Category Archives: Drones

Reporting Drones: Consent, Complicity & Racialized Media

Here are my quick observations (3 of them) on some of the articles that have come out in the last few days on drones. These are, I stress, musings/thoughts that I am working out/ notes to myself. So, if you read them, please take them as such–and not my final word.

1. Mark Mazzetti How a Single Spy Helped Turn Pakistan Against the United States (on Raymond Davis) Apr 14.2013

The interesting point about this article is it depicts, quite clearly, how little control the State Department has in trying to establish relationships in Pakistan. Shorter CIA to State: STFU. Why that’s relevant is below this quote:

Munter saw some value to the drone program but was skeptical about the long-term benefits…He would learn soon enough that his views about the drone program ultimately mattered little. In the Obama administration, when it came to questions about war and peace in Pakistan, it was what the C.I.A. believed that really counted.

Munter said he believed that the C.I.A. was being reckless and that his position as ambassador was becoming untenable. His relationship with the C.I.A. station chief in Islamabad, already strained because of their disagreements over the handling of the Davis case, deteriorated even further when Munter demanded that the C.I.A. give him the chance to call off specific missile strikes. During one screaming match between the two men, Munter tried to make sure the station chief knew who was in charge, only to be reminded of who really held the power in Pakistan.

“You’re not the ambassador!” Munter shouted.

“You’re right, and I don’t want to be the ambassador,” the station chief replied.

This turf battle spread to Washington, and a month after Bin Laden was killed, President Obama’s top advisers were arguing in a National Security Council meeting over who really was in charge in Pakistan. At the June 2011 meeting, Munter, who participated via secure video link, began making his case that he should have veto power over specific drone strikes.

Panetta cut Munter off, telling him that the C.I.A. had the authority to do what it wanted in Pakistan. It didn’t need to get the ambassador’s approval for anything.

“I don’t work for you,” Panetta told Munter, according to several people at the meeting.

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Munter’s defense. She turned to Panetta and told him that he was wrong to assume he could steamroll the ambassador and launch strikes against his approval.

“No, Hillary,” Panetta said, “it’s you who are flat wrong.”

There was a stunned silence,…

There are a series of articles and news reports coming out now elaborating on the complicity between segments of the Pakistani state and the US. For example:

Nic Robertson Musharraf Admits Secret Deal with US on Drone Strikes Apr 12.2013

These reports are of import because there has long been the question of whether the Pakistani state has given consent to the US for drone bombing. First, as the article above clearly shows, the State Department doesn’t even have control of its own agenda, never mind Pakistan’s elected government when it comes to the machinations of the security establishment in the US. In Pakistan, (as in the US), the question of the state must be disaggregated into its various parts. The military, which is by far the strongest arm of the Pakistani state, has been funded, backed, armed and encouraged by the US. That has been the case for decades so much so that the only Pakistani military coup that wasn’t backed by the US was Musharraf. That changed after 9.11.

The structure of the Pakistani state is, therefore, thoroughly conditioned by the arrangements that have existed between the American and Pakistani security establishments. The Pakistani army has its own interests, independent of the US, but however fraught that relationship is, its continuance has been the overriding concern for much of Pakistan’s history.

To put it baldly, the US has spent billions bribing the Pakistani security establishment and thus fundamentally re-structuring the Pakistani state to the detriment of Pakistanis. In that context, talking about “consent” of one allegedly independent state to another, is laughable. These conditions structure the way drone attacks happen and who bears the responsibility. Darryl Li made this point with respect to US secret prisons in other countries.

Therefore contrary to the discussion of consent given, the discussion that ought to be had is about consent bought: from whom and to what effects. The American government dispenses with its responsibility and its crimes, displacing them onto other states. That does not, of course, mean that those governments are not complicit or war criminals. But, it does mean a discussion that is much closer to the character of the actually, existing relationships between the US and other countries rather than the pretense that we are simply dealing with independent, container states.

2. Mark Mazzetti A Secret Deal on Drones Sealed in Blood (on Nek Mohammed) Apr 6, 2013

The deal, a month after a blistering internal report about abuses in the C.I.A.’s network of secret prisons, paved the way for the C.I.A. to change its focus from capturing terrorists to killing them, and helped transform an agency that began as a cold war espionage service into a paramilitary organization.

Ok, this article shows what I have been saying for a while now. Accountability and transparency are weak procedures. The demand for these procedures in the context of secret prisons meant that the CIA shifted its tactics to drone attacks. The state learns, and adapts. Another example was Israel’s shift towards torture tactics that left no marks on the bodies of Palestinians following human rights reports documenting torture using bodily wounds, scars and marks as evidence.

3. Jonathan Landay Obama’s Drone War Kills ‘Others,’ not Just al-Qaida Leaders (on secret papers received by McClatchy) Apr 9.2013

Jonathan Landay US Collaborated with Pakistan Spy Agency in Drone War Apr 09.2013

Micah Zenko An Inconvenient Truth Apr 10.2013

Zenko’s article is subtitled, “Finally, proof that the United States has lied in the drone wars.” It’s useful that these reports are out there, but I find it troubling that liberals and leftists have been touting these reports as “Finally! proof!” which is how some have also tweeted about it.

