Debating Drone Attacks

February 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m posting an old e-mail exchange on drone attacks, for ease of access.

Farhat Taj, of Aryana Institute fame, wrote a typically ludicrous and confused piece for the Daily Times. One choice passage:

I would challenge both the US and Pakistani media to provide verifiable evidence of civilian ‘casualties’ because of drone attacks on Waziristan, i.e. names of the people killed, names of their villages, dates and locations of the strikes and, above all, the methodology of the information that they collected. If they can’t meet the challenge, I would request them to stop throwing around fabricated figures of ‘civilian casualties’ that confuse people around the world and provide propaganda material to the pro-Taliban and al Qaeda forces in the politics and media of Pakistan.

I responded:

Dear Farhat Sahiba,

This, unsurprisingly, is another misleading and dishonest article, from start to finish.

Setting aside the absurdity of your fatiguing attempt to play ‘native informant’ — to speak in the voice of the people of Waziristan, as a whole — there are an unbearable number of falsehoods and misguided assertions in what you have written. I think most on this list lack the patience to respond to your dispatches — I usually do. But somehow I feel compelled to reply to this.

First of all, it might be helpful to clarify that the estimates doing the rounds in the Pakstani media are typically not American media estimates. The most detailed figure of 687 civilian deaths as of April 2009 is gleaned from “figures compiled by the Pakistani authorities.” [1] A more recent figure (probably extrapolated from the first) of 700 civilian deaths for the year 2009 is attributed to the same source. [2]

In fact, contrary to what your article implies, the reports that I have seen in the international media are typically much, much lower, and much more generous in their characterization of American terror. For example, to quote the judgment of a Reuters report, only a few days ago: “the United States carried out at least 50 drone air strikes in northwestern border regions in 2009, killing about 415 people, including many foreign militants, according to tally reports from Pakistani officials and residents.” [3] They very rarely present the program as something to be opposed, as is suggested by your assertion that the foreign figures play into the hands of the Taliban. In fact, as with their coverage of the war on terror more generally, they invariably report the words of ‘unnamed’ US officials as fact. The Fourth Estate in America has your back, Farhat sahiba — I’m not sure why you’re worried.

All that is of preliminary importance. Secondly, and much more critically, your article entirely inverts appropriate principles. Your argument seems to be that, absent concrete evidence that those killed in drone attacks are innocent civilians, media and government officials must report these casualties as ‘dead terrorists/Taliban/Al-Qaeda’. The logic employed here is laughable — in fact, it represents a reversal of all elementary legal principles. We are expected to believe that, when the CIA — the intelligence wing of a security apparatus that, lest we forget, is dripping in the blood of innocents, past and present — launches a missile on the basis of their suspicions, all victims are terrorists. In other words, habeus corpus be damned; they are guilty until proven innocent. This, it goes without saying, is outrageous and indefensible.

In fact, it is more than this. You are rightly outraged that the Taliban have executed innocent civilians in their pursuit of spies and informants. But it ought to be obvious that they employ the same barbaric, frightening logic that the CIA (and you) celebrate in the example of the drone program. Just as, in your opinion, the CIA’s suspicions suffice as grounds for a death sentence from the air, in the case of summary executions the suspicions of the Taliban, as they see it, suffice as evidence for execution. I find both barbaric and worthy of wholehearted condemnation. How you excuse one and celebrate the other is entirely beyond me. And beyond all those versed in basic precepts of law, international or domestic, I should think. [4]

Thus (thirdly) — the challenge that you issue ought to be returned to sender.

If you read the article in The News that first reported (to my knowledge) that 687 civilians had died in the drone attacks as of April 2009, you will see that the writer notes, to the best of his ability, the specific drone attacks that killed specific senior Al-Qaeda operatives. As we would expect with a program that is run on the basis of intelligence provided by “notoriously unreliable” local informants [5], though, in only ten of fifty drone attacks was the target of the attack actually hit. If you have evidence to the contrary, that is fine (if is fine to want, also, more details and an account of methodology)–but, nonetheless, the burden of proof is fully and entirely in your court, not on the opposite side.

In fact, critics are justified in their suspicions, not only on principle, but also empirically, for numerous reasons. For one, one of the most celebrated of the local informants, remember, was the Haqqani double agent who killed eight CIA agents a few days ago [6] — are we expected to believe that he gave reliable intelligence about TTP/Al-Qaeda leaders, throughout? Does this not tell us something about the kind of intelligence operation the CIA is running in Af-Pak? Perhaps even more damningly, the alleged precision of the program is so obviously belied by the fact that a full fifteen — fifteen! — drone attacks were launched targeting Baitullah Mehsud [5], before they finally got their man (along with his family, don’t forget). Who died in the other fourteen?

Your enthusiasm is particularly jarring when we think back to some of the most chilling episodes of the program: in June, for example, the CIA launched missiles at a funeral for victims of an earlier attack, killing an estimated eighty people [7]. This was less than a week after the CIA had carried out a similarly depraved ‘one-two’ punch–launching a missile at people who had gathered to collect the bodies of victims of an earlier attack. As I have already argued, if we are to proceed on the basis of accepted, ‘civilized’ principles, the burden of proof is on your shoulders, not on the shoulders of those who, having learned from the past and present of the American empire, believe, entirely appropriately, that the CIA may be killing innocents.

In sum, your bombastic, uncritical rhetoric has in fact set you a challenge that you — even in your role as valiant spokesperson for FATA — can scarcely meet. You — not anyone else — must provide thorough, uncontroversial, verifiable documentation that each of the more than seven hundred victims of the CIA drone program have, indeed, been members of Taliban or Al-Qaeda. You — not those who, having learned from history and from the way in which this murderous program is conducted, think that innocent civilians have died — must provide names, dates, villages, affiliation, rank in Taliban/Al-Qaeda. Maybe you can start with these episodes in June, and work your way through the rest?



