Dignity and destruction in Gaza

Noam Chomsky delivering the 2013 Edward Said Memorial Lecture

Edward Said died ten years ago in September, and earlier this month Noam Chomsky delivered the 2013 Edward Said Memorial Lecture in London: Violence and dignity: reflections on the Middle East.  The text that formed the basis for the lecture is here, and you can watch a video of the lecture here with introductions by Omar Al Qattan and Mariam Said.

It’s a wide-ranging lecture, but Chomsky returns again and again to the plight of the people of Gaza – and to the disgraceful actions of all those (inside Israel and out) who would rob them of their dignity, their independence and even their life.

Throughout these years Gaza has been a showcase for violence of every imaginable kind. The record includes such sadistic and carefully planned atrocities as Operation Cast Lead — “infanticide,” as it was called by the remarkable Norwegian physician Mads Gilbert who worked tirelessly at Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital with his dedicated Palestinian and Norwegian colleagues right through the criminal assault — a fair term, considering the hundreds of children massacred. And from there the violence ranges through just about every kind of cruelty that humans have used their higher mental faculties to devise, up to the pain of exile that Edward Said wrote about so eloquently. This is particularly stark in Gaza, where older people can still look across the border towards the homes a few miles away from which they were driven — or could if they were able to approach the border without being killed. One form of punishment has been to close off the Gaza side of the border area, including almost half the arable land, according to the leading academic scholar of Gaza, Harvard’s Sara Roy.

While a showcase for the human capacity for violence, Gaza is also an inspiring exemplar of the demand for dignity. The first phrase one hears in Gaza when asking about personal aspirations is for a life of dignity. The distinguished human rights lawyer Raji Sourani writes from his Gaza home that “What has to be kept in mind is that the occupation and the absolute closure is an ongoing attack on the human dignity of the people in Gaza in particular and all Palestinians generally. It is systematic degradation, humiliation, isolation and fragmentation of the Palestinian people.” While the bombs were once again raining down on defenseless civilians in Gaza last November he repeated that “We demand justice and accountability. We dream of a normal life, in freedom and dignity.”

Gaza Strip restrictions

Last fall the brilliant Sara Roy gave another Said Memorial Lecture, this time at the Palestine Center in Washington DC, A deliberate cruelty: rendering Gaza unviable.  She spoke of Edward’s commitment to Gaza and its people:

Edward and I would always speak about Gaza, in fact every time we met. He felt a profound connection to the place and to the people that seemed to be a permanent part of him. Edward had great compassion and great respect for Gaza’s people. He embraced their suffering and took pride in their courage, in the dignified way they continued to move forward. Yet he feared one thing perhaps most of all: the separation and isolation that now engulfs Gaza and threatens, if it hasn’t already, to sever the Palestinians there from Palestinians elsewhere, forcing them, in the words of Hannah Arendt, to “live outside the common world,” deprived of profession and of citizenship, “without a deed by which to identify or specify [themselves].”

Edward raged against the division of his people and against the kind of loss that such division could bring: disunity, abandonment, irrelevance. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argues that the fundamental deprivation of human rights is expressed first and most powerfully in “the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective. Something much more fundamental than freedom and justice… is at stake when belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging no longer a matter of choice…” “This extremity and nothing else,” she writes, “is the situation of people deprived of human rights. They are deprived not of the right to freedom but of the right to action.” “Over the last 45 years Gaza’s trajectory has been striking; from a territory economically integrated into, and deeply dependent upon, Israel and deeply tied to the West Bank, to an area largely marginalized from Israel and the West Bank, an isolated (and disposable) enclave – subject to consistent military attacks – with which Israel and the West Bank have fewer formal economic or political ties than they once did. And from a captive economy restricted to fluctuating levels of growth (at best) but still possessed of the capacity to produce and innovate (within limitations), to an economy increasingly deprived of that capacity, characterized by unprecedented levels of unemployment and impoverishment, with three-quarters of its population needing humanitarian assistance. These damaging transformations among others I shall discuss are becoming increasingly institutionalized and permanent, shaping a future that is both partial and disfigured. What is happening to Gaza is, in my view, catastrophic; it is also deliberate, considered and purposeful.

ROY Gaza StripHer lecture is spell-binding –though I hope that once and for all it breaks the spell of Israel’s ‘withdrawal’ from Gaza.  The map above comes from a UN report, Gaza in 2020: a liveable place? that is summarised here, and the text and a video of Sara’s lecture are available here and here.  The text will form part of Sara’s introduction to a new edition of The Gaza Strip: the Political Economy of De-development.

Marc Ellis provides a wonderful summary of and meditation on Sara’s passionately analytical lecture at Mondoweiss here, and you can access Sara’s A Land Diminished: reflections on Gaza’s landscape (2011) here (it also appears as a chapter in an important collection from the Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies at Birzeit University, Gaza, Palestine: Out of the margins, which is available here).


shawa-cast-lead‘In 1990,’ Palestinian pop-artist Laila Shawa recalls, ‘I had breast cancer.’

While undergoing radiotherapy, I watched on television the precision bombing of Baghdad by US airplanes, forever linking the two events in my mind and in my art. The body woman and the body land amalgamate; the invasion of one is equated with the invasion of the other and the implicit fact that both leave scars.”

Jo Long made a parallel, beautifully nuanced argument in her ‘Border Anxiety’ essay in Antipode in 2006, but you can literally see what Laila Shaw means in the extraordinary Cast Lead (2011; above left).

Laila is probably still best known for her silkscreen cycle Walls of Gaza (1992-95)a different take on graffiti to most geographers’, since she insists that the situation was unique:

I believe the Gaza Graffiti differs completely from urban graffiti that one sees in big cities around the world. In Gaza, graffiti on the wall was the only method available to Palestinians to communicate with each other. The Israeli occupiers banned any form of media in Gaza, such as newspapers, radio, or television. The writing is cursive, spontaneous and hurried. It changed almost daily to update whatever was happening in Gaza.

