La Riposte

Thursday, October 28, 2010

War Crimes: Do US Drone Strikes Violate Article 25 of the Hague Convention?

Villagers comb through the rubble left after a 
US drone strike in Pakistan killed 18 people, 
including 10 women and children - but no 
Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters.
Article 25 of the Hague Convention on the Law of Land Warfare states “The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited” and violation of this article is listed as a War Crime under Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Do American drone attacks on family compounds within Afghanistan and Pakistan, believed to be occupied by members of the Taliban violate Article 25? A focus on this question ignores some other key issues raised by the Drone War, including the legality of strikes executed by civilian employees of the US government (ie, the CIA) on US citizens and non-citizens, and whether an on-going air campaign where 1/3 of the casualties are civilian can be considered discriminate and proportional, but one has to begin somewhere.

So let’s start by considering the nature of the targets. In his book TALIBAN: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, Ahmed Rashid describes exactly what US Hellfire missiles slam into on a regular basis - “mud-brick homes plastered with more mud and straw… built behind high compound walls.”

It is difficult to imagine how such a building, located in a village full of civilians could be construed as being defended, especially against an unmanned aircraft flying 25,000 feet overhead. Adequate defense against such an attacker would have to consist of air-defense artillery or missiles with a sophisticated tracking system to locate and engage the small, quiet drones. 

Let's consider a couple of justifications that might possibly be made for what appears, on the surface, to be an egregious violation of the Laws of Land Warfare. First, someone might claim that the building wasn't the target - it was only a particular person or persons inside the building who were the targets, and the nature of the structure they were occupying was immaterial. But using that logic, such persons could be legitimately targeted anywhere, including schools, mosques, hospitals, and any other building.

It’s also possible someone could claim that just because there were people in the house who possessed guns, the building was “defended.” Such an argument rings hollow on several counts. First, inhabitants of Pakistan’s tribal areas are allowed to have weapons, precisely for the defense of their persons and property. Second, simply because the occupant of a building has a weapon, it doesn’t mean they will use it defensively. If approached by military or police forces they may choose to run away, to surrender, or to fight. Only in the latter case would the building become a “defended” position and thus merit bombardment.

So, it appears that in those cases where ground forces have approached a compound and been engaged by defensive fire from within, aerial bombardment (by drones or manned aircraft) would certainly be appropriate and legal. However, where no such evidence exists that a compound is defended exists, any bombardment, including drone strikes, would be a war crime and should be prosecuted as such.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hail to the Chief... Marisol Valles Garcia.

Marisol Valles Garcia,
Police Chief
If you haven’t heard of Marisol Valles Garcia, she’s a 20-year old college student who’s recently accepted the position of police chief in the town of Praxedis G. Guererro in the Juarez Valley. There are plenty of stories in the mainstream media about her, but most focus on the human interest story of her bravery in taking a post which no one else in the township of 8500 would consider.

We wanted to explore several deeper questions raised as Garcia takes the helm of a police force consisting of 10 men and 3 women (soon to be expanded with several more women) in Praxedis and begins her campaign to increase security by increasing community contact and focusing on prevention of crime through education in values and principles.

To do so, we began by contacting Dr. Ami Carpenter, a professor at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies who has studied violent conflicts involving non-state armed actors (ANSAs) including the drug war in Mexico along with warlords in Africa and sectarian groups in Iraq.

Our first question was whether Garcia’s status as a woman and mother, and her preventative vice confrontational approach to crime-fighting makes her more or less likely to be killed than the traditional "tough-fisted" male police chief?

