“Living Under Drones” – the anti-drone campaign can do damage too

October 3, 2012

In a poignant tale published last month by Chashm, a new website set up to promote alternative discourse in Pakistan, the narrator describes what happened when the Taliban came to the village of Saidano, the site of a popular shrine in Orakzai Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

First the Taliban imposed sharia; they banned all activity at the shrine and intimidated those in the political administration into quitting their jobs. The people organised themselves into a lashkar, or militia, to fight them. “In return, the Taliban pummelled the armed resistance and the people back into submission. Any attempt at resistance led to dissenters’ immediate silencing, including by slaughter.” Having decreed that visiting shrines was un-Islamic, the Taliban said they would demolish it. “With that note, the shrine of Bawal Haq Saheb was reduced to rubble by the Taliban. The people of Saidano were enraged at this heinous act of the Taliban, but no one could say anything…they were all scared.”

Another story on Qissa Khwani, a website about North-West Pakistan, describes the fate of 18-year-old Najib, “a studious, humble, calm and a normal boy”, a student in computer sciences from the Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency, where several militant groups were fighting for control.

“He was forced to fight…as he was the only young boy in his family. It is mandatory for the people living in these militant-controlled areas to hand over one young man to fight… Najib was not trained for war, therefore he was used as a shield to protect the trained militants…and if anyone tried to escape or leave, either his family would be harmed or that person would be slaughtered. Najib’s fate was no different from those who tried to escape, he was cut into pieces and delivered to his family in a sack.”

They are small tales, unlikely to make international headlines; yet these are the stories that give texture to the lives of ordinary people in FATA – people whose views are submerged by the polemics over U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Much has been written criticising the use of drones, some – like the recently published study by Columbia Law School “The Civilian Impact of Drone Strikes” – raising serious questions about the secrecy of the programme and the risk of it being overused. But just as the United States stands accused of ignoring people on the ground, so too do some of the most vocal of the anti-drone campaigners in ways that can be just as insidious.

This is not just because of the obvious charge of hypocrisy, although that is there too. Many of those who shout the most about casualties from U.S. drone strikes rarely condemn so loudly the many more deaths of civilians as a result of Pakistan army operations in FATA or Taliban violence. Nor are they particularly vocal in challenging Pakistan’s slowness to incorporate FATA into the political mainstream – the region continues to be run according to the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), which deprives its people of many of the rights granted to other Pakistani citizens and leaves them vulnerable to collective punishment.  Few pay attention to the region’s deliberate marginalisation so that it could be used – since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 – as a deniable staging ground for the Pakistan army’s jihadi proxies – whose ideology spawned the same Taliban who are now terrorising the local population.

But the problems lie not just in hypocrisy, but in something worse; in the way in which much of the anti-drone campaign is used, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly, to bolster a narrative inside Pakistan which runs counter to the interests of the people of FATA.

According to this narrative, militancy sprang from FATA itself in response to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and drone strikes. That in turn leads to the questionable conclusion that making peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban will help the people of FATA (ask yourself whether those quoted above would benefit or lose from peace agreements with the militants.)

Rather militancy was imposed from outside, using FATA as a base. Its origins lie in a decades-old project conceived by the military to rely on non-state actors to counter its bigger neighbour India (a policy the army officially says it has now abandoned). Drone strikes in FATA may or may not be the answer to that; but it will be hard to judge if we don’t get the description right in the first place.

First of all let’s be clear we don’t know, and can’t know, exactly what is going on in FATA. It is hard for outsiders to go there; foreigners visit accompanied by the army; people inside are afraid to speak openly and its journalists say their reporting is hampered by threats from both the military and the militants (for an excellent, report on this, and useful research on a FATA in general, do read this study by Intermedia (pdf)

Data on drone strikes based on media reports do not tell us the number of civilians killed; they tell us what unnamed Pakistani security officials choose to say about casualties, and they have the option of either exaggerating or underestimating the numbers depending on what suits politically.

But what we can do is look at how descriptions of the impact of drones subtly reinforce a narrative which diverts attention away from Pakistan’s own treatment of FATA and onto the United States, all the while ignoring the people who would be best placed to say how peace might be achieved, if only they were allowed to speak freely.

