Counting casualties and making casualties count

In my analysis of CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see ‘Dirty Dancing’: DOWNLOADS tab) I drew upon the tabulations provided by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Chris Herwig‘s cartographic animation of casualties between 2004 and 2013: see my discussion here and the maps here.

Quartz’s CityLab is now running a week-long series on Borders (‘stories about places on the edge’) and it includes a new series of interactive maps showing civilian casualties from drone strikes in the FATA (this series also ends in 2013).  Here’s a screenshot:

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There’s not much geographical analysis – apart from noting the focus on North and South Waziristan – and, as I argued before, I think it a mistake to isolate drone strikes from the wider matrix of military and paramilitary violence in the borderlands (including air strikes by the Pakistan Air Force).  And there are obvious problems in disentangling civilian casualties – the US Air Force has the greatest difficulty in identifying civilians in the first place.

It’s difficult to put all this together – and particularly to hear the voices of those caught up in a matrix of such extensive violence that, as Madiha Tahir puts it so well, ‘war has lacerated the land into stillness.’  In an exquisite essay in Public Culture 29 (1) (2017) Madiha reflects on that difficulty and the ‘spatial stories’ local people struggle to tell.  Her title – ‘The ground was always in play’ – is borrowed from Michael Herr‘s despatches from Vietnam, but the full quotation explains how aerial violence echoes across this shattered land:

‘The ground was always in play, always being swept.  Under the ground was his, above it was ours.  We had the air.’

But the ‘we’ in the FATA is plural – a product of the ‘dirty dancing’ between Washington and Islamabad – and so we come to the story Madiha pieces together:

The story Mir Azad came to tell is this [and, as Madiha shows, he had travelled 500 difficult miles across South and North Waziristan to tell it]. In July 2015, American drones bombed and killed two of his cousins, Gul Rehman Khan and Mohammad Khandan. After Zarb-e-Azb began in June 2014, thousands of Waziris fled in all directions, businesspeople, farmers, militants, and students, including to the Pakistani villages in Barmal, and there the drones followed. The military operation and the “surgical” operation, carpet bombing and “precision strikes,” coordinated maybe, intentionally or not, they worked together to redraw the lines of movement, new containment zones, a shockwave that could start with ground troops in North Waziristan and end with a drone bombing a car in Barmal [in Paktika province, on the border with North Waziristan].

My extract can’t do justice to the essay: do read it if you can.

Since I completed the original version of ‘Dirty Dancing’ a number of new reports from Waziristan have provided more details of the co-ordination of air/ground operations.  Over the summer AFP reported that the Pakistani military had removed the roofs of houses to provide a better ‘aerial view’:

“(The) military has removed the roofs of the houses to have a better aerial view and stop militants taking refuge in these abundant, fort-like mud houses,” the official told reporters.  From the helicopter journalists could see scores of homes with no roofs but appearing otherwise intact, their interiors exposed to the elements.

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But in many cases – especially in North Waziristan – those ordered by the military to leave their homes have returned to find them reduced to rubble.

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Earlier this month Ihsan Dawar reported from North Waziristan on ‘Life on the debris of wrecked houses’:

Murtaza Dawar sat with his children and cousins on the debris of his house. Behind him the setting sun was a ball of fire in the sky, reducing him and his family to silhouettes, the shards of glass in the wreck of his house catching the light and winking in the gathering dark of an early evening.

Coming back home to Mirali in North Waziristan has been a bittersweet experience for Dawar, 48. Sweet because he and his family has returned home after more than two years of displacement. Bitter, because they have come back to wreckage where their home was.

“We have nothing to do with militancy or Talibanization but our house has been demolished,” says Dawar, taking a break from pitching a tent. “There is not a single room intact. I don’t know where to take my family to protect them from the terrible cold.”

Dawar’s is not the only house that was razed during the military operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in June 2014 to clear North Wazristan of militants. Of the nearly million tribesmen displaced by the operation, many have lost not only their belongings and assets they left behind in the tribal district and their houses have been demolished for no reason.

The government has not issued any clear data on the number of houses demolished in North Waziristan. In May 2016, a property damage survey conducted by the Fata Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) revealed that 11,663 houses were fully and partially damaged during operations against militants in South Waziristan, North Waziristan and the Khyber Agency.

Local tribesmen working in the political administration’s office in North Waziristan told Truth tracker on condition of anonymity – because of the sensitivity of information – that about 1500 houses were completely destroyed in the Mirali subdivision alone.

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Cartographic animations can’t capture these in-animations, but we must surely do our best to attend to them.