For one, the bodies of dead kids should’ve been enough proof. Even the little wire service stories –even as they are largely driven by various interested parties –have also occasionally noted the confusion on the ground about who was killed. That these stories –those of the government’s own pronunciations and declarations– continually grab the major headlines when it comes to Pakistan rather than stories from the ground, perfectly rehearses the spectacle of secrets. It invests a kind of legitimation and power in the American government to determine the line between the truth and a hunch, between the visible and the invisible. I wrote about this in my New Inquiry piece.

This is also what happens when the major voices, even among liberals and leftists, are those of white males, with journalists or analysts from the country in question either entirely missing or brought on for bit parts in the narrative that is written largely by those in empire. I am not accusing Zenko or indeed anyone else of maliciousness or even support for American empire, but I do think these stories would look quite different if they were being told by people from the countries in question. It would shift perspective, and it would highlight as well as marginalize different aspects of the issue. As it is, the conversation is had among largely American, largely white, largely male voices, and the only real options for the rest of us are either to enter that conversation by agreeing or disagreeing, or risk irrelevance.

Finally, the intense focus on the government’s narrative lets journalists and the media off-the-hook for not doing the hard work of actually reporting the stories of those on the receiving end of America’s war in Pakistan. I say “in Pakistan” as a caveat because, interestingly, the recent gruesome, shocking murders of 11 Afghan children by NATO did get its own full-length articles, complete with photos. In the Afghanistan context, this happens much more frequently. And this is, I suspect, because there are western, largely white reporters on the ground. In other words, it speaks to the racist structural underpinnings of the modern media, and about those we think can serve as legitimate witnesses and those whose stories are always cast in doubt because there were no western (white) bodies in the vicinity to lend them credibility.

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Force and Neglect in North Waziristan

I’ve just gotten off the phone with contacts/colleagues.

Here’s another example of the fall-out from cycles of violence in FATA, particularly Waziristan–fall-out that goes largely unreported and undiscussed in the national and international media. That silence only adds to the prevalent image of “backward tribals,” enraged Muslims and inexplicable violence when people in these regions do resort to armed resistance and/or stubborn refusal to work with the state.

First, recall this little reported story: 17 Pakistani soldiers were killed and scores more wounded when a car packed with explosives detonated near two fuel tankers at a military post in North Waziristan’s capital, Miranshah. The blast at Esha checkpost flattened two residential barracks last Saturday evening (Mar 23rd).

This is what happened after: the army imposed a 24-hour curfew in all of North Waziristan, one that is still ongoing 4 days later. The curfew was announced by the political administration. Shoot-on-sight orders have been given.

No services–including emergency services like ambulances–are reportedly allowed to run. Students at Miran Shah College have been unable to leave their hostels and have therefore missed some of their matriculation exams. Until at least Monday, approximately 350 vehicles and their passengers were stranded on the road between Bannu, a settled area in KP and Miranshah (ET). People are running out of basic supplies while businesses and vendors suffer losses as perishable supplies like vegetables and fruit rot. Some families have been reduced to eating shaftal or alfalfa, the fodder they usually give their livestock.

It is these daily cycles of brute force coupled with rank neglect that fuel support for insurgents who can then pose as resistance against a brutal regime. In other words, a gaping political vacuum exists in FATA, to which drones seem like an absurd response.

And finally, this is the first time that political parties will be allowed to operate and to contest elections from the Tribal Areas. Residents of FATA did not gain the right to vote till 1996, and although they were able to elect representatives to Parliament, these candidates had to run as independents. This year, however, parties have been given permission to carry out activities within FATA. In either case however, the Pakistani citizens here are in the bizarre position of electing representatives to an electoral body–the Parliament–whose laws do not apply to FATA. That questionable democratic process was further stymied by the curfew because candidates were unable to submit their paperwork for elections by the deadline this Sunday (Mar 24th).

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Pakistan’s Historic First: A Full Term

Btw, Pakistan’s National Assembly has completed a historic 5 year term today –without a coup and everything! In the English language news, you can read about it here and here (Dawn), here (Express Tribune) and here (The News).

Here are the front-pages of the print versions of each of these papers. Note that the top story in all of them is UN Special Rapporteur’s statement that drones are a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. That is also intriguing since the columnists–especially at Express Tribune followed by Dawn–skew towards a pro-drone position in stark and telling contrast with the majority of Pakistan.

Express Tribune | Mar 16. 2013Dawn | Mar 16. 2013The News Int'l | Mar 16. 2013

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Anatomy of a Condemnation

The UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, has concluded that U.S. drone attacks are happening without Pakistan’s consent, following a trip to the country where he met with officials. Emmerson says he was told that  “a thorough search of Pakistani government records had revealed no indication of such consent having been given.”

Although on its own, this is a highly-suspect statement given that Pakistan’s military operates quite independently from the civilian government, it is true that the Pakistani parliament–a democratically elected body–has passed successive resolutions condemning drone attacks. The first resolution was passed on May 14, 2011 shortly after the U.S. had carried out its raid to assassinate Osama bin Laden, who it turned out, had been hiding in a Pakistani garrison town, Abbottabad. The American raid occurred on the heels of several contentious events that year. A quick timeline:

Jan 27, 2011 –U.S. military contractor Raymond Davis shoots two Pakistanis dead in daylight in Lahore. An embassy vehicle coming to rescue him mows down a third Pakistani motorcyclist, also killing him.

Feb 7, 2011 –The wife of one of Davis’ victims, Faheem Shamshad, commits suicide with a drug overdose fearing that Davis will be released without trial for her husband’s murder. “They are already treating my husband’s murderer like a VIP in police custody and I am sure they will let him go because of international pressure,” she said. Shumaila had taken pills the day before, doctors pumped her stomach, and she was interviewed on television from her hospital bed.

Mar 16, 2011 –Pakistan releases Raymond Davis after the U.S. draws on shari’a laws and pays “blood money” to the victims families, a reporter $2.3 million.

Mar 17, 2011 –The CIA conducts a drone attack on a jirga killing between 26-42 people. The jirga, which included very senior maliks or tribal elders, many of whom worked for the Pakistani government, had gathered to resolve a local dispute over chromite mining. In a rare show of synchronicity,  the Pakistani president, prime minister and army chief all condemned the attack. The AP later reported that then U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, had phoned Washington to stop the attack fearing its timing would worsen relations between the two countries. The CIA dismissed the request. Those killed in the attack included a very senior malik, Daud Khan as well as Sharabat Khan, identified in various reports as either a militant or a leaseholder of the mine; it is, of course, possible to be both. In fact, this confusion is exactly what points up to the essential murkiness on the ground that no amount of visual technology can resolve. Sharabat may have been both. He may have appeared, on that day, in his capacity as a party to the dispute rather than as a militant. These are in other words, roles, that people occupy in a social web in which relationships are multiple and layered.

May 6, 2011 –U.S. raid in Abbottabad to assassinate Osama bin Laden.

May 13-14 — The Parliament conducted intense closed-door sessions in which Pakistan’s army and air force chiefs appeared before the body to field questions from representatives.

May 14, 2011 –Excerpts from the 2011 joint-resolution:

…unilateral actions, such as those conducted by the US forces in Abbottabad, as well as the continued drone attacks on the territory of Pakistan, are not only unacceptable but also constitute violation of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, international law and humanitarian norms and such drone attacks must be stopped forthwith, failing which the Government will be constrained to consider taking necessary steps including withdrawal of transit facility allowed to NATO/ISAF forces;

Determines that unilateral actions cannot advance the global cause of elimination of terrorism, and the people of Pakistan will no longer tolerate such actions and repeat of unilateral measures could have dire consequences for peace and security in the region and the world.

Reaffirmed the resolve of the people and Government of Pakistan to uphold Pakistan’s sovereignty and national security, which is a sacred duty, at all costs;

Following that resolution, another series of events led to a second resolution.

Oct 4, 2011 –Despite killing two men, Davis makes it home from prison in Pakistan only to be arrested and charged for a felony in a parking lot brawl in Denver. That case takes longer to resolve than the murders in Pakistan. On Mar 1, 2013, Davis finally pled guilty to misdemeanor assault charges.

Nov 26, 2011 –A U.S. led NATO force attacks the two checkposts on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border killing 24 Pakistani soldiers and wounding another 13. Called the Salala attack, the Pakistani government responded by closing Shamsi airfield in Balochistan from where, some U.S. drones were reportedly operating. NATO supply routes through Pakistan were also shut down as Pakistan demanded an apology. None of this would have been likely possible without the express support of Pakistan’s military. Hilary Clinton finally issued the following statement: “We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.” The government reopened the supply route–once again, very likely at the behest of Pakistan’s military to whom the U.S. gives billions of dollars. Pakistanis, however, continued to express criticism of the U.S., and many disagreed with the reopening of the route.

Mar 20, 2012 –Draft resolution issued. Debate commences.

Apr 12, 2012 –Final resolution issued. Excerpts from that resolution:

 1. Pakistan’s sovereignty shall not be compromised. The gap between assertion and facts on the ground needs to be qualitatively bridged through effective steps. The relationship with USA should be based on mutual respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of each other.

2. The Government needs to ensure that the principles of an independent foreign policy must be grounded in strict adherence to the Principles of Policy as stated in Article 40 of the Constitution of Pakistan, the UN Charter and observance of international law. The US footprint in Pakistan must be reviewed. This means (i) an immediate cessation of drone attacks inside the territorial borders of Pakistan, (ii) the cessation of infiltration into Pakistani territory on any pretext, including hot pursuit; (iii) Pakistani territory including its air space shall not be used for transportation of arms and ammunition to Afghanistan.

7. No overt or covert operations inside Pakistan shall be permitted.

8. That for negotiating or re-negotiating Agreements/MOU’s pertaining to or dealing with matters of national security, the following procedure shall be adopted:

i) All Agreements/MOU’s, including military cooperation and logistics, will be circulated to the Foreign Ministry and all concerned Ministries, attached or affiliated Organizations and Departments for their views;

ii) All Agreements/MOU’s will be vetted by the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs;

iii) All Agreements/MOU’s will be circulated to the Parliamentary Committee on National Security. The Committee shall vet and make recommendations in consultation with the stakeholders and forward the same to the Federal Cabinet for approval under the Rules of Business of the Federal Government;

iv) The Minister concerned will make a policy statement on the Agreements/MOU’s in both Houses of Parliament.

9. No private security contractors and/or intelligence operatives shall be allowed.

10. Pakistan’s territory will not be provided for the establishment of any foreign bases.

11. The international community should recognize Pakistan’s colossal human and economic losses and continued suffering due to the war on terror. In the minimum, greater market access of Pakistan’s exports to the US, NATO countries and global markets should be actively pursued.

12. In the battle for the hearts and minds an inclusive process based on primacy of dialogue and reconciliation should be adopted. Such process must respect local customs, traditions, values and religious beliefs.

(a) There is no military solution to the Afghan conflict and efforts must be undertaken to promote a genuine national reconciliation in an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process.

Apart from the clear condemnation of drone attacks, the other interesting point is the craven attempt to parlay loss of Pakistani lives into greater “market access” (see point 11). It’s desperate, tragic and shameful: tragic that this is mode by which Pakistan asks that the global regimes value Pakistani lives, desperate because it is true that this is to what Pakistan has been reduced through machinations by its own politicians but also through IMF and World Bank regimes as well as continual interventions by the U.S. in matters great and small; and finally, shameful, because, even now, Pakistani politicians barter Pakistani lives on the international market rather than having the courage of any convictions.

To Emmerson’s point however, it is clear that where Pakistan’s elected representatives (as opposed to its unelected, despotic military) is concerned, it has–they have, to the extent that they can without upsetting the Pakistani military establishment–declared their resistance to drone attacks.

Finally, I want to point out some incidents that have evaded most international headlines, but which are connected:

Apr 30, 2012 –The widow, Zohra and mother-in-law, Nabeela of one of Davis’ victims, Faizan Haider, are found shot dead in Lahore. They were reportedly shot by the father-in-law, Shehzad Butt, in a dispute over the distribution of the blood money.

Mar 1, 2013 –Davis finally pled guilty to misdemeanor assault charges in the parking lot skirmish incident.

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General Atomics: there is no trauma

An amazing claim by UAV maker, General Atomics about their products:

“General Atomics UK Ltd does not recognise claims that UAS (Unmanned Air Systems) developed and maintained by this company have the effects on children as depicted in your article.

“Our own studies indicate that, on the contrary, people in Afghanistan and Yemen feel safer under the protection of General Atomics Predator Series systems, which often provide their only protection from the Taliban, AQAP and other terrorist entities…”

Given my own reporting in and around Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, the claim that children are not traumatized by drones, beggars belief. I suppose it is true that the 168 to 197 children hit by Hellfire missiles can be said to not be “traumatized” by drones since they are, quite simply, dead. Among the living, stories about children cowering in their beds, especially at night–since most drone attacks happen in the night hours–abound.

I do wonder, sometimes, whether journalists have a responsibility to refuse to publish statements that are utterly and absolutely detached from any probable realm of the real. Although a slippery slope argument can be made, and likely will be made (ie. who’s to decide what’s totally detached and what’s not?), and although I understand that publishing these comments is sometimes a way to illuminate the gap between the rhetoric and the reality, it does give me pause because rhetoric–particularly about faraway places–often creates its own reality.

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When the waters came (and the drones)

It’s Pakistan’s Independence Day, and the country is, quite literally, drowning. More than 14 million people have been affected by floods that continue to hit Pakistan since last week making this disaster bigger than the South-East Asian tsunami and the recent earthquakes in Kashmir and Haiti combined. If that wasn’t enough, Pakistanis are also being attacked from the skies. American drones killed at least 12 people in North Waziristan today. The Americans are also running flood relief efforts flying in goods. They are not done saving us yet, and they are killing us already. Killing and saving. It goes on like that.  That’s the prerogative of Empire: to give life and to take it, arbitrate who lives and who dies. To define the terms of logic itself. How divine.

I cannot muster the will to anger. The politicians, the pundits, the press tell tall tales, nod heads seriously, stitch stories from scraps. They tell us this is so and that is so. They are professionals at horror stories and fairy tales. The government’s incompetence, the massacre of fellow Pakistanis by drones in the north, devastating food insecurity all neatly resolve by the end of a soundbite. Meanwhile, our present is split open and the Indus is running right through it.

It’s not too much to make this prediction: the death toll will be much higher than official sources. Who really believes official sources?

Here are however a few figures to mull over: So far, donations for flood relief amount to $6.82 per survivor. Compare that to the figure for a survivor of the tsunami in South East Asia: $669.60. Why doesn’t the international community care very much? We may have some of our pundits to thank for that. Claims that the West better save us from this flood to avoid a Taliban flood in Pakistan are flights of fancy I’m not capable of in the face of facts: Pakistan’s Army is the 6th largest with over 500,000 troops. The Taliban is only hundreds at its core. It manages bombings and spectacular events, but a wholesale take-over is unlikely. And as for the other Islamist groups, they’re too embroiled in sectarian conflicts themselves. But these narratives do serve to take away from real issues: economic, political, social–such as the rise of religious conservatism in PK (which is NOT the same thing as Taliban supporters)–and the military, that is, the vast military complex in Pakistan and its dealings with and uses of Islamist groups.

Questions. International and local donors are circumventing the inept civilian government in favor of the Army. Is the Army really equipped for such a task, or does its sheer hierarchy exude a sense of order and discipline (that it may actually lack)? What’s the alternative? What will be the consequences?

So, the aid may not flow, even if the waters continue to. But, Pakistanis are used to a self-help regime. All around me, families have been organizing their own flood relief efforts with friends and family. Individuals are hiring trucks, setting up camps, or simply just heading off to the affected areas to help out. I was in the US when Katrina happened. I can’t help but compare. Americans have faith in their government, so much so, that even as it became painfully, sorrowfully clear on television screens across America that the government would do little to help its Black citizens, I did not see Americans mobilize in the way and to the extent I see Pakistanis around me doing so now.

It’s deeply impressive, and in that, there is hope. And as a friend and I discussed the other day, it’s from the hope of multitudes–the indelible faith that things can be made different–that revolutions come. (Does anyone doubt that we need anything less?)

A friend who’s been in Sukkur for days sends an update:

So I have been in Sukkur these past 4 days with SRSO. The overall picture is pretty dismal here and as usual the government is largely missing from the picture. There are some tents (shamyana) etc. but they are not really providing any services except water once a day. SRSO is estimating 300,000+ in 2000+ villages affected but I think nobody really has a handle on how many (and that est. was 3 days ago). The actual numbers are probably much higher.

I have now heard of 3 different instances of breaches in bund walls to divert water because some minister was trying to save his crops (or even more cynically trying to drown a rival party member’s fields). The breach near Guddu barrage was deliberate though to try and save Sukkur barrage but our irrigation department really had no idea what they were doing. Entire southern part of Kashmor district was inundated and the water has now flooded through Jacobabad. We are expecting more of that flood to reach Sukkur sometime in the morning.

The number of dead in newspapers I think are gross understatements. I spent a day with WFP worker from Swat who was really pissed that the media is saying…
Read in full here.
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Drone attacks: Evaluation of evidence & the making of experts

I just took a look at New America Foundation’s (NAF) report on drone attacks in Pakistan which concludes that the rate of civilian deaths from these flying killer robots (h/t High Clearing) attacks is 32 percent. Is it just me or is the report full of some fairly problematic stuff? The authors of the report Peter Bergen,  CNN’s “national security analyst” and researcher Katherine Tiedemann, compiled data on American drone attacks in Pakistan from “reliable” English language news media. The news organizations that made the cut include the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, CNN, and the BBC. They also used Pakistani English-language media: the Daily Times, Dawn, and the News—as well as those from Geo TV, the largest independent Pakistani television network.

Unstable Data. These are influential names to be sure, but reliable…? Remember the Iraq War? Remember Judy Miller? Remember the financial crisis? It’s no longer possible to simply assert the reliability of major news organizations especially when it comes to reporting on conflict areas. And, the news organizations in Pakistan, while aggressive in pursuing civilian politicians, are known to have a deep aversion to crossing the military which itself seems to be divided on the issue of the flying killer robots. They also have a practice–this is especially true of the English language media–of loosely following the western media line sometimes, even to the point of literally repeating the western media organizations. This often puts Pakistanis in the bizarre position of opening their newspaper and reading news about Pakistan that’s been filtered through, most often, the NYT. See for example this report in a national Pakistani newspaper on Mullah Baradar’s arrest which says: “The New York Times and other US media cited US government officials as saying that US and Pakistani intelligence services arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi.” Or, here’s a story about Pakistan’s nuclear production in the leading English-language daily, Dawn. The headline reads: “Pakistan Planning to Expand Nuclear Production: NYT”. Dawn took the story from NYT which in turn took it from a newswire, Agence France-Presse. And, here’s one by the English-language Daily Times which reproduced for their story, CNN’s entire script for the same story  about a fashion show in Karachi. Yes, the local papers have contacts and know what’s going on, but you’re unlikely to see it in print.

I’d take what these news organizations say with a glassful of salt. Here’s what B&T say about their rationale:

Our research draws only on accounts from reliable media organizations with deep reporting capabilities in Pakistan….As a whole, these news organizations cover the drone strikes as accurately and aggressively as possible, and though we don’t claim our research has captured every single death in every drone strike—particularly those before 2008, when the pace of the program picked up dramatically—it has generated some reliable open-source information about the number of militant leaders killed, a fairly strong estimate of the number of lower-level militants killed, and a reliable sense of the true civilian death rate. (p2, “The Year of the Drone”)

But from where are the news organizations getting their information given that much of the area is off-limits to reporters? A cursory glance at some of the articles B&T cite for their evidence shows a pretty common formula in the news reports. The beginning of the article usually says something like so: X number of militants were killed , a security official said. These security officials are, of course, nearly always anonymous, that is, they cannot be held accountable. We don’t know whether these are local folk or Army folk or, for that matter, the ISI. We know nothing about them, their interests, their position and thus can make no judgment about their claims. Now, while the word “alleged”–as in alleged militant–appears to have disappeared from the lexicon of said media organizations when it comes to attacks by flying killer robots on Pakistan, this is effectively how the news report ought to be read because it’s telling you: This is what the anonymous official said, but hey, we don’t know because there are no eyewitness accounts nor is it verified by an independent body. In fact, it’s usually only supported by another one or two anonymous “security” or “administrative” officials.

Secondly, B&T can claim that they militate against error by citing multiple news sources, but that simply shows a deep ignorance about how reporting is done in remote areas of Pakistan, something they might’ve looked into before proceeding with their first grade arithmetic. Despite the multiple news media organizations cited, it’s highly likely that the stringers who get the information are speaking to the same anonymous source(s). It’s common for reporters/stringers to try and inculcate relationships with higher-ups to get information, and there are usually a few point people within bureaucratic institutions like the police who get called upon by journalists. So, it’s likely that it’s the same people giving information to several news organizations. All multiple citing does in this case then is to produce an echo chamber of the same official line, a line spoken by some anonymous official.

Generally speaking, there are fairly few stringers covering large swaths of Fata. These stringers often end up relying on personal relations in small villages and towns for their information. They are not usually able to ascertain the veracity of the figures given by officials. And, because nobody wants to get nailed, reporters generally arrive at some loose consensus about how many people were killed. (This is common practice and happens in other reporting too.) As a general rule, you might think of reporters and stringers as a kind of reporting tribe with a shared culture and interests. In the absence of statistics from eyewitnesses or on-the-scene accounts, media folk generally cleave close to the official account of what happened and who was killed. They are also more likely to stick to the “official” figures because of officialdom’s claims to authority. (Much of this is not particular to Pakistan either.) So, for a host of reasons, the reporting capabilities actually aren’t that deep, contra B&T’s claim. One of NAF’s own ‘experts’ made the same observation during a recent event co-sponsored by NAF, and Foreign Policy, where policy analyst Hassan Abbas said this (click on the icon to see relevant video):

The people of the region, especially Fata and NWFP will be more convinced about the effectiveness of US policy especially in terms of the drone attacks when they will routinely know who is the person killed…We often hear after the event that no 3 of Taliban or al Qaeda was killed and that’s often the first time we’re hearing the names of those people. There is a lot of controversy. Who is the neutral body which is giving a judgment?…So, I’m not ready to buy what the person who is shooting is saying or the person who are the parties [sic] related to that which have interest on the ground. Any third party will tell us out of 10 hits how many are working. I hope it is working. i hope Ayman al Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden are hit by these drone attacks, but that has not happened yet. And, related to this, then there is a political fallout.

I think a case was made belatedly that there are much less civilian casualties than projected in the media and because of that –we must also understand that in Fata, in that area, there’s no credible reporting. They have very few journalists on the ground. It is often from telephone from one person. You’ll not get a chance to really corroborate that story, but based on what we know from some of the credible journalists who get a chance to go there and come back –and then you have to decipher also from within the military briefings also and the civilian statements what the reality is: The people are really distressed. In that kind of –which I’d mentioned has a psychological impact–in that distress, I doubt if they are thinking in any positive terms about US or the US presence in Afghanistan or the Pakistan military’s operations in those area….(emphasis mine)

Now, on one hand, unnamed officials are calling nearly everyone who dies a militant; on the other hand Pakistani authorities have claimed that nearly 700 civilians died in 2009 in a separate study which B&T view skeptically. So, who are we to believe? Are these the same officials playing a double-game? More to the point for this post: why do B&T evince such healthy skepticism for one set of official figures but seem to swallow the other set once they’ve been printed up by “reliable” media organizations who carried out no independent verification? B&T reproduce opinion as fact by counting every unverified death as a militant simply because some unnamed official said so. You can’t do that and claim you have a reliable estimate of militant v. civilian deaths. Well, you can and they do, but they’re wrong.

Little by little, the reporting process has been building an archive written by the powerful that is now being accessed by think tanks to support official American policy. This isn’t an indictment of stringers who work for scandalously little pay especially when compared to the bloated bungalows of their English-speaking, superiors in Islamabad, but it is a critique of B&T’s analysis. The instability of the evidence should have been a key point of discussion. It’s also kind of basic social science. That it’s never thought out in the report nor been questioned since is a testament to a kind of control, following Bourdieu, of the social cognitive map. Reports like NAF’s study and think tanks whose work largely seems to involve attaching apparently objective numbers to official positions in order to lend them the air of disinterested truth reproduce this kind of social control. This is the role of experts: as arbiters of legitimate knowledge. They decide who counts and who doesn’t.

Militants, Civilians and Assumptions. What’s the definition of a militant for B&T? We never get one in this report. It appears to be a bit like pornography: You know it when you see it. This is the closest they get to clarifying it for us:

One challenge in producing an accurate count is that it is often not possible to differentiate precisely between militants and civilians in these circumstances, as militants live among the population and don’t wear uniforms. For instance, when Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a drone last August, one of his wives and his father-in-law died in the strike as well. (p3)

Let’s parse this a bit. Yes, it’s true that militants don’t wear uniforms and do live among the population. But then, so do soldiers much of the time. Does that justify a bombing say in the NYC subway or Fort Dix in NJ because hell, American soldiers do live there among the population. (To be clear: it doesn’t.) And in the Mehsud example that they provide, they’ve pretty clearly distinguished here between Mehsud, his wives and his father-in-law. In other words, this is not an example of inability to distinguish between Mehsud and his family members. It’s rather an example of not bothering to distinguish: The bomb struck his home. They intended to strike his home. (Unlike American soldiers, locals don’t have the luxury of fighting in other people’s countries where the collateral damage is borne by others’ families.) The problem now actually appears to be as follows: should the family members of of known Taliban et al be considered militants by dint of their association? And that gets to an underlying tendency in current imperial thought on this subject. A soldier is a soldier because of what he does. The uniform signifies his/ her duty or job. S/he sheds it as lightly as s/he does his/ her clothes. But a militant is not defined by what he does. It’s who he is. A soldier is a job; a militant is an ideology and that’s why it’s impossible to distinguish between Mehsud the Militant and his family who may have believed his ideology in their hearts even if they never picked up a gun. And that’s why bombing a home is perfectly ok. In fact, in several of the accounts, people were apparently killed while they were in cars or homes.

What is also striking in the report is how studiously–and ideologically–the authors maintain a separation between the violence perpetrated by killer robots and the violence perpetrated by militants. For example, take this:

Despite the sharp rise in drone strikes over the past year and a half, Afghanistan and Pakistan still face extraordinary levels of terrorist violence. In 2009, there were a record 87 suicide attacks in Pakistan, which killed around 1,300 people, 1,155 of them civilians. This was up from 63 suicide bombings the previous year (and only nine in 2006). Pakistani Taliban militants mounted a fierce campaign of attacks against military, government, and civilian targets throughout the fall after Pakistani ground operations in South Waziristan began in mid-October. (p4)

Why does this paragraph begin with “despite” especially since it notes that the figures for suicide attacks have gone up rather than down concomittant to the increase in American attacks? It could just as well make sense to write this paragraph as follows:

Despite [Because of] the sharp rise in drone strikes over the past year and a half, Afghanistan and Pakistan still face extraordinary levels of terrorist violence. In 2009, there were a record 87 suicide attacks in Pakistan, which killed around 1,300 people, 1,155 of them civilians. This was up from 63 suicide bombings the previous year (and only nine in 2006). Pakistani Taliban militants mounted a fierce campaign of attacks against military, government, and civilian targets throughout the fall after Pakistani ground operations in South Waziristan began in mid-October.

The “despite” functions as an ideological marker. Indeed, towards the end of their study, the authors themselves note:

Third, although the drone strikes have disrupted militant operations, their unpopularity with the Pakistani public and their value as a recruiting tool for extremist groups may have ultimately increased the appeal of the Taliban and al Qaeda, undermining the Pakistani state. This is more disturbing than almost anything that could happen in Afghanistan, given that Pakistan has dozens of nuclear weapons and about six times the population. (emphasis mine) (p5)

Well, that’s pretty damning and gets to a critical issue regarding the effectiveness of death-by-killer-robot which is the subject of their study. If the attacks are creating more militants, then um, isn’t that, like, a major problem or something? The authors, however, leave it at that. Part of the reason that there’s no follow-through on this issue of action and reaction is because they have to get to their conclusion (guess what it is!). But, it’s also because, as per my earlier point, a militant is what you are; there is no action and reaction because what the militant does is guided by his ideology or by a charismatic leader so warranting “leadership decapitation” (literally. see NAF’s Sameer Lalwani for this argument) or by his Islam or by his madness but whatever it is, it’s utterly divorced from anything the Empire is doing. (To be clear: I do not hold the position that the Taliban et al are anti-imperialists. I’m only discussing issues of causality here.) Marked as Muslim, (brown) and enraged, ‘the militant’ signifies the Orientalist racisms of western analysts. An angry Muslim is indistinguishable from a militant. They disappear into each other, the Muslim and the Militant. This Muslim-Militant is locked in its own world outside the history of the west. For an unsophisticated but refreshingly blunt version of this, read Bernard Lewis. And so, following suit, despite B&T’s concern for civilian deaths–they write “Trying to ascertain the real civilian death rate from the drone strikes is important both as a moral matter and as a matter of international law which prohibits indiscriminate attacks against civilians”–the categories in their data are divided as follows:

  1. al Qaeda/Taliban leaders killed
  2. al Qaeda/ Taliban killed (what they describe as “low level militants”)
  3. Others

Whither the civilian? There aren’t any because they are finally indistinguishable and inseparable. “Others” is not a legal category, but it is a telling moral one. Here, then is the apropos conclusion:

Despite the controversy, drone strikes are likely to remain a critical tool for the United States to disrupt al Qaeda and Taliban operations and leadership structures. Though these strikes consistently kill Pakistani civilians, which angers the population, and prompt revenge attacks from the militants, Pakistani and U.S. strategic interests have never been more closely aligned against the militants than they are today….

The drone attacks in the tribal regions seem to remain the only viable option for the United States to take on the militants based there who threaten the lives of Afghans, Pakistanis, and Westerners alike. (p6)

But, dear Reader, you already knew this was where they had to end up, didn’t you?

Meanwhile, having successfully laundered unnamed official opinion into a bright white fact, B&T can now reproduce their work as “expert knowledge” in an op-ed in the NYT today where they claim that despite the secrecy of the flying killer robot program, they’ve been able to get a “reliable” civilian casualty count. They then cite their civilian casualty rate for 2009 alone (29 percent) which is lower than the all time casualty rate that tops their report (32 percent). The 2009 figure is then seconded by an even lower estimate given by a US official. The Pakistani study is nowhere to be found because ultimately, in the context of current power-relations, it appears less authoritative and less truthful than what the American truthmakers produce.  Truth, as Foucault noted, is an “effect” produced by power-relations.

And every time a flying killer robot attacks, an expert is born.

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Waziristan: What We Knew

I’ve been in Pakistan for about two months now, and the chasm between what is reported and what we know but goes unreported is deep and wide. But, here’s some stuff we knew about Waziristan:

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Faith. Unity. Brutality.

[screen grab]“You don’t want me to chop off your hands and feet,” says the Army officer to a Pashtun.  This horror-flick statement is part of a 10-minute video that, if authentic, would be the first time that proof of the brutality of the Pakistani Army will have been captured on tape. The footage shows Pakistani soldiers interrogating and then beating Pashtun men suspected of harbouring the Taliban. The soldiers kick, whip and thrash their victims who scream and agonize on the ground.

Authentic or not, the ruthlessness shown in the video is already real for the Pakistani media so much so that hardly a local media outlet dared report on it. Being beaten or having your hands chopped off is rather unpleasant business after all, and few reporters are willing to risk that for a story. The fear is pervasive, and the near pitch-perfect silence speaks volumes about the army whether the video is a real or a fake.

It was the BBC that first carried the story on October 1st after the video had been making rounds on Facebook. That was followed by a piece in the Guardian. Under pressure from stories being carried in the foreign press, the English language dailies, Dawn and the Daily Times finally ran pieces today available here, here and here.

Compare that to the coverage of the Taliban flogging video in April this year. Within a week, numerous articles had already been published. Justifiably horrified progressive Pakistanis took to protesting the Taliban in Karachi and Lahore. Then newly reinstated Chief Justice took suo moto action the same day calling the case to court. As a result, the man beating the girl in the video was arrested a day ago.

It’s one thing to criticize mullahs, militants or politicians like President Asif Ali Zardari, say local journalists, but quite another to probe “the establishment,” the term in Pakistan for the nexus of military and security agencies that run intrigues, kidnappings, undercover operations, and lately, the American war on terror.

Democracy may be transient in Pakistan, but the establishment is well…established. Cameramen know the areas that are off-limits for filming in the heart of Pakistan’s cities; reporters know which stories should go unrecorded. Otherwise, as one reporter explained it to me, “Accidents happen.” You may be hit by a car, or a container might fall on you. Or, you may disappear and a few hours later your brother will find your mangled body.

That’s what happened with Musa Khan Khel, the 28-year-old Geo Television reporter who was killed in Swat the day the Swat peace deal was signed with Sufi Muhammad. Only a few days earlier, Khel had told his reportedly told his employers, “I have been receiving death threats from a powerful force. They are after me. They want to kill me.”

Khan Khel never specified who “they” were. Veteran reporter and Khan Khel’s friend, Imtiaz Ali says he doesn’t know either, but  “The Taliban proudly declare when they’ve done something.” In this case however, they came to offer condolences to Khan Khel’s family after his death.

It is known that Khan Khel was on tenuous terms with the Pakistan Army officials and often barred from official press conferences in Swat, the region he was covering as a result.  He set out on the morning of his death to report with his brother. They were banned from covering senior minister Bashir Bilour’s press conference that day announcing the Swat deal between the government and local militants.

Khan Khel stated this fact in the last report he filed. It would run in The News a day after his death.

***
The Army is everywhere. When I was a child, we would watch a television show about young dashing Rashid, an Air force pilot who does kamikaze rather than be caught and divulge his secrets to the enemy. I wanted to be him. At six years old, didn’t we all?

Karachi monument

Karachi monument

Now, returning after 19 years, the symbols are everywhere. Unity. Faith. Discipline. The Army motto haunts the country in oversized and often fairly ugly sculptures. A sculpture of Jinnah along with the army motto lay carved on a grassy hill in Islamabad. Three phallic marble swords pierce the sky in Karachi. At their hilts, the army motto. In Lahore at the Wagah border between Pakistan and India, thousands throng to watch the Army ritual on Independence Day. There is no room for everyone inside the enclosure. The crowd runs thick. It surges forward. Soldiers on horseback lathi-charge, beating at random. A man screams in the crush trying to turn his car back around in the human sea. His daughter is bleeding from her head. He needs to get out.

We all need to get out. In its latest operation in Swat, the Pakistan Army has already been accused of human rights violations by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). After being so unceremoniously tossed out of their homes and livelihoods, the nearly 3 million internally displaced Swatis are being handed 500Rs per adult head and returned on buses, packed off for journeys scheduled to be as long 35 hours, which if one is familiar with “Pakistan standard time” actually means more like 45 hours. One bus fell into a ditch this week. Fifteen people were killed.

Islamabad monument

Islamabad monument

The public indignities which the Pashtuns have suffered are the result of the “army better than the Taliban” mentality. But for whom exactly? Caught in that abysmally narrow-minded refrain are all the calumnies, indignities, horror and violence of what has happened in Swat. In the name of destroying the Taliban, the Pakistani elite cheered on an army that razed villages and collectively punished Pashtuns. That is what is going on in that video: collective punishment. And the groundwork for what is geographically and mentally in the periphery was laid in the heartland of Pakistan. Stories of the “Talibanization” of Karachi smack of cold racism against the immigrant Pashtun population against whom the MQM, the party that rules Karachi, has long held a grudge. They are the underclass in Pakistan, our cooks, our car drivers, our chaukidars.

And what will follow in Waziristan?

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