari’s research shows). Indeed, it doesn’t even seem to follow trends of suicide terrorism (the author notes that there has been a 300% increase in suicide terrorism between 2001 and 2010 on p.20 – but there is likely no tangible difference in (i) incidence of mental illness compared with other countries and (ii) change over time in the Middle East itself, ignoring the issue of home-grown terrorists – see here).

Rather, the main cause is the acceptance of the idea that terrorism is an acceptable form of conduct and is essential to fight that forms a necessary and sufficient explanation (see here for evidence and elaboration). Indeed, Lankford is right note it is a misconception to say that ‘suicidal people are crazy and irrational’ – as he notes, ‘there is a broad spectrum of people who struggle with suicidal urges and mental health problems... [some] have no grasp of rationality, but many [do]’ (p.31). But he doesn’t seem to realise that this means that the suicide-terrorist population, then, is able to have individuals committed to the cause who happen to be suicidal – and hence in terms of explaining their actions or culpability, there is no difference. And this fits in with the statistics: 5% of the general population are depressed and roughly half of the 3% of terrorists who attempt to blow themselves up are depressed.

If we ignored this ideological element, these individuals could kill themselves in their rooms but they choose not to – why? Lankford claims that the answer lies in the cultural stigma of suicide:

When a community strongly condemns conventional suicide as a certain path to hell, it virtually disappears as potential escape route. And when a significant percentage of people believe that suicide terrorism is justified, a new door opens for desperate individuals (p.153)

I have argued against this idea before: as the research on attitudes to suicide terrorism shows, there is no significant difference between communities around the world. Israeli Jews are 1% more likely to approve compared with Palestinians – and way above both groups are Mormon Americans. Lankford’s argument does not fit with the empirical record (presented above and in these two posts) and inevitably requires him to rely on cultural views in one respect (on suicide) but ignore it in another (on suicide terrorism).

Aside from the aforementioned empirical research and failings, Lankford has to contend with a further point. If suicide terrorists are stopped from committing plain suicide in their rooms because of the religious sanctions, we would expect them to have high religiosity. But they do not. Faiza Patel in Rethinking Radicalisation notes that ‘the religiosity-terrorism connection is simply not borne out by empirical research’ (p.10) – and an there is an indirect connection according to Lankford.[6] That Lankford is wrong is shown in another way. In his chapter on the psychology of the 9/11 terrorists he says the following:

Other members of Atta’s group acknowledged their sexual desires, flirted with women on the street [in Las Vegas] and even boasted of sexual conquests... sometimes it is those who appear to be most repressed on inhibited who are actually most likely to engage in risky sexual behaviours (p.78)

Lankford posits that culture presents a closed door for people who want to kill themselves – and the only way they can is through terrorism and so ‘a new door opens for desperate individuals’ – and yet, the culture against promiscuity doesn’t stop terrorists from having premarital sex. This makes yet another thing that Lankford has to ignore to sustain his argument. As these criticisms build, it is unsurprising why the view of the ‘experts’ which Lankford derides stands in stark contrast to his view.  

Still, Lankford is extremely consistent in his view so much so that he applies his reasoning to Oprah Winfrey. But this wrong-headed consistency goes to show how much Lankford is ignoring ideas. Oprah’s destiny – nor a terrorists -  was not decided by her own views, deliberations and actions. Lankford states that she attempted suicide after finding out that she was pregnant (out of wedlock) and wanted to avoid her father’s disapproval. He goes on to say:

Oprah Winfrey is not a suicide bomber... But if a teenage Oprah had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, she may have snuck out of her house, filmed a martyrdom video, cursed the infidels, strapped explosives to her chest and blown herself up (p.51)

At times Lankford seems to contradict himself or is not clear enough to understand. He (rightly) rejects the ‘foreign policy’ causes terrorism viewpoint (p.160). But he does believe there is a link because of the (i) psychological effects of war which increase suicidal people and (ii) the influx of weapons. If my criticism of his view above is convincing then we can clearly reject even this indirect argument about foreign policy – however the reason I raise the point is for two reasons. Firstly, inexplicably, he goes on to state to ‘these types of conflict will likely boost social approval of suicide terrorism against nearby enemies’ (p.161). This is an empirically false statement (see, in particular, the reduction in support for terrorism following Operation Cast Lead).

