The expansion of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia is rarely discussed in mainstream forums, but breaking this silence are two important reports from prestigious universities that shed light on the underreported human suffering and dangerous implications of the drone program. (more…)
From National Public Radio to the New York Times, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, have been receiving a lot of press coverage. These high-tech, unmanned aircraft are changing the way the United States, and other countries, go to war. While drones are mostly used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes, they are increasingly being used for military strikes. Most of the drone strikes occur in Pakistan but are increasing in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. launched 52 drone strikes in Pakistan. The Obama administration has dramatically increased that number to nearly 280 so far, along with dozens more in Yemen and Somalia. As a writer and peace activist, I am concerned that this technology will make it far too easy for nations to go to war. The international community needs to mitigate the insidious implications of drone warfare.
In December of last year, the Washington Postreported that within three years, the Obama administration “has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries.” This includes building secret drone bases in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula.
The proliferation of drone technology has created what some journalists are identifying as a global arms race for drones. Countries such as Israel, Great Britain, and China already possess drones and demand for drones is growing in countries like Egypt, India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia.
What makes drones so attractive is the diminished human cost to the users. People can pilot a drone from miles away without putting their lives in danger. In addition, drones are seen as effective tools in the “War on Terror.” They can fly over inaccessible regions, such as the FATA region in Pakistan, and strike adversaries with little harm to civilians and soldiers on the battlefield.
However, drones are not as clean as they seem. Like other high-tech weapons, drones kill civilians. It is tough to get precise numbers on how many people drones kill because, one, the strikes occur in dangerous and inaccessible areas; two, the drone program is largely run by the CIA (but also the military), which means these operations are carried out in secrecy; and three, the Obama counts all military-aged males in a strike zone as “combatants,” despite the possibility that many of them could be civilians.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism managed to get conservative figures based on news reports and journalists on the ground. According to the Bureau, more than 3,000 people have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Of those, anywhere between 500 and over 900 were civilians. Given the difficulty of counting civilian deaths and the Obama administration’s broad definition of “combatant”, it is very possible that the actual number of civilians killed is much higher. Wired Magazine also managed to get photographs of the damage drone strikes have done in Pakistan (be advised: the pictures are disturbing and some show dead children). As drone strikes increase, so will civilian casualties.
Civilian deaths aren’t just caused by negligence on the part of drone operators. They are also the result of drone policy. The U.S. will often launch follow-up strikes, which are strikes that occur quickly after one was launched, target rescuers, and strike at funerals. In addition, the CIA carries out signature strikes, which are drone strikes based on the movement of individuals without knowing their names or what they’ve done. This, inevitably, results in the CIA and U.S. military killing civilians based on the assumption that they could be “terrorists” or “militants”. In late April, President Obama granted the CIA and U.S. military the authority to launch signature strikes in Yemen, thereby expanding the U.S.’s covert war in that country.
The deaths of civilians by U.S. drone strikes have angered people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and arguably led to an increased likelihood of attacks on Americans. In 2009, before the U.S. launched drone strikes in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had no more than 300 members. Once the U.S. began and expanded missile strikes in Yemen, that increased to more then 700. People in those countries get angry at the United States for killing their friends and relatives by drones and want to get revenge. These feelings of anger and vengeance fuel the popularity of groups like al-Shabaab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a result, the drone strikes further destabilize already-underdeveloped countries and strengthen militant groups that want to strike the United States.
Moreover, drones are also uniquely insidious because they make it easier for countries to launch military strikes with little debate or accountability. Drone operators are far-removed from the harsh realities of the battlefield. All they have to do is control the drone by remote control and kill people with the push of a button. This desensitizes the operators and makes killing people look like a video game. In addition, the public is far removed from the realities of drone warfare, which dampens debate and calls for accountability.