POV in the killbox

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An update on Joe DeLappe‘s Killbox project (my original post, with links to more info on the concept of a killbox, is here).

Over at Quartz, Ananya Bhattacharya provides more details about the latest iteration of the simulation:

Killbox, an online two-player game named after the military term for an area targeted for destruction, serves as a critique of drone warfare. One player is a civilian exploring her surroundings with few instructions. The second player is guided with tasks, leading up to the administration of a drone strike. Even if the drone pilot player refuses to deploy the weapons, autopilot kicks in and carries out the attack. When it hits, the drone pilot can see the extent of the destruction on the ground but hear nothing. Meanwhile, the child on the ground is barraged by sound. And just in case the first strike doesn’t demolish enough, a second strike is administered—the classic “double-tap” attack to stop rescuers from getting help to the injured and retrieving the deceased.

The game is modelled – in some measure, at least – on the drone strike that killed Mamana Bibi as she gathered okra from the fields around her home in North Waziristan:

The characters in the game aren’t realistic though—they look like odd-shaped blobs. At first, non-human avatars seem less effective, but there’s meaning behind the simplistic design: “We were looking at the map where the drone strike killed people and these maps identified victims with little dots,” said DeLappe. “Almost like map pins, like they’ve been symbolically degraded in some way.”

Killbox player 2

I opened my essay on drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – and on the constitution of the FATA as a space of exception (see “Dirty Dancing” under the DOWNLOADS tab) – with a comparison between this strike, the murder of an innocent grandmother as she worked in the fields with her grandchildren,  and the targeted killing of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, in South Waziristan in 2009 (see also my posts here and here).

In Drone: remote control warfare Hugh Gusterson opens with exactly the same comparison but to a different effect – and one that resonates with Killbox.  Drawing on Jane Mayer‘s account of the assassination of Mehsud, based on testimony from those who watched the video feed from the Predator, he writes:

A technology that is almost magical gives its owners, who are looking on the scene from high in the sky, a godlike power over life and death. The observation of the scene is simultaneously intimate and remote. It is also deeply asymmetrical: Mehsud, unaware of his exposure, is watched by faraway drone operators who can see him as if close up, reclining on the roof of his house on a hot evening as his wife attends to his medical needs. They get to frame the picture while he does not even realize he is in it. Without warning, he is killed as if by a god’s thunderbolt from the sky. Seen from Virginia, the drone strike is quick, clean, and bloodless. Mehsud’s death is instant. Nor, described unambiguously as a terrorist, does he seem undeserving of death. Twelve people die altogether, but the narrative marks only Mehsud’s death as significant. The other deaths are almost outside the frame. And in a way that amplifies the strange mix of distance and intimacy, the scene is mediated entirely through a single sense—vision. The attack has no sound, smell, taste, or texture. And we are invited to experience it through a narrative of mastery and control—of the cool, righteous exercise of overwhelming power.

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Drawing on testimony from Mamana Bibi’s family before a virtually empty Congressional hearing, Hugh writes:

This account is from the point of view of the victims, not the executioners. We share the experience of those who do not even realize that they are in the crosshairs until they are attacked. The account emphasizes the sudden incomprehensible eruption of violent force, literally out of the blue, in a warm scene of familial togetherness on an important holy day. We are led to experience the drone strike through multiple senses, of which sight may be the least salient: we are told about the blackness of the smoke, the sound of the screaming, the smell of the explosion, the sensation of the ground trembling, and the pain of shrapnel wounds. Unlike the first account, the narrative does not end shortly after the drone strike but dwells on the aftermath—the physical pain of the survivors, the enduring grief over the loss of the person “that held our family together.” Above all, this account foregrounds what is absent in the view from CIA headquarters—the psychological suffering of those on the ground, especially children, and the sense that the safe predictability of life has been permanently destroyed. It is a narrative of helplessness, terror, and injustice. The drone operators’ perspective was remote and objectifying, but this narrative is so affecting that it made the translator break down in tears.

The special effects created by privileging the visual are explored with skill and sensitivity in Nasser Hussain‘s brilliant essay, ‘The sound of terror: phenomenology of a drone strike‘, here.

[I]n order to widen our vision, I provide a phenomenology of drone strikes, examining both how the world appears through the lens of a drone camera and the experience of the people on the ground. What is it like to watch a drone’s footage, or to wait below for it to strike? What does the drone’s camera capture, and what does it occlude?

