Monday, September 29, 2008

Defending Hamdan: An Expert Witness Ruminates

Complex Terrain Lab is currently running a very interesting symposium on the trial of Salim Hamdan in a US military commission. Known for being "bin Laden's chauffer," Hamdan was also a "test case" of sorts for the US military commission system, the White House's compromise with the Supreme Court over what to do with the Guantanamo detainees - a test many commentators have claimed the Bush Administration flunked. This summer, Hamdan was acquitted of many of the charges against him by a commission of US military officers, and sentenced to the equivalent of only five more months in prison.

CTLab's symposium opens with a series of posts by Brian Glyn Williams, a professor at UMass-Dartmouth who happened to serve as an expert witness for the defense in the tribunal. His narrative recounts not only a day-to-day view of the workings of the tribunal, but also a legal argument on which his testimony rested: that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was not a mere "terrorist network" but a field military with attributes that should have qualified its members for POW status under the Geneva Conventions.

William's' conclusion is optimistic:

"The verdict will doubtless begin the process of rebuilding America’s reputation which has been damaged abroad by those who focus only on our faults and mistakes. While Guantanamo Bay remains a bone of contention even with close allies like the British, I believe that the Hamdan verdict will begin the process of reminding the world of what America stood for before it became defined by such terms as Abu Ghraib, Haditha, rendition, and most infamous of all, Gitmo."
More recent contributors are responding to Williams. Tony Waters is less optimistic, calling the Hamdan acquittal "lipstick on a pig." L.L. Wynn questions the assumption that the right to a fair trial in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions depends on whether one wears a uniform. William Snyder wonders whether Hamdan was actually lucky to be tried in a military commission rather than a regular court. Jason Ralph asks important questions about the way that the trial reconstituted understandings of "lawful" v. "unlawful" combatancy and rightly draws our attention to the history of the term, which was not invented by the Bush Administration. His post highlights the USG's inconsistency in treating the campaign against al-Qaeda as a "war" rather than crime-fighting, yet denying that the laws of war apply. (For a different view on this, see Andrew Sullivan's recent comments at the Atlantic.) Marc Tyrell ties these same questions into an interesting discussion of world order which begins with the question "When does a non-state become a state?"

The entire forum is full of fascinating food for discussion. Unfortunately I can't figure out how to comment over there. So, if you have responses to any of the above (in particular to Tyrell's in the last sentence of the above paragraph) feel free to react here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

"Capture and Kill Bin Laden?"

Did Obama mis-speak during the debate? Or is he really suggesting that bin Laden be summarily executed upon capture? If he is committed to the rule of law, he should be more careful. If captured, bin Laden would be entitled to humane treatment including a fair trial before execution.

Friday Star Trek Blogging

Dan Drezner is worried that Sarah Palin might have something in common with the Eymorgs.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Paying Ransoms in Mexico

It's expensive to protect organized criminal networks. Mexican gangs have escalated kidnappings across social classes to raise the funds for their armed campaign. An LA Times article details the new "virtual" and "express" kidnapping schemes, as well as the increasingly fatal outcome for victims.

It's hard to know what the international community should do in a situation like this. Train the Mexican police? Send in reinforcements to help hunt, capture or kill the insurgents the druglords and frontmen in their dens? Support the vigilantes emerging allegedly to take on the responsibility of protecting "innocents" (however defined)?

Unfortunately there is no tried and true strategy for engaging proactively in factional conflict - that is, violent conflict waged by warlords, druglords and brigands to protect lucrative trade networks or criminal activities, as opposed to violent conflicts based on ideology or identity. But that doesn't mean doing nothing.

Why not put human security at the heart of social philanthropy and third party intervention? What Mexicans (not Mexico) need right now is a trust fund for paying ransoms. The international community could donate to this fund, protecting the life savings of average Mexicans and protecting against predatory lenders for those who don't have the 10,000 it takes to bail out Uncle Raul. Virtual kidnapping consists of threatening to kidnap a family member unless the ransom is paid by a certain deadline. But risking kidnapping means risking death, according to recent events in Mexico.

