Category Archives: Exterminate the brutes

Peshawar Attack

I’d start by noting that this is not the first time that children have been killed. It’s just the first time that it became visible to the rest of us, because we chose to pay attention. A single aerial bombardment by the Pakistani military in May killed 18 children. A U.S. drone attack in 2006 on a school killed 70 children. So – it would seem that not all children are equal.

Some are saying that this is Pakistan’s 9/11. I find this deeply ironic. It is Pakistan’s 9/11 in the sense that — just like 9/11 — all the violence committed by the Pakistan military and the U.S. state on marginalized Pakistanis before the Peshawar attack seems to hardly matter at all. They make that prehistory invisible just as America is fond of doing with 9/11.

The cruelest, but perhaps, the most honest op-ed (in that it succinctly captures the mood in some segments of Pakistani society in the wake of the attack) is Fahd Husain’s article in Express Tribune. “Now you are either with us or with the terrorists,” writes Husain. I wonder whether he realizes how chilling he sounds, how much like the militants he so despises.

In the U.S., the news of the attack overlapped with the publication of the (summary of) the torture report, some 600 pages of graphic descriptions of the cruelty of American forces. When I posted a link to a Salon article reporting Seymour Hersh’s claim that US forces may have sodomized children in front of their mothers at Abu Ghraib, I noted that cruelty towards children was not the sole provence of terrorists. A Pakistani journalist who reports for the American press admonished me not to make such statements because the Taliban may use it as propaganda. And, in any case, he said it was different because, he believed (as elites who see America from afar usually believe) that the soldiers would be held accountable. (America is a PR success story. Even when wave upon wave of story crashes upon foreign shores bringing news of yet another torture committed by American security forces’, yet another story of American greed, ruthlessness, callousness and cold cruelty, the idea of America as fundamentally accountable remains. Even the unspoken thread  of each story is the idea that the horror is exceptional, even if it is the 100th time we are hearing that American’s have committed torture, even if we see the photos of waterboarding being pioneered by US troops in the Philippines as early as 1902.)

On CNN, the Navy Seal who killed bin Laden gives his view on the Peshawar attack. Apparently, invading a home in another country to shoot the man your own government created while his family is there, makes you an expert on militants who would kill children. The juxtaposition is clear: O’Neill’s attack, and America’s barbarism by extension is duly whitewashed. More important than what O’Neill says, is what we are being told by his presence: That was a respectable kill. This is not. That was honorable. This is not.

The discussion moves seamlessly from the Peshawar attack to the torture report:

CNN anchor : … ISIS is trying to sell James Foley’s headless body to his parents for $1 million. Anybody really care if we waterboard these low lives?

Obviously, you have rules of engagement. You had to adhere to them carefully in the field. That supposedly goes it what we did as detainees as well.

You believe that the ends justify the means?

O’NEILL: Well, what I was saying there and obviously this is a very, very broad subject and it can’t be described in a tweet but just with the given amount of characters I was able to bring up what these horrible people do, how it affects the families. You know, not only did they say they were going to behead the Foley’s son, but now they’re trying to sell it back as some sort of humanity and they can put it on YouTube, and if we have intelligence to have other people like this in a spot we can interrogate them, and if use a few techniques that make them uncomfortable, that make them confused, and it leads to protecting even an individual American like Mr. Foley or a greater attack on a country, I think the conversation should be had.

I think personally that torture does not work, that torture is vile. It is the worst act in which you can engage. However, we need to look at what we’re doing.

Interrogation is a process. It’s not like we show up waterboarding and he gave us nothing. It’s a long process of, you know, having them lose a sense of time, loud music, stress positions, and eventually, it all comes down to the good cop/bad cop thing. If we could turn down the music and let them sleep longer or sit down out of a stress position, eventually they’re going to talk. And that is how you build that sort of rapport that’s always talked about.

I don’t personally think it’s torture, and I think the conversation should be had how we can interrogate these people to save lives.

CNN anchor: And that’s the conversation that we’re having right now.

Thank you very much, sir, for the work for the country, and thank you for coming on NEW DAY.


The death penalty moratorium has been lifted. According to a report by the Justice Project Pakistan and Reprieve, nearly 88 percent of people tried on terrorism charges have nothing to do with what could sensibly be called terrorism.

They want to hang nearly 3000 people.


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Reagan and the Afghan Resistance

From the archives – while researching for Wounds, we came across this Reagan dedication of the space shuttle, Columbia, to the Afghan resistance. Enjoy!

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Terrorism is modern

I’ve been off working on various things, but am resuming blogging. To start, here’s another long overdue, provocative post by the Underground Man.