The recently published “Living Under Drones”, a report by researchers at Stanford and New York universities on the impact of drone strikes on civilians, is a case study on what can go wrong in the anti-drones campaign.

Commissioned by Reprieve, the UK charity whose founder Clive Stafford-Smith is campaigning alongside Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan against drones, it is based on 130 interviews with people in the region, including victims and witnesses of drone activity. It won wide media attention, particularly for its assertion that “the number of ‘high-level’ targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low – estimated at just two percent.” This was not, however, a conclusion reached through field research – a footnote in the report acknowledges it comes from a September piece on CNN by Peter Bergen and Megan Braun.

In fact there was no field research in FATA. And of the 69 people interviewed with direct experience of drones, the majority were arranged by the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), Reprieve’s partner organisation, which funded their transport costs from FATA to Pakistani cities. No effort was made to randomly select the interviewees; nor was there a control group to check the accuracy of their statements.

As a result, criticism of the army and the Taliban, which crops up frequently in other reports from FATA, is airbrushed out of the quotes. Everything is blamed on drones. “Before the drone strikes started, my life was very good. I used to go to school and I used to be quite busy with that, but after the drone strikes, I stopped going to school now,” says one. “Before the drone attacks, it was as if everyone was young. After the drone attacks, it is as if everyone is ill. Every person is afraid of the drones,” says another.

Nor was reference made to reports that the Taliban surround an area after a drone strike to prevent people from finding out who has been killed. Instead, the difficulties of retrieving and burying the dead and helping the wounded are blamed entirely on the risk of a second drone strike. “When a drone strikes and people die, nobody comes near the bodies for half an hour because they fear another missile will strike,” says one.

The report rightly calls for independent investigations into drone strike deaths and for the views of civilians living there to be taken into account, but fails to mention it is Pakistan rather than the United States which is preventing that from happening.

It blames drone strikes for killing tribal elders and undermining FATA’s traditional system of governance without acknowledging militants had been doing this for years in order to impose their own authority.


But perhaps worst of all, it falls for the myth – one heavily promoted in Pakistan’s Punjabi heartland – that the presence of militants in FATA is due to its “traditional” (read backward) culture rather than having been foisted on it from outside.  The many tribal laskhars raised to fight the militants are ignored.

FATA is inhabited by Pashtuns whose social life, it says, is framed by “Pashtunwali”, a tradition of honour, hospitality, and equality.  “One particularly important principle of Pashtunwali is … hospitality…the guest is protected and his enemies repelled for as long as he stays.”

“This duty to provide hospitality to all may create complications where it leads civilians to provide shelter to armed non-state actors, not out of support for their cause, but to fulfil a fundamental duty.”

It is a classic case of blaming the victim. Rather than representing the views of the people of FATA, it actively promotes a narrative which has been used against them – one that claims that militancy is inherent in the Pakistani tribal periphery rather than produced from within Pakistan’s ruling system; one that says that it can be resolved by ending U.S. drone strikes and the foreign military presence in Afghanistan rather than tackling militancy and extremism in the heartland.

Unsurprisingly, the report was welcomed by both the Defa-e-Pakistan, an alliance of Punjab-based militant and sectarian groups, and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, blacklisted by the United Nations as the humanitarian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

So what does this tell us about drones?

First get the history right. Or to quote George Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Pause to consider why militants are present in FATA in the first place (and the United States and Saudi Arabia also played their own role in funding Pakistan’s use of jihadi proxies against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan) and you come up with a completely different view of the argument that stopping U.S. drone strikes will bring peace to the region.

Second, consider what would be required to help the people of FATA drive out militants. Full political rights, a free press and economic development are all long-term solutions. Some anti-drone campaigners do also push for this. But be very wary of those who don’t, particularly when populist anti-Americanism is used as a means of trying to return FATA to the status quo ante: ie a deliberately marginalised region and useful base for jihadis.

Third, ask serious questions about rejecting the use of force. Peace agreements do not necessarily bring peace to those who live there. As Daud Khattak has noted in a review of past past accords, they often have the effect of reinforcing the authority of the Taliban over the tribal elders. The same will happen with an anti-drones “peace march” planned this weekend by Imran Khan to South Waziristan – the Pakistani Taliban have already arrogated to themselves the right to decide whether to allow it to go ahead without attacking it, suggesting that they, rather than the government, have sovereignty over the area.

