Homing in

I’m finally home from Europe – a strange sentence, I think, since I always feel so much at home when I return to Europe.  I spent the last week in the Czech Republic, where I was a guest of the Department of Human Geography and Regional Development in Ostrava: I’m deeply grateful (once again) to all the faculty and graduate students, and most of all to  Tomáš Drobík, Přemysl Mácha, Tadeusez Siwek and Monika Šumberová, for their warm hospitality and lively discussions.


While I was there I gave a version of “Drones, spaces of exception and the everywhere war” (abstract below) and, as always, learned much from the questions and a subsequent workshop with graduate students.  A version of this will eventually appear in a new collection edited by Lisa Parks, Life in the age of drones, and parts of it will be re-worked for my own book.

There have been many compelling visualizations of drone strikes in Pakistan – most recently, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, whose artful rendering of the database compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism went viral in March 2013. But the infographic is confined to a temporal plot: it is, in a significant sense, also out of site, and a primary purpose of this essay is to show that the geography of these strikes is not incidental to their politics.

 In fact, multiple geographies are inscribed in them

 First, it is necessary to insert US-directed strikes into the matrix of state violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. This means showing how Pakistan’s Frontier Crimes Regulations (even in their amended form) work in concert with the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations (2011) to constitute the FATA as an exceptional space in something like the sense specified by Giorgio Agamben: a zone whose inhabitants are exposed to military and paramilitary violence and ultimately death through the law. This licenses air strikes by the Pakistan Air Force as part of continuing military offensives against militants and insurgents: in short, the people of the FATA are not only “Living Under Drones.

 This receives remarkably little attention in most critical discussions, which fasten on the ways in which the people of the FATA are also exposed to state violence through a second, transnational legal geography – the US assertion of its (contested) right to carry its war in Afghanistan across the border into Pakistan. This will be dissected in depth; but these are, of course, more than legal formations. Most US air strikes are confined to the FATA but PAF strikes are not, and the reasons for this doubled geography will be described and the incidence of both US and PAF strikes mapped in as much detail as the data allow.

 A second step is then to document the tactical co-operation between the US and Pakistan militaries in orchestrating the drone strikes (and, on occasion, co-ordinating them with Pakistan ground offensives). We now know that this co-operation started with the very first US-directed strike in the FATA: Mark Mazzetti has shown that the targeted killing of Nek Muhammad in June 2004 was undertaken as a favour to the Pakistan government, which regarded him as an enemy of the state, to gain access to Pakistan’s airspace so that the US could hunt down its own cross-border enemies.  We also know from the US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, and from a series of reports by investigative journalists, that this deadly alliance has continued – despite repeated denials and protests by Islamabad. This analysis extends the network in which US remote operations are usually inserted – launch sites in Afghanistan and Pakistan, CENTCOM’s Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Qatar, and video analysts, pilots, lawyers and commanders at multiple sites inside the continental United States – beyond purely US assemblages.

 But a third step is to show how the drone strikes in the FATA spiral out into an even wider matrix of military and paramilitary violence – the ‘everywhere war’ prosecuted in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and elsewhere – whose contours map a profound transformation in the very nature and meaning of war itself.

Regular readers will recognise that this draws on a series of posts where I sketched out parts of the argument.

The discussions that followed my presentation in Ostrava were immensely helpful.  I began outside Pakistan, exploring in detail the anatomy of a drone strike in Afghanistan, and there was considerable interest in the narrative (some of which you’ll find in “From a view to a kill” under the DOWNLOADS tab; I’ve extended this analysis for my book too) and in the techno-cultural construction of the killing space.

But once I moved to the CIA-directed strikes in Pakistan, and the question of targeted killing,  attention focused on trade-offs between the simultaneous contraction of the target space through the provision of high-resolution video feeds and ‘weaponeering’ to reduce the blast radius – these strikes are a far cry from bombing missions during the Second World War or the B-52 offensives over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – and the lowering of the threshold for military and paramilitary violence: the argument that damage and death can be contained all too readily becomes (to its protagonists) an argument for  sending in the drones.  This in turn spiralled into a debate about transparency – about the limits to knowledge in democratic societies – and about the artful direction of debate to Washington (‘what rules are being followed?’) and away from the scene of violence in Waziristan.

Finally, we talked about the dissonance between this ‘optical war’ and the more haptic-sensuous war experienced on the ground (by both armed actors and civilians) – which I hope in some way helped prepare for their next visitor, anthropologist Tim Ingold.

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