In the Walls cycle she juxtaposed images of Palestinian children and graffiti from Gaza to expose the trauma of war and occupation, a theme to which she returned in Target (2009), a variation on an iconic panel from Walls, in which a photograph of a young child is superimposed against a graffiti-covered wall with a cross-hair centred on his face.  ‘War deprives children of their childhood,’ she says.

Much of her work depends on mixed media juxtapositions like this, which she mobilizes to brilliant effect. She explains:

‘Today, when we are desensitized by the surfeit of media violence, new strategies are needed to overcome people’s apathy and weariness for compassion.’

Last year she had an exhibition at London’s October Gallery, The Other Side of Paradise, which was in part provoked by a documentary on a female suicide bomber but which also included the extraordinary images shown below, Birds of Paradise and Gaza Sky, which speak directly to my previous post about other ways of visualizing drones.

SHAWA Birds of Paradise

SHAWA Gaza Sky

Laila was born in Gaza, but Gaza Sky strikes me as problematic; Israel doesn’t use Predators, so far as I know, but manufactures its own Heron drones and leases/sells them to other states.  Still, the image captures occupied Palestine since – for me – the reference isn’t only to Roy Lichtenstein‘s Whaam but also to Mahmoud Darwish‘s moving poem The earth is closing on us (which Edward Said used for his collaboration with Jean Mohr, After the last sky):

Where should we go after the last border? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?

I’m left wondering about how to draw together my first and last paragraphs – how to bring these ‘birds’ and the bodies on which they feed into the same frame.  This isn’t a compositional problem for my writing; it’s a political-aesthetic one.  So I start to think about Laila’s Target again.  For The social life of bombs, I plan to end the performance-work with a back-projected image of three children asleep under a checkered counterpane; all you you can hear is the rhythmic sound of their breathing.  As the camera moves in, it becomes clear that each checkered square is in motion; the sound gets louder.  Closer still, and each square becomes a video feed from a drone. Closer still, and one square fills the whole screen: the compound in which the children are sleeping, seen from high above (and far away).  By now the sound of breathing is incredibly loud; suddenly, an even louder explosion.  When the smoke clears, the sound dies away, and the lights slowly come up, we see three small figures, clutching the remains of their bedding – a re-staging and reworking of Noor Behram‘s to me iconic photograph of the three Bismullah children, the sole survivors of a drone strike in Waziristan.  But it could, of course, be Gaza.  Or Yemen.  Or Somalia…

Drone imaginaries

While everyone’s attention this week seems to have been captured by Pitch Interactive’s remarkable graphic of US drone strikes in Pakistan, Out of sight, Out of mindElspeth Van Veeren provides a timely reminder that there are other ways to visualise done warfare – all the more important given the central role that visual feeds play in the ‘dwell-detect-destroy’ assemblage.

2In a succinct and helpful online review she brings together several of the art projects I’ve written about in previous posts, including Omar Fast‘s video Five Thousand Feet Is The Best, Noor Behram‘s photographs from Waziristan and James Bridle‘s Dronestagram, and provides a suggestive argument about the visual politics involved:

If drones are to be understood and debated, we need to pay attention to the ways in which visual politics plays into these debates. How are drones visualized? How are the politics of drone warfare made sensible? Drones as things enter into our world through the ways in which they are talked about, but also the way they are represented, repeated and circulated. They become objects and images through which we think. Their different perspectives – drone thing, drone vision, dronestream, and droneshadow – offer different and in some ways competing imaginaries of drones…. 

 Paying closer attention to these visual practices, to the sensible politics of drone warfare, offers a way to think through the many ways in which security and insecurity are produced. These drone imaginaries make drones visible and sensible, and in so doing they also tune us into the different people and identities that are connected with this technology. Imagining a drone also means imagining a viewpoint and there is more than one way to imagine a drone.

You can find other examples here – from which I’ve borrowed the image above – and in Craig Jones‘s post here.

Elspeth develops her argument about visualization and politics  in depth and detail in a paper she is presenting in a panel on Visualizing insecurity at the ISA Convention in San Francisco next month, ‘Drone imaginaries: There is more than one way to imagine a drone’, and you can download a working draft here (registration required).  She also has a book in the works from Routledge, Security collisions.

Exceptions R Us

tumblr_mkc2q1MRtU1s9d11ko1_250Alex Vasudevan writes to alert me to this all-too-relevant site, Agamben Toys or Toys for the State of Exception

Most of the baubles on offer are decidedly for play in the global North, but for older kids with global (in)sensibilities there’s always this model Predator…. and plenty more like it (for example here and here).  Commentary – and comments (you’ll see what I mean) – here and (from Infowars) here.

Toys appeared in a radically different way in an exhibition at the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) earlier this year called State of Exception:

166510_475567315838743_1025941788_nLSA Professor of Anthropology Jason De León has spent long hours in the Sonoran environs, cataloging and collecting the items migrants leave behind as they attempt to cross into the United States. Water jugs. Shoes. Small kids’ toys. It looks like trash, but these objects, collected through his Undocumented Migrant Project (UMP), become data to help construct a record of people who are unknown, whose journeys rarely come to light.

Many of these objects are now on display through LSA’s Institute for the Humanities exhibit titled State of Exception. This exhibit considers the complexity and ambiguity of the found objects and what they may or may not reveal in terms of transition, human experience, culture, violence, and accountability.

This is the first major curation of De León’s work since UMP began in 2009, and is a combination of objects, installation, and video shot by photographer Richard Barnes along the U.S./Mexico border.

The exhibition closed earlier this month but you can still access the catalogue/brochure online here.

All of this reminds me that there’s a reason we spell ‘us’ the way we do…

Watching the drones

An interesting interview over at the Huffington Post with Wesley Grubbs, one of the visual designers at Berkeley-based Pitch Interactive responsible for the infographic of drone strikes in Pakistan that was released on Monday and has since gone viral.  I drew attention to it in my discussion of the geography of those strikes, but that dimension doesn’t appear in this otherwise compelling infographic (screenshot below).  The project is called Out of Sight, Out of Mind which certainly speaks to the politics of drone warfare but it’s also out of site, and the geography of these strikes, as I tried to show, is not incidental to those politics.