…  Although the pilots can hear ground commands, there is no microphone equivalent to the micro-scopic gaze of the drone’s camera. This mute world of dumb figures moving about on a screen has particular consequences for how we experience the image. As Michel Chion notes in The Voice in Cinema, although sound or voice is easily swallowed up by the image, it nonetheless structures the image: “only the creators of a film’s sound—recordist, sound effects person, mixer, director—know that if you alter or remove these sounds, the image is no longer the same.” In the case of the drone strike footage, the lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed. The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.

… If drone operators can see but not hear the world below them, the exact oppositeis true for people on the ground. Because drones are able to hover at or above 30 thousand feet, they are mostly invisible to the people below them. But they can be heard. Many people from the tribal areas of Pakistan (FATA) describe the sound as a low-grade, perpetual buzzing, a signal that a strike could occur at any time. The locals call the drones machar, mosquitos. Because the drone can surveil the area for hours at a time, and because each round of surveillance may or may not result in a strike, the fear and anxiety among civilians is diffuse and chronic.

That sense of optical power is not necessarily one of detachment.  For we surely know how vision, power and desire can be commingled; and today I learned – from Theodor Nadelson‘s Trained to kill: soldiers at war – that (some) US Marines describe setting their sights on a human target as ‘eye fucking’…

Dirty Dancing online

I had a wonderful time at the Balsillie School at Waterloo last week – good company, constructive conversations and endless hospitality – and I’m truly grateful to Simon Dalby, Jasmin Habib and all the graduate students who made my visit so enjoyable.  I finished by giving one of the Centre for Global Governance Innovation (CIGI)’s Signature Lectures.

This was the latest (and near-final) version of “Dirty dancing: drones and death in the borderlands”.   The argument has developed considerably since my first presentations; I’ll upload the written version once it’s finished, but CIGI has posted the lecture and Q&A online here.  I’ve also embedded the YouTube version below, but if that doesn’t work try here.

My thanks to the AV technicians who made this possible: their help with the production followed by their assured and rapid-fire editing beats anything I’ve encountered anywhere.

In this version, I begin with two CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, one on Baitullah Mehsud (the leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban) and the other on ‘Mamana’ Bibi, an innocent grandmother and midwife, and ask what it is that makes strikes like these – which is to say strikes as unlike these – possible.  My answer turns on the kinds of space the FATA been made out to be: in particular, a space of exception in which people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death, and a territory conceived as a political technology through which power lays claim to bodies-in-space.

Unlike Giorgio Agamben‘s original formulation, though, my discussion of the space of exception focuses not on violence authorised through the suspension of the law but rather violence that operates inside the law: so I look at the legal regimes, both international and national, that affect military and paramilitary violence in the FATA.  A further difference is that this exceptional state of affairs is provoked not by an event but by a margin: by the construction of the FATA as a liminal zone, borderlands that are outside ‘Pakistan proper’ or ‘mainland Pakistan’.  Many commentators (including me) trace the origin of aerial violence to the British Raj, its Frontier Crimes Regulations and its ‘policing’ of the North-West Frontier.  This is important, but the line of descent to today’s air strikes is not direct.  In particular, it is important to bring into view the cross-border incursions made by Soviet and Afghan aircraft during the occupation of Afghanistan.  Thousands of people were killed and injured during these attacks, and this constitutes an important horizon of memory, but no less important is the response of the Pakistan Air Force: their US-supplied jets intercepted incoming aircraft and either escorted them out of Pakistani air space or, towards the end of the 1980s, engaged them in combat.  This begs an obvious question: if Pakistan objects to the US strikes – carried out by drones that are slow, noisy and sluggish – why does its Air Force not shoot them down?  Since today’s drones cannot be used in contested air space – bluntly, they can only be used against defenceless people – why does Pakistan elect to render the people of FATA defenceless?  This immediately brings into view the other source of aerial violence in the borderlands: the ongoing offensives in the FATA launched by the Pakistan Air Force (in concert with large-scale ground operations).  Even though the Pakistan Air Force has its own reconnaissance drones, some of which are now armed, these are not attempts to put ‘warheads on foreheads’, as the US Air Force would have it, but wide-area assaults conducted by conventional strike aircraft and attack helicopters – as I show in the case of Mir Ali and Miran Shah during Operation Zarb-i-Azb (see here and here and here).

To complete the sequence and add the US drone strikes, I trace the intimate collaboration between both the CIA and the US Air Force and between Washington and Islamabad.  The diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks show time and time again that many of the negotiations about access to ‘flight boxes’ over North and South Waziristan were conducted by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of US Central Command.  I show, too, how the collaboration between Washington and Islamabad continued until at least 2013.

