The coming robot and counterinsurgency armies

Hello from Alberta. I’m here giving a few talks with En Camino, a collective I belong to that works principally on Colombia solidarity. I have a series of talks that I’ve given in over the past few months that might be worth writing out and posting, I may do that as a series here.

Alberta is an interesting place, a very different part of Canada, and one that anyone who is concerned about Canada and what it is doing should study and understand. The city I am in, Calgary, and its University, created and supplies the intellectual basis for the regime that is currently in power in Canada. The ideas and policies, the networks and organizations, are developed here. The deals are made here. The money was made here. And so on. It is certainly something I’ve been thinking about and have been meaning to study more carefully.

When on the road I do things I don’t normally do, like read magazines (my reading is generally from books or online), and I picked up a copy of Harper’s on the road from Edmonton to Calgary.

Two articles caught my interest. The first, by Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on counterinsurgency, and the other by freelance writer Steve Featherstone, on “the coming robot army”.

The counterinsurgency article was more interesting, so I’ll deal with it second. Featherstone’s piece on robots describes in scary detail the operation of the next generation of remote-control military equipment.

There are already unmanned drones of all kinds, but the next generation has more power: robots that can climb walls, coordinate with other camera-carrying, intelligence-gathering robots to create a complete picture of the battlefield. The robots are part of a “kill chain” that will enable the US military (which is the only one I think could afford such things) to inflict more casualties and do more damage with reduced casualties. The generation of robots after this one will be able to make decisions and operate quite independently of remote control.

Featherstone extrapolates ethical issues that I don’t think are the right ones. He raises a hypothetical: suppose a drone, following orders, kills a family in the home of an insurgent. Who is responsible? I don’t think this is such a complex issue: it has never been the case that soldiers who commit war crimes are solely culpable. It has always been the case that militaries (and bureaucracies) are organized specifically to diffuse responsibility away from individuals. So people who make the decision to go to war are culpable just as soldiers are. And to the degree that a society is democratic, we’re all culpable to the degree that we have the power to change a policy and don’t.

What I wonder though is whether the robotification of the army has limits. Does the complexity and expense of the organization of an army that uses robots heavily create vulnerabilities? Is such an organization good at some things and not others? And, leading into Luttwak’s article, given that no military can stand against the US military and we’re talking about an army that will be fighting relatively defenceless populations, what are the effects of using such an army on a population?

Luttwak’s argument is as follows. Counterinsurgency is a political and not a military problem and so the astounding and increasing firepower the US brings to bear in Iraq (or Afghanistan), and its ability to kill without taking casualties (which the US population is sensitive to) becomes irrelevant in the face of insurgents who will hide among the population, passively protected by the population, rather than fight against vastly superior firepower. Why does the population support insurgents, Luttwak asks? Because the insurgents are willing to out-terrorize the occupier. Cooperation with the occupier is punished with terrible reprisals. The political solution to this, used by the Romans, the Ottomans, the Nazis, is to be willing to out-terrorize the insurgents. Some high profile massacres will do the job, but the US, because of principled opposition to massacres, won’t do so. The only thing that might help the US if it is unwilling to out-terrorize, is to be willing to govern. But since the US wants to leave governance to the locals, its counterinsurgency program is doomed.

I thought about this a while before I could identify the problems with it, and there are several.

The first is that it assumes that the US has benevolent intentions – Luttwak says that the problem is that Iraqis and Afghans prefer local oppression to the freedoms brought by occupiers. But Luttwak knows that empires (from the Romans to the Nazis) don’t occupy for benevolent reasons.

From the assumption of benevolent empires, it is natural to suggest that support for insurgency comes from terrorizing the population. The reality is more complex. Reprisals are part of the picture, to be sure. So is nationalism, dignity, vengeance against the occupier, and legitimacy, which Eqbal Ahmad, for example, emphasized in his writings on anti-colonial warfare.

Third, the assumption that principle prevents the US from massacring people is false. The US did massacre people in Fallujah, mainly for the demonstrative reasons that Luttwak argues the US would never massacre. There is something to the idea that communication of atrocities to populations with a degree of control over decision-makers can reduce atrocities (something that didn’t exist in Roman or Ottoman times). But if that communication must take place through centralized media corporations and propaganda systems that are part of the system of power, that frees empires to commit the demonstrative massacres Luttwak argues would bring places like Iraq under control.