Farhat responded to this, but only to repeat what she had already argued, and to further position herself as ‘the-only-person-who-knows-what-FATA-wants’. There was a second exchange, with a different partisan of the program. I’m not going to post his message or identify him, but I’m posting my response to him, as well, because it highlights some additional issues.

Dear —– Sb,

First things first: you are well within your rights to call me a JI sympathizer, or whatever else. Only know that it reflects very poorly on you and your argument — perhaps because your reply lacks substance, you feel compelled to slander me. I would suggest a different tactic next time, but I suppose that’s up to you. Precisely because you haven’t presented a reasonable counter-argument, I think there is very little use in carrying on this discussion much further. For the benefit of the many people on this list, I will try to keep this response short. And it will be my last.

I’ll take your few points in order.

(1) “You have made no mention of the atrocities committed by the TTP and Al-Qaeda.”

This is flatly untrue. In my reply to Farhat Sahiba, I explicitly called the logic that drives much of what these groups do “barbaric” and “frightening”. What distinguishes me, from you, is that I think the WoT (foreign and home-grown) is a clash of barbarisms, not a struggle between good and evil. What’s more, I would very readily argue that decades of imperialist intervention and structural underdevelopment, recent military operations, and the strategic meddling of our security establishment are primary causes of the horrific situation that confronts us. In short, the emergence of groups like the TTP is something that itself needs to be explained, and not ignored by summoning the useless rhetoric of “terrorism” and/or “evil.” But that is a much longer and complicated discussion than I think you and I would be able to sustain.

(2) “Does it mean you have volunteered yourself as a devotee of these outfits?”

I would recommend that you recant this sentence, as it–again–reflects terribly on your ability to have a rational discussion.

(3) “…It would have been a good gesture of you had you gone through such an exercise on your own and offered the same details for the benefits of the people that are on the list of SPN…”

You have either ignored or not understood the substance of my response to Farhat Taj’s article. I will summarize it for you. Absent evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to believe that each of the hundreds of victims of the drone attacks are members of either Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Both for reasons of legal principle and on empirical grounds (the fact of documented mass civilian death in numerous drone attacks, the fact that it took the CIA fifteen strikes to kill Baitullah, the fact that they have demonstrably shoddy intelligence about the region, the fact that they rely almost entirely on informants, etc.), the burden of proof is on the shoulders of those making this enormous and obviously false claim. Farhat Taj didn’t offer this evidence. You didn’t offer this evidence.

In the interests of keeping my earlier response short, I didn’t introduce the issue of accountability. What exacerbates the heinousness of the drone program (and, by extension, the heinousness of your readiness to sanction it) is the complete lack of any accountability, legal or otherwise, for those responsible for the deaths of civilians. How can you, —– Sb., endorse a program that has killed civilians and has rewarded (rather than prosecuted) those responsible? I anxiously await a cogent justification.

(4) ” I think you know very well that most of the Tribal areas are out of the reach of the government itself.”

The more interesting (and complicated) discussion about the history of the tribal areas and their relation to the central State notwithstanding, you ought to be careful when you make this claim. Because if the tribal areas are out of the reach of the government, why would you accept the unverified testimony of unnamed security officials when they claim that ‘x’ number of militants were killed in drone attacks (let alone when unnamed CIA officials make this claim)? The only feasible defense, as I see it, would be that you believe everyone in FATA to be TTP or Al-Qaeda (and thus worthy of elimination). But I hope you agree that this would be an absurd position to take.

(5) Figure of 687 vs. Figure of 380

I am a bit confused. The figures offered in your table are more-or-less the same as the figures provided in the article in The News (Al-Jazeera, by the way, has used a figure of nearly 700 deaths since August 2008 [1]), but you argue that my use of those figures is illegitimate on the grounds that the wikipedia article only documents 380 deaths.

Regardless, the wikipedia article is nothing but a compilation of articles from the mainstream media. It is useful, but obviously limited — and it tells us very little about the important questions at hand, largely because the reporting in the media has — as a rule — been so poor (i.e., prone to report the word of ‘unnamed security officials’ as fact). Tellingly, more often than not, when these articles do carry testimony from eyewitnesses or locals, the report runs counter to the official narrative, and it is deemed that civilians have died. You (or anyone else) can look at the first several footnotes on the wikipedia article for yourself for evidence of this, if interested.

(6) Casualties of Other Terrorist Attacks

The figures in the other wikipedia article you provided  (on terrorist incidents in Pakistan in 2009) are flawed, as they lump everything together (MQM vs. MQM-H violence and Baluchi attacks on police are included in the ‘terrorism’ statistics, for example). It is more than reasonable to want to quantify the number of people that have been murdered by the TTP– but you have an obligation to be careful in how you compile the statistics.

That said, I’m not sure what you want me to say in relation to suicide bombings and other attacks by the TTP. It goes without saying that I find them morally reprehensible. However, condemning them as such is simply not going to get you very far. Any fool can do that. Case-in-point: every time there’s a bombing, everyone from Zardari to Altaf bhai releases statements denouncing said attack. This is nothing more than politics reduced to meaningless theater. If you want to make a substantive intervention, politically or analytically, you simply have to possess an account of what you think the root causes of this violence might be. That is not a justification — just an exercise in responsibility.

So yes I believe that the existence of groups like the TTP is a menace to the people of Pakistan. But I also think it is comical if you believe that this is where politics starts and ends — that calling them a menace moves you any closer to a resolution of the problem of militancy.

(7) ” I hope your JI-like deepest love for the TTP and AQ won’t distract you from bringing these realities to the light.”

And I hope you apologize for making unfounded and idiotic statements like the one above.





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