For those who might argue that this strategy would only perpetuate the cycle of kidnapping and retribution, Empedocles says - so what? That cycle is only worrisome for the state, because it provides funds to druglords in their continued pursuit of violent struggle. But the context of that struggle has been perpetuated by state complicity. Why should people pay the price? Perhaps the more important point is that failing to help Mexicans pay these ransoms will not alleviate the problems that led to this phenomenon. Third party actors should prioritize that which is worrisome for normal Mexicans - the immediate prospect of losing yourself or your loved one in this game of pawns.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Insect-Drones Are Coming!

No joke:

It may seem like a futuristic arcade game, but a scene from an Air Force animated video shows a new wave in military strategy. The scene goes like this: Bad guys are being shadowed from a careful distance by small robotic drones designed to resemble birds and insects. When one of the bad guys opens his apartment door, a tiny robo-bug — looking like a garage door opener with wings — sneaks in to spy. In another scene, a robo-bug creeps into a sniper’s roost and delivers a deadly shot.

Air Force officials think Micro Air Vehicles, or MAVs, could be a significant part of the Defense Department’s arsenal in the not-so-distant future. Civilian researchers and airmen at the Air Force Research Laboratory, based at this installation outside Dayton, Ohio, have set a 2015 deadline to roll out the first generation of tiny drones. This first group, they hope, will be the size of birds and be able to operate several days without recharging.

Britain’s Special Forces have tested a 28-inch-long MAV, called the Wasp, on reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan. Last year, the U.S. Marines placed a $19.3 million order for the small unmanned aircraft, developed by California-based AeroVironment. The Wasp can be fitted with explosives that could theoretically be used in a surprise attack.
Could this be another healthy step in the so-called "bloodless" revolution in US military doctrine? I think yes, possibly. Little unmanned drones can get into positions that a human sniper couldn't, enabling more discriminate targeting and saving civilian lives on the other side. A solution perhaps to the current and counterproductive strategy of dropping 500 pound bombs from 30,000 feet when trying to take out seven insurgents... They also contribute to force protection. In Iraq small unmanned drones have already been used to identify IEDs.

But I was less heartened when I continued reading this article. I haven't yet acquired and watched the video it's describing, but from the reporter's depiction, Air Force marketing teams are characterizing the military utility of these assets in far from "bloodless" terms:
The marketing video, created by the Air Force scientists to explain their vision, claims the drones would be “unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal.”
Hmm. Not that they would be discriminate. In fact, depending on how they're deployed, they could be quite the opposite, according to Wired Magazine. Furthermore:
Parker added that the use of tiny MAVs could have civilian applications. For example, small unmanned air vehicles could be dispatched into rubble after a natural disaster to search for signs of life.
Hmm, they'd have no military application in protecting civilians and other noncombatants in war zones? For example, dispatching them into rubble after a barracks has been targeted to search for signs of wounded there or in the vicinity? (Which it would then be the responsbility of the US military to treat humanely.) Funny that this is described as an afterthought, and something divorced from military affairs, rather than integral.

My concern is not with the drones - they're likely to be an improvement over existing "precision guided" munitions and reconnaissance methods. My concern is with the military's frame. That their marketing researchers think the best way to sell these assets to the public is by emphasizing their lethality, rather than their precision and humanitarian applications, is a sad sign of the times.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Friday Star Trek/Pirate Blogging

Bless my guts, today was International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Very well, hear ye this:

For an alternative view, read this and this.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

You Followin' Me?

Blogger tells us we ought to have you regular readers identify yourself as "followers" of this blog using its new "follower list" widget. This is now an option: check it out and click on the right if interested. Partly, we're sticking this up here as an experiment... we know how many followers we have already by using Google Analytics, but we're curious whether Blogger's guess that people will want to publicly identify themselves in this way is correct or not.

Soft Power and the US Elections

Check this out: the majority of respondents in every country in a recent BBC poll say that their respect for Americans would increase if we elect Obama rather than McCain this Fall.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that McCain not only can't tell the difference between Sunni and Shia, but apparently thinks Spain is a country in Latin America.