Islamist terrorism, unfortunately for those who need an uncomplicated enemy to hate, is not a heterogeneous edifice run by similarly intentioned malevolent men wanting to take control of the world.  It is borne out of various ideas and histories and has roots in many parts of the world. Olivier Roy uses two different ways to study terrorism. The first would be the vertical method wherein one can establish the genealogy of all kinds of radicalisation in the Quran and Islamic history and trace it to Islamist radicals today. This method does not take into account definitive roots of terrorism and subjectively distinguishes ‘Muslim’ violence from manifestations of violence. The second approach is horizontal and frames terrorism in the context of contemporary phenomena of violence affecting all modern societies. The second approach is more productive in understanding Al Qaida as a movement unlike many other movements borne out of dissent. I find Roy’s use of the words modern and contemporary while talking about Islamist terrorism particularly intriguing and will dwell a bit more on that below.

The Islamist brand of terrorism is a modern manifestation of violence and dissent. I use the word modern deliberately and cautiously. I say it to contest the opinion that Islam, Islamist terrorism or Muslims are not modern and do not belong in the modern times, which would suggest that there is something barbaric, ancient or other worldly about them. I argue that terrorism is not only a modern phenomenon; it is specifically a product of our globalised, interconnected, ultra-modern zeitgeist.

Firstly, the word modern is technically defined by a particular point in time, in particular after the Age of Enlightenment and Age of Reason in Europe post-fifteenth century. Any idea or event that takes place after that point in time, be it Modern Art or birth of the internet, is necessarily a part of modernity. Because it is associated with the colonial Master’s domain and defined in the Master’s language, it is assumed that Europe has the patent to enlightenment and modernity, and that all others from the third world must only consume modernity defined by Europe. It is the most civilised of civilizations that is the purveyor of modern culture and all Others must adopt and follow suit.  If we, instead, take the definition out of the dictionary than all forms of Islamist terrorism and any evolution of religion post-Enlightenment era has fall under modern times. It cannot be otherwise.

To quote Talal Asad:

In an important sense, tradition and modernity are not really two mutually exclusive states of a culture or society but different aspects of historicity. Many of the things that are thought of as modern belong to traditions which have their roots in Western history. When people talk about liberalism as a tradition, they recognize that it is a tradition in which there are possibilities of argument, reformulation, and encounter with other traditions, that there is a possibility of addressing contemporary problems through the liberal tradition. So one thinks of liberalism as a tradition central to modernity. How is it that one has something that is a tradition but that is also central to modernity? Clearly, liberalism is not a mixture of the traditional and the modern. It is a tradition that defines one central aspect of Western modernity. It is no less modern by virtue of being a tradition than anything else is modern. Such questions need to be worked through before we can decide meaningfully whether there are varieties of modernity and, if there is only one kind of modernity, then whether it is separable from Westernization or not.

Secondly, there are subjective connotations of the word ‘modern’ which may not define it so rigidly. Modern can be used interchangeably with ‘current’, ‘civilised’, ‘fashionable’, or even ‘up to date’.  Even if we do take these terms facetiously, we will find that there is nothing out-dated or old about Islamist terrorism. To argue that Islamist terrorism is not civilised is an incomplete statement without further accepting that all forms of violent dissent are uncivilised and barbaric. It would be difficult to qualify a statement that says anti-imperialist, anti-state movements such as the Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany, the Red Army in Russia, the Maoists in India or even Che Guevara are modern conceptions while Islamist terrorism is not. While there are several distinctions among these, I argue that they are all forms of modern, violent dissent to the global status quo.

Lastly, it is dangerous to even think about Islamist terrorism as a blanket concept that can possibly define Al Qaida, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah and countless other groups in a singular narrative. At the outset of this essay, I remarked that they are not homogeneous organizations producing one type of a terrorist. For example, there are marked differences between Islamo-nationalist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that do not have any agenda outside their own political conflicts, and the global jihad of Al Qaeda that is not territorially defined.

To deal with the threat of Islamist terrorism, it would perhaps be more effective to think about it from a political perspective (a struggle for territorial control) instead of an ideological perspective (wide spread imposition of sharia law). I conclude with thoughts from Olivier Roy who says that the process of radicalisation is to be understood by putting it into perspective with the other forms of violence among youth and any process of de-radicalisation should address youth populations, and not an elusive Muslim community, which is more constructed than real”.

