Waziristan, U.S.

in homistan| imperial watch

Drones and the Obama Administration

I gave the following remarks on 26 March 2014.

There currently exists a limit in the liberal critique of the drone program: there is a discussion about the efficacy of the program – and with it an emphasis on collecting numbers of casualties, of some matrices of sorting the dead into militants and civilians; there is a discussion of the legality of the program – with it the implications for state capacity to fight terrorism or to punish individuals; there is a historicizing of drones within imperial histories of violence upon colonized spaces –and with it a linking of US regime to earlier British or European regimes. In any of these cases, there is an assumption that the critic is making a moral case against the usage of drones for imperial over-reach or against blowback, but which stops at not knowing the precise numbers of civilian casualties and hence in suspension.

Priya Satia’s recent essay on the history of drones links British and later US regimes of power and is highly critical of imperial outreach and in an exemplary fashion. Yet Satia concludes: “Only intense public pressure can force lawmakers to have a conversation about what drones should be used for, as has been true of the limits we want to impose on other technologies, from computers to land mine.”1 Satia’s reversion to an idealized liberal democratic politics is incongruent to the critique of lawmakers from the long twentieth century that Satia herself thoroughly documents in her work. What Satia does not do is question the very gaze that allows lawmakers to constitute a space of exception for a vast swarth of subaltern subjects and reject the premise in the first place.

It is not an advisable position to take: after all, the drones ostensibly target a group of individuals (al- Qaeda or Taliban) who as well make no distinction between civilian and military and who have carried out a long string of horrific violence against various states. Being deemed outside of Reason, of History and, markedly, of Time, the only option is to eliminate them with force, and in this particular chain of calculations, the drone program, however flawed, represents the best case scenario.

What I would like to do is point out a particularly US based history (not British or European) both for the targeting of a space as one out of civilization and with categorizing violence on that space as righteous. In an earlier essay, on the question of technology and the act of “seeing” that governs the technical sophistry of drone warfare (“Adam’s Mirror: The Frontier in the Imperial Imagination“) I made a particular argument for us to consider the history of US regimes of power. My argument today furthers that claim by stating that drones do not represent any paradigmatic shift. Rather, the drone program is a continuation of a long history of risk minimization and political marginalization of people-as-population whose presumed opacity helps the US polis imagine the worst. In this regard, the particular spatialization of violence enacted in the drone strikes has been at-home in the foundational ethos of US state-hood.

First, the question of space itself – the un-goverened or semi-governed space, which is thought to lie at the borderlands or at the frontier. It is a site of anxiety, a source of disruption, a place where inclement forces gather to plot, and to attack. It is the space which orients our actions (“Wild West” or “Tribal Areas”) away from civitas to jus bellum. It is regularly invoked elsewhere in contemporary discourse, but it is rather closer to home.

In his State of the Union Address on November 16, 1818, James Monroe stood before Congress to give a justification for why Andrew Jackson had attacked Spanish Florida and executed two British citizens for aiding and abetting the enemy. This case, notably, is the legal precedent argued by the current Administration for incarcerating those who provided “material support for terrorism” in Guantanamo2. I want lay out the case that Monroe lays out in defense of Jackson’s expedition.

First, he notes that Florida is a space that while legally belonging to Spain is an ungoverned space:

A state of things has existed in the Floridas the tendency of which has been obvious to all who have paid the slightest attention to the progress of affairs in that quarter. Throughout the whole of those Provinces to which the Spanish title extends the Government of Spain has scarcely been felt. Its authority has been confined almost exclusively to the walls of Pensacola and St. Augustine, within which only small garrisons have been maintained. Adventurers from every country, fugitives from justice, and absconding slaves have found an asylum there. Several tribes of Indians, strong in the # of their warriors, remarkable for their ferocity, and whose settlements extend to our limits, inhabit those Provinces.

Next, Monroe notes that this state of ungoverned-ness has allowed Florida to become a safe-haven:

This country had, in fact, become the theater of every species of lawless adventure.

The aggressive “buccaneering” of the “adventurers from every country, fugitives from justice, absconding slaves, tribes of Indians remarkable for their ferocity” now poses a threat to United States, and it is against these “foreign adventurers and savages” that it must act.

Monroe is clear that acting against them is a moral and legal right:

Even if the territory had been exclusively that of Spain and her power complete over it, we had a right by the law of nations to follow the enemy on it and to subdue him there. But the territory belonged, in a certain sense at least, to the savage enemy who inhabited it; the power of Spain had ceased to exist over it, and protection was sought under her title by those who had committed on our citizens hostilities which she was bound by treaty to have prevented, but had not the power to prevent.

The territory belonged, I repeat Monroe, to the savage enemy who inhabited it. The violence of the just war, according to Monroe stood unimpeachable:

The combination in Florida for the unlawful purposes stated, the acts perpetrated by that combination, and, above all, the incitement of the Indians to massacre our fellow citizens of every age and of both sexes, merited a like treatment and received it.