To make matter worse, President Obama personally approves every drone strike against suspected terrorists, with little oversight or checks and balances — making him the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner. He used this power to kill three U.S. citizens in Yemen by drone strikes with no due process. This sets a very dangerous precedent. Future leaders will have the power to kill whoever they want with a drone with no accountability — a power that will inevitably be abused. This violates basic human rights, is profoundly tyrannical, and morally reprehensible.
Current international laws, such as the Hague Regulations, Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Charter, and international human rights law, apply to drone warfare and make clear that killing civilians is illegal. According to United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston, “the use of drones for targeted killing is almost never likely to be legal.” Unfortunately, the U.S. has not lived up to these standards. The global proliferation of drones calls for new international standards on how drones should be used. It is reasonable for drones to be used for humanitarian purposes, such as rescue missions. However, using drones to kill people should be prohibited or tightly regulated. Most importantly, any future drone policy that develops must meet basic standards of international human rights. To implement these changes, it is important for activists, journalists, and concerned citizens around the world to pressure their governments and the international community to implement them. The United States, and any other country, does not have the right to bomb whomever it wants, whether by drone or manned aircraft.
While drones are commonly used overseas, they are increasingly being used on U.S. soil. I’ll have more on that in part two of this series.
One of the chronic problems the international community has with almost every disease-fighting campaign has been the need to overcome mistrust — mistrust of government, of foreign health workers or outsider do-gooders in general.
This is, for a variety of reasons, especially true of vaccines.
So many fear it’s certainly going to be harmful to a number of global health efforts to learn, as reported first in The Guardian and later by the New York Times and others, that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up a fake vaccination program in Pakistan in order to collect DNA samples. Says the Guardian:
The CIA organised a fake vaccination programme in the town where it believed Osama bin Laden was hiding in an elaborate attempt to obtain DNA from the fugitive al-Qaida leader’s family, a Guardian investigation has found.
The CIA, of course, has refused to confirm or deny. Both the Guardian and the New York Times reports tend to focus on issues of terrorism, foreign policy and the increasingly strained relationship between the U.S. and our “ally” Pakistan. There is little mention, sadly, about the fact that the CIA ruse may have seriously undermined a key tool in the worldwide battle against all sorts of disease threats.
Establishing and maintaining trust is critical to success in public health.
Pakistan is, among other things, one of those corners of the world where polio continues to spread. The infectious disease has been especially hard to stamp out with vaccination.
With this news, it is perhaps not much of a stretch to predict that the polio campaign in Pakistan will have an even harder time reaching people in remote communities hostile to outsiders. But beyond the impact on the polio campaign in Pakistan, the CIA ploy is almost certain to fuel conspiracy theories and mistrust around any number of global health or humanitarian endeavors. Lives of health workers may even be put at risk.
Amidst all the media frenzy since the death of Osama Bin Laden over two weeks ago, some voices have been missing. We believe they are important voices – those of Pakistani youth. Pakistan is a nation of young people: over 60% of the population is under the age of 25. What is on the mind of some of these young people after the special forces attack that killed Bin Laden?
As the ground shifts under the already teetering relationship between the US and Pakistan, we headed to Karachi University to ask some questions of the students there: What was your reaction to the death of Bin Laden? Do you think anyone in Pakistan’s government or Army know about Bin Laden’s whereabouts? What does this mean for the security situation of the region? What will be the implications for Pakistan and for their future?
American lawmakers are probing for answers, but so are Pakistanis. We found a hugely diverse range of viewpoints. Watch the video to hear what they said.
With over 170 million Pakistanis in a country about the size of Texas, you’d think we’d hear more in the Western media about Pakistani public opinion in reaction to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden was killed in an attack on Sunday by American Special Forces in the sleepy city of Abbottabad, Pakistan. But skip the gatekeepers – with all the digital tools at our fingertips, you can explore some Pakistani perspectives with a few clicks of the mouse and get opinions straight from the source via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs.
For a lens into the real-time views of some of Pakistan’s media elite, look to Twitter.
Editor of Newsweek Pakistan Fasih Ahmed (@theRealFasih) tweeted “ No time for misplaced anti-Americanism. #Osama was an enemy of Pakistan, which has some tough questions to answer now.”