Secondly is a non-empirical point. Lankford’s prose throughout the book is barbed against his opponents – and even more than that, he believes their work brings happiness to terrorists:

You’re a terrorist leader. In front of you sits stacks of newspapers from around the world. You can’t believe your good fortune... You couldn’t have hired a better publicist. [The world’s leading academic scholars] say that suicide terrorists are psychologically normal and their attacks are caused by West’s military occupation of your lands... And you laugh. (p.38-9)

It is as though Paul Krugman wrote a book about suicide terrorism. But the point I’m making is this: Lankford’s views on foreign policy – both as an indirect cause and then his empirically false statement about support – is exactly the kind of thing that makes terrorists ‘laugh.’ Lankford should not be so barbed if he is then going to say the same thing. At times the author makes other ill judgments and extrapolates on the basis of facts where he really shouldn’t. He says ‘powerful evidence that suicide terrorists’ are not psychologically normal can come from ‘Zuheir’ (a single individual) on page 48.  In an attempt to show that a terrorist was suicidal, he cites her statement that ‘she [the terrorist] should have died in [her dead brother’s] place’ (p.56).  He even starts whole paragraphs of speculation knowing what he is doing (p.79).

Finally, the book is extremely badly written and filled with self-aggrandisement – it not only as though Paul Krugman wrote the book but also Nick Hornby. Here are a few of the stellar statements that are representative of the books cringe-worthy writing style:

Answers are sexy and true enlightenment can be orgasmic (p.148)

As Michael Jackson explained in his critically acclaimed song “Man in the Mirror” sometimes the best you can help others is to “take a look at yourself, and then make a change” (p.154)

I wrote that “the best scenario might be if [Bin Laden] is killed by soldiers in a surprise attack...” Looking back, these words now appear prophetic. If Bin Laden wanted to see what was coming... maybe he should have read my book (p.152).

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Civilians in Post-9/11 Wars and U.S Policy

One of my earliest posts argued against those who claimed that the U.S was offered Bin Laden on a plate in September 2001. This idea wasn’t particularly popular - it was restricted to elements of the “anti-imperialist left”. The argument handled below is somewhat more pervasive – you may even hear it in a pub.  It is the idea that the U.S (and more broadly, Western) military does not care about civilians when operating in war zones. This, it is claimed amounts to what is in effect a policy of targeting civilians either through wilful actions or gross negligence. 

To deal with some admin: I want to make clear that I am really only talking about U.S actions in the last decade or so. This is for brevity not necessarily because I want to avoid the issue of pre-9/11 actions. The end-notes are elaborations, the sources are contained with the text itself.

Kahl (2007) in International Security gives us a framework for evaluating whether the norm of not killing civilians is being violated:

[The] three types of measures... used here to assess the degree of U.S. military compliance with the norm of non-combatant immunity [are] (1) levels of civilian casualties (an indirect measure); (2) conduct during military operations; and (3) responses to instances of noncompliance (p.10)


The first is a relatively easy argument to make and I have made it several times: in Afghanistan, coalition forces are responsible for less than 14% of civilians deaths so far in 2013 (a consistent trend). In Iraq, Kahl estimates that coalition forces were responsible for roughly 10% for the period 2003-2006 (p.11-2). A more recent study by King’s College London for the period 2003-2008 found coalition forces responsible for 12% of civilian casualties [1]. In relation to drone strikes, a meta-analysis of several estimates found that, if you take out the lowest estimate, the civilian toll is between 8% and 17%.  If the world’s most powerful militaries had a wilful policy of killing civilians, they are failing miserably. But the argument that the policy exists by way of negligence may still be correct which is where we use conduct and responses to instances of non-compliance.

Note that the mere killing of civilians is not sufficient to warrant moral condemnation. As will be obvious from the second and third sections below, while the loss of life is regrettable, it often comes about because of militant activities (operating in civilian areas, not wearing uniforms) and the fog of war which can lead to errors. Even these errors should not be morally blameworthy – soldiers must act according to the best evidence and it is simply a fact of war that acting reasonably and making reasonable assessments can lead to the death of civilians (see particularly section three, sub-section one). In essence, these are R v Pagget situations.

Why are the casualties so low? Partly because of improvements in technology which mean that we can avoid civilian casualties. Our weapons are becoming more and more sophisticated which allows for precision. The overwhelming majority of munitions used in Iraq and Afghanistan are precision guided (p.21). But this is not the main reason. There has been a radical change in the internalisation of the rules of engagement:

Military culture is institutionalized, routinized, and reproduced in several ways, including education and training, career incentives, doctrine and war plans, budgetary priorities, procurement programs, and even force structures (p.38)

Military conduct

One of the ways we see this military culture of protecting civilians is through their conduct (other examples of post-operation matters which indicate that this culture exists will be handled in the third section). In the run up to the Iraq War, Kahl points out that

every potential target was vetted by judge advocates for compliance with the Law of War before it got on the list, and then vetted again after the list was complete. Certain operations directed against Saddam Hussein’s regime were deemed off limits if they targeted civilians or risked producing disproportionate damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure. Early in the planning process, the Pentagon drew up “no-strike” lists that included schools, mosques, sensitive cultural sites, hospitals, water treatment facilities, power plants, and other elements of the civilian infrastructure (p.16)

These efforts have even been noted by Human Rights Watch. In their report on the invasion stage of the Iraq War concluded that ‘U.S.-led Coalition forces took precautions to spare civilians and, for the most part, made efforts to uphold their legal obligations’ (p.5) The HRW report goes on to list worries in the targeting of dual-use buildings, particularly media buildings but that remains their main conclusion (p.54).