And if the use of force is necessary, ask if it is better to rely on drone strikes, which have the technological capacity to cause far fewer casualties than other aerial or artillery bombing. Some people in FATA say drones are a lesser evil compared to army operations and Taliban violence; some even welcome them, though it varies from agency to agency. And for ordinary Pakistani soldiers caught up in the fighting in FATA, drone strikes can also limit the toll of brutal fighting in difficult terrain (the Pakistani Taliban not long ago released a video of them beheading captured soldiers).  The more strident in the anti-drone campaign leave no room for such nuance.

Fourth, encourage online projects meant to tell local stories from FATA. I quoted from two. There are others. For without a free press, you are never going to know otherwise what people on the ground think. Studies like that of Stanford/ /NYU, which give an academic imprimatur to a particular narrative, do not help.

And finally, realise – at least in the case of FATA – the polemics over drones have little to do with their impact on civilians. The United States and Pakistan have been effectively fighting a war over Afghanistan with FATA caught in the middle. They both blame the other for failure there – from U.S. incompetence to Pakistani backing for the Afghan Taliban. They both have their ways of attacking the other: Washington, impatient at Pakistan’s failure to clear militants out of FATA, ignores Pakistani sovereignty in its use of drones; Pakistan in turn whips up anti-Americanism through the media and insists on a national pride over FATA which never existed when the region was excluded from the political mainstream.

There is no moral high ground here. But many of those who lend their name to the anti-drones campaign would do well to remember they are also fighting in the swamps. And consider how the narrator from Orakzai opened the story. “There was a time when peace and happiness prevailed in Orakzai Agency – a place that wasn’t as popular as it was turned into by the Taliban and the Army’s government.”


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Myra McDonald, you and Reuters set the bar! Thank you for this clear, well written, instructive and curiosity galvanizing article. Alas, I sadly don’t believe curricula in American public or private schools has changed to incorporate these fascinating, challenging, and crucial issues to date.
And let’s face it, the average American is more likely to know the last 50 contestants on American Idol or Dancing with the stars than the first thing about Pakistan.

Posted by saavedra | Report as abusive

Good, thoughtful article. Most people, including many academics, do not understand the reality on the ground in FATA. Also, drones have their drawbacks, but the alternatives are often much worse.

Posted by DanToronto | Report as abusive

Your narrative is a welcome counter narrative to CODE PINK which is very tendentiously filling up the wires now on this subject with a march across Pakistan right now.

CODE PINK never seems to criticize the Taliban and I’ve seen personally how they mishandle data given to them by local activists.

You’re absolutely right that drone critics just white out the “many more deaths of civilians as a result of Pakistan army operations in FATA or Taliban violence.”

Even so, the campaigners against drones raise certain moral issues acutely, and certain issues need answers.

We won’t get better reporting on drones as long as the missions are run by the CIA and therefore kept classified. Now, with the infiltration of the Pakistani intelligence, maybe this is warranted, but we don’t even have a situation where relatives of those killed or persons wounded who weren’t combatants, like children, can’t get compensation precisely because the program *is* secret. Given that the US does compensate civilians killed in Afghanistan in the war, this should be fixed somehow, creating some kind of commission, and this would enable us to look at the cases and see the dimensions of the claims of collateral damage.

I’m not certain I buy some of your heavy anthropological takes on this situation, i.e. about the nature of this or that people and their degree or provenance of militancy, it could come from clientalism of a different type.

Posted by catfitz | Report as abusive

Although the article is a just condemnation of oppression in FATA, it fails to address how drones effectively remediate the influence of the Taliban in FATA. If, in fact, the greatest threat to the region is the presence of the Taliban, then I think the article makes a great argument against the use of drones, for attacks on civilians encourage greater support for the Taliban.

The same child of FATA who resists against Taliban rule can be killed by a drone, how is that justice? Drones don’t discriminate between those who resist and support the Taliban, because all military-aged men in FATA are “militants” according to US precedent.

If drones were as effective as the author suggests they could be, then we would see remarkable returns from Obama’s immense investment into the tactic. Just as the US enabled the training and development for militants that would eventually become the Taliban, this too is a failed policy initiative.