Drone strikes in Pakistan PITCH INTERACTIVE

I think that the political-aesthetic effect of this visualization – which is considerable, otherwise why so much attention? The numbers aren’t new to anyone who’s followed the Bureau of Investigative Journalism‘s painstaking work –  is bound up less with the raw numbers and more with those silver-grey arcs of light falling to the ground line: it’s a much more sobering (and I dare say thrilling) effect than a lifeless (sic) table.  As I watch them descend, I’m drawn back to images of much earlier bombings, and the lights exploding against a velvet sky.  And a visualization is doubly appropriate to a weapon that depends so much on visual apprehension – full-motion video feeds – and yet whose operation in the borderlands is shrouded in such semi-secrecy.  Grubbs told the Bureau that their intention was ‘to cause people to pause for a moment and say “Wow I’ve never seen this in that light before”.’

The site is live  – it will be updated in real time – and the same design group is intent on developing similar visualizations for drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia.

The Bureau’s work, the primary basis for the interactive, is so careful and considered that this attempt to downplay and even dismiss Pitch Interactive’s project is either simply ignorant or just plain silly.  The author objects that the numbers ‘aren’t exact’ and wants to see the full spreadsheet – but the Bureau has made its detailed databases available and discussed their limitations in depth and detail: what better (‘exact’) sources does she have in mind?  Perhaps she should try here.

I’m not sure that this is much better.  Its author concludes: ‘Put simply, the visualization is implying that of 3,105 drone-strike casualties, only 47 are known to be legitimate kills. This is nonsense.’ Actually, what is nonsense is to misread and mis-represent the infographic in this way; what the website clearly says is that less than 2 per cent of the victims (a total of 47 people) have been ‘high profile targets’ (the original object of Sylvan Magnolia, the code-name for the covert war).

Not incidentally, less than twenty per cent of those killed in the strikes have been named, and the Bureau has just released a short video to crowd-source funding so that their raw numbers are finally turned into names:

You can donate here.

Critical War Studies

A CFP from Shane Brighton, via Tarak Barkawi, for a workshop on Critical War Studies to be held at the University of Sussex on 11 September 2013:

Critical War Studies: emerging field, developing agendas

 What is left out when critical reflection on armed conflict is conducted under the sign of ‘security’?  What happens to ‘war’ itself in critical scholarship? What are the forms of contemporary militarism? How can the discourses and practices of fighting, transition to ‘peace’, war preparation and military and strategic thought be engaged reflexively? How might militaries be understood as sites of subaltern labour, resistance and critique? How can attentiveness to experiences of war generate critical resources within international relations, sociology, geography, anthropology, history and other disciplines?
 Multi-disciplinary proposals – initially an abstract or position statement – are invited for a one–day workshop convened by the University of Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research. The organisers welcome contributions engaging the idea of Critical War Studies, the themes outlined above and below, or suggesting other appropriate topics. It is envisaged that this will be the first of several events leading to opportunities for peer-reviewed publication.
Here’s the preliminary outline:
Panel 1: What is ‘Critical War Studies’?  
  • What’s in a name? ‘War’, ‘security’ and the analytical status of fighting
  • Critical approaches within strategic theory: who is strategy ‘for’?
  • Theory and the experience of war
  • War in/and society
Panel 2: Political Sociologies of fighting
  • Technologies, transformations of war, transformations of self
  • Subaltern military labour and military history in Europe and beyond
  • Battle narrative and identity
  • Gendering war
  • ‘Normality’ and ‘extremity’ in fighting and dying
Panel 3: Contemporary militarisms, contemporary militaries
  • Ideology contra experience: reflections on the policy/ practice disconnect in the war on terror
  • Beyond the strategic studies/ peace studies divide: continuity and change in militarism after the Cold War
  • The social construction of weapons
  • Military orientalisms and the representation of violence
Queries should be directed to Joanna Wood at  j.c.wood@sussex.ac.uk
It should be an excellent event; the SCSR has lots of lively people associated with its work.  And presumably there’ll be room for an equally lively discussion of the privatisation of war…

Dirty dancing and spaces of exception in Pakistan

Following up my post on the air campaigns waged by the United States and by Pakistan inside the Federally Administered Tribal Territories and the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), here are some screenshots from Chris Herwig‘s remarkable cartographic animation of casualties from US drone strikes from 2004 through to the present (data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism):

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2007

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2007

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2008

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2008

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2009

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2009

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2010

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2010

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2011

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2011

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2012

Casualties from US drone strikes to end December 2012

You can see the rapid escalation of strikes in 2009-2010 and their contraction in 2011-2012.  There is also a tendency for later strikes to cause fewer casualties; the Bureau suggests that this may have been the result of a deliberate decision to limit civilian casualties (the CIA was already reported to be using new, smaller missiles with a restricted blast field and minimal shrapnel by the spring of 2010, so the later change is likely to be down to a mix of better intelligence and greater circumspection) and, more recently, of a switch away from ‘signature strikes’ – the two are of course related – and John Brennan, who was one of the main boosters of the programme’s expansion, now claims that drone strikes are a weapon ‘of last resort’.  Maybe; most sources agree that even as the numbers of deaths dwindled, so too did their tactical significance.  By February 2011 it was clear that fewer and fewer were so-called ‘high-value targets’ and more and more were simply foot-soldiers.