In this violence, the execution of British citizens was also understandable:

Men who thus connect themselves with savage communities and stimulate them to war, which is always attended on their part with acts of barbarity the most shocking, deserve to be viewed in a worse light than the savages. They would certainly have no claim to an immunity from the punishment which, according to the rules of warfare practiced by the savages, might justly be inflicted on the savages themselves.

I invoke Monroe to trace a very particular history in United States of the relationship between ethnographic territory and territorial violence. The usage of Monroe’s subsequent “Doctrine” (1823) by Teddy Roosevelt to manifest aggression towards Latin America is well known, so I will leave that aside. On the issue of frontier justice, on the creation and spread of Reservations which become both “lawless spaces” and the bodies of whose inhabitants became “savages” when off the Reservation, I recommend my colleague Karl Jacoby’s excellent book Shadows at Dawn.

In tracing forward a material history of violence directed against “lawless spaces” we can identify many signposts – Texas, California, Philippines, Cuba, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Falujja, Somalia, etc. But the most familiar must be the post 9/11 state of exception arguments in reference to the drone strikes: Waziristan in Pakistan and Yemen.

In May 2013, President Barack Obama delivered at a speech at the National Defense University, the official understanding of the current state of the war against global terrorism, the ways to combat it, and the drone’s rendering of space:

But despite our strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists, sometimes this approach is foreclosed. Al Qaeda and its affiliates try to gain foothold in some of the most distant and unforgiving places on Earth. They take refuge in remote tribal regions. They hide in caves and walled compounds. They train in empty deserts and rugged mountains.

In some of these places — such as parts of Somalia and Yemen — the state only has the most tenuous reach into the territory. In other cases, the state lacks the capacity or will to take action. And it’s also not possible for America to simply deploy a team of Special Forces to capture every terrorist. Even when such an approach may be possible, there are places where it would pose profound risks to our troops and local civilians — where a terrorist compound cannot be breached without triggering a firefight with surrounding tribal communities, for example, that pose no threat to us; times when putting U.S. boots on the ground may trigger a major international crisis.

So it is in this context that the United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones.

In creating a state of exception, a frontier of aggressors, the current Administration is locating itself not in clandestine or exceptional scenarios, but the very logic of American military past – on the continent and away from it. This linking is not frequently invoked but I am especially keen on locating the state of exception argument within American political history, rather than the history of British Empire in Middle East or India as Priya Satya has done.

Further from the state of exception comes the issue of the justification of violence. As with Monroe, the drone program requires a post facto determination of guilt and innocence. While the drone technique boasts of pan-optican vision and total awareness, the presence of “signature strikes” and “double tap killings” actually point to a different reality – that there is no clarity in determining who anyone may be and what their purported sin may be.

The drone strikes in Waziristan work in tandem with the Pakistan state’s political marginalization of the region and its own military bombardment. Again, there is a pre- disposition to assert guilt on a population whose only sin may be one of simple habitation. For Waziristan, this itself has a long history.

For Waziristan, the designation of a “lawless” or “ungoverned” space within the postcolony of Pakistan, is carried over from British colonial experience in the region since the 1880s. Waziristan as a “restive,” “volcanic,” and “wild” appears in any number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial texts. The series of revolts in Waziristan and British attempts to pacify the frontier, which denote the first fifty years of the twentieth century, then also saw the acute usage of British Royal Air Force to survey and bomb the frontier, precisely on the given that the humans who inhabited this terrain could only be contained by violence.

On December 30, 1900 The New York Times assessed the danger facing the British Empire in India:

If one takes up the map of India and glances at the extreme north of British territory there will be found somewhere about latitude 34 and longitude 74 the large military station of Rawalpindi, the great place d’armes of Northern India, the spot from which all military operations, whether merely against frontirer tribes or a more formidable enemy, are and will be directed.

Quite close to Rawalpindi, on the north, is the country of Kashmir, a country which is to all intents and purposes British whose people are quiet and harmless and with regard to whose frontier no anxiety whatever exists. Following the frontier line westward we come to the British territory of Waziristan … here we encounter men of a more sturdy and turbulent type than the inhabitants of Kashmir.

The men who inhabit this frontier, the Times reports, are prone to fanatacism, night raids and savagery. They imperil the British troops and de-stabilize the settled urban areas.

On Sep 7, 1946, the Times carried a report titled “Frontier Bombing Explained” which is worth reading in full for its acute similarity to the framing by Obama:

An official source said tonight that “four or five” villages of the wild tribesmen of Waziristan in the Northwest Frontier country had been bombed by planes, but said reports of mass bombing there were “entirely untrue”. Tribesmen in the area, the source explained, abducted a political agent recently and held him for ransom. After the ransom was paid and the agent was restored to British hands, the return of the ransom was demanded upon pain of bombing. The villages were bombed when the ransom was not returned after several days’ warning. Although the villages were destroyed, he said, no casualties were reported.

