Documenting the drone wars

November 19, 2013

Pakistani-American filmmaker and journalist Madiha Tahir recently released Wounds of Waziristan, a 25-minute documentary about the U.S. military's use of drones to bomb the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in northwestern Pakistan. Tahir spoke with Eric Ruder about how her film and the ongoing efforts of activists have helped draw attention to the Obama administration's escalation in the drone war.

YOUR FILM opens with a video clip of Obama talking about being "haunted" by the loss of innocent civilian life. But he doesn't look all that haunted in the footage actually, and throughout your film, you question his candor about this statement.

I USE the notion of "haunting" as a frame for the film for two reasons. One was that I wanted to take Obama seriously because I think politicians are used to not being taken seriously. It's part of what allows them to get away with saying whatever--because they know many people have become accustomed to dismissing what they say as empty rhetoric. And because many of us know that they're just making stuff up, on both sides there's a cynicism that feeds into actually them getting away with saying all kinds of ridiculous things that they don't really mean.

So it's not a naïve kind of, "Oh, I really believe him," but actually a way of holding him accountable to what he is saying. He says, "I'm haunted by these civilian casualties," but in the very next sentence, he goes on to say, "Nonetheless, we need to continue with this policy."

Karim Khan interviewed in Wounds of Waziristan
Karim Khan interviewed in Wounds of Waziristan

Now, there's an extensive literature--in academia, in fiction, even in horror films--that deals with haunting and ghosts, and what you see, even in horror films, is that to be haunted means that you cannot simply continue as if things were ordinary. For example, Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, which is about slaves in the American South haunted by the deaths of loved ones, portrays this as a constant disruption of daily life that you carry around with you. So it's disingenuous for Obama to say that he's haunted by the loss of civilian life and then say in the next sentence, "Well, we have to continue with this policy."

YOUR FILM is called Wounds of Waziristan, which is a place that probably most Americans have never heard of. As the film illustrates, it's actually a very small area, about half the size of New Jersey, which is where you spent much of your childhood. You ask your viewers to imagine the kind of trauma that would envelope us if half of New Jersey came under such a sustained concentration of drone strikes and civilian casualties. What was it like to gather stories and do research in this region?

NORTH WAZIRISTAN has been entirely blockaded by the army and is inaccessible. South Waziristan is accessible, if you decide to embed with the Pakistani military, which I don't do and I won't do. Most of the drone attacks have happened in North Waziristan, followed by South Waziristan, and then a handful of attacks have happened in other parts of the tribal areas. So I have been going to the tribal areas that are accessible and also to the border towns at the threshold of North Waziristan and South Waziristan. These towns are accessible even though they're volatile.

So when I went to the town of Bannu, which is on the border of North Waziristan, I was able to talk to people coming for daily business, such as to buy groceries or to go to school. What became clear is that the people of North Waziristan and South Waziristan and to a lesser degree the tribal areas generally are dealing with three forms of violence--from insurgents, from the Pakistani military and from drones. These three forms of violence form an interlocking network that constantly disrupts daily life. I can't imagine living in that kind of a space, and the people there are justifiably traumatized and have an acute level of stress.

With drones, U.S. media coverage and of course government spokespeople promote the idea that drones are a precise method for killing whatever it is that they're targeting. But what we tend to think about less is that they create conditions of terror for the people who live under them. They are really loud, and they fly really low at night. The Pashto term for drones is "bangana," which is the sound of the buzzing of a bee. This sound is acutely distressing to people because they know what it's associated with.

I talked to psychiatrists who explained to me that drones create a particular kind of stress because you feel like you have no control over it. With insurgents, for example, people at least feel like they have some sense of control--you can run away, you can try to stay out of their way and hopefully be okay. Whether this is true or not is another question because of course insurgents are quite brutal, but with drones, there's absolutely nothing to dialogue with, to talk to or even to hold accountable, so it's an absolutely terrifying situation.

The drones are a constant presence in the area. It's not like they come and go, and you only hear them once or twice a month. This is a fact of daily life. They live their life under drones. The drone strikes, the actual attacks, have waxed and waned, according to the logic of U.S. war strategy, which of course we don't know always have an immediate knowledge of. But in terms of the actual presence of the drones, they're there constantly, all the time.

There are several reasons that this relatively small region of Waziristan came to be the focal point of Obama's drone wars--and Bush's before that. As I mention in the film, the tribal areas aren't governed under the Pakistani constitution under regulations established in 1901 by British colonialism. Pakistan then adopted these terms of government when it gained independence in 1947.

