Category Archives: Media Notes

News 03.18.2016

2. Drivers in Bajaur decry ‘highhandedness’ of political administration

KHAR, 17 March: Drivers in Bajaur Agency have complained that the political administration officials unnecessarily tease them and confiscate their vehicles.

The local drivers alleged that despite having proper driving licences and other documents, the administration officials bother them and confiscate their vehicles to mint money. A driver told TNN that his driving licence was stuck in Timergara due to an issue.

“Despite having all other documents, they manhandled me and impounded by vehicle. They are doing it for money. We demand the administration to stop this practice of teasing peaceful citizens,” he said.

Another driver said there is no licence office in Bajaur. “Licence law does not apply on our area as we are governed under the Frontier Crimes Regulation,” he told TNN.

On the other hand, Assistant Political Agent Khar said the crackdown against underage drivers and those not possessing mandatory documents has been initiated over public complaints. He said a number of drivers have been arrested and their vehicles confiscated for violating rules. He said the crackdown will continue.

3. Mobile service restored in Bajaur

KHAR, 17 March: Mobile telephone service has been restored in Bajuar after remaining suspended for two days, local residents informed.

The signals have been restored on Wednesday evening as people from different parts of the agency confirmed the connectivity has been gradually reestablished. However, there are still complaints of poor signals in some areas.

According to sources in the political administration services of all the telecom companies were cut off as they had not obtained the no objection certificate (NOC) from the relevant quarters which is required for operation.

The sources maintained that services on more than 10 towers of the concerned telecom companies have been restored as they obtained the relevant documents.

This after cell phone service was suspended.

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Tracking the Wild West in Pakistan

I had the pleasure of sharing a panel with Sinan Antoon last Saturday at the Page Turner literary festival. Sinan noted at that panel the dense, suffocating weight of western constructions of other places and peoples so much so that it begins to seep into our sense of ourselves so that it now, for instance, not uncommon to find casual reference to Pakistan’s Tribal Areas as a kind of “wild west” frontier  (or, alternatively, to hear about groupthink by classes of people as “tribalism”). The extension of that imagination –and therefore, implicitly of a network of related ideas: civilization, manifest destiny, noble savage– is both prelude and effect of the terror wars. I have been working on an article that touches on some of this.

Examples, in no particular order, of the use of the “wild west” trope in journalism writing and media about Pakistan:

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is Pakistan’s impoverished, wild west region, bordering Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al Qaeda have established a stronghold to plan their attacks on Kabul, Islamabad, and New York City. —Foreign Policy, Nov 04, 2009

Dara, a dusty, Wild West-type town, crawls with intelligence agencies, drug smugglers and gun-toting Pathan tribesmen. —The Telegraph, Dec 02, 2005

Dealing with Pakistan’s Wild West —The Globalist, Jan 24, 2008

“It’s the wild west of the 18th century,” says Imtiaz Gul, Pakistani journalist and author of “The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier.”

“People are like the old time Wild West, adventurous creatures who grew up with guns, who grew up with a lot of adventurism and who are pretty partially alien to the culture of United States, or for that matter even the culture of Islamabad. —PBS NewsHour Jun 15, 2010

Darra Adam Khel, a small burg in Pakistan’s tribal areas, is the quintessential frontier town. Picture Wyatt Earp sashaying down the streets of Tombstone in a turban, and you begin to get the idea. —Washington Post, Mar 30, 2008

Pakistan’s Wild West – A Photo Essay —TIME

Waziristan -Pakistan’s Wild West (Video) —FORA.TV on Dailymotion

There are more guns for him to choose from in Darra Adam Khel, the nearest thing Pakistan has to a Wild West town.

