Tag Archives: drones

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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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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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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To Think With

There are some great videos out on the interwebs, so here are few of what I’ve been watching, thinking about as I report the terror war(s). Oh yes – and there’s David Harvey, just because.

Critique of Humanitarian Reason | Didier Fassin:

Video of the House Judiciary Committee Hearing on drones here and witness testimonies here.

The Everwhere War | Derek Gregory

The Everywhere War – RT with Derek Gregory – 10 November 2011 from Forensic Architecture on Vimeo.

Reading Marx’s Capital | David Harvey:

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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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