And basically, that system allows for collective punishment by the political agent, who is an appointee of Pakistan's federal government. There's also a policy of indefinite detention as well as extreme restrictions on access to courts or any functioning judicial process, and it's debatable whether the courts in the rest of Pakistan have jurisdiction in the tribal areas.

So the residents of Waziristan haven't had access to any of the rights that a state is supposed to provide for them. Furthermore, the area has remained this way because it's was used first by the British and then by the Pakistani military for all kinds of purposes. The British used Waziristan as a buffer zone against Afghanistan and British India. And then in the 1950s, the Pakistani military, which was still run by British military officials for some time after Pakistan gained independence, used the area as a staging ground for what it was doing in Kashmir and for what it wanted to do in Afghanistan.

So Waziristan was basically turned it into a laboratory, an experiment of an exceptionally callous sort, and has remained so for decades. Sometimes the Pakistani military would pursue these policies in in tandem with the United States, for example, as happened in the 1980s during the tail end of the Cold War and again today. People have compensated for the political vacuum in the area in various ways, and that political vacuum has allowed these insurgent groups to fester and grow, partly with the support of the military. So that's the situation on the ground, and this is what poses so many problems for the Waziris who actually live there.

U.S. policymakers claim that people who are organizing attacks against the U.S. military find refuge in Waziristan. But the thing about the U.S.--and this is not to justify what the insurgents are doing inside Waziristan--is that the U.S. is an occupier and a "foreign fighting force" in Waziristan. It's interesting to me how the U.S. tries to "naturalize" its own situation in Afghanistan as if it has a God-given right to be there and then lashes out at people who think that what the U.S. is doing there is pursuing its efforts to occupy Afghanistan.

In other words, if you're going to occupy a space and you're going to kick people out of their homes and you're going to bomb them with drones, you'd better expect a backlash. And if the U.S. doesn't like the resistance, then it's simple--you're not supposed to be there, so just leave. That would be for starters.

Secondly, the U.S. needs to reconfigure its relationship with the Pakistani military in particular and the Pakistani government more generally in order to stand by the democratic process and let it take its course, instead of continually siding with the military and thwarting the democratic process.

ON OCTOBER 29, there was a congressional hearing regarding drone warfare designed to provide lawmakers with firsthand accounts of people from Waziristan whose had perished in drone attacks. People traveled all the way from Waziristan to Washington for this hearing, and then only five of 535 representatives even bothered to attend.

IT WAS a great effort to get Rafiq ur Rehman and his two children--Nabila, 9, and Zubair, 13--to Washington to tell their story about the attack on October 24, 2012, that killed the children's grandmother. I wasn't personally involved in setting this up, but I know those who were. I think it's unconscionable that only five representatives showed up.

There's an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) (Washington's preferred term for drones) caucus in Congress, and it's pushing for the use of UAVs in all sorts of ways, including for surveillance and police purposes here in the U.S. The fact that these politicians in this caucus didn't feel like it was worth their time to actually come and listen and think about the consequences of the policies and technology that they're pushing is appalling.

For a long time, the drone discussion in the United States has been dominated by a debate about legality, which is a problem. The legal discussion has focused on transparency and asking the Obama administration to please give us the statistics regarding the drone strikes and please give us this and that, which is problematic for a number of reasons.

One is that we shouldn't allow the Obama administration, or any governmental administration, to determine the terms of the truth. The administration will make up figures and make up its own definitions and do what it can to defend its use of this weaponry. And it has shown its willingness to misrepresent, misdirect and mystify over and over again. Secondly, this conversation has taken place without any regard for the people who must live under the drones. Without deriding the enormous effort it took to get people here, this even occurred during the hearings to a degree. I thought the hearings were great, but I was concerned because there was no simultaneous translation for the families from Waziristan after they gave their testimony.

As a result, they didn't know what was being said around and about them, even as they were sitting there, so they were not party to that conversation, which I think is really telling. And I think that this attitude among sympathetic liberals and the left is really troubling. The right wing will do what it does, but I think we need to be a lot more careful about the ways in which we relate to these people.