Even after the invasion stage, U.S military policy attempts to mitigate against civilian casualties. Kahl notes that before targeting, there is a standard ‘collateral damage estimation method’ (CDEM) which involves assessing the target’s military use, alternatives in terms of weaponry and attack, the number of civilians in the area that are likely to be killed and then authorisation from senior personnel. During air phase of combat in Iraq, each target ‘had been vetted by dedicated intelligence officers and reviewed three or four times by judge advocates for potential Law of War violations’ (p.18).

Authorisation is required for operations which lead to ‘high collateral damage.’ Where this was the case, the military took steps to avoid civilian casualties – for example through carrying out operations at times civilian numbers were low. And, unsurprisingly, it worked: both a ‘study by Human Rights Watch and a RAND study commissioned by the U.S. Air Force suggest that there were not significant numbers of civilian casualties from preplanned strikes’ (p.18). This same policy is reflected in U.S rules of engagement and unplanned operations: everything from surveillance drones going ahead to identify civilians to the policy of warning shots. General McChrystal enhanced these rules in Afghanistan. As the Los Angeles Times reported, 'commanders could not fire on buildings or other sites where they had reason to think civilians might be present unless their own forces were in imminent danger of being overrun.’

Further indirect evidence is provided by the fact that the military does not use artillery systems in urban centres. As ‘artillery systems have a large radius of destruction’ firing them would lead to a higher loss of civilian life - which is why it is avoided (p.20). Kahl goes through countless ‘mitigation techniques’ – this covers minor things like avoiding operations during the day, different attack angles to avoid civilian areas, giving pre-warning to civilians etc. etc.

It might be said that all of this is propaganda, some chump academics got fooled into printing the faux procedures and studies into compliance. This would be an error as it’s simply too farfetched to suggest so: we see these procedures play out not just in the numbers, correspondent accounts, rules of engagement, weaponry use and peer reviewed studies – but from accounts where they are simply mentioned as an after-thought.  Here are a few of my favourite examples:

1.     President Obama was presented with several plans for knocking Bin Laden off when his hideout was discovered. One of the plans included using ‘a pair of B-2 bombers to drop “a few dozen 2,000-pound bombs” on the compound.’ As Spencer Ackerman (who has recently deservedly moved to The Guardian) noted ‘the plan was called off, for [inter alia] fear of civilian casualties’
2.      In 2007, the U.S thought it had located Bin Laden. The New York Times reported that ‘The military set into motion one of the largest strike missions of its kind, with long-range bombers, attack helicopters, artillery and commandos.’ The strike was called off, not only because of doubts about intelligence but because of ‘concerns about civilian casualties from the bombs.’
3.   This one isn’t from the U.S military but it’s still a favourite of mine because it shows that Seamus Milne is brazen with his sources. Milne, in an attempt to malign the British military linked to a database of UK drone usage in order to show how they “deliver death and destruction in Afghanistan”. That database actually showed constant suspension of military operations where even a single civilian life was in danger.

Given the data, procedures, studies, weaponry use etc., is it likely that these accounts are false? Before moving on to the final section, I want to discount one prominent example. ‘Collateral Murder’ was perhaps one Wikileaks’ first big exposes – and it is claimed to support the meme that I am arguing against - except it supports what I’m saying. Here is what Julian Assange said when confronted with the fact that there were men with AK47s and RPGs in the group on the Colbert Report:

Colbert: What were these men doing in the streets carrying rifles and rocket propelled grenades?
Assange: ... The permission to engage was given before the word RPG was ever used.

This is misleading for several reasons. First, in the first few minutes of the video, several men are identified as having AK47s and “weapons” (at 00:27). It was then that permission to engage was sought – and only then. Second, there are good reasons for thinking that the reference to “weapons” was a reference to RPGs. U.S military personnel ask over the radio who requested permission to engage and Hotel Crazyhorse One Eight responded:

I just also wanted to make sure you knew that we had a guy with an RPG cropping round the corner getting ready to fire on your location. That's why we ah, requested permission to engage (15:28).

