Category Archives: The Terror Wars

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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The Business of Haunting

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

Let’s take this seriously. What is haunting?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Short documentary: Wounds of Waziristan

Wounds of Waziristan Trailer from AJ Russo on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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Force and Neglect in North Waziristan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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In Solidarity When It Mattered

In a heartrending report in the Los Angeles Times today, Alex Rodriguez describes how Sunni bus riders managed to save the lives of Shias by refusing to identify them to the attackers:

One Sunni, college student Ghulam Mustafa, 19, confronted the militants, saying that killing Shiites was wrong. He was shot dead, the gunmen pumping seven bullets into his back, chest and head.

Sunni passengers were then asked to point out people they thought were Shiites. Many could have done so because they came from the same villages. Yet they refused to cooperate, which survivors say saved at least 10 people.

Full story here.


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On Killing and Dying and TV Commercials

On killing:

“Don’t let other detergents torture your clothes.”


“Keep Love Strong”


And dying:

“My gaze is as fatal as a drone attack.” Ok, this is a song and not a commercial.

Interestingly, this song as well as the Iams commercial speak about death in the idiom of love, or is it love in the idiom of death?

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