Here are the Bureau’s raw figures:

Drone strikes in Pakistan (BoJ)

You can find an interactive animation of the Bureau’s tabulations from Pitch Interactive here (thanks to Steve Legg for the tip); the screenshot below doesn’t do justice to the political-aesthetic effect of seeing this in full motion (or of clicking on each strike for the details):

Drone strikes in Pakistan PITCH INTERACTIVE

The maps also show that the strikes have been concentrated on North Waziristan, increasingly so since 2010, the locus of the Haqqani Network (which is a longstanding ally of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence), with a secondary concentration on South Waziristan (a key locus of Tehrik-i-Taliban).  Here’s a tabulation from the Long War Journal, and although the strike numbers are marginally different from the Bureau’s the geographical concentration is clear:

US air strikes in FATA by district

What the maps can’t convey is the intricate, inconstant gavotte between Pakistan’s various military campaigns and US air strikes in the borderlands since 2004.  In the wake of 9/11 and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and in response to increasing pressure from Washington, the Pakistan Army launched a number of offensives against militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  In April 2004, after fierce fighting in the mountains of South Waziristan, Islamabad concluded a peace accord with Nek Muhammad, a key militant leader in the agency.  But he was killed just two months later, the first casualty of a US drone strike in Pakistan, and the agreement immediately collapsed.   In 2005 similar, fragile agreements were negotiated with Baitullah Mehsud, Nek’s successor, and other militant leaders, but these were soon broken.  Accords were also signed in North Waziristan in 2006 and 2007 but these too were short-lived.  In 2008 a peace accord was signed with the Tehrik-i-Taliban but heavy fighting continued, with major ground and air operations in the agencies to the north of the Khyber Pass.  In 2009 Pakistan’s military campaign became even more aggressive. Much of its effort was focused on the northern districts, especially around the Swat Valley, but attention then switched back to South Waziristan.  During the summer the Pakistan Air Force carried out regular air strikes in the region; in August 2009 Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike.  In October 30,000 ground troops entered the region, and US drone strikes in South Waziristan immediately juddered to a (temporary) halt.  These operations drove large numbers of militants into Orakzai, which in recent years has been a major target of air strikes by the Pakistan Air Force.

The previous paragraph is little more than a caricature of a highly complex and evolving battlespace, but the gavotte I’ve described has been artfully – if intermittently – choreographed by the US and by Pakistan in fraught concert: so much so that Joshua Foust writes of the ‘Islamabad drone dance’.

This may surprise some readers; earlier this month Ben Emmerson QC, the UN Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights, concluded a three-day visit to Pakistan by reaffirming what he described as ‘the position of the government of Pakistan’ that drone strikes in the FATA ‘are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.’  Emmerson met with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Secretariat of the FATA – but not, significantly, with anyone from the military or the ISI – who told him that ‘reports of continuing tacit consent by Pakistan to the use of drones on its territory by any other State are false’ and that ‘a thorough search of Government records had revealed no indication of such consent having been given.’ Certainly, the government has repeatedly protested the strikes in public, and the National Assembly passed resolutions in May 2011 and April 2012 condemning them.  But Foust insists that Emmerson has been an unwitting participant in the dance.

We know, from the Wikileaks cache of diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Islamabad, that in August 2008 Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani told the Ambassador that he approved of the drone strikes as part of ongoing offensives in the FATA – ‘I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people’ – and that ‘We’ll protest it in the National Assembly and then ignore it.’  But this was more than ‘tacit consent’.  Foust reminds us that, until comparatively recently, US drones were being launched or supported from at least six different air bases inside Pakistan, shown below, including Islamabad, Jacobabad, Peshawar, Quetta and Tarbela Ghazi; the US was ordered to leave Shamsi and had its lease terminated in December 2011.

US bases inside Pakistan

Admiral Mullen greets General Kayani, August 2008But there’s more. Pakistan had agreed that the focus of the US strikes would be North and South Waziristan.  Earlier that same year, March 2008, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen asked General Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff,  for help in approving ‘a third Restricted Operating Zone for US aircraft over the FATA’, and writing in the Washington Post in November 2010 Greg Miller confirmed that these ‘flight boxes’ were confined to North and South Waziristan (although the US had unsuccessfully pressed for permission to extend the flights over Quetta, outside the FATA).  The geometry of those boxes is not known, though it would not be difficult to superimpose two likely rectangles over the previous map sequence. Operational details are, not surprisingly, far from clear.  According to a report in the Wall Street Journal on 26 September 2012, the CIA sends a fax to the ISI every month detailing strike zones and intended targets – replies apparently stopped early last year, but the US interprets the silence as ‘tacit consent’ since Pakistan immediately de-conflicts the air space to allow the Predators to carry out their surveillance – and a report in the New York Times earlier this month claimed that the US still provides the Pakistan military with 30 minutes notice of an imminent strike in South Waziristan (but no advance notice for strikes in North Waziristan because the Haqqani Network enjoys such close ties with the ISI that the CIA fears their targets would be warned of the attack).

The focus on the FATA follows not only from the militant groups that are based there; it also derives from the exceptional legal status of the borderlands.  Under British colonial rule, this was a buffer zone whose inhabitants were allowed a measure of nominal autonomy; colonial power was exercised indirectly through the authority vested in tribal leaders (who received subsidies from the British), and the special Frontier Crimes Regulations – in practice corrupt and draconian – were codified by Lord Curzon in 1901.  After partition and independence in 1947 Pakistan retained the 1901 Regulations, so that the President – who has direct executive control of the FATA – appoints a Political Agent for each agency who has absolute authority to adjudicate criminal and civil affairs; ordinary Acts of Parliament do not apply to the FATA unless the President expressly declares that they do. Limited reforms were introduced in August 2011, including the right to political mobilisation, but some commentators raised doubts about their implementation.  Preventive detention and collective punishment remain in force and the writ of the courts is still severely restricted.