In its sourcing of an unnamed “official” about “wild tribesmen” to its affirmation of “surgical bombing”–reports of mass bombings were entirely untrue–and denial of any casualties, the structure of this report serves as an antecedent to the reports that routinely follow a drone strike in Waziristan (or Yemen). It is this precise history of framing and anthro-territorialization that has rendered Waziristan and the Tribal Areas open for overwhelming violence from the Obama Administration and the Pakistani military regime regime, while steadfastly maintaining such violence is justified.

How then do we make an ethical case against drones? How do we bring out the lived history of people in Waziristan? What does the act of un-making a people into a population look like? I have made an argument, with my co-author Madiha Tahir, that testimony offers us a critical tool for launching a historically grounded critique of the drone program. I want to finish my presentation with one testimony of a drone survivor.

The following is an account of Ahmed Jan:3

I am a citizen of Pakistan. I live in Kaniroga, Datta Khel in North Waziristan. I was born in 1960 which makes me about 52 years old. I live with my six sons, four of whom have families of their own. I have many grandchildren who live with me. Before the drone strikes happened, the people in my village lived happy lives. They felt free to go anywhere they liked. But now, everyone lives in fear and is mentally disturbed because of this fear. The majority of people living in my area now suffer the effects of psychological and emotional pressure from these strikes. We cannot sleep at night because of the sound of the drones flying above us. Many of us have thought of moving away from this village, but where would we go? This is our land and this is where we have grown up. There is nowhere else for us to live. There are a lot of drone attacks in my area, but the only strike I have seen with my own eyes was the one I survived.

On March 17, 2011 in Datta Khel at about 10:45 in the morning, I was participating in a jirga. The tribal elders, including myself, were meeting to discuss a dispute on a chromite. We were in the middle of our discussion when the missile hit and I was thrown about 24 feet from where I was sitting. I was knocked unconscious and when I awoke, I saw many individuals who were injured or dead. I later learned about forty people died in this incident. I have lost the full use of one of my feet and had a rod inserted because of the injuries I suffered in this strike. As a result, it is extremely painful for me to walk. There are scars on my face to this day because I had to have an operation on my nose when it would not stop bleeding. I also suffer from a hearing problem because the sound when the missile landed was so loud. I have attached photographs of my injuries sustained from the strike to this statement.

I do not know why this jirga was targeted. I am a malik (leader) of my tribe and therefore a government servant. We were not doing anything wrong or illegal. A jirga is a peaceful gathering to work out community disputes and issues; our tribes have been using the Jirga system for many, many years.
27th day of February 2012 in Islamabad, Pakistan.

We witness how incapable the drone is at performing that very thing it is lauded for: seeing. The targeted gathering – a jirga is a commonplace public event in North Waziristan (and Afghanistan), called upon by the leaders of the community to respond to a matter of wide concern. Its attendance is mandatory for those who are attached to the community and its functioning is broadly democratic. As a policy, the US regime in Afghanistan has been promoting jirga as a plausible counter strategy to the Taliban resurgence. However, this same sociality becomes a target of the drone strike – since it is spatially rendered as a gathering of military aged males. The subject speaking – Ahmed Jan – is then a transformed individual. The violence that he survived changed him. He accounts for the physical damage, but the question of his other selves is not asked, and hence, remains unanswered. He stresses his subjectivity of being a malik – a government servant and he expresses the incredulity that they would be targeted for basically doing their job. “We are not doing anything illegal,” he stresses. Ahmed Jan’s commitment to a local regime of governance in a place that is deemed “ungoverned” is shared across these many testimonies collected by Madiha Tahir and others. In these testimonies, we witness that Waziristan is a regulated, lived space that has specific public and private rituals that endorse a network of relationships and affects.

The case against the Obama administration’s usage of extra-judicial killings must take many forms – perhaps beginning from the close ties between the US and Pakistan militaries but the ethical case against drones cannot continue to do a double violence on the people of Waziristan by ignoring their full reason, full history and full living in time with our own selves. Nor can we ignore US political violence in “settling” the continent and the ways in which that history parallels the current wars in Waziristan. There is creation of “un-governed or empty space” which requires to be catalogued, studied, and ethnographically described – I recommend here the excellent Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1992). There is finally the necessary blindness to the lived histories of people in the “un-governed or empty spaces” – I recommend, among others, Gunlög Fur’s “Indians and Immigrants – Entangled Histories” Journal of American Ethnic History 33, 3 (2014).

The case against the drones, then, is a case that must deconstruct the discursive and imperial foundations of that simple headline “Suspected U.S. drone strike kills Militants”.

  1. Priya Satia, “Drones: A History from the British Middle East,” Humanity 5 (Spring 2014): 1-31. []
  2. My thanks to Durba Mitra for this lead []
  3. Foundation for Fundamental Rights vs Federation of Pakistan, Islamabad & Others, Peshawar High Court, 1551, August 5, 2012, (Statement of Ahmed Jan) []

{ 8 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

Next post:

Previous post:


Search CM