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In order for the CIA-directed strikes to be possible, however, the FATA must also be turned into a territory in something like the sense proposed by Stuart Elden.  So I describe the multiple ways in which data is harvested by the NSA and other agencies to produce what Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge call code/space: the algorithmic combination of sensors, traces and intercepts to summon into being a body-as-target (for more, see here: scroll down), and to produce the space of the target where fleshy bodies disappear and are replaced by codes, co-ordinates and cross-hairs.  This is another version of what Ian Hacking calls ‘making up people’: there is an important sense, then, in which the supposed ‘individuation’ of later modern war depends on the selective and active production (and destruction) of an ‘individual’.

The questions and comments after the lecture were immensely helpful, and as I turn this into its final, written version I’d be grateful for any further comments if you watch the video.

The Federal Administration of Military Violence

On 15 June – one week after the attack on Karachi’s international airport by the Pakistan Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban or TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (UMI) – the Pakistan military announced its ‘comprehensive’ Operation Zarb-i-Azb in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  From their bases in North Waziristan, the statement announced, militants had ‘waged a war against the state of Pakistan’ and the military had been ‘tasked to eliminate these terrorists regardless of hue and color, along with their sanctuaries.’  Although the press release insisted that ‘these enemies of the state will be denied space anywhere across the country’ the epicentre of the operation was and remains North Waziristan.

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There are reportedly 60,000 troops in the region, and the main Pakistan military installations in North Waziristan are shown on the map above (taken from the AEI spinoff site, Critical Threats), but the prelude to ground operations was a concerted attack by the Pakistan Air Force on eight targets linked to planning the assault on Karachi airport.

Green Ground Red Drones Blue PAF strikes DAWN 20 June 2014

‘Operation Zarb-i-Azb’ refers to Mohammed’s sword, and its political imagery is artfully dissected by Afiya Shehrbano Zia:

‘It refers to the (‘sharp/cutting’) sword of the prophet of Islam and is a brilliant usurpation of the religious metaphor. It upstages the religious imaginary for which the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claim to be fighting. After all, who would dare to vanquish the Prophet’s metaphorical sword? The appellation justifies its cause for the defense of the Islamic state, and quells the lesser purpose of the Taliban in one fell swoop. As in all cases in the instrumentalisation of religion as a propaganda tool, it also excites nationalists and seeks to rationalise another round of military operations, killings and displacements that will follow.’

There’s much more of value in her commentary, but – as Zia also acknowledges – the genealogy and geography of the offensive is no less complicated (my map comes from Dawn, 20 June 2014; green circles are Pakistan military land operations; blue are Pakistan Air Force strikes; red are US drone strikes).

First, it’s not clear whether the Pakistan military finally has the Afghan Taliban in its sights too – regarded by Islamabad as the ‘good Taliban’ because, far from threatening the state of Pakistan, it has long been used by both the military and (particularly) the intelligence service as a counter to any Indian influence over Kabul once US and ISAF forces complete their withdrawal.  And it is of course the Afghan Taliban (along with the Haqqani network) which is the principal concern of the United States.

Second, the Pakistan military – and especially the Air Force – has a long history of offensive operations in the FATA, as I’ve discussed in detail before: see here and here.  Now other commentators have noticed this: the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has tracked 15 Pakistan Air Force strikes carried out by helicopter gunships and F-16 fighters between 19 December 2013 and 15 June 2014, which killed 291-540 people (including 16-112 civilians).

The significance of this is not only that it precedes the current offensive but also that it coincides with the so-called ‘pause’ in CIA-directed drone strikes against targets in the FATA.  Chris Woods notes that PAF strikes are ‘generating casualties far in excess of any caused by CIA drones strikes’, and one resident of Mir Ali recited a grim military timetable:

“It’s like doomsday for people in Mir Ali, where death is everywhere since Saturday… They start the day with artillery shelling early in the morning. Gunship helicopters come for shelling during the day and jets strike at around 2:00-2:30 in the night.”

The military denies all reports of civilian casualties but this beggars belief, and the Bureau reports that some residents have even concluded that the drone strikes were preferable:

‘The difference between the drone strikes and the military strikes is that drones target specifically who they want to target… the wanted terrorists… people are saying that drone attacks were good compared to the military strikes.  Personally I agree, because I have seen drones, they are in the air 24 hours and they don’t attack as randomly… the place of the attack was always an area where the Taliban or terrorists were living.’

