Category Archives: Field Notes

Audio: What We Can Learn About Drone Strikes From 10 Million Yemeni Cell Phones

Over at Five Thirty-Eight, Jody Avirgan interviews Fotini Christia, an MIT political scientist who was given 10 million cell-phone records by a mobile phone company to do big data research. Christia explains that the motive for the phone company for handing over the records had to do with wanting to further development research in Yemen.

The audio and interview are worth a listen. Also this:

Jody Avirgan: I wonder if you can start by describing the challenge that you were trying to solve by using this data?

Fotini Christia: Yemen is a fascinating place because it is a hotspot and a place of trouble. It has been an issue for the U.S. in terms of terrorism, instability, continued conflict. And though we do have quite a bit of anecdotal evidence [about the country], it tends to be very selective. It’s usually from journalists that can be on the ground in very particular places. So there’s a lot we don’t get to hear about Yemen because it’s so hard to do social scientific or analytic work on the ground. It’s not a place that has rich census data. It’s not a place that has rich household-level data, recent survey or polling data. So people tried to be creative about where else you can get information.

That line about journalists speaks to questions of epistemology and, as someone who is anthropologically trained, its assumption that ‘evidence’ derives from mass data rather than familiarity with ‘particular places’ struck me.

In the interview, Christia describes drone attacks as an “exogenous event,” like an earthquake (her example), but this is a strange characterization for a number of reasons. For one, an exogenous event is one that has no particular relationship to the sociality of a place, but the US itself argues that they bomb particular people because they are doing militant-y things on the ground. Second, at least for FATA (and I would suspect Yemen), people are in fact making judgments about what might make them targetable (i.e. don’t talk to so-and-so; don’t make phone calls here or there or say this or that word; don’t go to this place at this hour) and are trying to avoid it. Moreover, opposition groups have repeatedly killed people they suspect to be informants in the aftermath of a drone attack. Others speculate that drone bombing is sometimes caught up in local rivalries where a person may (mis)inform or allege that his rival is a terrorist. In short, drones are not exogenous except in the theoretical frame that flattens place into blank space.

And finally, I haven’t read the paper, but in the interview at least, the deployment of the category of religion (i.e. Christia says they can see from the phone records how much religion structures life) is simplistic.

And finally, this kind of big data research opens for me all kinds of ethical questions about the researcher’s relationship to her subjects who have no idea that their metadata and information, down to the individual level it sounds like from the interview, has been handed over.

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The Business of Haunting

So, what is this business about hauntingWOUNDS is a film that reflects on what it means to be haunted. In his address on May 23rd this year, President Obama claimed that he is “haunted” by the loss of civilian life from the drone attacks and wars carried out on his orders.

Let’s take this seriously. What is haunting?

To begin simply: haunting is when the dead refuse to die. It’s when they pull up a chair at the dinner table and demand that you set a place for them. It’s an expression of loss. And, it’s so disruptive that one cannot continue as if one were not haunted. Is this President Obama’s condition?

This film focuses on the people who live in Waziristan and who live among loss. Material conditions, whether it’s the rubble after a drone attack or the grave of one’s kin, persist in reminding the living what they have lost.

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In their essay “On the Theory of Ghosts,” the German intellectuals Adorno and Horkheimer wrote:

Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead: unity with them because we, like them, are the victims of the same condition and the same disappointed hope.

Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead.

I’ve been writing and speaking for some time about the limitations of international law as a language through which to think and speak about drone attacks. International law is slow. Missiles are fast. International law is caught up in constructing the proper order of violence. In other words, it doesn’t reject drone attacks or imperial power as such; it only raises objections when it finds that the violence has become excessive. This is not to deride legal work, but to point out what it constitutively is: a method to regulate the status quo.

It’s not so much lawyers, but journalists actually, who have popularized legal language as the only frame through which we can talk about drone attacks and moral standards. Journalists regularly fail to look beyond the usual “experts” in policy and legal circles to other fields that may have an alternative to offer. We are becoming vulgar empiricists who seem to think that a truth not attached to a number (say, the number of “militants” vs. “civilians” killed), or a legal rule (for example: whether an action does/does not violate international law) is no truth at all.

