State Dept Promises To Produce Legal Justification for Drone Attacks

State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh has promised to produce the Obama administration's legal justification for its increased use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists, reports Shane Harris of the National Journal.

"I have studied this question," Koh told the audience at an American Bar Association breakfast yesterday. "I think that the legal objections that are being put on the table are ones that we are taking into account. I am comfortable with the legal position of the administration, and at an appropriate moment we will set forth that in some detail."

Let's hope that "appropriate moment" comes pretty soon, because controversy over the drone attacks is heating up. The ACLU in January filed a FOIA request asking the government to turn over that legal justification, as well as the facts underlying it. Then this week, after receiving a response from the CIA that it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any relevant documents, the ACLU filed a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, as Adam Serwer points out at The American Prospect, a New America Foundation study raises concerns that about a third of the victims of drone attacks have been civilians, and international lawyers have been debating for months now whether the targeted killings violate international law. (Jane Mayer's story on drone attacks in The New Yorker last October does an excellent job of laying out the controversy.)

Such an eminent legal expert as Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, has said that the drone attacks, despite their obvious appeal to the U.S. and the U.K., raise serious legal concerns.

As he explained in a recent article in The Guardian with Hina Shamsi, "Drones may only be used to kill in an armed conflict. The killing must fulfill a military need, and no alternative should be reasonably possible." In Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are fighting armed militants but not the troops of another country, "the target must have a direct connection to the combat, either as a Taliban or al-Qaida 'fighter', or as a civilian who is 'directly participating in hostilities'. The use of force must be proportionate, meaning that commanders must weigh any expected military advantage against possible harm to civilians." Violating these requirements could constitute a war crime.

Given the secrecy of the United States' drone program, it's impossible to know whether the government has met these legal requirements. That's left the administration open to critics' suggestions that it has not, and may well be fomenting anger among the residents of areas being targeted.

General Stanley McChrystal has said that reducing civilian casualties in Afghanistan is critical to a key part of his counterinsurgency strategy -- winning the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people. Revealing the facts about how the United States is using its expanded and now well-known drone program must be a critical component of that strategy.

McChrystal Calls for Investigation of Child-Killings, Where is Congress?

Facing widespread anti-US protests in Afghanistan and unprecedented pressure from the Karzai government, General Stanley McChrystal issued a carefully-worded but firm call for investigation into an incident in which 8 schoolboys were allegedly taken from their beds by a mysterious NATO unit arriving at their village at 3a.m., handcuffed, and shot.

McChrystal calls for “immediate joint investigation to reach an impartial and accurate determination of the events that occurred.”

Congress and the Obama administration, ever so mindful of preventing any measure, such as the release of torture photos, which might "endanger US troops," now by its failure to back a strong investigation is doing exactly that, by allowing Afghan public opinion to run rampant against the US presence.

Jeff Kaye at FDL/The Seminal opines,

The news of a bloody, gangland-style execution of children by U.S. or U.S.-backed special operations unit, in a war led by a Special Operations general, should have members of Congress screaming hell, with hair on fire, to get that general back before a Congressional committee under oath, and find out what the hell is going on, and prosecute those responsible, up to and including those who ordered the mission.

Spence Ackerman notes of McChrystal's call for a joint US-Afghan review that,

Behind that offer of cooperation is a feeling of distrust among McChrystal’s command over getting railroaded by an unpopular government that is trying to demonstrate its populist credentials — particularly after a fraud-marred election returned President Hamid Karzai to power. Yet McChrystal has called the sensibilities of Afghans “strategically decisive” to the war, so there is little option for him besides a joint inquiry.

One of Ackerman's sources is Sayed Khalid, who led a protest in Kabul against the Kunar raid. Ackerman asked him how much of a sense he had of what happened on the ground. Khalid’s reply:

We have got repeated accounts from the local people and representatives confirming that the children were shot dead. I don’t think the Taliban are that much strong in propaganda to make officials and shura members say what the militants want.

Entirely missed by the media is the possible connection between the alleged executions in Ghazi and the deadly suicide blast at CIA headquarters at Forward Operating Base Chapman 3 days later. Although the boy-killings have been remarked upon by some commentators as a possibly over-exuberant, over-reaction to the CIA deaths, that timeline is exactly backwards. The Ghazi incident took place on December 26th. The blast which killed 8 important CIA operatives at Chapman was on December 30th.

With so much in the war depending on the cooperation of Afghan locals with the CIA in order to distinguish Al Qaeda and hard-core Taliban from local, ideologically uncommitted insurgents, the significance of the CIA blast was perhaps lost by the media. But not by McChrystal.

NATO initially denied the presence of any foreign forces in the region at the time of the killings, but has since acknowledged that "non-military Americans," i.e., mercenaries, were operating in the area.

The theme of the student protests was one of clear promises to drop "pens" and "take guns" against NATO forces if justice was not served. Reuters


"The government must prevent such unilateral operations otherwise we will take guns instead of pens and fight against them (foreign forces)," students from the University of Nangahar's education faculty said in a statement. Marching through the main street of Jalalabad, the students chanted "death to Obama" and "death to foreign forces", witnesses said.

What now for citizens? The War Enablers, who voted to continue funding these wars on December 16,2009? ("Yea" is a vote for war funding.) Contact Congress. Peace of the Action:

We’ve marched, written, called and faxed but the wars continue. It is time for new creative strategies and bolder action. Peace of the Action will bring forward an historic escalation of Peace Activism like we have not seen in the United States in a very long time. "'ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop." -- Mario Savio 1964

"What then must we do?" - The Year of Living Dangerously

Video, ABC, November 2009 firefight


US Soldiers Shoot Handcuffed Children in Afghanistan

Note, the first order of the day: Did McChrystal authorize? Haul him back to Washington to answer some questions. Who gave the order?

Burning an effigy of Obama and the American flag, Afghans have taken to the streets over the execution of children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, who were pulled from their beds by Special Operations forces in the middle of the night, handcuffed, and shot. The US confirms that there were no other forces in the region at the time. AFP:

Hundreds of university students blocked main roads in Jalalabad, capital of eastern Nangahar province, to protest the alleged deaths of 10 civilians, mostly school children, in a Western military operation on Saturday.

The UN through MSNBC said,

The United Nations said Thursday that a weekend raid by foreign troops in a tense eastern Afghan province killed eight local students...

The London Times reports:

"President Karzai sent a team of investigators to Narang district, in eastern Kunar province, after reports of a massacre first surfaced on Monday."

"The delegation concluded that a unit of international forces descended from a plane Sunday night into Ghazi Khan village in Narang district of the eastern province of Kunar and took ten people from three homes, eight of them school students in grades six, nine and ten, one of them a guest, the rest from the same family, and shot them dead," a statement on President Karzai's website said.

Assadullah Wafa, who led the investigation, said that US soldiers flew to Kunar from Kabul, suggesting that they were part of a special forces unit.

Mr Wafa, a former governor of Helmand province, met President Karzai to discuss his findings yesterday. "I spoke to the local headmaster," he said. "It's impossible they were al-Qaeda. They were children, they were civilians, they were innocent. I condemn this attack."

In a telephone interview last night, the headmaster said that the victims were asleep in three rooms when the troops arrived. "Seven students were in one room," said Rahman Jan Ehsas. "A student and one guest were in another room, a guest room, and a farmer was asleep with his wife in a third building.

"First the foreign troops entered the guest room and shot two of them. Then they entered another room and handcuffed the seven students. Then they killed them."


The governor of Kunar, Fazullah Wahidi, said that

"the coalition claimed they were enemy fighters," but that elders in the district and a delegation sent to the remote area had found that "10 people were killed and all of them were civilians."

The Karzai government has dispatched investigators, from the presidential website,

President Karzai in a telephone contact expressed condolences and shared grief with the families of the victims of the recent attack in Kunar province. Following the attack, President Karzai tasked a delegation on Monday led by the Chief of Complaints Commission and composed of representatives from the ministries of Defense, Interior, National Directorate of Security and the Office of Administrative Affairs for an immediate investigation of the incident. The findings by the delegation concluded that a unit of international forces descended from a plane Sunday night into Ghazi Khan Village in Narang district of the eastern province of Kunar and took 10 people from three homes, eight of them school students in grades six, nine and 10, one of them a guest, the rest from the same family, and shot them dead. Eight of those shot dead were confirmed as school students by the village school principle.

In "The Year of Living Dangerously" the actor facing monstrous social injustice and oppression of the Jakarta government poses the question "What then must we do?" He has tried living his life peacefully, helping one family at a time, and hoping for a better future. But it is not enough. The first thing we must do is place the blame where it belongs. Not only at the feet of the actual perpetrators, who must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but also with those who know, without doubt, that atrocities come with come with the package when you vote for war, because that's what war is, an atrocity. The just released equivalent of the Pentagon Papers, the US Army's official assessment of what went wrong in Afghanistan, notes that this is a conflict of our own creation, probably avoidable but for the absence of any attempt to address starvation conditions, rampant 40% unemployment, and other indicators of economic chaos. Yes, this under Bush, but a military approach to Afghan instability is just as wrong an answer now as it was then. Moreover, it almost seems as if the neglect leading to further war was all but deliberate.

“There was no major planning initiated to create long-term political, social and economic stability in Afghanistan,” the historians write. “In fact, the message from senior D.O.D officials in Washington was for the U.S. military to avoid such efforts.”

The US Congress knows full well that more of this is coming if we continue on this course in Afghanistan. Americans are gearing up to oppose it as never before. From Peace of the Action:

We’ve marched, written, called and faxed but the wars continue. It is time for new creative strategies and bolder action. Peace of the Action will bring forward an historic escalation of Peace Activism like we have not seen in the United States in a very long time. "'ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop." -- Mario Savio 1964

These are the funders, the enablers, who voted for more war funding on Dec. 16. (for the breakdown look in column for war and escalation 12/16/2009) Note, thanks to David Swanson for excellent research.


VIDEO of Afghan Protest

Obama's Surge: The Real Reason

Every year on the anniversary of September 11, the same question pops up: where is Osama bin Laden? And for eight years various pundits, who hardly speak a word of Pashto, Dari, Urdu or any other language spoken in the region, play the guessing game, placing him somewhere along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

This week, President Obama took Gen. Stanley McChrystal's advice and ordered a surge in the war in Afghanistan by sending 30,000 more American troops there to help battle the Taliban insurgency. In a speech at the US Military Academy at West Point on Tuesday, the President set out what he said was a new strategy to bring the war to a "successful conclusion" and reverse the momentum of Taliban gains.

The President did not mention Osama bin Laden, a frequent target of his criticism during the campaign when he criticized President Bush.

"We will kill bin Laden, we will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority," then candidate Barack Obama said during an October 2008 debate.

If the US goal remains to "crush" al Qaeda, then perhaps many Americans would not be as upset with Obama's Afghan surge; however, this is not the case.

As it stands, there will be nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, along with about 47,000 from allies. This is not to mention contractors, who already outnumber U.S. forces in the war-ravaged country. According to credible intelligence estimates, 100 al Qaeda operatives are in Afghanistan, and 300 more have fled to Pakistan. As for the Taliban, conflicting estimates put their numbers anywhere between 7,000 to 25,000. Therefore, this build up does not make sense, and the numbers do not add up.

Also, why do the United States and its allies need close to 150,000 troops if they can negotiate with the Taliban? Mr. Karzai does!

"We must talk to the Taliban as an Afghan necessity. The fight against terrorism and extremism cannot be won by fighting alone," Karzai said. "Personally, I would definitely talk to Mullah Omar. Whatever it takes to bring peace to Afghanistan, I, as the Afghan president, will do it."