But whatever one makes of this – a calculation that would imply that the CIA had abandoned its anonymous ‘signature strikes’ – drones have not been absent from the skies over Waziristan. Pakistan has its own reconnaissance drones, and they have repeatedly been used to direct strike aircraft onto their targets (though with what accuracy it is impossible to know) and to support ground operations: the PAF boasted of their use in May, when hundreds of houses and shops were destroyed in Machis Camp and in the bazaar at Mir Ali.  And – the third complication – the US resumed its drone war on 11 and 12 June when two UAVs fired six missiles at compounds near Miram Shah, supposedly killing ten members of UMI and the Haqqani network, and again on 18 June when three compounds near Dargah Mandi were hit.  Whether these strikes were co-ordinated with Pakistan is unclear – the Foreign Office has issued its ritual denial, but it’s difficult to believe they were not connected to Pakistan’s own military operations, and here too there is a long history of what I’ve called ‘dirty dancing‘ between Washington and Islamabad that continued until at least the end of 2011.  It seems highly unlikely that the dance has ended.

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Finally, the shock waves from these various operations ripple far beyond their ostensible targets. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, some in advance of military operations (which had been telegraphed for months), many more when the military temporarily loosened its curfew on the region. As on previous occasions, most of them fled to Bannu, some to government camps (‘Only the poorest of the poor would go to a camp in such hot and humid weather‘) but the majority to stay with family members, while some refugees have even crossed into Khost in Afghanistan to seek sanctuary. The map below is an early trace (18 June), and it shows only those who are officially registered so it excludes those lodging with their extended families; but even this anticipates hundreds of thousands more displaced people to come.

Pakistan Displaced Persons June 2014

There is also the real fear that, as Ismail Khan and Declan Walsh reported earlier this month, Taliban reprisals will focus on the Punjab, the electoral base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

All of this suggests the importance of unravelling the intimate connections between the political constitution of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the administration of military violence there.  This is clearly not limited to CIA-directed drone strikes, and here Zia’s reflections on a question posed by a feminist friend are worth repeating:

‘She wonders, “why this obsession with drones?” Obviously, the interest is due to a host of factors, but her query reflects the difference in modes of analysis. Her position reflects the views of women’s rights/human rights groups who consider specific military operations in one part of Pakistan as just one cog in a broader narrative about the source of the conflict. For them, this has been the cosy nexus and mutually beneficial relationship between the military establishment and the jihadi groups.

Those like Imran Khan, who foreground drones in their analysis of ‘conflict’, consider US intervention and occupation of Afghanistan as the drivers of conflict in Pakistan. But local progressive groups argue that even if militants in FATA are subdued, or US interventions are resisted, unless the policy of patronage and nurturing of jihadi groups in the rest of Pakistan is dismantled and buried, conflict at all levels will never end – drones or no drones.

This doesn’t mean that military technologies are unimportant nor that drone strikes are of marginal concern (inside or outside an ‘area of active hostilities‘): it means that we need to direct our attention to the larger matrix of political and military violence within which they are deployed, transnational and national, and to its genealogies and geographies.

Thatcher’s Gift: law and ordering

Datta Khel strike satellite analysis

Following on from my last post…  The failure of the anonymous US official to recognise what I called the operative presence of customary law is symptomatic of a structural condition: Pakistan’s borderlands, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, must be construed as ‘lawless’ in order for law (which is to say ‘order’) to be imposed from the outside, through military and paramilitary violence shrouded, as it so often is, in the cloak of law itself.

Talking with Michael Smith yesterday – who is busy co-editing a special issue of Society & Space on legal geographies with Craig Jones  – I suggested that this effectively repeated the canonical double gesture of Orientalism, in which the space of the Other is summoned as a space of the bizarre, the exotic and at the limit the monstrous (‘a living tableau of queerness’, Edward Said called it), that must be imperatively normalised – straightened out, if you prefer – through the imposition of the order it has been deemed to lack.  In this case, the ordering is imposed through a deadly dance choreographed in Washington and Islamabad.

Michael then provided me with this remarkable quotation from Peter Fitzpatrick‘s ‘Racism and the innocence of law’ from the Journal of Law and Society 14 (1) (1987) 119-132 (p. 129):

“It is hardly surprising, then, that the resort to law as a symbol of race and nation should be so facile, so common and so effective. Thus, to return to the stratagem of the telling instance and to Thatcher’s contribution, she precisely echoes the imperialist claim to law as a gift we gave them, gave those “people with a different culture”, people who did not have law, who did not give it to the world and who in remaining essentially alien have failed to assimilate the gift adequately.”