If Americans put this guy in office after eight years of Bush, who can blame the rest of the world for associating us with the policies of our government?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

France Skirmishes With Pirates Near the Horn of Africa

Daniel Sekulich at Modern Day Pirates provides a good roundup of recent engagements between France and various maritime gangs off the coast of Somalia:

Earlier today, France sent its military forces into action against Somali pirates, dispatching a team of 30 commandos to free two French nationals being held hostage. One Somali pirate was reported killed and six others captured by the commandos, who rescued Bernadette and Jean-Yves Delanne. The couple had been sailing from Australia to France when their sailboat was attacked on September 2 in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia’s northern coast.

This marks the second time French forces have engaged Somali pirates, the first incident being in response to the hijacking of the luxury cruiser Le Ponant in April. At that time, the French captured six pirates alleged to have been participants in the commandeering of the cruise vessel, taking the Somalis to France where they currently await trial on a variety of charges. The gang that was holding the Delanne couple apparently demanded the release of their pirate brethren from French prison, as well as a ransom of $1.4 million.

On Sunday, another French vessel – a tuna boat – came under rocket fire by pirates while sailing some 400 nautical miles off the Somali coast, in the Indian Ocean. Whether the attack on the fishing boat was related to the capture of the Delannes is not known. But it should be noted that the issue of illegal fishing and over fishing of stocks off Somalia has been the cause of previous pirate incidents.
OK, it may be facecious to suggest that these incidents are the opening shots of an ongoing low-intensity conflict on the seas off Somalia, but note that the International Maritime Board has tracked a marked increase in attacks in the region since last year - seven attacks occurred in the region this week alone - military responses from the US, Canada and France have increased accordingly. Danger Room has more.

It will be interesting to see how prominent an issue maritime security will be on the agenda on next year's "World Ocean Conference." My guess is: prominent - if only because the conference is being hosted by Indonesia, a state previously known for one of the worst pirate problems in the Straits of Malacca, but who with the coordination of its neighbors has managed to reduce the incidence considerably. Can the world's governments come to terms that could extend cooperation over maritime security issues beyond regional straits and toward the high seas? Or will other concerns take precedence?

One of the issues under discussion should be who has responsibility for assisting hostages. France's hard line this week, it should be noted, only regards its own nationals. But as Amnesty International reports, 130 other people of various nationalities are also being held by pirates in this region. Whose responsibility is it to protect them?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Russia Calls For "New Security Norms"


"The existing international security system has failed in a crisis situation, which is confirmed by developments in both Iraq and Kosovo, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a new conference after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Moscow."
Hmm, he may have a point.
"He noted that unipolarity or domination were no longer acceptable principles on the political arena, as even the largest states as the USA could not lay down the rules for the entire global community. To do it should be up to special institutions such as the UN and regional organizations."
OK. Except what Medvedev "proposing" is actually the UN Charter regime, which has been around for sixty years...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Protection of Civilians 2.0

The following video is circulating on the YouTube and was publicized yesterday by the Associated Press. It is said to be cell phone footage taken of the civilian victims of "stray" US bombs in Azizabad, Afghanistan. If genuine (it was reportedly filmed by a local doctor) the film would appear to weigh in on the side of the Afghan government's claim that scores of civilians were killed in the attack, and refute the US argument that only 7 civilians and 35 "militants" died.

Some quick thoughts. First, does being "militant" make a person a legitimate military target? This appears to be another semantic construction in the Bush Administration's GWOT discourse. I wonder if it means that any military-age male suspected of involvement with the insurgency is a military objective at all times. This would fly of course in the face of the laws of war: you battle those who are actually armed and fighting back, not just anyone who supports a movement.

