Predators over the FATA

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London has published a confidential reportDetails of Attacks by NATO Forces/Predators in FATA, whose tabulations cover more than 70 drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas between January 2006 and October 2009.

The tabulations are significant because they are not based on press reports – the standard and highly imperfect source – but on reports prepared for the FATA Secretariat and transmitted to Islamabad by government agents in the field (who rely on their own observations, and reports from the tribal police and other informants).  According to one well-placed observer, ‘There was no benefit in officials “cooking the books” here, since this document was clearly never intended to be seen outside the civilian administration.’

Predator/NATO strikes in FATA

It’s an incomplete list – the Bureau has a more comprehensive tabulation – but of the 746 deaths from these air strikes 147 (20 per cent) are identified as civilians (including 94 children).

Still, the Bureau notes some puzzling (even troubling) omissions.  In particular, reports of civilian deaths virtually disappear from the record after Obama took office: ‘In part this is because officials occasionally note that “details of casualties are yet to be ascertained.” But many credible reports of civilian deaths are simply missing. The Bureau’s own research shows that civilian deaths have been credibly reported in at least 17 of the 53 CIA drone strikes in Obama’s first year in office. Yet FATA officials report civilian deaths in only three incidents in 2009.’

There have been rumours of more comprehensive tabulations, but the Bureau acknowledges that much also depends on information provided by the Pakistani military.  And it would be interesting to see a comparable list of casualties resulting from Pakistan’s own air strikes in the FATA.

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?

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).

8448237526_92002912de

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.

falco_uav_galileo_avionica_paf_pakistan_air_force_01

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.

Living (and dying) under drones

Earlier this month I commented on the theatre of secrecy within which US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan is staged: a discreditable rhetorical device that works to divert the public gaze from Waziristan to Washington.  I drew on a brilliant essay by Madiha Tahir, in which she objects to the way the Obama administration’s ‘theatrical performance of faux secrecy’ over its drone war in the FATA (and elsewhere) – a repugnantly teasing dance in which the veil of secrecy is let slip once, twice, three times – functions to draw its audience’s entranced eye towards the American body politic and away from the Pakistani bodies on the ground.

Tonight our eyes are drawn back to Pakistan with the publication of a field report called Living Under Drones from the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU.  At the time of writing the report has not been released for public distribution, but early versions were made available to media outlets under embargo. The most detailed coverage that I have found so far is from firedoglake (a three part report) but there are also good reports from the Los Angeles Times and in the UK the Guardian and the Independent – with, I hope, more to follow.  There is also a YouTube video summarising the report:

Robert Greenwald and Brave New Foundation prepared the video to accompany the report. Sarah Knuckey of New York University and James Cavallero of Stanford University describe how they compiled the report and explain they were able to gain access to people in an “area cordoned off and into which virtually no one can enter.”

From the media summaries and the video it’s clear that Living under drones directly challenges the dominant narrative of ‘precision strikes’ with few civilian casualties.  Its most original contribution derives from personal testimony by those directly affected.  Working in concert with both Reprieve , a London-based law and human rights organisation, and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a human rights organisation in Pakistan, the American researchers interviewed 139 people over a nine-month period, including 69 survivors or relatives of victims. The report provides first-hand accounts of three specific drone strikes and details the ‘considerable and under-accounted for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.’ It also documents the hideous practice of ‘double tap‘ – follow-up strikers on rescuers – that, in a radically different context, was vigorously condemned by the United States just days ago when the attack on its diplomatic mission in Benghazi was followed by an attack on the survivors and rescuers.

Hayatullah stopped, got out of his own car, and slowly approached the wreckage, debating whether he should help the injured and risk being the victim of a follow-up strike. He stated that when he got close enough to see an arm moving inside the wrecked vehicle, someone inside yelled that he should leave immediately because another missile would likely strike. He started to return to his car and a second missile hit the damaged car and killed whomever was still left inside. He told us that nearby villagers waited another twenty minutes before removing the bodies, which he said included the body of a teacher from Hayatullah’s village.

Not surprisingly, this fear has a catastrophic effect on daily life in the region: on everything from going to school to mourning at a funeral.  Sarah Knuckey, one of the lead authors of the report, explained that people “have a constant fear that they’ll be hit, even though they know they’re civilians.”

When I’ve lectured about the supposedly covert campaign, there’s almost always been someone in the audience to tell me that there is a vast difference between targeting individuals in Pakistan and levelling whole areas of a city like Cologne.  So there is.  But there are also significant differences.

First, the combined bomber offensive against Germany – whatever one thinks about it, and I’ve made my own criticisms of it clear in “Doors into nowhere” (see DOWNLOADS tab) – was carried out during a declared state of war: the United States is not at war with Pakistan (even though one of the preoccupations of the previous US administration, and presumably the present one, was, precisely, how to conduct ‘war in countries we’re not at war with‘).

Second, when most people imagine (or remember) air raids in the Second World War I suspect most of them conjure up the sound of air raid sirens, the crump-crump of the anti-aircraft batteries, and the clatter down to the air-raid shelter.  In the FATA there are no sirens, no air defences and no shelters.

Noor Behram, Orphans of a drone strike, Waziristan, August 2010

Living under drones is particularly important because there are serious state restrictions on reporting from (or even in) the region; foreign journalists require military permission to enter, and all journalists operate under constant threat: see, for example, here and here.  The last detailed field survey in the region was carried out by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) – now the Center for Civilians in Conflict– which interviewed over 160 civilians in 2009-2010 who had experienced direct losses in either FATA or the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK, formerly Northwest Frontier Province).  The results were published as Civilian Harm and Conflict in North West Pakistan (2010) though it should be emphasized that the report makes it clear that the CIA is not the only perpetrator, and that the researchers also detailed losses from both Taliban violence and counterinsurgency operations by the Pakistani military, including strikes by the Pakistan Air Force).  Since then, the Obama administration has stepped up its campaign to minimise or even deny civilian casualties from its covert war, and in stark counterpoint Appendix B of Living under drones provides a weekly accounting of strikes and casualties since 2010.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has also done vital, brilliant work in documenting the casualties, amplifying the voices of the survivors, and exposing the horrors that would otherwise pass unnoticed by those who have had their eyes fixed on Washington rather than Waziristan (see, for example, here).

Today the findings of these individuals and organisations have been confirmed by another courageous group of researchers.  And the answer, as Madiha Tahir made perfectly clear, is not to be found in ‘transparency’.  That may be a start – but it must not be the end.

Note:  You should be able to download the report Living under Drones: Death, injury and trauma to civilians from US drone practices in Pakistan here but if not then try here (and many thanks to Nicholas Dahmann for the mirror).  More when I’ve worked through the report, but in the meantime here is the incomparable Glen Greenwald.