There had been a fire-fight in the area (something Assange tries to downplay by calling it a “small-arms skirmish”) – why wouldn’t you request permission to engage with these combatants? Civilians were killed but as collateral damage, they were not targeted and it does not show – in any sense – “murder”. It is a video of military personnel following procedures and engaging combatants. How wide-spread is this commitment to not killing civilians? The evidence above indicates that it’s extremely widespread but there is one further which, when taken with all of the information so far given, confirms the argument I’m making:

4 percent of soldiers and 7 percent of Marines reported unnecessarily hitting or kicking a non-combatant, and 5 percent of soldiers and 7 percent of Marines reported a willingness to ignore ROE to accomplish a mission (Kahl, p.33)

These figures are too high but they at least go to show that the procedures outlined above are internalised by more than 93% of military personnel. And sure, it’s a survey of the soldiers - that comes with all the disadvantages of polls you learned in your sociology class. But again, given all this information, isn’t it likely that the gist of what it conveys is true?

Responses to norm violations

This is a good point to point out what I am categorically not saying: I am not saying that the U.S always adheres to the procedures given above. The U.S military falls short of them – while the US military is reluctant to use artillery in residential areas, it has used them (they are still directed at military targets but just placed in residential areas). Human Rights Watch makes an arguable – but still convincing - case that the use of other weapons would be more proportionate (see p.91-2 for a criticism of British military). Members of the military have engaged in interpreting merely suspicious activity as hostile – Kahl notes that the use of a phone has led to engagement (p.25).

But two points should be emphasised. Firstly, not meeting the standards admits that that the standard, the policy is not wanton murder. Indeed, many of these cases can be justified on the basis of the ‘fog of war.’ Second, the response of authorities showed is vital. The responses – listed by Kahl - are varied: that particular problem with artillery was rectified through technological advancements; after a HRW report into the use of checkpoints, procedures were quickly changes (p.27); the restrictions of the rules of engagement (listed above).

(i) Investigations; where there is a civilian death or other ‘escalation of force’ (I think in a non-planned attack) there will usually be an AR 15-6 Investigation. The American Civil Liberties Union has obtained many of these AR 15-6 investigations through freedom of information requests. There are far too many to go through each one of them – but the overwhelming majority show proper practices were employed: many involve civilians ignoring warnings; activity that a reasonable person would think makes them a combatant. Don’t take my word for it – read through a random sample of the summaries given by the ACLU.

The reason I’m not going to go through them in detail (aside from the sheer volume which only covers 2004-6) is because the simple fact these investigations exist is sufficiently indicative of the aforementioned military culture. To repeat: given the low numbers, all the military conduct listed above, the attitudes of military personnel – doesn’t the fact these investigations exist say something? It is too time-consuming and inconsistent with all of the evidence to suggest this is merely lip service.

(ii) Prosecutions: This has proven to be an area the U.S is lacking and the one that poses a challenge to my view. There have, of course, been several prominent examples of prosecutions – but as the Washington Post notes

[In the period between 2003-6 in Iraq] only 39 service members were formally accused in connection with the deaths of 20 Iraqis from 2003 to early this year. Twenty-six of the 39 troops were initially charged with murder, negligent homicide or manslaughter; 12 of them ultimately served prison time for any offense (noted in Kahl, p.35).

Some of this can be partly explained by the simple standards we expect in prosecutions: beyond reasonable doubt and regular problems with prosecuting individuals. A good comparison to make that would mitigate the shock of these figures would be rape statistics in Western countries. But then there are specific problems in the military context. As the New York Times notes, ‘collecting physical evidence and finding witnesses can be difficult because the killings often occur in unstable and dangerous areas, and the cases often come to light only after time has passed.’ In Iraq and Afghanistan, the practices of quick burial mean that autopsies cannot be carried out which places further burdens on prosecuting individuals. Witnesses will often refuse to give testimonies if it involves travelling (despite financial assistance with travelling).

But this cannot be a full explanation. The aforementioned Washington Post article contains a quote from Major serving in the military which isn’t picked up by Kahl: “I think there were many other engagements that should have been [criminally] investigated, definitely.” It should be emphasised that this is problem is not limited to killing civilians but goes to the core of any prosecution in the military [2]. Both Kahl’s paper and the WaPo’s report were published pre-2007, it is not clear how much the situation has changed since then. For the UK’s position see [3].


The idea that the U.S military is killing civilians left, right and centre is wrong. The idea that the U.S. military does not have sufficient regard to the protection of civilians is wrong. The only conclusion that comes from the fact that the numbers are low, the studies, the whole host of measures taken, that the rules of engagement are drummed in, that they spend an inordinate amount of time investigating these events is that the U.S does have sufficient regard to civilians. There are improvements that should be made – not least with prosecutions – but even without them, the argument still stands. Anti-imperialists will try to point to individual examples whilst ignoring the trend outlined above – and it is that trend which tells what U.S policy really is.