“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.”


Comments are closed.