FATA and NWFP map

AMNESTY The Hands of Cruelty Abuses by Armed Forces and Taliban in Pakistan s Tribal AreasThese special measures were reinforced by the simultaneous passage of the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations in 2011, a quid pro quo demanded by the military, which allowed the Pakistan Armed Forces to carry out ‘law enforcement duties [and] to conduct law enforcement operations’, granted them sweeping powers of pre-emptive arrest and detention without charge, and forbade the high court from intervening.  According to one local politician, these new Regulations are ‘even more dangerous’ than the Frontier Crimes Regulations: ‘It is a system of martial law over the Tribal Areas.’  A new report from Amnesty International (from which I’ve taken these accounts) borrows its title, The Hands of Cruelty, from a despairing claim made by a lawyer from Peshawar: ‘The hands of cruelty extend to the Tribal Areas, but the hands of justice cannot reach that far.’

(Given the – I think abusive – attack on Amnesty’s report by Abdullah Mansoor at Global Research as ‘malicious’ and ‘misinformation’ that virtually ignores the violence perpetrated by the Taliban and other militant groups, I should also draw readers’ (and his) attention to Amnesty’s previous report, As if Hell fell on me, which provides a detailed indictment of exactly that).

In short, the FATA constitute a space of exception in precisely the sense given to that term by Giorgio Agamben: the normal rights and protections under the law are withdrawn from a section of the population by the law.  To see what this has to do with the geography of US drone strikes we can turn to an attack on 19 November 2008 on a residential compound in Indi Khel, 22 miles outside Bannu and about two hours by road from Peshawar.  Five alleged militants were killed and four civilians injured: not a large toll compared to other strikes, and yet the public reaction across Pakistan was extraordinary.

Drone strike at Indi Khel, Bannu, 19 November 2008

A diplomatic cable from US Ambassador Anne Patterson on 24 November explained the widening gap between what she called ‘private GOP [Government of Pakistan] acquiescence and public condemnation for U.S. action’:

‘According to local press, the alleged U.S. strike in Bannu on November 19 marked the first such attack in the settled areas of the Northwest Frontier Province, outside of the tribal areas. The strike drew a new round of condemnation by Prime Minister Gilani, coalition political parties, opposition leaders, and the media.

‘According to Pakistani press, the strike killed four people, including a senior Al-Qaida member, and injured five others. The first strike within “Pakistan proper” is seen as a watershed event, and the media is suggesting this could herald the spread of attacks to Peshawar or Islamabad. Even politicians who have no love lost for a dead terrorist are concerned by strikes within what is considered mainland Pakistan.’

The language is truly extraordinary, with its distinction between the FATA and ‘Pakistan proper’, even ‘mainland Pakistan’. In short: (imaginative) geography matters.  Not for nothing are the FATA known in Urdu as ilaqa ghair, which means ‘alien’ or ‘foreign’ lands.

The plight of the people in the FATA is exacerbated by the forceful imposition of a second, transnational legal regime: the right asserted by the United States to carry its fight against al Qaeda and its war against the Taliban across the border from the ‘hot’ zone in Afghanistan into militant sanctuaries in Pakistan.  This is part of a larger argument about the advanced deconstruction of the traditional, bounded battlefield – here Frédéric Megret‘s work is indispensable – and the production of a global battlespace, processes that have been accelerated by the remote operations permitted by drones.  But it remains both an assertion and an argument.  Although international law is not a deus ex machina, a neutral court of appeal above the fray, it nonetheless has a developed body of precepts that are supposed to regulate armed conflicts between states, and there are also protocols and tribunals that govern armed conflicts between governments and non-state actors within the territorial boundaries of a state (the former Yugoslavia or Ruanda, for example).  But conflicts between states and transnational non-state actors pose new and difficult questions, and perhaps even map a ‘legal void’.  Significantly, as Eyal Benvenisti points out in the Duke Journal of International and Comparative Law,

Concurrently with the successful efforts to impose restraints on intra-state asymmetric warfare, we have been witnessing efforts by the same powerful countries that pressed for intra-state conflict regulation to deregulate inter-state asymmetric warfare or what may be called “transnational” warfare.

I will leave a review of these debates, at once legal and political, for another day; among the most relevant recent contributions are Kenneth Anderson, ‘Targeted killing and drone warfare: how we came to debate whether there is a legal geography of war’ (2011), available here; Laurie Blank, ‘Defining the battlefield in contemporary conflict and counterterrorism: understanding the parameters of the zone of combat’, Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 39  (1) (2010-11), available here; Jennifer Daskal, ‘The geography of the battlefield: a framework for detention and targeting outside the “hot” conflict zone’ (2012), available here;  Noam Lubell and Nathan Derejko, ‘A global battlefield? Drones and the geographical scope of armed conflict’, Journal of International Criminal Justice 11 (1) (2013) 65-88 (abstract here).  In this twilight zone, where Washington at once admits its actions through a never-ending string of off-the-record briefings and yet denies any responsibility for their collateral outcomes, there are no inquiries into ‘mistakes’, no culpability for wrong-doing, and no compensation or restitution for the innocent victims.

Whatever you make of the rights and wrongs of all this, what matters for my present purposes is that these two legal regimes, one national and the other transnational, work in concert to expose the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to military and paramilitary violence and, ultimately, death.

It’s more than a matter of law, of course (and in any case we shouldn’t confuse legality with legitimacy).  Within these exceptional spaces there has been active, tactical collaboration between the US and Pakistan.  Another diplomatic cable reported a meeting on 22 January 2008 with General Kayani, who asked US Central Command to provide ‘continuous Predator coverage of the conflict area’ in South Waziristan, but was offered only Joint Terminal Attack Controllers to direct PAF air strikes by F-16s – an offer which was refused because of a reluctance to allow US ground forces to operate inside Pakistan.  But in September and October 2009 small teams of US Special Forces were deployed to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support to the Pakistan Army, which included a ‘live downlink of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) full motion video.’ (What is interesting about all these exchanges is the degree of collaboration they reveal not only between the US and Pakistan but also between the CIA and the US military, especially Joint Special Operations Command; this is not surprising, given the hybridisation of military and paramilitary violence and the close involvement of the military in supplying, servicing and even flying the drones used in CIA-directed strikes).