We forget that our categories are also an ideological construct. (All categories are.)

So, what is an alternative language to use to think about drone attacks? I think haunting is one frame through which one can re-direct the conversation from issues of legal standards to the lives lived and lives lost under the drones in Waziristan and elsewhere. The questions then turn on the material conditions and the loss suffered–not as evidence for legal arguments but as queries about what it does to a person to live in such conditions. The question is not, ‘Do I stick him in the “militant” or “civilian” column?’ but instead, who survives him? How do they deal with that loss? What is it like to live among the rubble?

It isn’t through legal standards but though trying to understand the horror of the destruction that we create the correct relationship — with the dead, yes — but with the living, too.

If our task as journalists — not the MSM who get paid a lot to shill for power — but the rest of us, in fact most of us: if our task is not to establish the humanity of others, then we might as well stop writing.

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Short documentary: Wounds of Waziristan

Wounds of Waziristan Trailer from AJ Russo on Vimeo.

I’m sharing a trailer for my short documentary project, Wounds of Waziristan, on drone attacks in Pakistan. You can find it on Indiegogo here. As some of you may know, this is the result of a lot of work and trips to Pakistan. Rather than focusing on the numbers game or questions of international law, this project tries to record the voices of those directly impacted by the American “war on terror.” In particular, –and perhaps, this is my academic side coming out– I am interested in the question of haunting. President Obama said he was “haunted” by the loss of life. But, what does that mean, materially, in concrete terms?

Since the drone attacks began in Pakistan in 2004, much of the focus has been on the technology. And, although the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan are endlessly debated and declared upon by journalists and pundits, the ordinary people who actually live there are rarely heard from. WOUNDS records the voices of those who have been either labeled “militants,” or summarily dismissed as “collateral damage.”

We’re actually almost done, but we need some help getting to the finish line. Every dollar helps: consider donating just $5 to this project. And, even if you can’t donate, please take a look and share it far and wide:

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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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Reporter’s Notebook: Swat After the Army

Some time in 2008, I met Lalaji (Khan Sahib) and his nephew, refugees from Swat who had fled to Brooklyn. Reading the Amnesty International report on the abuses of the Pakistan Army, their stories come back to me now, along with others I heard when I finally went to Swat in 2009 shortly after a Pakistani Army operation. So, I dug up my old notebooks and harddrives on Swat. What follows are fragments of notes and video, stories and lives.

A large version of this video, here.

By 2009, the Pakistan Army had decided on Operation Rah-e-Rast (Righteous Path), a move heralded by Pakistani liberals and the US. Both camps had been unsettled by the irenic tone of the secular, provincial Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government as it struck a peace deal in February with the militant turned questionable peacemaker, TNSM leader Sufi Muhammad. The deal quickly soured, and a feverish clamor for an army offensive took over.

Militants had been attacking civilians as early as 2003. Local ANP politicians were killed with impunity and their mutilated bodies left in public to serve as a warning. On several occasions, ill-trained policemen surrendered to the Taliban rather than defend their towns. By 2007, the TTP already controlled sections of Malakand division, the larger district of which Swat is a part.

Rah-e-Rast was to be purgative, clarifying. Approximately 20,000 regular Army troops were deployed to Swat to fight an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 militants. In mid-October finally, Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik declared, “Operation Rah-e-Rast in Swat was successful.”

It takes us over five hours to get to Swat from Islamabad.

After the war—if it can be called a war—Swat also has the startling runic quality of a Dali painting. Shots of fuschia flowers peek furtively throw a window in a crumbling lone brick wall standing mysteriously at the edge of a field. A few miles on, a soldier peers out of a sand sack fort by the side of a dappled road. Directly across him, a staircase plateaus to the open air like an unfinished thought. Driving through Swat is like that now, a series of questions, punctuated by the Army.

Checkpoints dot the road with increasing frequency as we near the capital, Mingora. The soldiers are by turns surprisingly hospitable and gruff. At one checkpoint, we’re offered tea. At another, a soldier speaks roughly to my guide and demands to see the medicines in my bag: allergy pills.

The security is simultaneously high and thoroughly penetrable. At still another checkpoint, the soldier on guard dismisses our government issued ID cards demanding instead to see a business card for verification. The latter can be easily printed for less than a penny.

First Britain, now Pakistan: the army is here again.

Interview fragments

Zainab—not her real name—has three kids and a detached indifference to the aftermath the military’s offensive. The death of her husband by an army explosion as he was making his way home from Friday prayers has unutterably altered her life. She searches for words to explain the economic hardships she’s now handling. She relies on her extended family for material support.

A large version of this video, here.

We’re sitting on the carpeted floor of a bedroom in Matta, a town about 30 kilometres north of Swat’s capital, Mingora. Nearly twenty women around us. News that we were coming had somehow spread, and neighborhood women kept gathering till the room became overstuffed with women and stories. They’re actually gracious that we’ve made it out this far. Not many journalists pass through here, they say. I feel silly being thanked simply for showing up.

Matta had been a militant stronghold, intermittently, since 2003 when the Taliban set up its own courts. Criminals terrorized the local residents here, butchering those that defied—or seemed to defy—the militants’ law. They were barbarous, pitiless and unrepentantly bloodthirsty.

Begum Iqbal is unreservedly glad the army came. She’s chatty, decisive in her opinions and the wife of an Urdu language professor. “It was good for us,” she tells me. “If the army weren’t here, the Taliban would be.” Her opinion is in the sheer minority in the room.

Eighteen year old Shabano—not her real name—cuts her off saying, “I don’t agree.” I turn towards her, and she looks surprised at herself for having expressed her opinion so boldly, and that too, over an elder.

“All the poor people stayed. The rich left.” She speaks nervously, her voice slightly high-pitched. “My married brothers left, but the rest of us were here. There was no food. The rations ran out. My school was destroyed.” She pauses.

“You don’t know what we went through. I don’t like talking about it.” She stops.

The casual attacks, the “collateral damage,”coupled with the merciless beatings and the torture of suspects I hear about do not look like an army trying to protect its citizenry. It looks like collective punishment. For Swatis, that has often meant that neither the government nor the army have provided support. In fact, they speak of collusion.

“There would be a soldier here and a Talib here,” says Mehnaz putting her forefingers next to each other, “but the soldier would do nothing.” She hails from a small village in Swat. I initially met her in a Pashtun neighbourhood in Karachi where she had fled after the army offensive began along with her two young children and extended family. “The Talib would leave the area, and then they would begin bombing.”

In one notable incident in 2008, the openly pro-Taliban commissioner of Malakand, Mohammad Syed Javed reprimanded and disarmed residents of Buner who had organized themselves into a militia against Taliban incursions into their town. The commissioner forced the Buneris to apologize to the militants during a meeting at his house.

“What can I say? The government doesn’t ask us anything,” said Asfand Ali when I prodded him about his opinion on the recent operation. His brother and father were killed when a mortar fell on their house.

“Whatever they do is just fine. They killed a lot of innocent people.” A ghost of a smile flickers across his face. “They can do whatever they want. It’s the government.”

Originally published at Tanqeed

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Mr. Khan goes to Islamabad

I’ve been working on a profile of Imran Khan, whose meteoric rise has left some hopeful, others befuddled and still others, angry. As with any story, portions get excised from the final draft for a variety of reasons: the article needs to be shortened, or because the excised sections just aren’t as important or relevant for the media outlet’s primary audience.

So, here it is:

Another new recruit that’s given pause is former Intelligence Bureau chief Masood Sharif Khattak who contested the 2002 elections in KPK against Imran as a PPP candidate. Khattak was part of the PPP central committee for nearly a decade before resigning in 2007 over Benazir Bhutto’s deal with Pervez Musharraf about the NRO. So, perhaps the concern may be unwarranted, but his admission into the PTI has raised eyebrows among many already suspicious about the PTI’s links with the establishment.

The bulk of the people now entering Imran’s party are career politicians, a far cry from the urban professionals he has so long touted as his strength. In Imran’s terms, these are exactly the sort of people who need politics. Khwaja Khan Hoti is a career politician from KPK who served terms as federal minister and provincial minister with the PPP; at other times in his career, he served in senior position within the ranks of the secular, Pashtun, Awami National Party (ANP). As with so many others, politics is a family business for the Hotis: Hoti’s son, Omar Farooq, preceded his father’s entry into the PTI. The younger Hoti is expected to the ticket from Mardan.

Another politician whose addition to PTI has caused a stir is Sardar Faiz Tamman, from Punjab. Tamman, a careerist who appears to care for little else than ascending the political ladder, has drifted from one party to another throughout his time in politics. He shifted from the PPP to join a PPP split group, the PPP-Patriot, earlier in his career, but was elected to the National Assembly in 2002 as an Independent. Then, he was admitted to Musharraf’s PML-Q but resigned in 2008, later joining the PML-N. In 2010, Tamman had to resign from his seat when it turned out that he had had faked his college degrees.

Another dubious figure is Mian Mohammad Azhar who has been active in Lahore’s politics for nearly three decades. During Zia ul-Haq’s era, Mian Azhar served as mayor of Lahore under Nawaz Sharif’s governorship. In 1988, after Zia—quite literally, exploded—Azhar’s closeness to the Sharifs earned him a ticket from Gujranwala in Punjab, and by 1990, he had become governor of the province. He left the office in 1992 reportedly over differences with the Sharifs. He was back by 1997, this time as an elected member of the National Assembly. He moved on from the PML-N, however, going on to become head of Musharraf’s PML-Q. He has the dubious recognition of being a politician who lost his seat in the 2002 elections, even though it’s widely alleged that there was massive rigging electorally that year in favor of the PML-Q.  Clearly as with Tamman, Mian Azhar, too views the PTI strategically as a chance to revitalize his political fortunes.

The most significant addition to date is Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the former foreign minister of Pakistan who lost his post during the current PPP-led government after taking a stand on the Raymond Davis affair. Qureshi maintained that Davis’ documents did not show that the contractor who murdered two people in the streets of Lahore—a third was also killed after he was mowed down by a consular vehicle rushing to Davis’ rescue— held any diplomatic immunity. After being courted by the PTI as well as the PML-N, Qureshi joined Imran’s party in late November. He received the position of Senior Vice Chairman within the party.

Whatever the intentions of the leadership, the changes are causing unease within the party. Qureshi’s immediate ascension to senior ranks, for instance, created murmurs of dissension within PTI’s ranks among longtime loyal members who felt shafted. According to a local analyst in Swat, PTI’s members are deeply unhappy with the new additions. A columnist for the Urdu daily Aaj reported that PTI’s chairman for the party’s local district coordination council, Fazal Rabbi, had suspended the local cabinet early December saying that the party’s leadership was responsible for creating discord in the ranks.

Dr. Mazari, too, is now considering quitting the party. She’s reportedly upset the Imran may be softening his stance on drones and the US. And, the influx of new politicians who have checkered political careers may be another reason. A press release by the party denied the reports maintaining PTI’s position on drones and the “war on terror” remains the same. The press release also said that PTI’s central committee will vet applicants for election tickets to protect the party from “the opportunist remnants of the Musharraf era and Zardari regime now scrambling to enter the PTI fold.” Interestingly, that entire phrase was left out of the Urdu version of the release.

 

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Live Blogging Jinnah Hospital

Jinnah Hospital Under Attack

12:36am –Jinnah Hospital in Lahore is under attack from approximately 5 militants who entered the ER. 13 people dead so far. Jinnah is significant because the Ahmadi-Muslims injured in the Friday attacks are patients there; the militant arrested from that attack was also in intensive care at Jinnah.