Unless you have the misfortune to live under their flight paths, it’s easy to push drones to the back of your mind. That’s what’s so perfect from a US military point of view: remote-control warfare, with the emphasis on ‘remote.’ See no evil, know no evil. What does an operator sitting in a bunker in Nevada know of what’s happening on the ground in Pakistan?
What do you?
While you might have registered the fact that US drone use in Pakistan quintupled in the Obama years from the Bush years, you’ve probably avoided dwelling on it. You almost certainly haven’t thought through the personal and political havoc these drones are wreaking. And you probably don’t want to even consider reading Living Under Drones, a 165-page report by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Center at Stanford and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU (that mouthful of authorship is off-putting enough).
Enter Mohsin Hamid, the Pakistani writer whose deliciously wicked novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist touched the raw edge of western anxiety, and whose newly published satire How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia is a well-deserved best-seller. Hamid has the novelist’s ability to bring you inside experience that otherwise remains… remote. So it was a savvy move when the New York Review of Books asked him to review the Stanford/NYU report, even if they then published his piece under the almost perversely understated headline ‘Why Drones Don’t Help.’ If you don’t read the report itself (there’s a summary here, and the full report is downloadable), at least read Hamid’s review of it.
Here’s an excerpt:
If there is any misconception that the drone strikes are primarily counter-terrorist in nature, aimed at key leaders of international terror networks, this can be dispensed with [....] The elimination of ‘high-value’ targets — al-Qaeda or ‘militant’ leaders — has been exceedingly rare: fewer than 50 people, or about 2% of all drone deaths. Rather, ‘low-level insurgents’ have been the main targets [....]
In the media, the term ‘militant’ is often used in describing drone casualties. The report makes clear that this blurs together two legally very different groups of people. A ‘militant’ who is a member of the Taliban, planning to attack US troops, is not the same as a ‘militant’ who normally herds livestock, carries a rifle, and today is sitting with other members of his clan to discuss a threat top his isolated village from a neighboring clan.
Furthermore, according to the report, the ‘current administration’s apparent definition’ holds that any male of military age who is killed in an area where militants are thought to operate (and where, therefore, drones operate) will be counted as a militant if killed.
In other words, if you’re killed by a drone, the Obama administration says that this makes you by definition a militant. Your death in a drone strike is all the proof that’s needed of your guilt, and thus of the right to have killed you.
Neither Orwell nor Kafka could have dreamed up better.
This has allowed administration officials to make wildly unrealistic claims, disputed by even the most conservative analysts of drone casualties, that civilian deaths are ‘extremely rare’ or have been in ‘single digits’ since President Obama took office.
If you disregard this novel definition and then try to ascertain what category of person was actually killed, you will arrive instead at an estimate that some 411 to 884 civilians have died in US drone strikes in Pakistan, including 168 to 197 children.
This includes so-called ‘signature strikes’ which attack unknown people for gathering in groups or otherwise “behaving like militants” as well as people trying to bring aid to injured victims of strikes.
Hamid goes on to look closer at the harrowing experience of those affected, and at the widespread Pakistani revulsion at the use of drones. And with the US now intensifying its drone campaign elsewhere, as in Yemen, he cogently makes the case that their use only weakens already weak governments and thus severely undermines America’s own foreign-policy interests.
In other words, this isn’t counter-terrorist; it’s counter-effective. What’s touted as “clean” technology (for the man in the bunker) is in fact as dirty as ever. And the depressing conclusion is that the Obama administration is as stuck as its predecessor in the self-defeating meme of a military “war on terrorism.”