III. War in a New York minute

I am not the only one. I received this via email from an incisive friend who’s agreed to let me put it up. Hopefully, s/he will be writing more often. As the ‘experts’ sound the drum to expand the global war into North Waziristan, those who question the war and the shoddy un-knowledge on which it turns are being shut down and pushed out of public discourse. The papers would have you believe otherwise, but there are those who reject this war, and we are not the only ones. So, without further ado, here are some sharp observations about the war narrative building up around Pakistan from the Underground Man:

To say that the pro-war narrative in Pakistan is exasperating is to put it mildly. Some days the op-eds in the English dailies are worse than the others, but it increasingly seems that we have collectively shut down all avenues for a discourse against the war. I’m going to point out just three examples of the kind of dialogue we are consuming on a daily basis that subtly informs our opinions and in the end perpetuates the myth of an honourable, necessary war.

  1. Firstly, the short comments on Foreign Policy by Af-Pak (why can’t we retire that term already?) Channel’s experts on Faisal Shahzad, (the person alleged to have been behind NYC Times Square failed bombing plot) have been irritatingly ignorant, to say the least. For example, this comment written by Saba Imtiaz notes that:

Pakistan is lucky that the United States after 9/11 and India after Mumbai did not bomb the country into oblivion.

O RLY! How awfully lucky is Pakistan to have thus far avoided a full-scale war, shielded itself from US’ imperialist designs and nearly escaped an escalation in bombs and drone attacks from within…. oh wait. All of that did happen. So given this logic, a singular terrorist attack warrants bombing the country of the bomber’s origin into oblivion. Any other response is a tad generous on the victim country’s part.

But at some point, some country that is the target of an attack by a terrorist group that was trained in or received support from Pakistan will react.

I can’t imagine what that would look like, but Af-Pak Channel experts would surmise that it would be wholly justifiable given the case of Faisal Shahzad. Moving on:

Jumping into another immediate military offensive might not be the best idea […] but Pakistan needs to move toward serious military action.

Bomb North Waziristan NOW! I don’t know what gives this writer the audacity to call the operations in Swat and South Waziristan not serious. Let’s think more about why it has not been such a grand idea so far. Internally displaced people? Civilian casualties from the offensive? Complicity of the army and the intelligence agencies with certain militant groups?

The contradiction in that quote, by the way, is part of a single sentence.

Why is Foreign Policy recruiting inexperienced people to write for them and then calling them ‘experts’? If the comment has to be brief and lacking nuance, I’d rather it came from someone with at least marginal experience in military strategy, war reporting, imperialism 101… heck, actual knowledge of even one of those subjects would produce something infinitely more intelligent.

2.   Let us peruse the opinions suggesting the war expand to North Waziristan a bit more. Here’s what the Daily Times editorial titled “North Waziristan: The New Terrorist Epicentre” had to say:

This is not only necessary for the success of the military’s efforts elsewhere in FATA and Swat, it is now critical generally to ensure the militants are unable to regroup and cause headaches to Pakistan and the world through attacks such as the New York one. Failing to take action against the terrorists holed up in North Waziristan will doubtless bring renewed pressure from the US, and if cooperation is not forthcoming, the millions of dollars of US military and civilian aid may be threatened.

Express Tribune quotes the New York Times which quotes unnamed Pakistani officials who said:

There is a growing consensus that North Waziristan is now the source of the problem, there is a continuing debate in the military over when and how to tackle it. The evolving nature of the militants has made them more dangerous-and made the necessity of going after them in North Waziristan increasingly unavoidable.

Notice how none of these voices give any details besides assuring us that there is a general consensus that North Waziristan is the most ‘dangerous’ place harbouring an undisclosed number of militants and that attacking it now is more ‘critical’ than ever. This is easy to grasp and easier to swallow language found in all of the mainstream media. I’ll have more of that pro-war attitude please.

Alright then, how about some real experts? Ahmed Rashid is as good as any when it comes to a good dose of support for military action. Here’s what he had had to say post-Faisal Shahzad –failed-plot-situation:

North Waziristan is the hub of so many terrorist groups and so much terrorist plotting and planning that neither the CIA nor the ISI seems to have much clue about what is going on there.

And hence, we should, to quote Af-Pak experts, bomb the place into oblivion because one man has allegedly received some training there that, mind you, did not succeed.  A place about which the CIA, the ISI and probably the army have no bloody clue about. It is certain though, that it is definitely dangerous and bursting at the seams.

3.   Lastly, a brief glance at the popular language being employed much closer to home. Here are just three headlines from DAWN’s Sunday paper that say volumes about how the discourse has shaped up among expert columnists:                

But then he adds that the problem is that no one — not the news wires, not the foreign media, not even Pakistani papers or news channels — has direct access to the site of a strike.

Is the argument about there being no protests against drone attacks in the tribal areas valid if there has not been direct access to the site and we are relying on official quotes and on-ground reporters who also only report official quotes since they aren’t exactly allowed to be …on ground?