Carpenter replied that despite the media focus on the killings of police chiefs, mayors, and prosecutors, such individuals make up only 10-15% of the victims in the drug war;
…the vast majority of deaths are individuals "with links to the drug trade" as the popular saying goes, along with journalists and other civilians. Police who cooperate with one cartel are often targeted by its rival, and Valles Garcia does not seem interested in doing so…Still it does not help that this town has one highway over which Sinaloa and Juarez cartels are fighting.
However, Dr. Carpenter says that Garcia’s approach (not carrying a gun, focusing on reaching out to families) makes sense, because
…there is some research which indicates that security can increase even in dangerous communities when leaders refuse to side with one armed group over another and put resources towards protecting people of the community instead of 'defending' the borders of the town.
She also says that to properly understand whether Garcia’s gender and social status as a mother offers her any protection would require a better understanding of whether 
…the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels have any sort of 'pro-civilian' ethic; have they joined the public relations battle by making public statements decrying 'civilian deaths' as the La Familia cartel has? If so, the new chief may have some a layer of protection. She's not a civilian anymore, she's a legitimate target - but she might find some protection from continuing to cultivate a civilian-like image (young, college student, unarmed, non-threatening) if these particular cartels care about cultivating their own political image.
Our final question to Dr. Carpenter was whether the publicity that Chief Garcia is receiving helps or hurts her in terms of the probability that she will be killed by one of the cartels. The professor replied as follows:
This could go either way. If we presume that her strategy of protecting townspeople and staying out of the drug-war would have kept her below the cartels' radar screen, then the media coverage has actually hurt her. Now she's on the radar screen, and she's become a symbol of 'something' - the desperation of situation? The weakness of the Mexican state? The courage of one young woman?
Now the cartels know who she is, and perhaps their leadership are figuring out a strategy for dealing with her. They will be calculating the costs and benefits of killing her; is she worth more dead or alive? One (or both) might decide to kill her and frame the other cartel, to bring the inevitable retaliation of the Mexican federal police and Marines down on their rival. Or perhaps, thanks to the media coverage in the US, both organizations might calculate that killing her would lead to a public outcry in the US that would result in greater US involvement in the war.
A critical 'intervening variable' is the relationship between Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, (the head of the Sinaloa cartel) and Juarez cartel leadership. If lines of communication are secretly open at very high levels, both leaders might conclude that Marisol Valles Garcia should be off-limits to both cartels, because an enhanced military presence in Praxedis would be bad for business all around.  
Unfortunately the war is so bitter between these organizations though, that I don't see this as a possibility. That level of coordination might happen tacitly, without direct agreement, but I find it unlikely - when violence escalates between groups to the level it has between Juarez and Sinaloa (and also because Juarez is allied to the extremely violent and nihilistic Los Zetas, a group which Sinaloa has vowed to crush), suspicion, distrust and outright hatred of the other outweighs rational decision-making. Since each will assume that the other will use her instrumentally (killing her and framing the other cartel) then the 'rational' course of action is to beat their rival to the punch by killing her first.
Chief Garcia’s best hope at this point, says Dr. Carpenter, is not only sustained media coverage, but
…a strategy used in other violent conflicts to engage ANSAs and negotiate civilian protection. The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD) has negotiated similar agreements in Columbia, Sudan, Myanmar and Central African Republic. A similar strategy could work in Mexico, with Praxedis becoming a neutral zone if both cartels agreed to it. The political constraints for this type of strategy in Mexico are unfortunately very high. 
La Riposte has contacted the CHD to determine whether they are willing to engage in mediation in Praxedis, and will publish an update once the Centre has responded. Concerned readers are encouraged to contact CHD themselves, either by e-mail to or by SKYPE (andyhdcentre) to request that they take an interest in this situation as they previously have with conflicts in Africa and Southeast Asia. Readers wishing to help keep the media focused on Praxedis are also encourage to Tweet this post, re-post on Facebook, or send it in to your local newspaper’s editorial department for re-printing.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Doublespeak: Revealing the Magic

Among other interesting facts that Arika Okrent chronicles in her recent book “In the Land of Invented Languages” is that writer and “Basic English” advocate C.K. Ogden coined the term “word magic” for the phenomenon by which language can be used to conceal the true nature of things.

And perhaps there is no better example of this than the magic that was worked in 1949 when, with the stroke of a pen, America’s Department of War became our Department of Defense. Of course this was not the first time in history a nation had engaged in this sort of word magic – in 1935, Germany changed the name of the Kriegsamt (War Office) to Wehrmacht (defense power). Both of these exercises in wordplay have served to mask the actual nature of the operations these organizations engaged in, which have generally been offensive in nature, vice defensive.

