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Misrepresentation and its discontents

The CIA-run drone program in Pakistan has had many defenders in its time, but few, I imagine, with Dr Akbar Zaidi’s credentials. In his cavilling attack on a clique of overseas, ‘cyber-based’ left-wingers in these pages (November 7), the good professor berated the drone programme’s critics for rendering the tangled world of the ‘war on terror’ into sophomoric, black-and-white binaries – fit for protest placards and the odd angsty documentary, maybe, but inadequate for the ‘responsible debate about drones’ that is apparently his object.

Yet when the charge sheet he brings against these critics is stripped of Dr Zaidi’s choleric rhetoric, it is clear that what’s on display is his own muddled anxiety about what it means to be a progressive in a world of drones, war, and religious extremism.

It is important to dispense, first, with the grandstanding. Dr Zaidi frames his review of Madiha Tahir’s tremendous film, ‘Wounds of Waziristan,’ with a tired, unoriginal jibe about privilege. It’s an exquisite irony, he seems to think, that it is London- and New York-based academics we find at the frontlines of the anti-drone brigade. But this is nonsense – on two counts.

First, as Dr Zaidi no doubt knows, our best evidence suggests that those without the good fortune of contemplating the issue from afar are actually implacable opponents of the programme. 2010 poll data from the New America Foundation affirmed the general belief that drones are overwhelmingly unpopular in Fata, a fact powerfully underscored by Tahir’s documentary.

If there were an anti-drone brigade, it would hardly be staffed by privileged Pakistanis, most of whom have long since outsourced the task of safeguarding their gated enclaves to men with guns.

Second, and more importantly, this petty posturing about distance – who’s affected, who’s comfortable – is all beside the point. At-a-distance critics range from expatriate academics to international human rights organisations. They have marshalled evidence and made substantial arguments about why they believe the programme to be illegal, unethical, and politically counterproductive. The challenge before Dr Zaidi is to explain why he seems to disagree with their findings. That he expends much of his energy, instead, on these groups’ western addresses betrays a piece forged in bad faith.

Dr Zaidi repeats that the case against drones is not, as its critics seem to think, ‘black-and-white.’ At times this seems to mean nothing more than that militancy exists alongside American meddling, so one must append a criticism of the militants to one’s criticism of the drone programme. Which is fine, but it misunderstands Tahir’s purpose. The TTP/AQ aren’t objects of debate because, thankfully, very few would think of defending them. Documentaries are made about drones, on the other hand, precisely because it’s their consequences that have left such a significant chunk of our intelligentsia confused.

Elsewhere, though, Dr Zaidi’s arguments about ‘simplistic’ approaches to the war on terror are more troubling. He seems at times to be suggesting that affairs in the northwest have become too complicated to permit ‘outright condemnation’ of the programme. But what does it mean to refuse to outright condemn drones except to suggest that they may be the solution to Fata’s woes? This is what’s behind, also, the call for a responsible debate. One does not demand debate, responsible or not, on policies of whose illegitimacy one is sure.

This is where it would help Dr Zaidi to take seriously what our ‘privileged,’ ‘so-called’ progressives have been arguing about American imperialism in Fata. First, the drone programme contravenes international statues that govern the conditions under which states can use deadly force. Last month’s report by Amnesty International, for instance, excoriated the persistent refusal of the Obama administration to clarify the criteria for assassinations or to ensure accountability in the event of violations, both obligations that are incumbent upon belligerents.

More fundamentally, the drone programme rests on the constitutive conceit of the war on terror: the US’ insistence that it is waging a global war of self-defence against groups that have and will attack it unprovoked. We need not consider the jihadis as freedom-fighters to recognise that the drone programme is, in fact, an appendage of the US effort to defeat an insurgency that arose in response to the Nato and US occupation of Afghanistan.

Whatever Dr Zaidi’s gripes with the ‘leftist’ theory of imperialism, I trust he’s not so credulous as to accept that the world’s most fearsome military spends hundreds of billions of dollars valiantly defending itself against a terrorist threat that has proved several times less dangerous to its citizens than any one of railway accidents, drowning in a bathtub, Americans with guns, American police officers with guns – and yes, even lightning.

Second, given that the programme and its supporters invert applicable legal principles (so that targets are ‘militants’ unless posthumously proved otherwise), it’s unsurprising that drones have claimed the lives of several hundreds of civilians. Madiha Tahir’s documentary is a haunting, indelible portrait of but a handful of its victims.

Given that Dr Zaidi off-handedly admits that ‘there is no question’ that drones have killed bystanders in enormous numbers, one has to wonder how many civilian victims they must claim before he deems the issue fit to be labelled ‘black-and-white’. Five hundred? One thousand? Ten thousand? One can quibble about what it means to be progressive today, but the umbrella can’t be so broad as to entail the wholesale abandonment of our ethical standards.

Perhaps Dr Zaidi’s position, though, is that the fight against fundamentalism is an unavoidably messy business – no omelettes without egg shells, as they say. I cannot respect the debate this position invites, but against it a third pillar of the case against drones is decisive. Not only does the drone programme mangle legal precepts and murder bystanders, it is almost certainly ineffective as a weapon in the war on terror. The US has ventured, blind and vindictive, into a fruitless game of ‘whack-a-mole’ in Fata.

David Kilcullen, hardly known for petulant leftist diatribes, wrote a few years ago in the New York Times that “every one of [the] dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased”. Of course, the drone programme has somewhat disrupted the TTP and AQ elements that were housed in Fata, but nobody could credibly argue that their hold over the region has seriously weakened in the decade since the programme began.

Had he done his antagonists the favour of responding to their arguments and not their backgrounds, Dr Zaidi might well have found something to agree with in the anti-drone case. Instead, we’re left to watch him shadow box with privileged, puerile leftists that are nothing but figments of his uncharitable imagination.

Email: adaner.usmani@gmail.com

Adaner Usmani, "Misrepresentation and its discontents," The News. 2013-11-13.
Keywords: International Human rights , Foreign policy , Social rights , Extremism , Terrorism , Madiha Tahir , Dr. Akbar Zaidi , David Kilcullen , Pakistan , United States , New York , London , Waziristan , Afghanistan , CIA , TTP , FATA