Can we back up a minute here and seriously rethink about the kind of war narrative we are perpetuating and at who’s whose expense? Where are the dissenting voices? Why have we collectively given up on responsible, accurate, locally produced journalism? Whither saner voices?

-The Underground Man

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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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TPM reports Iraq murders badly

From the Left. What’s up at TPM? The usually spot-on blog already appears to have buried the story of the leaked Iraq video. Instead, the RNC’s strip ‘n spend scandal takes top spot on the site I’m sure, much to the delight of gleeful liberals for whom the RNC debaucheries, the Iraq war and other crimes often seem to be little more than sticks with which to beat the right-wing.

TPMEven when the site did run the Wikileaks story, the headline–in a classic pseudo-objective tactic of mainstream media–used quotations around the term murder: “Wikileaks: Video Shows ‘Murder’ of Iraqis by U.S. Helicopters“. I mean hello, what does it take to scream bloody murder? And by what logic does the murder of several people including two journalists–the details and video of which the military refused to reveal–become a less important story than the “sexy hotspots” that the Republican white male young things are attending?

I do think TPM generally does solid work, whether I agree with it or not, but I can’t help but associate the absence of the Iraq story from the front page by late today with the relatively relaxed attitude of liberals over Iraq’s occupation now that it has become Obama’s project. It was they who swelled the numbers of the anti-war movement in the first years of the Iraq war: the war was bad; that Bush II was the man leading it was, for many liberals, worse. And those of us who argued in those days that the anti-war movement must make the case against the war on ethical grounds rather than tactical concerns about how to accrue the numerically largest protests were told that we were being too idealistic. The numbers game failed because those demonstrations were never backed by commitment. The American state knew that.

In the name of pragmatism which is always an ideology masquerading as technique, real fault-lines between a liberal view and an anti-imperialist leftist vision were papered over with slogans that said too little and agreements that compromised the movement too much. And here we are: the occupations rage on and multiply, the anti-war movement is leaderless and scattered and white men enjoy lap dances at the expense of the RNC whilst the liberals cheerily rattle on about the depravity of the Republicans all the while ignoring their own MAAF Obama’s shockingly pathetic record (even by my rather low standards) on his campaign promises and his ratcheting up of the global war in Afghanistan and Pakistan –the only one he’s kept whole-heartedly. [1]

A pox on both your bloody houses.

1. Another note on “MAAF”: Cerise L. Glenn and Landra J. Cunningham. “The Power of Black Magic: The Magical Negro and White SalvationJournal of Black Studies 2009; 40; 135 originally published online Oct 8, 2007.

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‘Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.’

A release by that awesome website, Wikileaks showing American troops targeting civilians in Iraq:

The full set of documents along with a transcript of this video can be seen here. Glenn Greenwald and others debate the video on MSNBC:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

screengrab from Wikileaks "Collateral Murder"

screengrab from Wikileaks "Collateral Murder"

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Boots on Our Necks

My cover story on Pakistan’s restless province, Balochistan, “Pakistan’s Broken Mirror” appears in the The National this week. An excerpt:

To the west and north, the province is bounded by Afghanistan and Iran, each of which has its own Baloch population; the Pashtuns who predominate in the northern part of the province also spill across international borders. The province’s location at this explosive geopolitical crossroads – as well as its vast mineral resources and valuable coastline – have focused the anxieties of international powers near and far, suggesting that a new Great Game may take Balochistan as its target. Tehran worries about what conflicts in Balochistan will mean for its own Sistan-Balochistan province, whose Baloch population has been brutally suppressed by the state. The Americans are concerned about the Taliban who have taken refuge in the province’s Pashtun belt and the leaders of the Afghan Taliban long believed to be operating out of Quetta. Washington is also concerned about China’s increasing involvement in the area, most visibly the deep-water port at Gwadar, built with Chinese investment and intended to provide an Indian Ocean foothold for Beijing.

But for the government of Pakistan – and particularly for its army – Balochistan is first and foremost the epicentre of a stubbornly secular Baloch national rebellion whose endurance poses a threat to the state’s ideological and geographical coherence.

Balochistan is a looking glass for Pakistan today, reflecting the tortuous struggle to imagine a national community. How the state handles the rising tide of Baloch nationalism will also determine the future of Pakistan’s nationalist project.

And, in case, one needs more reminding about the Army that owns a state, here’s a story from about the military attacking civilians in Fata’s Orakzai Agency, killing 61 people.

Pakistani warplanes attacked a number of sites in the Orakzai Agency today, including a mosque, a school, and a religious seminary, killing 61. Security officials initially labeled all 61 “suspected militants,” though locals later conceded that a great many of them were actually innocent civilians.

cover of the Review in this week's The National

cover of the Review in this week's The National

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