In fact, guns are about the only things made and sold in this dusty one-street town near Peshawar, capital of the country’s unruly Northwest Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan. —LA Times, Sept 27, 1987

A Wild Frontier – It will take more than American missiles to bring order to Pakistan’s north-western border region —The Economist, Sept 18, 2008

If Peshawar is the Wild West with electricity, then Lahore is Southern California in the 1950s without the beaches. —Rug Review, Feb 1989

Rudyard Kipling described this dusty frontier capital near the Khyber Pass as a “city of evil countenances.” Other cities lived, Peshawar lurked. Even the shadows here had shadows. —LATimes May 12, 1986

Pathans Rule the Wild West —The Independent, Jun 03, 1999

Wild West Pakistan —The Age, Jan 29, 1980

It is an economy and society evoking an image of the American Wild West —Christian Science Monitor, Dec 06, 1982

Wild West Alive, Well in Pakistan (also on Darra Adam Khel) —The Lewiston Daily Sun, Nov 21, 1973

These two provinces, called the “wild west” of Pakigtan (sic) —NYT, Mar 29, 1973

Asked why many of his opponents suddenly find themselves up for murder, Bhutto said it was all part of the “Wild West” atmosphere of Pakistan politics —Lewiston Evening Journal, Mar 12, 1973

“Shooting started last Thursday,” he continued, “and all hell let loose Friday. It was just like the Wild West.” East Pakistan Refugees Tell of Mass Executions, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Apr 07, 1971

BOOKS

Warrior Poets: Guns, Movie-Making and the Wild West of Pakistan 2008

Among the wild tribes of the Afghan frontier: A record of sixteen years close intercourse with the natives of the Indian marches 1912

I had ventured into Pakistan’s wild west and I had the scars to prove it. Muslim Cleavage 2011

Peshawar is the capital of Pakistan’s “wild west” Three Cups of Tea 2009

Peshawar Pakistan is the archetypal wild-west frontier town Force Valor – Revenge (Vol 1) 2013

For Special Forces, Afghanistan was the wild wild West, and the new Ranchers reveled in it. —The Hunt for Bin Laden: Task Force Dagger 2003

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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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Making of experts II

A conference of journalists working in the tribal areas came to some interesting conclusions:

Growing anarchy has made access to information dependent on the will of the military and the militants. Both have shown little tolerance in allowing reporters to work independently. In threatening circumstances, journalists feel little hesitation in toeing the line, which has made journalism subservient to military strategies. More importantly, it has provided journalists with an excuse to justify anything in the name of insecurity, making professional dishonesty the norm in war reporting.

Ethically, any defensive measure is justified if it helps reporters keep safe. In the local context, however, this provisional compromise is of little help in ensuring their security. Meanwhile, it has killed in them the spirit of initiative. There is a growing realisation that journalism in a hostile situation is mainly about serving the combatants. This has caused complacency in war reporters. They take pride in their relationship with militants, who often invite them to cover terror at the source.

This should give pause to think tanks which regularly use this reporting to build arguments for or against drones and more generally, the ‘war on terror.’ It’s what I pointed out in an earlier post.

Full article here.

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II. War in a New York minute

Was it the drones or the mortgage? Certainly, Faisal Shahzad has made no claims; all we have to go by is the infuriatingly racist coverage. Faisal Shahzad is a Pakistani-American, but according to the media, he’s a PAKISTANI american, who the media emphasizes, had been a citizen for just one year. Good liberal Pakistanis have gotten into the act throwing a pity party about all that’s wrong with Pakistanis and urging Pakistani-Americans to cooperate. In the rush to assign nationality to acts of terror, they forget that Shahzad was living in the US for over a decade. So was Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood bomber gunman. And Anwar al-Awlaki is a US citizen who was partially raised there. These people are obviously pissed and it’s possible that they’re pissed about the Iraq war, about Afghanistan, about Pakistan, about the attack on Muslims both in their home countries and their marginalization and demonization within the west. But if that is true, then one could almost say that all paths of terror lead through the US, or at least some toxic transnational mix.

