September 01, 2010

Things that please me: email edition

I agree: the new Priority Inbox feature in Gmail and Google Apps-based mail is pretty nifty. I also appreciate the creative use of the word "woohoo!"

Posted by BruceR at 10:54 AM

Worst Afghan article of the month: Ron Rosenbaum

Ron "Explaining Hitler" Rosenbaum starts off the month of bad Afghan articles early on UAVs. This is going to take a while... more below the fold.

After blathering on in a disjointed fashion about his personal distaste for war-by-UAV, Rosenbaum gets to his argument against. It's shockingly weak.

...drone slaughter—whether or not it's a war crime—is counterproductive, creating generations of potential terrorists from the families of the innocent victims of careless carnage...

Surely this is at least as true of any weapons system the West could use, now or in the future. So why is it an argument against drones?

But here [in AfPak] all the options are infeasible or bad.

Ron Rosenbaum has tried nothing and he's all out of ideas.

It's hard not to feel less than triumphant knowing that these men, whoever they were, were being cremated before our eyes by men and women who work in air-conditioned bases...

The "manliness" argument again, I suppose. Why exactly does air-conditioning interfere with triumphalism?

...if you believe the often inaccurate after-action reports that are always claiming they got the "No. 3 Taliban commander in the province" or some such unverifiable boast)...

How do you establish something is inaccurate if it's unverifiable? Seems to me it's one or the other.

...they kill a lot of innocent civilians as well.

As does any other weapons system used in war... air strikes and artillery, both historically often rather less discriminate in their usage than UAVs, come to mind.

You may have missed this item in the New York Times from May 29: "The American military on Saturday released a scathing report on the deaths of 23 Afghan civilians, saying that 'inaccurate and unprofessional' reporting by Predator drone operators helped lead to an airstrike in February on a group of innocent men, women and children."

To be clear, that incident was actually an attack helicopter strike. The Predator was just providing "eyes on" for a special forces unit on the ground that called for support, as the Times article makes clear. I'm really not clear what Rosenbaum's preferred alternative is, here. NOT look at something before you shoot it? Always wait until any possible enemy is in small arms range?

There's no algorithm that synchs up the degree of target importance, the certainty of intelligence that's based on, and potential civilian casualties from the attack. It's a question that's impossible to answer with precision. Which suggests that when murdering civilians is involved, you don't do it at all.

Actually there are very precise rules of engagement that serve that algorithmic purpose in military circles that Rosenbaum's talking about. Obviously no one wants to "murder civilians" but what we're really reading here is the precautionary principle applied to military action... if there's even a remote possibility of mistake leading to civilian death, it's an immoral act. These are the precepts one might find in a Superman comic, not a seasoned analyst of Naziism.

I've read arguments that drones offer more precision than other battlefield weapons, because drone porn gives the Predator joystick operators more time to examine the targets intimately and cross-reference intelligence. But what they really offer is more precise views of less precise targets. The "foes" in Afghanistan do not wear uniforms.

So drones are immoral and illegal because some of their current TARGETS aren't obeying the Geneva Conventions on wearing distinctive emblems? What?

I'm not saying all Taliban look alike, but the pious believers don't look very different from the "provincial commanders."

Why is "provincial commanders" in quotes? Does Rosenbaum not believe insurgents have a chain of command? His argument here is really unclear... is he saying it's also immoral when a weapon kills the *wrong* insurgent? What?

Rosenbaum then goes on about others' better-expressed objections to CIA involvement in overseas assassinations, prohibited by law, targeted killings of U.S. citizens overseas, and strikes inside Pakistan... all points that, while valid in their own right, have nothing to do with the most common use of UAVs... to support soldiers in Afghanistan.

But "proportionality" is also an issue. If you look at the drone-porn YouTube clips, you don't always see the bearded guys engaged in attacking U.S. forces. Maybe they're planning to, but proportionality requires that the use of lethal force by the imminence and danger of the threat, for which there is no evidence in the clips and likely only useless CIA intel to back it up.

There's a lot of assumptions in there. It really does seem too much to ask of a single video clip to provide airtight evidence of an insurgent's suitability for immediate death. Assuming all our intelligence is "useless" seems rather a stretch, too.

...indiscriminate—at the very least, carelessly executed—assassinations of a religious sect's members...

Taliban = religious sect? That's all they are? That's the only reason we're after them? Are you sure?

What is their crime: driving while bearded? Loitering while being Muslim? Are they violating the strict gun-control laws of Afghanistan?

Somewhere along the line this turned into an anti-Afghan war rant. Which is fine, but it has nothing to do with UAVs any more. Is Rosenbaum really saying those are some likely justifications by American commanders for the use of deadly force?

Are there no civilian Taliban, who, repellant as some of their practices are, nonetheless deserve protection from drone strikes?

Yes, we call them "Afghans." The real Taliban blow them up regularly. Unless we kill the real Taliban first. That's another kind of protection, surely.

Putative war crimes, repellant videos, porn mentality, the counterproductive creation of generations of terrorists: On grounds both moral and practical, the drone attacks must cease. Stop them now.

As shown, the war crime argument is pretty weak, the terrorist production argument not exclusive to UAVs. The rest of the objection seems largely... aesthetic. Rosenbaum feels the act of seeing what you are killing is unseemly. Which it may be... but it should go without saying that it will certainly be, if anything, more discriminate for anyone aiming to kill an enemy with any weapon in any war to try to get "eyes-on" first.

I could certainly see the argument that drone strikes in Pakistan are legally and morally shaky. If Rosenbaum had made that argument, he'd be within his rights. But he's not objecting to one specific violation of existing military and political conventions... he's objecting to any uses at all of a technology (UAVs) which is not by its nature any more indiscriminate or disproportionate than any alternatives. Through much of the piece what he's really saying is that war itself is evil. Check, got it. The difference is, if he'd just written the "war is evil" piece, without the timely hook of "drone-porn", no one would have wanted to publish his bleedingly obvious, simplistic little cri de coeur. So he had to drag UAVs into it somehow. But he simply couldn't close the deal, and explain convincingly why a specific technology that obviously churns his stomach even if it's demonstrably limiting U.S. casualties was so immoral that it should be banned forevermore. Which just goes to show he either didn't or couldn't think this one through. Pity. He used to be such a good writer.

Posted by BruceR at 02:08 AM