There have been several reports of continuing collaboration between American and Pakistani intelligence operatives working on the ground in Pakistan, and one source – who purported to run a network of agents and ‘spotters’ in North and South Waziristan – told Reuters in January 2012 that ‘Our working relationship is a bit different from our political relationship.  It’s more productive.’  He claimed that the US and Pakistan agreed priority target lists between them, and that it took little more than two or three hours between the location of a targeted individual and the firing of missiles.  These claims are impossible to verify, but the emphasis on a working relationship rings true.

FATA flagPerhaps the most chilling of the Wikileaks cables is this (redacted) message sent from Islamabad in February 2009, reporting a discussion with a senior member of the FATA Secretariat, who enthusiastically recommended the practice of ‘double tap‘ – follow-up strikes targeting rescuers – and endorses the rationale for signature strikes against unknown, un-named targets:

9.  (S)  XXXXXXXXXXXX remains a strong advocate of U.S. strikes. In fact, he suggested to PO that the U.S. consider follow-on attacks immediately after an initial strike.  He explained that after a strike, the terrorists seal off the area to collect the bodies; in the first 10-24 hours after an attack, the only people in the area are terrorists, so “you should hit them again-there are no innocents there at that time.”  His sources report that the reported September 29 strike in South Waziristan had been particularly successful; “you will see that you hit more than has been reported in the press both in terms of quantity and quality.”  XXXXXXXXXXXX also drew a diagram essentially laying out the rationale for signature strikes…

Here you can see two perspectives on administrative killing, one from Pakistan and the other from the United States, converging onto a single target.

The cables from which I’ve quoted are all four or five years old, but this reflects the shutters coming down after the subsequent assault on Wikileaks and the arrest of  Bradley Manning – the reports from seasoned investigative journalists are much more recent.  I suppose you might conclude that none of them contradicts that artful word that does so much silent work in the official statement repeated by Emmerson, in which Pakistan denies reports of continuing tacit consent.  But given what I’ve shown about the deadly dance over those five years, do you really think the music has stopped?

Nieto’s Challenge

Many readers will remember Hillary Clinton‘s off-the-cuff claim last fall that “We face an increasing threat from a well-organised network, drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico.”  In “The everywhere war” (DOWNLOADS tab) I used her comment – together with a host of other sources inside and outside the state – to suggest some of the ways in which conceptions of war were being transformed in the borderlands; so too the military/policing distinction.

But a new report from the International Crisis Group, Peña Nieto’s Challenge: Criminal cartels and rule of law in Mexico, suggests that – in the midst of calls to increase the militarization of the US southern border – at least some State Department officials are having second thoughts.  Indeed, the report claims that Clinton’s remark was seen at the time ‘as a misstatement by many in the State Department, aimed more at linking the kinds of violence and weapons used and the seriousness of the danger they posed rather than describing the nature of the cartels or their objectives.’  And now, in an interview with the Group, John Feeley, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, insisted:

‘The violence associated with the criminal activities of the transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) in Mexico is not a national security problem or an insurgency that threatens to destabilise the Mexican government. Clearly, the violence … is a very serious public security problem that has important social and economic repercussions.’ 

For all that, it’s surely more than a ‘public security problem’ and it also has the most acute political repercussions too:


The report spells out many of those repercussions for the democratic constitution of Mexico – though whether Nieto (Mexico’s new President) will pay any attention to it is another question.  But its fundamental argument is captured in these paragraphs:

The development of cartels into murder squads fighting to control territory with military-grade weapons challenges the Mexican state’s monopoly on the use of force in some regions. The brutality of their crimes undermines civilian trust in the government’s capacity to protect them, and the corruption of drug money damages belief in key institutions. Cartels challenge the fundamental nature of the state, therefore, not by threatening to capture it, but by damaging and weakening it. The military fight-back has at times only further eroded the trust in government by inflicting serious human rights abuses. Some frustrated communities have formed armed “self- defence” groups against the cartels. Whatever the intent, these also degrade the rule of law. 

There has been fierce discussion about how to legally define the fighting. The violence has been described as a low-intensity armed conflict, a kind of war, because of the number of deaths and type of weapons used. The criminal groups have been described as everything from gangs, drug cartels and transnational criminal organisa- tions, to paramilitaries and terrorists. The Mexican government, much of the international community and many analysts reject the idea there is anything other than a serious criminal threat, even though those criminal groups use military and, at times, vicious terror tactics. The army and marines, too, thrown into the breach with limited police training and without efficient policing methods, have often used intense and lethal force to fight the groups, killing more than 2,300 alleged criminals in a five-year period.

Within the grey world of fighting between rival cartels and security forces, there is much confusion as to who the victims of the violence are, and who killed them or made them disappear. Estimates of the total who have died in connection with the fighting over the last six years range from 47,000 to more than 70,000, in addition to thousands of disappearances. Cartel gunmen often dress in military uniforms and include corrupt police in their ranks, so people are unsure if they are facing criminals or troops. A victims movement is demanding justice and security. Mexico has also lost hundreds of police and army officers, mayors, political candidates, judges, journalists and human rights defenders to the bloodshed that is taking a toll on its democratic institutions.

Wall Street, War Street

HARDT Wall Street, War StreetThe latest issue of Tidal:Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy (open access online) includes a brief (two-page) article by Michael Hardt that offers a sharp reminder:

‘To organize against the debt society in the US today we have to find a way also to challenge the war machine.  The war business is a permanent profit maker for Wall Street… War funds are raised primarily through debt.  So when you hear about troop withdrawals from Iraq or Afghanistan, don’t be fooled into thinking that war is yesterday’s issue or that the US war machine is declining or that you can expect a peace dividend next year. The United States is engaged in a “long war,” a seemingly permanent military project for which Osama Bin Laden or Al Qaeda or the Taliban or Saddam Hussein temporarily serve as the prime targets but are really stand-ins for a more vaguely defined enemy and much broader objectives.’ 