The reference is to a speech given by Margaret Thatcher in January 1978, in which she praised Britain’s contribution to law (‘throughout the world’) and sympathised with those who feared that immigration would see this ‘swamped’ – submerged, drowned – ‘by people with a different culture’.

Datta Khel strike BoJ PNG

So, in the telling instance of Datta Khel [the image above is from an official Pakistani transcript published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; there is also a detailed report here – scroll down to 17 March) colonial and imperial power redux: Midnight’s Children being ‘ordered’ by Thatcher’s….. It would have been better if the Jirga targeted by the drone had been a ‘charity car-wash’ – but that distant prospect was evidently (and I think necessarily) construed as even less likely than its being a properly constituted legal assembly.

In case this is misunderstood, to insist on the operative presence of customary law is emphatically not to deny that people in these areas are subject to extraordinary violence from the air and from the ground, by the CIA, the Pakistan military, and the Taliban and other groups – but it is to acknowledge how what Michael called ‘liberal legality’s denigration of its others (tradition, custom, customary law)’ is a vital, constitutive moment in the imposition of those violent exactions.

Death, drones and Camp Delta

When I wrote ‘The Black Flag’ (DOWNLOADS tab), exploring the idea of Guantanamo Bay as a space of exception, three young men had just committed suicide in the war prison.  This is how I started:

In the early morning of 10 June 2006 three prisoners held at the military detention facility at the US Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, two from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen, were found dead in their cells. Although the three men had been detained without trial for several years and none of them had court cases or military commissions pending (none of them had even been charged), the commander of the prison dismissed their suicides as ‘not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us’. Although the three men had been on repeated hunger strikes which ended when they were strapped into restraint chairs and force- fed by nasal tubes, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy described their deaths as ‘a Public Relations move to draw attention’ – to what, she did not say – and complained that since detainees had access to lawyers, received mail and had the ability to write to families, ‘it was hard to see why the men had not protested about their situation’. Although by presidential decree prisoners at Guantánamo are subject to indefinite detention and coercive interrogation while they are alive, when President George W. Bush learned of the three deaths he reportedly stressed the importance of treating their dead bodies ‘in a humane and culturally sensitive manner’. 

KAISER Tod in Camp Delta

After ‘The Black Flag’ was published, I read a remarkable account of the despair and desperation of these three men by Mario Kaiser.  His original essay has now been updated and translated into English as ‘Death in Camp Delta‘ at Guernica.  Here is an extract:

At some point during their captivity, these three men began to retreat. They no longer touched the food the guards pushed through the holes in the doors of their cells. Their bodies dwindled. Their lives hung on thin yellow tubes shoved down their nostrils each morning to let a nutrient fluid drip into their stomachs. In their minds, nothing changed. They didn’t want to stay, and one night, on June 9, 2006, they decided to leave Guantánamo. They climbed on top of the sinks in their cells and hanged themselves.

In the Pentagon’s view, the men hanging from the walls of their cells were assassins whose suicides were attacks on America. The Pentagon struck back.

The story of the lives and deaths of these prisoners is an odyssey of three young men who left for Afghanistan and ended up in Cuba. It is the story of a war against a terror that is difficult to define, a war that the United States government wages even in the cells of its prisoners. It is about a place, Camp Delta, that exposes the asymmetry of this war, and it leads to the front lines—and the American lawyers standing between them, struggling to defend presumed enemies of their country. It is the story of the internal and external battle over Guantánamo.

Nobody but the dead knows the whole truth. But there are places where the story can be pieced together. There are files and letters, people who distinctly remember these prisoners. There are places where the strands of this story intersect. A law firm in Washington. A mosque in London. A living room in North Carolina. A cell in Guantánamo.

This is on my mind today for three reasons.  The first is that Kaiser describes himself as

‘a writer who combines in-depth reporting with literary storytelling. Taking on issues of social transformation and human rights, Kaiser’s stories are based on long-term immersion in environments that are difficult to access. His hope is that this approach provides a fuller understanding of the ways in which policies and social change affect people’s lives and long-term prospects.’

It’s worth reflecting on those aspirations if you read his essay (which I urge you to do) because they raise important questions about the lazy distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, and about the ability of researchers to produce and animate publics through their (our) work.  There’s something there, too, about the power (and, yes, the seductions) of story-telling: so much academic writing still seems to substitute and so privilege our own narrative (‘I did this… then I did that .. I thought this…. then I felt that’) for the stories of others.  And, as Kaiser shows in that brief extract, those stories are often multi-sited.