Meanwhile, President Obama has increased US pressure on Pakistan to fight the Taliban in its territories. As an inducement, and a measure of heightened American concern for Pakistan, he has also helped bring a big increase in aid to the country, including $7.5 billion of non-military aid over five years, approved recently by Congress. The problem is that there is no certainty or confidence that the current Pakistani regime is going to last; Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari is one of the country's most discredited politicians and linked to corruption. There is a major question mark on who will be replacing him or what sort of a government Pakistan will have after his imminent fall.

President Obama has not been forthcoming with the American people. He should come clean and explain the real reason behind the surge. It's not because of bin Laden, al-Qaeda, or the Taliban. The real reason is Pakistan, a failed state with nuclear warheads!

There's more...

More Right-Wing Distortion on Afghanistan

One of the right-wing's two biggest anti-Obama arguments on Afghanistan, alongside claiming that exit strategies embolden the enemy, is that he didn't listen to Stanley McChrystal and that he didn't give the Pentagon what it wanted. Marco Rubio - who, as a Senate candidate and member of the Florida state house, is clearly well-versed in both diplomatic affairs and military strategy - said, "While I support the President's call for additional troops, I am concerned it falls short of General McChrystal's specific request." And Red State's Dan Spencer complained that the President "will give Gen. McChrystal only three-quarters of the 40,000 additional troops the general told Obama he needed to achieve victory."

Rubio, Spencer, and many of their comrades on the right are putting words in McChrystal's mouth. Charles posted last night McChrystal's statement on the Afghanistan review, all of it glowing. Secretary of Defense (and Republican) Robert Gates is no doubt equally happy, having asked for 30,000 troops - not 40,000 - in October. McChrystal:

"The Afghanistan-Pakistan review led by the President has provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task. The clarity, commitment and resolve outlined in the President's address are critical steps toward bringing security to Afghanistan and eliminating terrorist safe havens that threaten regional and global security.

And  Politico's Mike Allen on Gates:

It didn't leak, but 30,000 was the final number that Secretary Gates took to President Obama, in mid-October -- a reminder that the Pentagon chief is the most influential member of the Cabinet, bar none. His argument with the president in this regard was dispositive. This gives POTUS an airtight alibi against claims that 30,000 is a triangulated, political number, not based on any specific brigade configuration...  Plus if you'd gone the whole 40,000, you have no leverage over NATO to send more forces. If we said, 'We'll do 40,' then there's not a great incentive for anybody else to do anything.

Say what you will about the actual policy in Afghanistan, but nothing is worth lying over. I would kindly ask the right-wing to stop saying McChrystal is unhappy when he himself tells us he is delighted, and when another top Afghanistan official, the Secretary of Defense, is equally pleased. But I won't hold my breath. This is the same crowd that finds a way to make everything about partisanship and taking down Obama, even when they get what they what. I bet if Obama HAD given McChrystal 40,000 or even 80,000 new troops, the Repubs would have made Ambassador Eikenberry their Af-Pak standard-bearer.

Update [2009-12-2 19:13 EST by Nathan Empsall]: The other big leader in Afghanistan, CENTCOM Commander and hero to the right-wing General David Petraeus, also sounds content, no matter what Repubs like Jon Kyl might say about his wishes. He was on MSNBC's Morning Joe today, as well as CNN's American Morning and Fox News's Fox & Friends:

The top U.S. general in the Mideast region said the president's case for the strategic value of Afghanistan would help hold together the mission there, going forward.

"I think there was a very powerful case made last night for the importance of the mission in Afghanistan," he said. "Our overriding objective, of course, has to do with Al Qaeda."

Asked to respond to the criticism, from officials including former Vice President Dick Cheney, that the Obama administration had been "dithering" over its strategy for the war in Afghanistan, Petraeus praised the White House's deliberative approach.

"This process was actually quite good," Petraeus said. "it was a very substantive discussion. Everybody's assumptions and views were tested. I think out of this have come sharpened objectives, a very good understanding of the challenges and the difficulties and what must be done."

There's more...


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