Hardt identifies three drivers (or ‘logics’) of the war machine – imperialist, neo-liberal and humanitarian – that will be familiar to most readers (at least in this capsule – pod? – form).  He concludes:

‘There are many reasons to oppose the US war machine, with its complex of military and security operations, installations, and institutions. It is a killing machine, a racist machine, a misery machine, and much more. It’s also a debt machine, and thus perhaps, when engaged together with other contemporary issues posed by debt, a movement can also begin to erode the foundations for our seemingly permanent state of war.’

What interests me is not simply the neoliberal ‘logic’ pursued by our masters of war – and Jamie Peck‘s work surely shows that we need to be assiduous in unpacking its multiple logics and (trans)formations – but also the way in which it reaches deep into the practices of military violence.  We need to expose not only the ‘business of war’ – the parasitic synergies between advanced militaries and the corporations of the international arms industry (‘Big Arma‘), and the deadly embrace between advanced militaries and the private contractors to whom more and more tasks are outsourced – but also the ways in which (at least since the days of McNamara’s ‘technowar’) advanced militaries have increasingly internalized the language, models and metrics of the Corporation. Fans of Joel Bakan will know why I use the capital – I’m talking about more than PowerPoint.

Air strikes in Pakistan’s borderlands

I’m speaking about Drone strikes and the matrix of violence in Pakistan at a conference in Vancouver at the week-end – a presentation which will form part of The everywhere war – and to set some of the parameters I’ve been revisiting the changing geography of air strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  It’s a formidably difficult question given the extraordinary dangers facing journalists, Pakistani or foreign, seeking to report from the FATA: for an incisive discussion of the media landscape inside the FATA see Sadaf Baig‘s Reporting from the frontlines.

In my view, the most thorough if necessarily imperfect tabulations of US-directed strikes are those provided by the Bureau of Investigative JournalismThere have been several attempts to map this database, including the Bureau’s own use of Google maps (see below and here; but be careful: zooming in is a product of the digital platform and will give a misleading sense of the resolution level of the data).

BOJ US drone strikes in FATA

One of the most thoughtful (and dynamic) representations comes from Chris Herwig.  He described the technical basis of his mapping over at MapBox here, and you can visit his microsite here.  Go here to see the animation running (with annotations).


Chris’s project has also been featured on PBS here, where he also responds to several criticisms of the data and his visualizations.

Over at Slate, Chris Kirk has produced an interactive that tries to show the maximum number of estimated casualties from each strike, but the data are drawn from the New America Foundation database which has been criticised for underestimating casualties; one (to October 2012) version is here, and another (to February 2013), using a different cartographic design, is here.  More generally, Forensic Architecture‘s Unmanned Aerial Violence team is working to produce an online visualization of drone strikes not only over Pakistan but also over Afghanistan,Yemen, Somalia and Palestine. but it’s not yet operational).

But the problem doesn’t end with the cartographic piercing of the veil of semi-secrecy the White House, the CIA and JSOC cast over their remote operations, though I’ve noted before how their collective teasing of American journalists over the legal and administrative protocols they supposedly follow – especially the so-called “disposition matrix” –  works to (mis)direct attention towards Washington and away from the sites that Chris and others have struggled to map.

I say this because the US is not the only state carrying out air strikes in the region.  Soon after 9/11 and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, largely in response to pressure from Washington, the Pakistan military moved into the FATA.  According to Zahid Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Frontier Corps was deployed in December 2001, but by May 2002 it was decided that a much heavier hand was needed and the Pakistan Army was ordered into the borderlands for the first time in the nation’s history.  Local people requested that military operations be limited to ground forces, but by 2004 this agreement was in shreds and – as the image below shows – ever since the Pakistan Air Force has made no secret of its continuing air strikes on the FATA.

PAF air strike in FATA

Again, there is no public tabulation, but the American Enterprise Institute‘s Critical Threats daily Pakistan Security Brief – I know, I know, it’s a neoconservative think-tank – culls this (needless to say, approving) record from reports in Pakistan media in the first two months of this year alone:

25 February PAF kills 10 TTP militants in Tirah [Kurram/Khyber, FATA]

21 February PAF bombs militants in Orakzai [NWF Province] killing 29

19-20 February PAF jets bomb TTP hideouts in Orakzai

11 February PAF jets kill 8 militants in the Tirah Valley

8 February Jets kill 9 militants in Orakzai

7 February PAF targets militants in Orakzai

6 February Jets kill 8 in Orakzai

30 January PAF kills 23 militants in Tirah Valley and 8 in Orakzai agency

28 January Pakistani jets bomb militants in Orakzai

4 January Gunships kill 3, injure more in North Waziristan retaliation

It’s a bare bones summary, clearly, and I suspect the readiness of the AEI to trust local media to report PAF strikes is in stark contrast to their attitude to local reports of US drone strikes.  I’ve also deliberately retained the original phrasing: conspicuously, there is no record of  civilian casualties. Like the United States, Pakistan routinely plays these down or denies them altogether.  Here, for example, is a typical report via the Long War Journal on 25 March 2010:

‘Pakistani fighter-bombers struck a series of targets in the Mamuzai region in [Orakzai] today. Sixty-one Taliban fighters were killed, Pakistani intelligence officials told The Associated Press. The military claimed that no civilians were killed in the attacks. The targets included a madrassa, a mosque, and a seminary run by the Tablighi Jamaat. Pakistani officials said that Taliban leaders were meeting at the Tablighi seminary.’

PAF air strike, Orakzai

It’s unlikely that civilians were unscathed.  For the first four years at least the accuracy of the Air Force’s strikes was compromised by what Irfan Ahmad described as  its ‘lack of real time electronic intelligence and inferior technical means for command, control and communications’, by deficiencies in the targeting pods used by the PAF’s  ageing F-16 aircraft, and by the use of laser-guided missiles whose precision was reduced by clouds or poor visibility.  From 2008 new electro-optical targeting pods and sensors were being retrofitted and new ground and air capabilities for image exploitation put in place.  In 2009 the Air Force was also the launch customer for the Anglo-Italian Falco reconnaissance drone (see below), which is now co-produced in Pakistan; five systems were soon in use over the FATA, each comprising four aircraft with one held in reserve, and the Air Force was already anticipating arming them ‘with the most modern and lethal payloads’. More recently, the PAF has upgraded its F-16 fleet with new Block 52 versions and installed advanced avionics.  Throughout this period, as the military offensive periodically intensified, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people were displaced from the borderlands.