AGAMBEN State of exceptionThe second reason Kaiser’s work matters to me is that I’m revisiting ‘The Black Flag’ for The everywhere war (more on this later) and, partly in consequence, thinking again about spaces of exception.  I’m in Mexico this week, and I’ve been re-reading Giorgio Agamben‘s Homo sacer and The state of exception.  I was originally doing this to sharpen my arguments about the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as a space of exception for air strikes by the CIA/JSOC and the Pakistan Air Force – I’ll be talking about this in Glasgow early next month, and I’ll post the presentation slides as soon as I’ve finished – but as I’ve worked my way through these texts still wider issues have emerged.

One of the central elements of Homo sacer (and Remnants of Auschwitz – though here too the differences between the two texts are suggestive) is the deliberate exposure of bodies to death: outcasts from whom the protections of the law have been stripped so that their death is no crime.  But in The state of exception Agamben’s focus is on the genealogy of the ‘force of law’ through which this takes place: the victims are nowhere in sight.  Throughout the short text Agamben makes much of the proximity of war and, for the ’emergency’ that activates the modern state of exception, of the First World War, but war and its developing armature of (international) law is never subjected to critical scrutiny.

Yet war (and its casualties) can reveal something else about spaces of exception.  On the battlefield – and let us immediately agree with Frédéric Mégret that ‘the battlefield’ is a highly unstable conceptual constellation – soldiers are at once vectors and victims of violence.  Here the usual restrictions on killing are removed; they can kill, provided they do so ‘lawfully’, without risk of punishment (‘combatant immunity’).  The other side of the contract, of course, is that those who might kill them are not subject to  legal sanction either.

This is not what Agamben means by the state of exception, and apart from repeated references to a contemporary ‘global civil war’ (and to Guantanamo) the transnational rarely appears in his writing and international law disappears into the margins.  His thumb-nail history of the state of exception is framed by the state and its sovereign.

But for reasons that I’ll set out in a later post, the proximity of the exceptional space of  the ‘battlefield’, of war zones and killing fields, to the ultimate reductions of bare life, is far from accidental.  In fact, that’s one of the links between the three deaths in Guantanamo Bay and air strikes and targeted killings in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan which, as I’ll want to show, requires a radically enlarged view of spaces of exception and their historical geographies.  (In the case of the FATA, the Obama administration insists it requires a radically enlarged juridical conception of the ‘battlefield’ in time and space too).

To be continued.

More dirty dancing

As I work on turning my Beirut talk on drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into a long-form version – which includes a detailed and critical engagement with Giorgio Agamben‘s characterisation of the state/space of exception – I’ll post some of the key arguments here.  But for now, two important developments.

Document-excerpt

First, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has just published a list of 330 drone strikes  between 2006 and July 2013 (data for the five strikes that took place in 2007 are missing) compiled by the Pakistan government (see extract above); this is an update of a partial release from the Bureau last summer.  The source is a series of reports filed each evening by Political Agents in the field to the FATA secretariat, and while it’s not a comprehensive listing – and Islamabad relies on other sources too – the document closely follows the Bureau’s own database compiled from other independent sources.  It also allows for a more accurate mapping of the strikes – more to come on this.

But one key difference between the list and the Bureau’s database is that, following the election of Obama, the official reports no longer attempted to classify the victims as combatants or civilians: and the coincidence may not be coincidental.  According to Chris Woods,

‘One of my sources, a former Pakistani minister, has indicated that local officials may have come under pressure to play down drone civilian deaths following the election of Barack Obama. It’s certainly of concern that almost all mention of non-combatant casualties simply disappears from this document after 2009, despite significant evidence to the contrary.’

One of the most egregious omissions is the drone strike on 24 October 2012 that killed Mamana Bibi, a grandmother tending the fields with her grandchildren.  The case was documented extensively by Amnesty International and yet, as the Bureau notes, while the date and location of the strike is recorded the report from the political agent is remarkably terse and makes nothing of her evident civilian status.

‘If a case as well-documented as Mamana Bibi’s isn’t recorded as a civilian death, that raises questions about whether any state records of these strikes can be seen as reliable, beyond the most basic information,’ said Mustafa Qadri, a researcher for Amnesty International…. ‘It also raises questions of complicity on the part of the Pakistan state – has there been a decision to stop recording civilians deaths?’

These are important questions, and in fact one of the central objectives of my own essay is to document the close, covert co-operation between the US and Pakistani authorities: what I called, in an earlier post, dirty dancing, trading partly on Jeremy Scahill’s inventory of ‘dirty wars’ and partly on Joshua Foust‘s calling out of the ‘Islamabad drone dance’.