Joshua Keating has a good list of contradictory reportage about Faisal Shahzad to highlight what we don’t know. Here’s my addition:

Rachel Maddow says it:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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I. War in a New York minute

While some early reports claimed that it was NYC (attempted) car bomber Faisal Shahzad’s wife and parents or his relatives who were picked up from Karachi where they had been residing, other news now suggests that anywhere between five to eight men were arrested in connection with the Times Square car bomb attempt. One of the men detained in Karachi may be his father-in-law; Shahzad’s parents meanwhile left their Peshawar home once they learned of their son’s arrest. The family was seen leaving their well-to-do home in Hayatabad. Two of the men have reportedly been identified as Tauhid Ahmed and Muhammad Rehan who says he travelled with Shahzad to Peshawar where they stayed for about two weeks in July.Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik claims that no arrests have been made in connection with this case, but some people are being detained for questioning. Rehman also said that no official request has been made by the US, but Pakistan intends to cooperate fully.

Shahzad is the son of  retired air vice-marshal and deputy director general of the civil aviation authority, Baharul Haq. Shahzad’s cousin, Kifayat Ali expressed disbelief about the former’s arrest, according to al-Jazeera

“This is a conspiracy so the [Americans] can bomb more Pashtuns,” Ali said, referring to a major ethnic group in Peshawar and the nearby tribal areas of Pakistan and southwest Afghanistan.

Family members in the family’s village of Mohib Banda, near Pabbi in Nowshera district echoed Ali’s denial about their relative. Another cousin, Sameerul Haq also charged conspiracy and reportedly said Shahzad had gone to the US for the sole purpose of studying. A villager who claimed to be Shahzad’s childhood friend told the News, “I don’t think Faisal had links with any militant group.” Interviews conducted with relatives and those familiar with Shahzad by the AP had similar findings.

Earlier this morning, when I visited North Nazimabad, a relatively quiet, upper middle class neighborhood of Karachi, neighbors were tight-lipped. Sources claim that the detentions of people from Nazimabad were made by military intelligence, not the local police. I was told that officials dressed in civilian clothing came looking for people connected with Faisal Shahzad and enquired about Shahzad in the neighborhood. If true, the involvement of military intelligence in these detentions poses some serious problems: the establishment is well-known for disappearing people. Jeremy Schahill raises concerns on the American side where American intelligence planes may have been used to locate Shahzad. The trouble with this, explains Scahill is that:

If true, that could mean that secretive programs such as “Power Geyser” or “Granite Shadow,” remain in effect. These were the unclassified names for reportedly classified, compartmentalized programs under the Bush administration that allegedly gave US military special forces sweeping authority to operate on US soil in cases involving WMD incidents or terror attacks.

See Scahill’s full post here.

[Post in progress…]

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Sex, journalism and a bad book

1. Journalistic deep thoughts, brought to you by Reuters’ Myra MacDonald who went in search of Kipling’s characters:

I had not expected Pakistan’s tribal areas to be so neat and so prosperous.

These are meant to be the badlands, mythologised as no-go areas by Kiplingesque images of xenophobic Pashtuns, jezail musket in hand, defying British troops from rugged clifftops.

MacDonald makes the raging discovery that Kipling might’ve been a tad inaccurate. After being taken around on a helicopter tour of the the region by the Pakistani Army which was hoping to show that it’s making headway in its war in the tribal areas, MacDonald’s observes, “At the very least, the myth of the “ungovernable” tribal areas — so beloved of Raj-era tales — has been broken.” A perfect message in sync with what the Pak Army wants the foreign journalists to take home, all under cover of breaking Orientalist racist “myths”. Reporter and author Mary Ann Weaver apparently didn’t get the memo. In the preface to the new edition of Pakistan: Deep Inside the World’s Most Frightening State, she writes, One of my most vivid images was of decay…of the breakdown of law and order, as dark-haired, dark-eyed men moved through the villages with AK-47s slung from their shoulders, swaying gently against their hips.” Guns and hips. Violence and sex. It’s orientalist writing at its finest. The subjection of ‘brown’ men to the sexual gaze of a white woman. I cannot but helplessly think of Lynndie England’s photographs. We are treated to this passage on Khyber-Pakhtunkwa (formerly NWFP) a few pages later:

…these tribal lands have beguiled and fascinated, bewitched and repelled, potential conquerors for thousands of years.

I had first come to the Pakistani border regions to cover the jihad, a war that was never fully resolved….It was a war of contradictions and confusions [oh Tavernise couldn’t do it better!] a war fought in Kipling’s world, between independent peoples and independent tribes whose ancient codes of honor and animosities have coalesced to make this one of the most volatile, dangerous, yet fascinating places on earth. And the war’s contradictions were, in ever sense, mirrored here, in the jihad’s staging area: Pakistan.

And here are more journalists giving us reasons to junk the media: this is a roundup of Reuters gems of un-knowledge about Central Asia, here’s one on Somalia, and this is one on Zimbabwe. And, here’s Pakistani news show host Talat Hussein’s list of what he hates about foreign media and reporters.

2. One of our cultural elite gets schooled by a Laotian restaurant owner. Writing about her move to Vietnam in this week’s Newsline magazine, Pakistani reporter Muna Khan has an amusing anecdote about the night Obama gets was elected to office that says scores about the discursive maps of the Pakistani elite and their allegiances. Khan doesn’t pause to reflect on this moment, but I certainly did:

I travelled to Laos all by myself…and watched Obama make his acceptance speech at a Laotian restaurant and felt so overwhelmed that I cried, which prompted the owner of the restaurant to ask, “Why you cry? He gonna bum your country.”

Bummer.

3. The creme of the elite: An excellent review of Fatima Bhutto’s new book Songs of Blood and Sword by Manan Ahmed. The book has been roundly criticized in Pakistan causing Fatima Bhutto to throw 140 character long tantrums on Twitter lashing out at her critics. She’s also thus far refused to give an interview to a Pakistani station (though that may have more to do with her non-existent Urdu language skills much like her cousin, Bilawal or her auntie, Benazir, when she began her political career) though she’s been traipsing around western media outlets.

Still wondering whether she’ll take up Manan’s suggestion that the Bhutto papers be turned into a public archive so that the rest of us can have a crack at them. They would serve us better than her, um…book.

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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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NYT’s reporting puzzles

Oh, NYT, why must you tempt me with your strange tales of stranger lands.

1) PALESTINE. Ethan Bronner’s article which was the lead story this morning, “Palestinians Try a Less Violent Path to Resistance” is an example of a lie reproduced as news. Putting the latest peaceful Palestinian boycott campaign in faux context, Bronner writes, “The new approach still remains small scale while American-led efforts to revive peace talks are stalled.” He  falsely continues to imply throughout the rest of the article that noviolence is “limited” or alien to Palestinian soil:

Nonviolence has never caught on here, and Israel’s military says the new approach is hardly nonviolent. But the current set of campaigns is trying to incorporate peaceful pressure in limited ways.

Except that well, nonviolence–whilst perhaps a novel idea to a reporter whose son serves in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF)–is nothing new for the Palestinians. The 1980s intifada was a deeply civil society based rebellion with Palestinian labour unions, businessmen and students involved in mass forms of nonviolent protest. Although initially uncoordinated, an ad hoc leadership committee called the Unfied National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU) soon rose up increasing its numbers with workers who joined as the IDF attacked Palestinian businesses. The bourgeoisie and Palestinian businessmen, increasingly burdened by the new taxes Israel was imposing, followed through with commercial strikes and non-payment of taxes. Further, steel_puzzle_sphere_1Ariel Sharon’s incendiary move to shift his home to Jerusalem sparked “the shopkeepers war”, a cat and mouse game where the IDF repeatedly forced shopkeepers to open their shops and they in turn repeatedly went on strike. There was stone throwing by youth (if you can call that violent when they’re throwing them at tanks and soldiers) too and murders of alleged collaborators, but the bulk of the population took part in mass civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent protest. That was the Palestinian intifada in the 1980s, and it attests to the strength and resilience of Palestinian civil society. The effects of that movement dissipated because of the Oslo Accords which circumvented the successes of the intifada rather than build upon them.

Contrast that form of resistance with the occupying army. Raphael Eitan, then Israel’s chief of staff, said “When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.” Menachim Begin, who would later win the Nobel peace prize with Arafat (a venerable tradition which Obama has rightly joined) referred to Palestinians as “beasts walking on two legs”.

By contrast, check out this excellent piece by friend and reporter Don Duncan on forms of Palestinian resistance. See examples of what Don’s talking about here and there.

And for the love of god, Bronner, get a clue.

2) PAKISTAN. Sabrina Tavernise lends that special Alice-in-a-wonderland feel to her reporting on a potentially historic amendment that is making its way through the Pakistani parliament right now. If passed, it would strip the President of powers that the position has accrued over the years due to revisions to the constitution by unaccountable politicians and dictators. Tavernise is quick to manipulate the story about a significant positive political change in Pakistan into the “chaos theory” narrative the western media has reserved for Pakistan. She writes:

On paper, the changes restore the country’s democracy to its original form — a parliamentary system run by a prime minister — and undo the accumulated powers that the country’s military autocrats had vested in the presidency. (emphasis mine.)

But this is Pakistan — a chaotic, 62-year-old country, where no elected government has ever lasted a full term and the rule of law is often up for grabs — and it is far from certain that in practice the new laws will be respected. (emphasis mine.)

Down the hole, Alice goes. This is Wonderland and things don’t ever change here. Never ever ever. Never ever? Not ever. Get it?

Last year, Tavernise brought us this lovely liner regnant with Orientalism: “On a spring night in Lahore, I came face to face with all that is puzzling about Pakistan.” Wow, where? Was it at the intersection of Ignorance and Hubris? Try and get off that. It’s really overcrowded.

3) WIKILEAKS. Two days ago, Glenn Greenwald caught the NYT in a mistake, and now the paper appears to be at it again trying to damn the investigative website Wikileaks. Greenwald then noted that reporter “Elisabeth Bumiller strongly implies that WikiLeaks failed to release the full video and instead selectively edited it.” The mistake found its way into a Weekly Standard opinion piece which denounced the website for failing to release the full video. Unfortunately, for the Standard, Wikileaks had released the entire video from the start. The NYT corrected its mistake online without ever acknowledging that it had made one. The Standard‘s Bill Roggio also corrected his mistake and acknowledged it explicitly online. All that was two days ago. Now today, NYT‘s article on Wikileaks “Iraq Video Brings Notice to a Web Site“, again implies bad practise by Wikileaks:

The Web site also posted a 17-minute edited version, which proved to be much more widely viewed on YouTube than the full version. Critics contend that the shorter video was misleading because it did not make clear that the attacks took place amid clashes in the neighborhood and that one of the men was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.

But, Wikileaks posted the entire unedited video and has done so from the start. That’s something that media organizations rarely do, if ever. When’s the last time you saw an unedited video at CNN or unedited notes for an article at NYT? Second, what unnamed critics is the NYT referring to here? The Weekly Standard already corrected its mistake, and anyone else who has criticized the shorter version of the video has only been able to do so precisely because the full-version is also available. It’s just a bizarre paragraph coming as it does on the heels of the earlier Bumiller article. The NYT, btw, is absent from Wikileaks list of its supporters which does include the LA Times, Hearst Corporation, Gannett (publishers of USA Today), the Associated Press, among other journalistic bodies.

4) PAKISTAN. The Lede blog posted live video footage of the bomb blasts at the US Consulate in Peshawar (h/t jdw) and then noted:

Readers who watch the footage from Pakistani television above may notice one sign of how routine bombings have become in the country. At one stage, as images of the latest attack were broadcast, the crawl at the bottom of the screen gave updates on a celebrity drama, the planned marriage of a Pakistani cricket star, Shoaib Malik, to an Indian tennis player, Sania Mirza.

When a commenter called out the blog’s writer, Robert Mackey on his spurious concluson based on news tickers which are equally random everywhere else, he responded saying, “I explained in the post what the point of the the trivial news in the crawl seemed to be to me. I made no statement that this sort of trivia was unique to Pakistan and not found in most if not all other countries.” Even to Mackey his response must sound lame; it’s certainly not an answer.

Here’s a snapshot of CNN vs. al-Jazeera on the day the Wikileaks video was posted. Pots and kettles. Enough said.

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