At one point, one of the congressional representatives who showed up said something like, "Well, the people who direct these attacks, the drone operators, they're actually pretty well intentioned people." He's saying this, and it's not actually being translated, so the families from Waziristan don't have a chance to engage in this conversation. When they held a similar panel at New York University, again these families were brought up on stage and said their piece, and then they were taken off the panel, and a second panel came up, which was composed of various human rights organizations, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The first question to this panel was, "Would you ask the Obama administration to stop the drone attacks right now? Do you want the drone attacks to stop totally right now?" Across the board, they refused to call for an immediate halt to the drone strikes. They qualified their positions in various ways--again, by jumping into legalese, such as, "Oh, well, you know, if it's in tandem with the law sometimes drones are allowable," or "If it complies with international law, there might be some ways in which they're justified," and so forth.

Again, there was no simultaneous translation for these families. When these families were asked at the congressional hearing what they wanted, they said they wanted these bombs to stop, and the father said that he wanted for his region the same kind of peace that he saw around him in the United States. It's troubling to me that what these families say and the plight they must confront is then put to use in the service of other agendas that have nothing to do with what these families actually want.

CAN YOU give an example of how U.S. officials play fast and loose with the facts in order to justify their use of drones?

AS THE New York Times reported last year, the U.S. counts any military-age male in a strike zone specified by the U.S. as a combatant. This is the very essence of racial profiling, for lack of a better term, which is to say that it's not anything that this person did, but simply their presence in an area that the U.S. decides to attack that deems them a combatant and a justified target of execution by drone. It's a completely Orwellian logic, which is partly why they come up with these ridiculous figures about how they've been so accurate and have killed very few civilians.

In fact, the empirical evidence suggests the opposite of what is claimed about drones and their high degree of precision. A 2009 article by economist Marc Herold in the book Inventing Collateral Damage: Civilian Casualties, War and Empire, for example, found that the greater the share of "precision weapons" deployed from 1991 to 2003, the higher the rate of civilian casualties. And a study published earlier this year by a U.S. military adviser found that drones deployed in Afghanistan are 10 times likelier to kill civilians than strikes by manned aircraft. Such findings don't get front-page headlines, unfortunately.

During the nine years in which the U.S. has used drone warfare, the number of named militants that they have attacked and killed is approaching 300, of which 74 would be classified as high-value targets. That's it--in nine years.

WHAT DO you make of the recent claim by the U.S. to have killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in a November 1 drone strike?

U.S. MEDIA coverage of drone killings in general has allowed the U.S. government to control the terms of the debate by means of a faux secrecy. The mainstream media in the U.S. is partly to blame for that, because they have by and large accepted the government's terms regarding sources, statistics and confirmation for their stories.

One of the strangest things to behold are wire service reports, which have repeatedly carried headlines like, "Suspected drone strike kills x number of militants." In other words, it is only the drone strike about which there is any doubt. The drone strike may not have happened, but if the drone strike did happen, it definitely killed militants.

So the media has really given in to the terms of the government, and so it's not the actual deaths of these people that are considered to be headline news. The story becomes what the government says and what the government leaks (intended or unintended) that actually end up determining what gets published and what gets highlighted, and not the actual deaths of people.

And it's hard for me not to think about this in terms of a racial logic because what what's behind this is the idea that when they tell us that people are being killed, we can't believe them. They're not legitimate witnesses to the devastation that is happening around them. The legitimate people who are allowed to lay claims about what is happening is the government, which is absolutely shameful. And you see that in the coverage of the New York Times and other media organizations.

The survivors and the families of the dead do come to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. It's not as if these journalists really have to go anywhere or do much work to have access to them. But they don't run these stories, and they haven't run them in the U.S. because they keep saying, "Well, we don't know if they're telling the truth." But why are you demanding these ridiculous terms, asking so much of these people, when you are constantly willing to run quotes by anonymous officials saying any kind of BS?

LASTLY, HOW has the film been received?

WHEN WE started this film, it was actually intended as a short project, perhaps 10 minutes in length, for a major U.S. media organization. And then it became clear to us that they were never going to issue it--the U.S. media is not really interested in running the stories of these people.

At that point, we decided to turn it into a longer documentary. Since then, we've been really lucky. This is the first time that I've made a longer documentary, so we're really please that it's been picked up by Journeyman TV, which is going to be distributing the film. Before that, the file was up on Vice.com for one week, and I'm really thankful to them for being daring enough to show it. They were very supportive throughout the entire process, which is fantastic.

We got our first broadcast premiere Democracy Now!, so this is actually the first documentary on drones featuring stories of survivors to be shown on American television, and as far as I know, the only film so far.

Transcription by Rebecca Anshell-Song

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