Mustafa Qadri is a researcher for Amnesty international (@Mustafa_Qadri) and wrote “ Only time will tell if this is the dose of reality our Army needs to wake up to the threat from within. But should I hold my breath?”
The Pakistani Twitterati, while diverse, is largely populated with tech-savvy English speakers – many of whom are journalists and editors and fall within the country’s “liberal minority”. But many are wary of American attitudes towards Pakistan.
Freelance journalist Sheheryar Mirza tweeted “Scenes of American’s celebrating Osama’s death reminds me of those celebrating 9/11. Albeit, not the *same* thing, but irony in it.” Mirza has a Tumblr blog here:
“Some Americans r celebrating; some Pakistanis more restrained bc we are likely to pay the price. #OBL #moreterrorontheway”, wrote Madiha Tahir.
Fatima Bhutto, niece of the late Benazir Bhutto, is also on Twitter and she wrote this of Obama’s speech. “The more I see it, the more Obama’s speech reminds me of GWB just with better diction.”
Then there are those who are in the right place at the right time. Or wrong time, depending on how you view it. @ReallyVirtual, otherwise known as Sohaib Athar, is now famous online as the man who live-tweeted the attack without knowing it at the time and now has almost 60,000 followers on Twitter. His friend @rahat, or Ahmer Mumtaz posted some beautiful photos of Abbottabad on a blog meant to show the world what this charming and now infamous outpost looks like. You can check them out here.
Documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy wrote a direct message to me saying “Osama’s death ends a chapter in our sordid history- this however doesn’t mean that the war in Pakistan is over far from it- Tomorrow another Bin Laden will rise and more will follow if we don’t address the root causes that propel them in this direction.” Obaid Chinoy’s last film, Children of the Taliban aired on PBS FRONTLINE/World as well as the BBC in the UK, provides courageous reporting on the Taliban’s efforts to recruit children and young Pakistanis into their fold. You can watch a version online here.
On Twitter, look for well-connected folks and follow their “lists”. PBS FRONTLINE’s Azmat Khan has a great Pakistan list.
On Facebook it’ s a different story. By following the fan pages of symbolic Pakistani figures – whether political or cultural – you get a window through comments on posts into whatever demographic follows that page.
Saira Anwar, a radio presenter originally from Lahore, wrote this in response to my questions about her reaction to the Bin Laden death.
“It’s a big fake drama – no reality in that. Americans just want to destroy Pakistan – they already did a lot but they want to finish it that’s why they perform this drama…I don’t blame U.S; its our bloody politics they are greedy for money that’s why they are selling Pakistan… if they really killed Osama they should show his body straightaway but they know world will accept it like they accepted 9/11 drama and for that they will pay some money to our corrupt and bloody President Zardari – he is greedy for money like a dog greedy for a bone.”
Tariq Mehmood Khan, who is from Islamabad and holds an MBA, wrote some thoughtful answers to my message. He wrote:
“The manner in which the US. has launched a special forces operation is against Pakistani sovereignty and it clearly shows that there is a lack of cooperation between intelligence Agencies of Pakistan and USA. The US operation is in violation of international laws and it shows that USA has no respect for others country sovereignty. The people of Pakistan in general are suspicion (sic) about the incident. Some people say it is the part of conspiracy against Pakistan. Some say it was a pre-planned staged drama as in previous there were also many reports about the death of Osama Bin Laden. So there is a mixed reaction.”
Khan also shared some thoughts about the implications of the long-term relationship with the United States.
“Relations with USA are temporary and this operation has also proved this. Obama’s speech shows that Pakistan was totally unaware of the operation. This shows that USA has no trust in Pakistan. Pakistan and US interest in Afghanistan are not same so it is very difficult to develop a mutual understanding between the two countries.”
Like many commentators I read on Facebook, Khan doubted the narrative put forward by Obama and the American media.