But even the term “word magic” seems a bit contrived – perhaps a better way to describe it is as Orwellian doublespeak –“ language that deliberately disguises, distorts… making the truth less unpleasant, without denying its nature.”

In the military/industrial/political machine the doublespeak trickles down from the top. The expression in plain English - “innocent bystanders killed by our bombs” becomes the innocuous-sounding “collateral damage”, which sounds like the sort of thing that is probably covered by some sort of insurance policy.

“Torture”, which Merriam-Webster defines as “anguish of body or mind ; something that causes agony or pain; the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure” rightly evokes a visceral reaction in most people, quite unlike that formed by marrying up two unrelated intransitive verbs to form “enhanced interrogation”, whose combined meaning translates to  “to question formally and systematically in a manner designed to increase or improve value.”

What can be done? The first step any concerned citizen can take is to become aware of the pervasive nature of the problem - in America today, the doublespeak is hardly confined to the government. Is that really a “Value Meal” or is it “1400 calories of fats, carbohydrates and simple sugars which measurably increases your tendency toward obesity and risk of cardiac failure.”  Is it a “balanced mutual fund” or a “system by which brokers receive a substantial fixed commission in exchange for gambling with your money”?

Once aware of the phenomenon, whenever presented with a euphemism or label, one ought to mentally reduce it to a set of simple words that accurately describe the nature of the item in question; conversely, one should attempt to avoid using doublespeak whenever possible. Doing this represents the second step in combating doublespeak.

Spreading awareness of the problem through discussions with friends, tweets, posts, e-mail and other communications medium is the third step that any private citizen can undertake on their own. The final logical step would be to ultimately reform the government and corporate “word magicians” that attempt to use doublespeak to manipulate society on a daily basis, but this may be too intensive a challenge for any one person.

Still, change must begin sometime, and somewhere. If not now, when; if not within, where?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Afghan Sovereignty vs. U.S. Interests

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Bret Stephens claims that allowing the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government “risks turning Afghanistan into another Vietnam.” 

But it is worth noting that 3 decades after the US withdrawal from that Asian state, the country is unified, secure, enjoying 20+ years of strong economic growth, becoming a popular tourist destination, and is even a port of call for US warships operating in the area.

Stephens still assesses that the war in Afghanistan is imminently winnable, but it seems he’s neglected to read the recent headlines in his own paper, which show that as NATO forces shift their attentions to the South, the Taliban are quietly taking over provinces in the North. A much-vaunted offensive earlier against the small town of Marjah came to naught, so it’s hard to be optimistic about the current push to control Kandahar.

More disturbing than Mr. Stephens apparent naiveté regarding the conditions on the ground is the real basis for his opposition to negotiations;
What happens in the event that Mr. Karzai is prepared to accept terms unacceptable to the U.S., such as sharing power with Mullah Omar? Ultimately, we are in Afghanistan to defend core U.S. interests, not the whims of its capricious president. 
Ahh, yes, Mr. Stephens. When a puppet government fails to dance to the tune of its foreign master, what’s a beleaguered superpower to do? And what are these “core interests” that we are defending ? The survival of our Nation is hardly at stake; neither is our economic growth, or our national culture. And the argument that Afghanistan represents a security risk because it ostensibly trained the 9-11 terrorists is as trite now as it was a decade ago – the state where those hijackers obtained the training they needed to carry out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon wasn’t Afghanistan – it was Florida.

Stephens believes the only way to proceed is to halt negotiations and deliver “a series of decisive military blows” that would ostensibly force the Taliban to end the war on U.S. terms. But why should the terms be set by America? Isn’t it an “International Security Assistance Force” that’s opposing the Talibs? Shouldn’t the terms be theirs? No and no. Any negotiations to end the war should take place between the primary actors; the current Afghan government and their Taliban opponents.

The U.S. and other international actors may attempt to shape those negotiations through political pressure on the Afghan government and through military pressure on the Taliban, but in the final analysis, any decision reached by those two parties, however distasteful it may be to the U.S. and its ISAF allies must be respected – or another blow against national sovereignty will have been resoundingly struck.