It’s difficult to provide a detailed accounting of the air strikes, but in a rare admission former Air Chief Marshall Rao Qamar Suleiman claimed that the Pakistan Air Force carried out 5,000 strike sorties and dropped 11,600 bombs on 4,600 targets in the FATA between May 2008 and November 2011.  Unlike US air strikes in the region, PAF strikes are rarely ‘stand-alone’ affairs but are co-ordinated with ground forces (which is also the case with most drone strikes in Afghanistan, which operate in close concert with troops and conventional strike aircraft).

My object is recording all this is (I hope obviously) emphatically not to say that it is perfectly acceptable for the US to launch air strikes in the FATA because Pakistan is doing the same. Rather, the co-existence of the two air campaigns explains, in part, how it is possible for each party to accuse the other of carrying out an attack, as reported earlier this month.  More importantly, it also emphasises the ever-present horizon of danger within which the inhabitants of the borderlands are forced to live.  They are not only Living under drones.

Living Under Drones

The same point was sharpened by CIVIC – now the Center for Civilians in Conflict – in their (I think vital) report Civilian harm and conflict in North West Pakistan, published in October 2010. That report also details the violence meted out to civilians by militant groups in the region; for a detailed survey of the political geography of the borderlands, see Brian Fishman‘s The Battle for Pakistan: militancy and conflict across the FATA and NWFP, produced for the New America Foundation in 2010; there’s also much to think about in Daanish Mustafa and Katherine Brown, ‘Spaces of performative politics and terror in Pakistan‘, and in the same authors’ ‘The Taliban, Public Space and terror in Pakistan‘.

The existence of the two air campaigns also shows that the FATA are produced as a space of exception not only through Washington’s strenuous juggling with the Authorisation to Use Military Force and with international law (to validate the extension of its ‘global battlefield’) – whether it does so with or without Islamabad’s covert consent remains an open question – but also through Islamabad’s continued determination to treat the borderlands as legally anomalous territories for its own assertion of military violence.

ROE Waging war in WaziristanThe last is a doubled colonial legacy.  Not only is the legal geography that structures the FATA’s relations with the Pakistani state a relict from Britain’s imperial decision to treat them as a space to be ‘excepted from state and society for the purposes of war’, as Ian Shaw and Majed Akhter put it in Antipode recently.

So too is the decision to continue to use the FATA as a laboratory for what the British called ‘air control’. Andrew Roe has provided a series of detailed discussions in the RAF’s invaluable Air Power Review, here and here and here, and brought much of his research together in Waging war in Waziristan (2010).

But for a rapid and sobering sense of how these campaigns were viewed from the air in the 1930s you need to watch this BBC interview with Group Captain Robert Lister, Wings over Waziristan, which includes extraordinary cine footage showing what he calls ‘tribal operations from the air’.  Lister was posted to Peshawar in 1935, and soon after he arrived both the Army and the Air Force were ordered to put down ‘a tribal insurrection or rebellion’ in Waziristan.  Their preferred method was to destroy villages by setting fire to individual houses, blowing them up, or bombing them from the air ‘to make them say “Right, it’s not worthwhile – come to terms.”‘  Listen as Lister says, in cut-glass tones, ‘It was a fair and just way of dealing with it: they started these troubles and had to be dealt with.’

Waziristan:Lister:Here's an attack being carried out

And if you want to discover a different dimension to ‘unmanning’ aerial vehicles, listen from 08.00-08.40.

UPDATE: I’ve just discovered another film shot over Waziristan in 1937 by Leonard de Ville Chisman, which covers the air and ground war against the Faqir of Ipi described by Lister.  It contains a number of strikingly similar shots, though there is of course no commentary: you can access it via Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire here.  On that remarkably informative site, Francis Gooding writes:

The official record of NWFP operations during 1936-7 – a thick volume, its size indicating the scale and seriousness of the conflict – contains full details about the manner in which aircraft were employed. The flag marches of November that sparked the revolt were accompanied by aircraft reconnaissance, and the record notes that ‘air reconnaissance requirements were met by one flight of No. 5 (Army Co-operation) Squadron’ (Govt of India, op.cit., 15), and the RAF also provided close cover for troops, and this pattern – reconnaissance with close support against the enemy – was repeated throughout the operations.

Reels 14 and 15 of the Chisman collection record precisely these kinds of encounters and air operations, with footage of bombing raids and the dropping of supplies to forward positions by parachute taken from within flying aircraft. Aircraft were also used to disseminate information and warnings about future punitive action (again, this was a tried and tested method, typical of colonial air policing; see Omissi, 1990, 154-5). On 27 August 1937, for instance, ‘notices were dropped over the Shawal area warning the inhabitants that until the Faqir submitted to Government, any tribe sheltering him would be liable for punishment’ (Govt. of India, op.cit., 179), and reel 15 contains a sequence showing a pilot unfurling a large leaflet, with text in Pashto and Urdu. The following sequences show air-drops of these leaflets over hill country. There are also scenes showing armoured cars and tanks on the move, and a sequence apparently shot during a battle, with a line of artillery opening fire on hill positions. 

The Faqir’s uprising was arguably the most serious colonial insurgency of the inter-war imperial period, and the films are remarkable in that they record scenes of action from a poorly remembered but major guerrilla conflict. Beyond this historical importance they have another significance, for they offer scenes of something only very rarely captured on film, despite its regular occurrence throughout the Empire – the recourse to the punitive deployment of heavy weaponry against subject peoples in revolt.