“The real story seems to be very different. Wikileaks has already exposed many things about USA so I think there lies some new American agenda in this Drama. It would help Obama to be reelected. USA will again get the people favour to launch another military campaign in the region. They will try to strengthen their presence in the region and would justify their presence in the name of the war on terrorism to watch China and Iran.” Khan also highlighted the biases of both American and Pakistani media. “Your media has covered the news in the way of blaming Pakistan which is not fair. Our media has also covered it in the way of unfairness and promoted it like it was against our sovereignty and promoted against US people. I think USA policies are not good but it does not mean that US people are also not peace loving. It is my strong belief that all the peoples of world want peace but their governments have different agendas.”
On the Blogs
The blogosphere has some great insights from bloggers within Pakistan and expats alike. Kalsoom Lakhani wrote this of the news of the location of the Bin Laden hideaway in Abbottabad.
“It was also located near a Pakistani military academy, which begs the question, was bin Laden hiding in the area because he was an ISI asset? Or did the Pakistani military know he was there and was helping U.S. forces monitor his presence? Did Pakistan know that the U.S. knew that they knew? The questions are endless and speculation is infinite.”
Also writing on the location of the Bin Laden compound was Ahsan Butt, who is pursuing his PhD at the University of Chicago, and is of the Five Rupees blog.
“I’ve always told people that I thought Bin Laden would be in a place like Karachi – dense but sprawling at the same time, massive but small. You can hide there, trust me. Get one of your lieutenant’ s lieutenants to find you an apartment, and never leave. You’ d never be found, as long as you keep your mouth shut. The conventional wisdom, on the other hand, is that geographically withdrawn areas like FATA are a better bet. Tribal regions are well and good, except when the world’ s biggest superpower is looking for you, in which case you get more and more isolated and circumscribed with respect to where you can go and be. Well, looks like both the conventional wisdom and I were wrong. Abbottabad is not the tribal areas but it’ s hardly Karachi. It’s a smallish town. I dunno what the American equivalent would be: Columbus? Austin? Whatever.”
Raza Rumi, whose real name is Raza Ahmed, edits and is the primary writer for Pak Tea House and is based in Pakistan’s cultural capital of Lahore. His insights were stubbornly optimistic.
“We hope that Pakistan’s assistance will be acknowledged by the world and the Pakistan-bashers will find themselves proved, once again, wrong. A game changer, we hope this news is.”
You can go straight to some primary data – relevant even if it’s dated pre-Osama’s death. This survey has numbers on approval of Bin Laden in Pakistan and a half dozen other Muslim countries. In 2010, approval of Bin Laden had dropped to 18% from 52% five years earlier.
But if the brevity of Twitter, the musings of bloggers, and the raw data just isn’t doing it for you, here is an excellent piece of writing and analysis by commentator Mosharraf Zaidi, one of the first to bolt to Abbottabad to talk to people there.
“The news of bin Laden’s death may have been greeted with a spontaneous outpouring of joy and patriotism on the streets of American cities, and with relative disinterest in the Middle East, which is still preoccupied with the sights and sounds of the Arab Spring and probably was never really all that enamored with bin Laden to begin with. But in Pakistan, where bin Laden allegedly made his home for years — some reports suggest as many as five — the killing of the founder and leader of al Qaeda is not the end of a story. It is, sadly and inevitably, the beginning of a new chapter in an epic saga of death, destruction, deception and degeneration in Pakistan. If Americans are confused about exactly what Pakistan is up to, they need to get in line. Pakistanis are more confused — utterly so.”
And here is another opinion piece from celebrated Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, author of the novels Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Mohsin writes:
“The feeling in Lahore is familiar: it is like the dread that lingers over the city in the days after it has suffered a massive terrorist attack….This time, though, the attack has not yet happened, and the dread spans the entire country. Pakistanis know they may pay a blood price for Bin Laden’s killing. A purported mirror has been broken. Bad luck is to be expected.”