We now know that this collaboration continued at the very least until late 2011.  The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center routinely prepared reports that included maps (see below) and pre- and post-strike imagery that were briefed by the Deputy Director to Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, and subsequently transmitted to Islamabad.

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And consistent with the reports from Political Agents to the FATA Secretariat, Greg Miller and Bob Woodward note that in these briefings:

Although often uncertain about the identities of its targets, the CIA expresses remarkable confidence in its accuracy, repeatedly ruling out the possibility that any civilians were killed.  One table estimates that as many as 152 “combatants” were killed and 26 were injured during the first six months of 2011. Lengthy columns with spaces to record civilian deaths or injuries contain nothing but zeroes.

The collaboration is important, because it has major implications for how one thinks about the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as a ‘space of exception’: there are multiple legal regimes through which the people who live in these borderlands are knowingly and deliberately ‘exposed to death’, as Agamben would have it.  More on this later, but for now there is a second, more substantive point to be sharpened.

I’ve previously emphasised that the people of FATA are not only ‘living under drones‘, as the Stanford/NYU legal team put it last year, but also under the threat of air strikes from the Pakistan Air Force.  Last week the PAF resumed air strikes against leaders of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in North Waziristan, using first F-16 aircraft and then helicopter gunships to attack what were described as ‘eight major targets’ in the villages of Mir Ali (Hamzoni, Issori, Khadi and Nawana). Although the Air Force described the operation as a ‘blitz’, it initially claimed that only two people were killed.  A different story soon emerged.

MIR ALI

According to Pakistan’s International News, the air raids started just before midnight on 20 January, and people ‘left their homes in desperation and spent the night in the open along with children when the jets started bombing.’

There were conflicting reports about the identity of those killed. Military authorities said all the 40 people killed in the overnight aerial strikes were hardcore militants or their relatives and family members.

However, tribesmen in Mir Ali subdivision insisted that some local villagers, including women, children and elderly people, were also killed in the bombing by the PAF’s fighter aircraft and Pakistan Army’s helicopter gunships as residential areas were attacked.

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Several days later there were reports of hundreds – even thousands – of people fleeing the area in anticipation of continuing and intensifying military operations.  On 25 January the Express Tribune reported:

“Most of the families of Mir Ali Bazaar and adjacent areas have been leaving,” Abdullah Wazir, a resident of Spin Wam told The Express Tribune, adding, “women and children have been leaving with household materials, but livestock and larger items of belongings are being abandoned by these families.”

“It is difficult to find shelter in Bannu,” said Janath Noor, aged 38, who travelled there with her family. “There are problems at home and here in Bannu too.” She added that the families were forced to act independently as the political administrations in North Waziristan and Bannu have not made arrangements for the fleeing families. Some families reportedly spent the night under the open sky in Bannu town, waiting for any available shelter.

Some IDPs have also faced problems such as harassment at the hands of the police, requests for bribes, soaring rates of transport from Mir Ali and inflated rents for houses in Bannu. Some families, suspected of being militants, have had problems finding accommodation in Bannu district.

Mir Ali:Bannu

By 27 January the government estimated that 8,000 people had arrived in Bannu, while many others unable to find shelter and unwilling to sleep in the open had hone on to Peshawar and elsewhere.  But the head of the FATA Disaster Management Authority declared that ‘No military operation has been announced in the tribal area so there are no instructions to make arrangements for the internally displaced people.’

Most local people were clearly sceptical about that and, certainly, there were authoritative claims that Pakistan was being put ‘on a war footing’ to counter the surging power of the TTP.  In the same week that the air strikes were launched, Islamabad promulgated an amended Protection of Pakistan Ordinance (PPO), modelled on the imperial Rowlatt Act of 1919, that included provisions for secret courts, greater shoot-to-kill license for the police, house raids without warrants and the detention of terror suspects without charge. Rana Sanaullah, Minister for Law, Parliamentary Affairs and Public Prosecution in the Punjab and a close confidant of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told the Guardian: ‘I think what will be done will be no worse than what has happened in Guantánamo Bay.’  Not surprisingly, he also offered support for the US drone strikes:

‘We believe that drone attacks damage the terrorists, very much… Inside, everyone believes that drone attacks are good; but outside, everyone condemn because the drones are American.’

And, as I’ll try to show in a later post, it’s a different inside/outside indistinction that plays a vital role in producing the FATA as a space of exception.