If Luttwak is wrong, a couple of possibilities follow. One is that Iraq is, for US purposes, under control. That’s hard to believe, but I do think the current situation is more beneficial to the Bush regime, and those who wanted the war in Iraq in the first place, than many think. The alternative though is that the reason US counterinsurgency “fails” (and I repeat that I think it’s more successful than many) is for some reason other than its unwillingness to terrorize. I think it is probably a question of legitimacy – but Iraq, like Palestine, is a place where anyone with any legitimacy is targeted for destruction by the empire. When no one has legitimacy, there is chaos. And chaos, while it may not be as good for empire as stable imperial control, might be a good imperial second choice.

The second phase of Plan Colombia

So, we’ve had seven years of Plan Colombia which was initiated, famously, with 1.3 billion from the US and an additional 4-5 billion of Colombians’ money. The money paid for helicopters, mainly, and other military hardware and support to the Colombian army to fight ‘drugs’ – mainly to provide military support for aerial fumigation. It’s been 7 years with no effect on drug supply or demand, though there have been ‘successes’ in other realms – to which I’ll return. But first, the news – that after 7 years of Plan Colombia, they’re entering a second phase, according to El Tiempo, Colombia’s national newspaper (article below). Its features:

-It is around $44 billion pesos to start, which is about $23 million USD
-The “international community” will provide 30%
-It is a 6-year plan, going to 2013
-Over the course of the plan, some $3.6 billion USD will come from the US, $9 billion USD from Europe and Asia
-86% of the plan will go to ‘development’, 14% to military expenditure against ‘drugs’.

The first plan had the following features.

-Between 2000-2006, the US put $4.7 billion USD into Plan Colombia, the Europeans about $1 billion, and Colombia $7.5 billion.
-57% of this went to ‘fighting drugs’, 43% to ‘social investment’

In the very same edition of El Tiempo, we get a sense of the success of Plan Colombia. I have been a bit derilect in covering this here, but the shining jewel in the crown of Plan Colombia is the government’s negotiation with the paramilitaries, by which these mass murderers, who were always supported and trained and armed by the army and the US, confess their crimes, ‘reintegrate’ into society, and ‘put down their weapons’. The major media event in this is paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso’s ongoing confessions of his massacres, torture, and assassinations. This process, in which the government negotiates with itself and gives itself some benefits, has given rise to a movement of victims, families of victims of paramilitary massacre who have demanded truth and justice and who have entered the judicial process to have their voices heard.

One such courageous witness was Yolanda Izquierdo, who was murdered yesterday by a couple of gunmen on motorcycles. Her husband is dying. She had been threatened and had announced the threats in El Tiempo. Others: Freddy Abel Espitia, president of the Committee of the Displaced of Cotorra, killed on December 28.

The same article on Izquierdo’s murder provides a summary of some of the statistics from the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a human rights group, for the past 4 years.

20,102 killed
11,292 killed outside of combat
75.1% of killed outside of combat attributed to the state
397 per year, on average, killed by the guerrillas
1060 per year, on average, killed by the paramilitaries
1741 people killed in massacres
823 people tortured
6192 people arbitrarily detained

More than anything, this is a (partial) balance sheet of Plan Colombia itself, and one of the measures of its success. A full balance sheet would include the territories and resources that changed hands in the ‘agrarian counter-reform’ by which the paramilitaries displaced 4 million people from their land by way of these killings and massacres in order to hand the territory over for megaprojects. It would also include 3 more years of this. And changes to the constitution, the mining code, the labor law. The destruction of the labor movement and the social organizations. Someone is certainly profiting from all this, and wants to ensure that it continues, all the way to 2013.

Febrero 1 de 2007

Asesinan a mujer que asistió como representante de las víctimas a declaración de Salvatore Mancuso
Eran cerca de las 2 de la tarde cuando Yolanda y su esposo fueron abordados en la puerta de su casa por los dos sicarios.

Desde su asistencia a la primera versión libre del ex jefe paramilitar, en diciembre, comenzaron a llamarla para que se quitara del camino. Ayer, con seis tiros, dos sicarios sellaron las amenazas.