Those are just a few tiny drops in a sea of information – it can be overwhelming but with a roadmap, it’s worth it to wade into the internet to listen to the voices of those uniquely affected by American policies in Pakistan. It is at moments like this that we’re reminded to care and to look beyond the headlines – lest the gap of understanding widen so greatly that history should repeat itself and conflicts worsen between our two nations.
“A spokesman for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari says the president held an emergency meeting with top security officials Monday morning to discuss the announcement that Osama bin Laden has been killed. The spokesman said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, armed forces chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha were among those in attendance. The spokesman said the foreign ministry was preparing a formal statement.”
The Emergency Meeting:
(The following dialogue must be read in hyperbolic, melodramatic fashion as popularized by South Asian TV serials)
President Zardari (Z) anxiously twirls his mustache and frantically paces around. He keeps obsessively applying coconut oil to his hair. He is wearing a matching burgundy silk sleeping suit and pajamas.
General Kayani (K) is shining his numerous medals and pins on his General’s jacket. Prime Minister Gilani (G) is obsessively Googling. Director of ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) General Ahmed Shuja Pasha (P) is melancholy, and BBM’ing in the corner by his lonesome.
Zardari: Shit, yaar! (Yaar is Urdu for homie, friend, pal) Amreeka found Osama! They came here, killed him and then told us!
Gilani: Total shit, yaar!
Kayani: Total mind-blasting shit, yaar!
Z: Did any of you know about this? Why didn’t anyone tell me Amreeka was doing this operation?
Gilani: You explicitly told us never to bother you when you wore your “special pajamas” -
Kayani: Or applied coconut oil –
G: For your “fertility” sessions.
Z: (Embarrassed) – Not fertility! Vitality! I told you for vitality sessions!
K: Regardless, you explicitly said you never want to hear bad news, and instead want to be told, “Papu Yaar, taang na kar.” (It literally means “Dude, stop bothering me.”)
Z: (Like a confused child) Yaar, is this news bad?
Kayani and Gilani exchange worried, awkward glances.
Z: At least tell me they found him in some remote, isolated location in Waziristan?
The lack of photographic proof of Osama bin Laden’s lifeless body is fueling conspiracy theories around the world, and Pakistan is no exception.
“How could the world’s most wanted terrorist be living in a major city and not be detected?” asks Omar Jamil, a resident and native of Lahore, Pakistan. Jamil is a former journalist and businessman who also earned a master’s degree in the U.S. at Columbia University.
“A lot of questions being asked over here… how it happened, how Pakistan military wasn’t aware of the operation,” says Jamil, who notes skepticism among Pakistan’s citizens.
He describes a growing anti-American sentiment in the country. “It’s not fueled by religiosity,” he explains, saying it’s more over a sense that the U.S. is violating Pakistan’s sovereignty. Jamil goes on to say that U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani soil, in which civilians there have been killed, are “pissing a lot of people off.”
While citizens there aren’t completely shocked that bin Laden was in their country, they feel a sense of disappointed and anxiousness over what’s next, according to Jamil.
“It’s not something to celebrate. The first place to experience a backlash is Pakistan. There’s no jubilation here… It’s scary.”
Pakistani citizens are, however, shocked that bin Laden was essentially hiding in plain sight, Jamil says. “What’s more disturbing is [bin Laden] was in Abbottabad… a major city just miles away from Islamabad.”
Jamil says he finds it “really weird” that Pakistani officials didn’t know about the raid. “Any time U.S. choppers have crossed the border they’ve been repelled by Pakistani military. It’s a bit curious how they flied (sic) in without being detected.”
Democratic senator Joe Lieberman is calling for the “gruesome” photos of bin Laden’s body to be released in order “to quell any doubts that this somehow is a ruse that the American government has carried out.”
As chilling a sight as that may be, Lieberman may be right.
President Barack Obama confirmed on Sunday evening that Osama bin Laden, the infamous leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist network — and orchestrator of the worst terrorist attack on the United States — was killed in a firefight with military and CIA agents in a compound near Islamabad, in the town of Abbottabad, Pakistan. Osama bin Laden has been on the run since the 9/11 attacks surged the United States into war with Afghanistan.
Celebrations sprang up in front of the White House immediately after news began trickling through Twitter, with more people congregating around Ground Zero after Mr. Obama delivered his speech. The White House has released the transcripts of the President’s speech and we’ve included the video below.
Making a feature film with a war zone as its setting, but not its plot, complicates logistics, to say the least. B-roll can’t be collected without official approval of the filming, and shoots must be rescheduled or redone according to the vagaries of the conflict. Add on scripting advice from a family who endures the daily indignities of occupation, and a professional background in documentary production that makes verite precepts irresistible, and you have the storyboard for the making of “Valley of Saints.”
“It was a difficult trip for me,” said the film’s director, American-born Kashmiri Musa Syeed, of one of his first research trips to the region, “trying to get my work done, but trying to also spend time with my family and understand their perspective. I was never really able to wrap my head around the political situation or economic situation there. I feel like I got a much better grasp of it (while there) but it also made the process of creating the story much more confusing. Everyone was like, ‘You could just put this in there, or write a scene about this, or that.’ ”
As he wrestled with his family’s expectations, Syeed said, he began to feel like he was losing his original concept. “I tried to assure myself that as long as I told a good story, that people would be happy.”
The story he’s written is centered on Dal Lake, the crown jewel in the center of Srinagar, the capital of Indian-occupied Kashmir. Producer Nicholas Bruckman said the lake is the only completely aquatic community in the world where residents live full time on the water — rowing to work and school, trading vegetables, and in “Valley of Saints,” falling in love. “The environment, of course, has taken a back burner to the political conflict (in Kashmir), for better or for worse. This is a unique living lake, and in the middle there’s an artificial island that people have constructed. This beautiful way of life is endangered because the lake is shrinking.” Bruckman said many Kashmiri experts think the lake will be extinct this century, with plans already in place to relocate many of the people who call it home. “People on the lake blame deforestation,” Bruckman said, which allows toxins to stream in that add to the weeds and plastic already choking the lake.
For Syeed, the environmental issue, and not the conflict, drew him to writing about Kashmir in the first place. But the first draft script, heavy on conservation issues, needed to be grounded in human stories, and his months spent in Kashmir helped him find his protagonist, a boatman named Gulzar.
Syeed returned to the U.S. after writing the script, but when the crew was getting ready to return to Kashmir to film in the summer of 2010, the latent conflict re-ignited, and a military curfew was imposed throughout Kashmir. “We had already had trouble coordinating things in Kashmir,” Syeed said, “and this meant we would have very restricted movements; we didn’t want to attract a lot of attention from military or police. Before we left we realized we couldn’t shoot the story I had written.” So Syeed went back to the storyboard, writing an outline of a film that incorporated the curfew and was feasible given the political eruption. “I didn’t feel safe bringing an American cast, so we had to cast entirely locally,” which meant that the film had to be in Kashmiri, a language Syeed doesn’t speak. This hitch turned out to be a boon to the recomposed cast and the adaptive production process. “We would translate the dialogue every night, working from an outline, developing the story as we were shooting. It helped the actors put the dialogue in their own terms in language they were comfortable with , rather than making the leap to English.”
The film is one of the few to be shot entirely in the Kashmiri language, which, like its prized lake, is under threat as the number of speakers dwindles. Syeed and Bruckman, despite having South Asian roots, are outsiders, and allegations of bias are par for the course in making films about Kashmir. Given this, Bruckman (whose mother is Bengali) said, “It was extremely important to us that the story could be embraced by Kashmiris and South Asians of all faiths. We tried to transcend this very deep division (of the conflict) in part by focusing on the human aspect, the love story, the environment — which is really a unifying point for people in Kashmir, in South Asia and for people all over the world.”
Bruckman said Kashmiri culture is deeply embedded into the film, which includes scenes of Sufi culture, which has survived in Kashmir for centuries, and of the Waswan, the 36-course traveling wedding feast.*