Thursday, January 17, 2008

The limits of humanitarianism.

About a month after bloggers noticed, the Washington Post has reported on the confirmation of a vast escalation in aerial attacks on Iraq. Of course, they have done so only after carefully filtering the information through Pentagon spokespeople, which means that they have seriously described the attacks as being directed at weapons caches, safe houses and bomb making facilities. Presumably, if they have intelligence that good, it would be a relatively simple matter to go and find the caches and bomb equipment and take them back to base - while also taking snapshots for the media to reproduce as part of the 'success' story. However, leave that aside. Far more problematic is the obligatory 'humanitarian' angle: yes, this aggressive new campaign by General David Petraeus is striking the insurgents hard, but what about the innocent? Thus:

The greater reliance on air power has raised concerns from human rights groups, which say that 500-pound and 2,000-pound munitions threaten civilians, especially when dropped in residential neighborhoods where insurgents mix with the population. The military assures that the precision attacks are designed to minimize civilian casualties -- particularly as Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy emphasizes moving more troops into local communities and winning over the Iraqi population -- but rights groups say bombings carry an especially high risk.

"The Iraqi population remains at risk of harm during these operations," said Eliane Nabaa, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq. "The presence of individual combatants among a great number of civilians does not alter the civilian character of an area."

UNAMI estimates that more than 200 civilian deaths resulted from U.S. airstrikes in Iraq from the beginning of April to the end of last year, when U.S. forces began to significantly increase the strikes to coordinate with the expansion of ground troops.


Human rights groups estimate that Afghan civilian casualties caused by airstrikes tripled to more than 300 in 2007, fueling fears that such aggressive bombardment could be catastrophic for the innocent.

Marc Garlasco, a military analyst at Human Rights Watch who tracks airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the strikes carry unique risks. "My major concern with what's going on in Iraq is massive population density," he said. "You have the potential for very high civilian casualties, so you need really granular intelligence on what you're going to hit. But I don't think they're being careless."

Leave aside the fact that the numbers they give for civilian deaths are utterly risible, an unbelievably low estimate by any standards. Leave aside the fact that it is completely implausible that the strategy of aerial bombardment is only killing large numbers of 'baddies'. We know enough about US military strategy to know that they consistently carry out attacks which deliberately kill large numbers of civilians. Even Mark Garlasco knows this. The only question they see fit to ask is whether some civilians might be "caught in the cross-fire" as it were, and whether the planners are being "careless", (even where they admit half-way through the article that the bombings are partially designed to terrorise). And not only is this the automatic purview of the Washington Post, it happens to be shared by Human Rights Watch. I can think of other problems that might be raised, one of which is that those resisting the US forces militarily are no more in need of swift airborne death than those who are not directly involved in combat. The US, after all, has no business being in Iraq, much less razing the country to the ground in order to kill those who do not assent to them being there. But humanitarian discourse in this context admits no knowledge of the criminality of US-orchestrated mass violence designed to subdue the country.

Human Rights Watch distinguished itself during the attack on Lebanon with a set of spurious attacks on Hezbollah for allegedly deliberately targeting civilians with its rocket-fire. It later emerged that while Israel's claims that Hezbollah hid its rocket launchers among civilians were bogus, Israel had certainly located prime military targets right among its population centres. HRW blithely insisted that this made no difference to its claim that Hezbollah indiscriminately attacked civilians. The point isn't really that HRW and like organisations are inconsistent in their determination of criminality. On the contrary, they are consistently biased toward the purlieus of power when they systematically fail to acknowledge or take account of prior, ongoing aggression. In the almost exclusive emphasis on the civilian-military distinction (which matters, I make no bones about it), they reproduce an ideological formation which holds that the incineration, shredding and dispersing of those designated combatants is perfectly acceptable: even if there are other options; even if the war need never have taken place; even if the murder is being perpetrated by aggressors who have it within their power to terminate hostilities at any point.

It is easy to understand why the reigning ideology sets aside a substantial space for 'human rights' criticism, which can be incorporated provided it doesn't "go too far" or step outside its designated boundaries and offer what is invariably construed as "politicised" commentary (whereas omitting the salient facts is not at all politicised). Humanitarianism in action mandates the most extraordinary barbarism. Impeccable sources of moral jurisdiction, authoritatively coequivalent with the missionaries, the court clerics and the piritual advisors. They bear the ensign of opposition, and a purpose derived from a higher authority (natural rights), and all the while they consistently absolve. Is it any wonder the new imperialists spent the greater part of the 1990s refining the categories of humanitarianism?