On the other hand, if these were actual fighters their location would have constituted a valid military objective. The question then is whether the military weighed the expected collateral damage against the military necessity of hitting that target then. Considering that the civilians killed were apparently attending a funeral service in the vicinity, this is unlikely. While their deaths wouldn't constitute war crimes unless they were intentional, failing to take measures to avoid collateral damage is still a violation of the laws of war - determining whether many civilians are massed together for a funeral and waiting until they dissipate would be an example of the type of command decision that is expected of US military officers in such an instance. Another terrible possibility is that the deaths actually weren't wholly unintentional. While the US generally has an excellent record all told when it comes to avoiding civilian casualties, there are famous examples where soldiers go haywire - often in circumstances very similar to the events of that day, which included an ambush on the Special Forces in the area.

At any rate, when the USG denies and attempts to quash an investigation, that is usually a sign that someone really screwed up in authorizing a course of action (or worse), that they know it, and that they hope to do damage control. (They have now cut their losses in light of emerging evidence.)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Military's "Non-Lethal" Blow Torch

The Danger Room has been following the US military's R&D into allegedly "non-lethal" weaponry for some time. Last weekend, Noah Schachtman reported:

"Defense contractor Northrop Grumman is promising the Pentagon that it'll have weapons-grade electric lasers by the end of 2008. Which means honest-to-goodness energy weapons might actually become a military reality, after decades of fruitless searching."
Sounds promising. Then, today, David Hamblin provides a closer look at how these weapons would actually work on human targets:
"By applying a little basic physics we can get a ballpark estimate of what this might do to flesh... if the beam stays on the same spot of the target for a full two seconds –- which is a very long time under the circumstances –- it would in theory boil off a disc around one centimeter deep... Bullets are lethal when they damage a vital organ (like the heart or the brain) or when they cause rapid blood loss. Most likely, a laser of this type would not easily be able to go deep enough to affect a vital organ. Plus, the laser would will be self-cauterizing, with the heat sealing off blood vessels. It's not going to kill you quickly. Skin damage is very much easier to achieve than penetration; simply raising skin temperature to (say) 80C/ 180 f to a depth of a couple of millimeters will cause serious blistering (second-third degree burns). If 40% of the body is burned in this way, then the target will be disabled and may die. A rough calculation suggests that exposed skin would be blistered/burned in under a twentieth of a second, so the beam could play over the target at quite a high rate. It's unclear whether clothing would have much protective effect or whether it would simply ignite and cause secondary burns."
Jesus. Largely, I share Mike Innes' reaction:
"Owww. Bad.

Mad scientists. They're everywhere."
Stepping back for a moment, let's first disabuse ourselves of the notion that "non-lethal" weapons are necessarily humane or bloodless. Second, since the development or use of weapons causing "unnecessary suffering" is against the laws of war, the burden is on the US government to make the case for the military utility and necessity of these weapons. I don't see the government making that case publicly, and it's certainly not obvious to me.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Making Amends

With the brou-ha over Mrs. Pain Palin since Friday (and anyone who still thinks that being Commander in Chief of the Alaska National Guard constitutes command experience, check out this post at Armchair Generalist), it was easy to miss this story::

Libya and Italy signed an accord on Saturday under which Italy will pay $5 billion in compensation for colonial misdeeds during its decades-long rule of the North African country.

"This accord opens the door to the future cooperation and partnership between Italy and Libya," Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said at the signing ceremony at a palace which was once the headquarters of the Rome government's senior official during the 1911-1943 colonial rule.

Anthony Clark Arend has this take on it all:
"Needless to say, this is all part of Libya's "rehabilitation" and its movement away from "rogue" status, which began several years ago.

But on a related note-- can you imagine what would happen if Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and indeed, the United States were to "compensate" states for the "misdeeds" of colonialism?"
Hmm. There's an idea... in fact, this is not lost on various other former colonies of both Italy and other European powers.

One Day for the Watchman is more cautiously optimistic:
"One has to wonder how the human social, cultural, and personal toll of colonial oppression can be translated into a dollar figure, and one that might be seen as rather small. Otherwise, I personally think that compensation is important symbolically and politically, and in some instances could be very useful economically. Other nations will be right to begin to press their cases for compensation, especially when in so many instances, the majority in fact, formal colonial rule ended only in the last 40 to 50 years, with a significant mass of humanity (even if not the majority) having been born as colonial subjects."

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