Yolanda Izquierdo acababa de salir a la puerta de su casa del barrio Rancho Grande de Montería, un humilde sector de la margen izquierda del río Sinú, para recibir a su esposo Francisco Torreglosa.

Dos hombres en motocicleta se les acercaron, cruzaron varias palabras con ellos y luego el parrillero disparó.

La campesina, que con el agricultor Manuel Argel encabezó la fila de víctimas de los paramilitares en las pasadas audiencias del ex jefe de las autodefensas Salvatore Mancuso, quedó tendida en el piso con seis tiros en el cuerpo. Su esposo, malherido, sigue en una clínica de Montería.

Corrieron a socorrerlo los vecinos, que desde agosto del año pasado vieron a Yolanda ir y venir en la búsqueda de certificados, mapas y escrituras que documentaban que ella y al menos otras 700 personas habían sido obligadas por los ‘paras’ a vender las parcelas que en 1990 les entregó la Fundación para la Paz de Córdoba (Funpazcor). Esta fue creada por los hermanos Castaño Gil y a través de ella Fidel, el fundador de las Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (Accu), entregó 10.000 hectáreas a 2.500 campesinos cuando se desmovilizó, en el 90, en respuesta al desarme del Epl, uno de los grupos que combatió.

Yolanda y Manuel se habían convertido en los voceros de los campesinos de esas tierras arrebatadas, vendidas o abandonadas a la fuerza desde el 2000, cuando comenzaron la presiones.

Yolanda denunció las amenazas en su contra a EL TIEMPO en la tercera semana de enero: “Cuando nos devolvimos para Córdoba, el 22 de diciembre, nos informaron que había una orden para matar a la mujer que coordinaba a las víctimas de Funpazcor, o sea a mí. Quieren que dejemos las cosas así”.

Personas cercanas al trabajo de los desplazados dicen que el crimen fue cometido por hacendados que están explotando las tierras que reclaman los campesinos.

La última advertencia para que Yolanda se quitara del camino fue el pasado jueves. “La llamó una mujer que dijo: Yolanda y Manuel, piérdanse que los van a matar”, le contó a este diario el abogado Mauricio Caballero, que representa a 863 víctimas de las Auc.

El jueves, el viernes, el lunes y ayer martes Yolanda fue a la Fiscalía a pedir protección. Los cuatro días, denuncia Caballero, le dijeron que debía esperar ocho días para que la solicitud hiciera trámite. “Yolanda era la que los alentaba a todos para que reclamaran sus tierras. Si no se hace nada, el próximo muerto va a ser Manuel”, afirma el abogado. El ataque contra la campesina, que a duras penas cargaba en el bolsillo lo del bus, es el tercero contra víctimas de las Auc en 15 días. Como si la idea fuera acabar con quienes están pidiendo justicia y reparación.

Los otros ataques

1. El domingo 28, desconocidos mataron a Freddy Abel Espitia, presidente del Comité de Desplazados de Cotorra (Córdoba).

2. El 20 de enero, le prendieron fuego a la sede de la Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas de Turbaco (Bolívar).

Buscó techo a muchos

Desde su desplazamiento, Yolanda Izquierdo lideró en Montería la Organización Popular de Vivienda (OPV), que dio techo a dos mil familias desplazadas.

Ella presentó el proyecto entre 1997 y 1998 y fue respaldado por la Alcaldía de la capital cordobesa.

“Nos dijeron que había una orden de matar a la mujer que coordinaba a las víctimas de Funpazcord, o sea a mí”.

Datos de 4 años

La Comisión Colombiana de Juristas presentó un informe sobre la situación de derechos humanos y del Derecho Internacional Humanitario, correspondiente al lapso junio de 2002 y julio de 2006. Algunos datos son:

Muertos: 20.102 personas murieron durante ese tiempo, incluyendo las muertes en combate.

Asesinatos: 11.292 personas fueron asesinadas o desaparecidas fuera de combate.

Estado: El 75,1 por ciento de las muertes fuera de combate se le atribuyeron al Estado.

Guerrilla: En promedio asesinó a 397 personas por año.

‘Paras’: En promedio asesinaron o desaparecieron a 1.060 personas cada año.

Masacres: 1.741 personas fueron muertas en masacres

Tortura: 823 personas fueron víctimas de este delito.

Detenciones: 6.192 colombianos fueron detenidos arbitrariamente durante este lapso.