The Pakistani government should be condemned for their active and passive complicity to the oppressive rule of the Taliban in FATA, but to pretend that the US is interested in “liberating” the people of the region is a convenient fallacy undermined by every failed intervention in the name of “democracy” America has led from Baghdad to Kabul.

Posted by MKhan2 | Report as abusive

‘let us be clear’….. as we, ‘the informed American’s’, know what’s best for those outside our media funded and politically steered information juggernaut. despite the obvious, a concern for collateral damage to civy’s and friendly’s, and a sketchy sieve-like flow of ground intel, the effort to snuff out this Taliban concept will ever demand an ‘extended maintenance warranty’ until the core of the elders in their power passes into eternity.

fear based rule can be imposed directly through visceral murders and gruesome punishments as well can it be fomented from reactive and distant compassion’s. it is a flippant desire for many with a heavy hand to dispense with measure, even in times of peace.

it is clearly, ‘not so clear’, the designs of humanity upon each other, either from aggressor or defender.

Posted by PhreeB4God | Report as abusive

It’s incredible that Pakistanis don’t understand this. The only reasone there are drone strikes is because the Pakistan Army is failing miserably (either by design or by incompetence) at curbing the Taliban. If the PA were actually able to curb militants, there would be drone strikes in Pakistan.

Contrast the PA in the Tribal Areas and the Turkish Army near the Syrian border and its dealings with the PKK. One is effective and relentless, the other fails out of habit.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive


let us start from the beginning. There is no such thing as FATA, the Pashtun land in the tribal territories is anautonomous region on both sides of the so called Durand line, a markation on the sand, in this case along the mountains and is not recognised todate by Afghanistan.

Pakista Govt. maintains a liasion officer, called the political agent for the purpose of contacts with the tribal chiefs who have allowed the road constructions by the Brits against a tribute which Pakistan Govt is now obliged to pay. Whereas, on the other side in afghanistan the Pashtuns are fully independent and are not subject to military conscription as the non Pashtuns are. Despite this the Pashtuns determine the head of the Govt in Kabul who is reagrde as the liasion officer fro maintaining contacts wih the outside world.

Nw look at the situation anew and give us your opinion about the differnce between the pilotless drones of today and the motorised low speed double wing aircrafts with the speed of 100km an hour which the Brits operated during colonal days. Th Pashtuns scurity system cannot be penetrated because one must speak the language and the dilect of the tribe to gain entry into the area.

No one has ever won a war in history without foot prints. No foreign power has therefore been able to intrude or deafet these people including the mlitary of Pakistan who are regarded as foreigners.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

So, we are counseled to consider recent history in our evaluation of militarism in FATA, but the parts of history where people go into this part of the world and consistently fail to achieve their military objectives is conveniently ignored along with the present, fully documented reality that drones are increasing the size and severity of the threat posed by jihadis and therefor aking our problems with militants worse.

It is in a typically shameful lapdog journalism fashion, teasing “nuance” out of secret killings that undermine the rule of law, that the author justifies drone killings with all of the most shopworn pretenses. “There is no moral high ground”… setting up and then demolishing false moral equivalencies that nobody claims between our actions and the Taliban, and finally the Kafka-esque flourish that those who wish to protect innocent civilians from unjustified acts of war are “blaming the victims.”

The most egregious example of journalistic malpractice however, was the suggestion throughout that we must err to the side of caution rather than skepticism in evaluating our own governments claims regarding their secret drone strikes. This doesn’t mean accepting foreign governments’ claims uncritically either, but acknowledging that the truth of these matters will never be understood without an unflinchingly honest examination of the situation. But perhaps the most offensive thing about the tone of the article, and which clearly shows that you have abandoned that perspective in favor of advocating for the powerful, is your suggestion that the plight of innocent civilians is not the central issue in this campaign.

Your counterpoint is that Pakistan does much to encourage the problem in FATA and little to aid us, so therefore, we must use drones which will then be used against us to fuel anti-American sentiment which we are obliged to go around the world to fight, because Pakistan is encouraging this problem. This is circular reasoning of the most absurd kind.

Posted by kylelarsen13 | Report as abusive

Extraordinary “talking head” rubbish, desperately seeking to justify the unjustifiable. I don’t know how people like this can live within their own heads.

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