UK paperback

Careful and discriminating

Hitchens drones on

Christopher Hitchens is optimistic about the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

[T]he four requisites are in place: citizens rejecting theocracy and its partner, organized crime; an indigenous army that fights for its own reasons; American airstrikes that are careful and discriminating; and the development of splits that can be exploited among the jihadists.

Oh good, the airstrikes are “careful and discriminating” now! Not only are targets chosen, or the fire button pressed, with care, but also there is discrimination afoot — presumably discrimination between evil guys who deserve to die and other people who don’t necessarily? It is surely reassuring news if so, but how does Hitchens know it? That is a mystery left intriguingly intact by his column. Still, at least he does, in the previous paragraph, cite one recent strike that he perhaps means to stand synecdochically for the new careful-and-discriminating paradigm: the drone attack that killed Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, as well as Mehsud’s wife, father-in-law, mother-in-law, and eight other people.

In a way, that does count as “careful and discriminating” when compared to the overall record of Predator attacks over the last few years. According to Pakistani authorities, US drone attacks carried out in Pakistan between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009 killed 687 civilians. Or, as David Kilcullen, former strategic adviser to General Petraeus, puts it:

He said the US had killed 14 mid-level or lower level al-Qaeda leaders since 2006 but the strikes had killed 700 civilians. “That’s a hit rate of two per cent on 98 per cent collateral. It’s not moral.”

Of course, it’s a bit more moral if the strikes really have become “careful and discriminating” (always assuming that discriminating between enemies and civilians is what Hitchens actually means, rather than, say, discriminating between wedding parties and funerals). But what the hell — even if they haven’t, we could perhaps give the impression that they have anyway by dusting off that old classic of military Unspeak, “surgical strikes”? Why thank you, New York Times, we don’t mind if you do:

The White House has begun promoting the missile strikes and raids that have killed Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere. […] President George W. Bush approved a more aggressive campaign of surgical strikes last year before leaving office, and Mr. Obama has embraced and expanded the program.

How has Obama’s embracing and expansion been going? According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann in the New Republic, as of June 2009, not all that well:

Just three days into his presidency, Obama authorized a near-simultaneous pair of drone strikes against targets in North and South Waziristan. Since he took office, there have been a total of 16 airstrikes, or roughly one per week. Our analysis shows that these attacks have killed some 170 people, but only one has killed an important Al Qaeda or Taliban leader, presumably because many of them have decamped from the tribal areas.

Still, we have Christopher Hitchens’s word that now, the firing of 100lb missiles from remote-controlled aircraft in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a “careful and discriminating” business, such that presumably they will from now on kill only top bad guys and their entire families, but no one else. Possibly Hitchens is privy to classified information that boffins have installed a new “moral clarity” circuit in the Predator’s nosecone?

What are you careful and discriminating about, readers?

  1. 1  roger migently  October 6, 2009, 1:31 pm 

    I wonder if Hitchens couldn’t arrange a Scratch-n-Sniff for his column so that readers could immerse themselves fully in the experience: his writing read in a fug of the full-bodied aroma of stale tobacco smoke, whisky breath and day-old fart.

    Perhaps the message of the drones is not that if you are evil you can be killed but that if you are evil your entire social group will be annihilated, or that if you associate even loosely with the evil ones you will be annihilated, too. This would be the strategy of ostracism which the Israelis tested recently in Gaza.

    Or to put it another way, “they’ve got only themselves to blame.”

  2. 2  Leinad  October 6, 2009, 1:35 pm 

    Hey, that’s just the drone strikes – conventional close-air support sorties are ongoing. Indeed, the recent elections required a record number of them.

    While there has been a policy shift away from profligate use of careful and discriminating airstrikes (not that the Germans got the memo) this covers bomb strikes only and hence doesn’t extend to the venerable A-10 ‘Warthog’and it’s marvellously careful and discriminating 30mm GAU-8/A ‘Avenger’ 3,900 rpm cannon.

  3. 3  Dave Weeden  October 6, 2009, 3:13 pm 

    Well the whole of the paragraph from Hitchens that you quote seems questionable. It’s certainly moot whether anyone rejects a given belief and therefore moves into a period of agnosticism, as it were, or whether they instead take up a new belief. When Hitchens says that citizens (and is that even the right word here?) reject theocracy, does he mean they’re going through a sort of adolescent doubting phase, or does he mean that they’ve collectively bought into some other form of government, and if so what? (I really can’t believe that Afghans are greatly impressed by democracy at the moment.)

    The indigenous army thing is a bit weird. Weren’t the Taliban indigenous? And didn’t they fight for their own reasons? Didn’t this apply to the Tutsis? I find the idea of the philosopher as private soldier rather unconvincing.

    Is organised crime really a partner of theocracy? It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, but I can’t recall any examples of Al Capone like figures at the trial of Galileo for example. In a sense, all non-democratic forms of government are organised crime syndicates, but there’s nothing special about theocracies.

    As for the last one, that is surely merely the projection of an old ex-Trot. See, the jihadists (again, is this the right word here?) will fall out among themselves. Just as Hitchens Major and Hitchens Minor and all their pals used to do at uni. We should strike when they’re all in a huff and not speaking to each other.

  4. 4  Steven  October 6, 2009, 3:41 pm 

    Yes to all the above.

    Can it be, further, that Hitchens is attempting some sort of joke by referring to “the four requisites”, which in Buddhism are food, clothing, shelter and medicine, or in Vedanta are apparently “discrimination, detachment, the six essentials, and the desire for Liberation”?

    If so, ho ho!

  5. 5  Gregor  October 6, 2009, 4:07 pm 

    ‘I wonder if Hitchens couldn’t arrange a Scratch-n-Sniff for his column so that readers could immerse themselves fully in the experience: his writing read in a fug of the full-bodied aroma of stale tobacco smoke, whisky breath and day-old fart’

    Readers with synaesthesia can pick this up from his tone of moral superiority, unfounded assertions and overall arrogance.

  6. 6  abb1  October 6, 2009, 7:08 pm 

    the strikes had killed 700 civilians

    Hey, it ain’t called “Operation Enduring Freedom” for nothin’.

  7. 7  Hey Zeus  October 6, 2009, 7:41 pm 

    I’m carefully picking my nose and discriminatingly wiping the bogeys under my table.

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts