“Blowback” in Boston, Fort Hood, Iraq, Afghanistan…and Syria?

April 30, 2013

by Eric Swanson

The term “blowback,” the consequences of a covert or military operation that has repercussions for the aggressor or the result of supplying weapons to a conflict only to see those same weapons turned on the supplier, has been used for decades by national security elites. It has been used long enough that the previous definition of “unknown and unintended consequences” has become obsolete. The consequences are well known and openly discussed in national security circles.

In analyzing the tragedy in Boston, the concept of blowback is made clear in a Washington Post article by Scott Wilson, Greg Miller and Sari Horowitz (April 23 “Boston bombing suspects cite US Wars as motivation, officials say.”)  The surviving suspect told interrogators the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated his actions.  The US engages in war internationally, and local tragedy results.

When one looks at how the US national security apparatus has discussed previous instances of blowback and how it appears they will analyze this horrific event in Boston, they treat blowback as a law of nature, an inevitable consequence of immutable causes; as inexorable as an earthquake, as inescapable as an avalanche. Blowback is something that can be interdicted with good intelligence and vigilant law enforcement. It can be diverted with deft diplomacy. It can be muted some with the appearance of solid multinational alliances. But, in the collective understanding of the US foreign and military officials, blowback can never be prevented, and in fact may just factored in as an externalized cost of US war-making. So, in this case, it’s the innocent civilians in the Boston area who paid the cost.

We have seen blowback in the 2004 killing of US contractors in Fallujah, Iraq, the shooting deaths of 13 people and the wounding of 30 more at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, and the proliferation of drone technology with drones now seen in the hands of non-state actors in just the last few days. At this point there is nothing unpredictable about it. Violence committed and weapons technology sold will pay in kind.

Blowback isn’t a law of nature. It is the predictable result of specific policy decisions. It is mutable. Drones flying overhead and raining death on a civilian population creates, understandably, anti-US sentiment. Wholesale aggressive destruction of entire villages, cities, and regions creates fear, anger, and yes, terror. And that creates individuals and populations ready to send that terror back.

These are equations that can be changed. Moving away from a militarized foreign policy moves us away from blowback. Moving away from selling arms to parties in conflict zones moves us away from blowback. Moving away from accepting our current policies as good business and expecting blowback as the cost of doing that business moves us away from that day when tragedy becomes the norm.

In just the last two days we are seeing the next possible incarnation of blowback as the US ramps up hawk-ish talk about the conflict in Syria. Whether the US floods weapons into the country or directly intervenes with military force there will be consequences. Under those conditions there will be blowback. But, as it is predictable, it is also preventable with a sane foreign policy that isn’t based on militarism and short-term profit but on restraint, humility, diplomacy and international cooperation.


Eric Swanson has served as Peace Action’s Database Manager since 1998. He served in the US Army from 1987-1990. Peace Action is the country’s largest peace and disarmament organization with over 200,000 members, donors and online supporters. http://www.peace-action.org/


On Wisconsin! Another Op-Ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, This One on Drones

March 28, 2013

Peace Action Wisconsin has been doing some slammin’ media work lately, here’s another op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this one on drones, by PA WI board member Conor McMullen.

After years of slumber, Congress is finally starting to wake up to its responsibilities to question the legality, the wisdom and the morality of the administration’s officially and absurdly “secret war” using drone strikes to try to kill alleged members of terrorist groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, far from any legally recognizable battlefield.

When President Barack Obama nominated John Brennan to head the CIA, which has been carrying out the officially “secret” drone strike policy, a bipartisan group of 11 senators wrote to the administration and said: You need to hand over to Congress the secret memos written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that purport to justify the legality of the drone strike policy, which we have been seeking for more than a year. If you don’t hand over the memos, they said, Brennan’s nomination could be in trouble.

As a result of the threat, the administration finally shared some of the memos with the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, which are supposed to oversee the CIA. The administration still has not shared the memos with the Judiciary Committees, which are supposed to oversee the Justice Department, which produced the memos, even though Attorney General Eric Holder admitted in Senate testimony that access to the memos was necessary to understand the policy.

Some members of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees have threatened to issue subpoenas for the drone strike memos if the administration doesn’t hand them over, but they have not yet followed through. Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner is a member of the House Judiciary Committee; he could be doing more to press the administration to release the memos to the committee.

When the Senate Intelligence Committee asked Brennan if the administration was claiming that it had the legal authority to conduct drone strikes in the United States, Brennan answered: “This administration has not carried out drone strikes inside the United States and has no intention of doing so.” That was clearly a dodge of the question.

The question wasn’t about what the administration intended to do. The question was about what legal authority the administration was claiming. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has claimed that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed days after the Sept. 11 attacks, legalized a global war without borders in every corner of Earth. This claim logically begs the question: If the war is legal everywhere on Earth, does that include the U.S.? If not, why not? If it does not include the U.S., what exactly does it include?

Brennan’s subsequent confirmation shouldn’t mean the end of congressional scrutiny of this policy, and it won’t. On April 16, the Constitution subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding its first ever public hearing on the drone strike policy. This subcommittee is chaired by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, and the hearing is expected to include witnesses who can testify to the reality of who is being targeted by drone strikes and who is being killed.

Until now, the administration has publicly claimed that only top terrorist leaders are being targeted and that civilian casualties have been extremely rare. But the record of independent reporting suggests that the standards for targeting have been extremely loose – something along the lines of “military age male in an area controlled by insurgents who looks like a terrorist” – and that civilian casualties have been quite common, with around 20% of the killings from CIA drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 being civilians.

Progressive Students of Milwaukee and Peace Action Wisconsin are sponsoring a public forum Thursday on the drone strike policy. We’ll be discussing what is known about the policy from independent reporting and what the public can do to help bring this policy into transparent compliance with U.S. and international law.

Conor McMullen is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a member of Progressive Students of Milwaukee.

Be a Patriot, Uphold the Constitution: Save Obama From His Tortured Justifications For Drone Strikes, Kill Lists and Targeted Assassinations

February 8, 2013
–Kevin Martin, Executive Director
My cousin David has a cool used record and bookstore in downtown Lancaster, PA (my hometown) called BohoZone, check it out if you visit Lancaster. Bought my son Max a paperback copy of Fahrenheit 451 for Xmas, which he of course forgot and left in the car. So I read it, for the first time since high school (and will now give it back to Max for him to read). Really dug it, forgot that Ray Bradbury knew how to write for popular audiences. Want to see the movie again too (directed by one of the all-time greats, Francois Truffaut, starring Oskar Werner and the inimitable Julie Christie). Gotta admit I dig the future dystopia genre, especially the ones where there is some hope or at least fightback by the people (I also like the “we’re screwed and destined to succumb to the fascist police state and there’s no hope” ones too as I hope they’ll serve as a cautionary tale and wake people up.)
I especially like the one where the supposedly liberal or even “socialist” president decides who he can kill with impunity, using robots to deliver bombs, even if he doesn’t even know the person’s name, in countries with whom we are not at war, with no congressional or judicial oversight, justified by lawyers accountable only to him, with hundreds (at least) of civilians being killed.
Oh wait that’s not some future dystopia, that’s called the Obama Administration.
While many peace activists and human rights researchers have been protesting and educating and agitating about drone strikes and the president’s “kill list” for quite some time, this week seems to have brought something of a breakthrough, at least in media coverage and perhaps in Congressional scrutiny of these morally and legally dubious (and that’s being kind, many folks would just say “illegal”) practices by our Nobel Peace Laureate president. CIA Director-designate John Brennan took much of the heat on this in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday (with some justification, as he has been the president’s counterterrorism chief and was in the CIA under Bush/Cheney), but the president is the one accountable for these policies, and the one who could, and should, end them.
Brevity prevents a full listing of all the problematic aspects of drone strikes (our colleague and former Peace Action staffer and board member Duane Shank of Sojourners had a nice rundown on his Drone Watch blog post the other day, with links to many articles), but the civilian death toll and paper-thin legal “justification” for drone strikes being authorized by the Congressional resolution right after 9/11 are enough to call this whole shebang to a halt. (Certainly Constitutional Law Professor Barack Obama would have understood this.)
Those two concerns are the main reasons cited for the announcement late last month that the UN will open an investigation into drone strikes and targeted killings. Unites States’ UN Ambassador Susan Rice said the administration “has not ruled out full cooperation” with the investigation, as if we can pick and choose, as a UN member state. when to cooperate.
Momentum against drones (and I haven’t even gone into the frightening spectre of the proliferation of domestic surveillance drones just on the horizon that even Bradbury couldn’t have imagined) is building fast. Nationally coordinated grassroots actions on drones are planned for April. I had a suggestion the other day that we ought to start a call-in campaign to the White House every Tuesday. Why? That is supposedly the day the president looks at the kill list and approves targets for murder.
I know many liberals and progressives are loathe to criticize the president, and/or feel it’s their job to protect him from the right-wing. But it’s our Constitution that needs protecting, from this or any president who would declare himself judge, jury and executioner. Do him a favor and demand he end this madness.

Afghanistan – the Who Cares War?

October 9, 2012

Not Exactly, But it Fails the Real Definition of a Just War

–Kevin Martin 

Amid all the grim news in Afghanistan as the war enters its 12th year, a new initiative by the youth-led Afghan civil society organization Afghan Peace Volunteers called 2 Million Friends for Peace in Afghanistan (http://www.2millionfriends.org) looks like a ray of hope. The two million refers to the approximate number of Afghans killed in forty years of war. The campaign aims to find two million friends or supporters worldwide, and to deliver its call for a cease fire and negotiated end to the war to the United Nations on December 10, International Human Rights Day. 


Here in the U.S., the war in Afghanistan is hardly mentioned by the presidential or congressional candidates (Mitt Romney completely omitted it from his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention). With only about one percent of the population directly involved in the war, with a family member in the service, the war is so low on the public radar screen that Council on Foreign Relations analyst Max Boot dubbed it the “Who Cares?” war, and many in the military fret about the seeming indifference to the sacrifice and hardships of our troops and returning veterans. This angle was prominent in 9/11 anniversary news coverage.


Such a narrative is too shallow, as there are many ironies and contradictions regarding public support, or lack thereof, for the Afghanistan war, and as to how the public feels about the troops and veterans.  


As a peace activist, invariably opposed to this country’s many, many wars, I do care about the troops and returning vets (my brother is a psychologist at the Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx, meaning unfortunately he has a job for life dealing with the trauma our endless war making inflicts on those who fight them), as do all the peace activists I know.


I knew a wonderful young man, a Marine reservist who died in Iraq. He was opposed to the war, but felt he had to go, that he couldn’t have claimed conscientious objector status (as I and others counseled him to do, and I believe he had a pretty good case). He felt he couldn’t let the others in his unit down, though he vehemently opposed the war. The military counts on that type of coercion or guilt to keep troops in line and returning to combat time and again.


In terms of nobody “caring about the war,” there are many dynamics at play. Polls consistently show a solid majority of the US populace is now against the war, but there are neither widespread protests nor large-scale organized war tax resistance (although I was proud to march in Chicago last May at the NATO protest with veterans returning their medals to protest the wars). Certainly there is some partisan politics at play here, with anti-war liberals not wanting to criticize President Obama, or feeling “okay” with his promise to end the war by the end of 2014 (though a Foreign Policy article recently speculated up to 25,000 U.S. troops may remain for a decade as part of an agreement with the Afghan govt.).


The Pentagon can’t have it both ways. Military brass and civilian leaders don’t want a draft, understandably, as they don’t want to deal with hassles from soldiers who don’t want to be in the service (that is a lesson the Pentagon learned from the Vietnam War and the rampant resistance and anti-war organizing by conscripts). The poverty draft, whereby urban and rural youth with poor job and educational prospects in their communities see the military as an attractive career option, especially in a week economy, suits the Pentagon just fine.


Moreover, the Department of War gets an endless supply of our tax dollars to fight its wars and maintain the largest military in human history. They want us to “care” more? Even with multiple “support the troops” programs and manifestations all over society (Michelle Obama and Jill Biden are constantly stressing this, as do many others)? Which is not to disparage such efforts, we do need to support the troops, and the best way to do that is to get them home to their families as soon as possible. Even longtime hawk U.S. Rep. Bill Young, Republican from Florida who chairs the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and is Congress’s longest serving member, now advocates this.


If there were a draft, the war would be over in a month if not sooner. The public wouldn’t stand for it, because this war fails miserably in meeting the real definition of a just war (the horse sense definition, not the Catholic Church’s official Just War theory regarding using force as a last resort, with proportionality and protection for noncombatants and other criteria).


The real definition of a just war is one you’d send your kid to.


So mark me down as caring about the troops, and about getting them the best possible medical, psychological, financial and career services we can provide when they get home. I don’t see how Pentagon brass can ask for more than that, unless their real goal is to continue the war indefinitely.

Kevin Martin is the Executive Director of Peace Action, the country’s largest peace and disarmament organization with approximately 90,000 members and 70,000 online supporters nationwide. www.peace-action.org

More on Drones, Pakistan and Afghanistan

October 3, 2012

Last week, we shared (on the Peace Action FaceBook page, not here on the Peace Blog) the devastating Living Under Drones report on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, written by researchers from Stanford and New York University. If you didn’t read it or watch the accompanying video by Brave New Foundation (available at the same link as above and also on our FB page), you ought to. It is a clear indictment of a policy that is earning our government (deserved, I believe) enmity in Pakistan and around the world for the wanton use of armed drones to kill from afar.

CIVIC and the Columbia Law School also have a report posing hard questions for Congress and the Obama Administration titled The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions. The recommendations to policymakers are worth a read.

Colleagues from many U.S. peace groups are in Pakistan right now on a nonviolent solidarity mission to call attention to and demand an end to U.S. drone strikes, which are killing many civilians in the Waziristan region. Follow the delegation at http://droneswatch.org/

Bob Naiman of Just Foreign Policy is on the delegation, and he explains why, as well as analyzes U.S. drone policy, with an article on Huffington Post.

Last but far from least, our good friend Phyllis Bennis was on Democracy Now! yesterday talking about Afghanistan, our country’s longest war (October 7th will mark eleven years since the start of our war there).

I’m guessing this new aspect of U.S. war-making (drone strikes) will not come up in the Presidential debate tonight, especially as the focus will be on domestic issues, but we will need to raise our concerns about U.S. drone policy in every conceivable way going forward.


Afghanistan – A Great New Civil Society Campaign (Initiated by Afghans), Dem Platform on Ending the War “Responsibly,” A “Tough Transition” and Straight Talk on “Security” from a Veteran (Who’s Now a Peace Activist!)

September 6, 2012

Johnny Barber of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, who is currently in Kabul, writes inspiringly of a new initiative by the youth group Afghan Peace Volunteers called 2 Million Friends, an international call to end the war and help heal Afghanistan.

Barber’s article begins, “Four decades of war.  Two million people dead. Trillions of dollars spent. Money disappearing into the pockets of corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, policemen and the armed forces. No accountability. No transparency. No infrastructure. The misery and poverty of the majority of the people continues unabated, decade after decade.

Children freeze to death in the winter. They starve to death all year round. The question remains, “Who benefits from this misery?” The human cost of war doesn’t enter into any politician’s calculations.

In October 2011 Secretary of State Clinton emphasized a new three-track strategy of “Fight, talk, and build,” claiming to “pursue all three tracks at once, as they are mutually reinforcing.” One year later, it is clear that the 3rd Afghan strategy of the Obama administration can be added to the scrap heap of failed strategies along with the “Af-Pak” strategy and the “Surge”. No one is talking, nothing is being built, fighting is the only track that continues unabated. Security, even in Kabul, is tenuous. Peace seems a distant and illusory concept.”

Barber continues with a more hopeful approach, the 2 Million Friends campaign:

“On December 10, 2012, International Human Rights Day, “2 Million Friends” will present a petition to the UN calling for an immediate ceasefire in Afghanistan, leading to direct, substantial talks to end the war, end the government corruption and begin to advocate for the welfare of the majority of the Afghan people who have suffered for too long.”

Peace Action plans to support this initiative, and I hope you will too. Please visit the 2 Million Friends website, get involved, and help spread the word!

Meanwhile here in the U.S., the Democratic Party Platform, which its convention in Charlotte will ratify today, has a short section (deliberately short I’m sure, as they’d prefer not to remind Americans of our longest war) titled “Ending the War in Afghanistan Responsibly,” which has the political virtue of putting anyone who doesn’t agree with this approach as being irresponsible. Read it for yourself and decide whether it, or the plan advocated in 2 Million Friends, is the better way to “responsibly” end the war.

As to the reality on the ground of how the “responsible end” to the war is going, Foreign Policy has these snippets today in its AfPak Daily (thanks to Michael Eisenscher of U.S. Labor Against the War for this):

Tough transition

Though a March 9 agreement with Afghanistan stipulated that the United States
transfer control of the Parwan detention facility at Bagram Air Base to the
Afghans by September 9, the U.S. military appears set to retain control
indefinitely over about 50 foreign detainees, as well as all Afghans who are
newly detained (
). The U.S. military’s continued role shows the complexity of trying to
put detention and interrogation activities in Afghan hands while American
troops are still conducting combat operations in the country.

Afghanistan’s top military commander, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, admitted
Wednesday that the rising incidence of insider attacks by Afghan security
forces on their NATO counterparts is not fully attributable to infiltration by
foreign spy agencies as Afghan officials had previously claimed (
). Karimi said senior military officers don’t give their subordinates
enough guidance, so “they don’t know why we are fighting.”

A new report
by Human Rights Watch claims that a suspected Libyan terrorist was waterboarded
by the CIA in Afghanistan, contradicting the official U.S. narrative that just
three high-level al-Qaeda suspects were ever subjected to waterboarding, none
of them Libyan (

Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasool and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar
Salehi signed a deal on Wednesday giving land-locked Afghanistan access to the
Iranian port of Chabahar on the Indian Ocean (
). And a senior Pakistani official confirmed Thursday that Pakistan
signed a barter deal with Iran last month to trade wheat for fertilizer,
despite U.S. pressure to continue isolating Iran over its nuclear program (

And last but far from least, our colleague Matt Southworth of Friends Committee on National Legislation posted a very thoughtful, heartfelt, analytical and yet personal piece Is A War Less Noticed Making You Safe? on the FCNL blog. Matt’s conclusion (though you should read the whole article) exhibits a clarity missing from what passes for debate these days over our longest war:

“To me, security doesn’t start overseas; it starts here at home. Security is knowing that if you work hard, you will have a job to go to everyday. It means knowing your children can get a good education and go to college without facing mountains of debt. Security is being able to walk around your neighborhood at night without fear of being mugged—something that can’t be done in every Washington, DC neighborhood. Security means knowing that you don’t have to compromise your health because medical expenses are simply too daunting. To me, security means knowing we, the United States, play a positive role around the world, rather than a sinister, means to ends one that we seem to have adopted.

My deployment to Iraq in 2004 did none of these things. When this next anniversary of 9/11 comes to pass, think about how you’d define security. What makes you feel secure? I bet the bloated Pentagon budget and wars overseas won’t be as large a part of your security as some would have us all believe.”




Honor Nuclear Weapons Treaty

August 13, 2012

Salt Lake City Tribune

By Christine Meecham And Deb Sawyer

Published August 9, 2012 1:01 am


For much of this year, the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state has been a major international concern. As members of the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, we have a perspective we’d like to share concerning the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons.

We both grew up in Utah during the Cold War, when the threat of mass annihilation was very real. As young adults we were hopeful when the Non-Proliferation Treaty was put into force in 1970. The grand bargain of the NPT was simple: Nations that did not have nuclear weapons agreed never to acquire them, while the five nuclear states, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, agreed to share the peaceful benefits of nuclear technology as they pursued the elimination of their nuclear arsenal. Making sure that both ends of this agreement are honored is essential to the long-term viability of the NPT.

Now the countries with nuclear weapons also include Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Unlike the Cold War, today our greatest national security threats come from the breakdown of the non-proliferation regime and nuclear terrorism. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are at least 40 other nations with the capacity to develop nuclear weapons, which brings us back to the current conflict with Iran.

Despite the censures, sanctions and embargoes, Iran continues its nuclear program claiming that it is within its rights to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and threatening to withdraw, as did North Korea, from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If Iran withdraws from the NPT, efforts to ensure that its enriched uranium not be diverted to develop nuclear weapons would no longer be subject to oversight by the UN nuclear agency. In addition, it would bring us one step closer to another war in the Middle East.

We believe it is time to take another tack. Many of the NPT non-nuclear states believe that the nuclear-weapon states have not complied with their side of the bargain. In an attempt to reassure the non-proliferation regime, President Obama, in his Prague speech in April 2009, outlined a series of initiatives that would honor our disarmament commitment and lead to a nuclear-weapons free world. One of the first steps toward this end is putting a permanent ban on nuclear weapons testing.

Twenty years ago in 1992, President George H. W. Bush signed a moratorium on nuclear testing and other states followed. In 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed, but the Senate failed to ratify it in 1999.

What if the United States surprised the world and ratified the test ban treaty? Since our experts maintain that we don’t need to test nuclear weapons to keep them viable, doesn’t it make sense to make this moratorium permanent? Wouldn’t it go a long way in affirming our commitment to nuclear disarmament?

One thing is certain, if we continue to bolster our nuclear capabilities, no amount of persuasion or sanctions will keep non-nuclear states, particularly our political foes, from eventually acquiring these weapons of mass destruction. In contrast, if we honor our commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, we will be leading the global community towards a greater security for all.

Christine Meecham and Deb Sawyer are members of the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Both live in Salt Lake City.

(Note – the Utah Campaign is an organizational member of Peace Action.)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 17,378 other followers

%d bloggers like this: