Accounting For The Drone Debate

** this article is available in Issue III, Solidarity Politics, of Tanqeed.  I highly recommend it as an excellent source of progressive cultural and political commentary on Pakistan! ——
The new year has brought a redoubled American drone campaign to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Region (FATA). Support and condemnation have been vociferous, with evidentiary statistics deployed by both sides.

Justifications for the strikes are abundant and familiar: drones are accurate; they are the cheapest, most effective means of keeping Americans safe, and they are a preferable whitehousedronealternative to boots on the ground. A particularly pernicious refrain popular among those familiar with the atrocities of the Pakistani Army in the region favorably juxtaposes the relatively fewer collateral deaths caused by drones against the more indiscriminate military operations. This line of argument, often presented as informed and humane, is popular among several academics and analysts, including Christine Fair, Joshua Foust and Farhat Taj. Indeed, Pir Zubair Shah, a fellow with the center-right Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), himself a former resident of Waziristan, argues for drone attacks for precisely that reason. Other Pakistani liberals have joined the crescendo, and in the wake of the criminal attack by the Taliban on 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a demonstrator even held a sign that read “Drones kill so Malala can live.”

Critics dispute the evidence and assert widespread civilian casualties. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) made headlines with its publication of damning statistics. New America Foundation  (NAF) and, more recently, the NYU/Stanford collaborative project on drones too contested the accuracy of drones. Even CFR recently issued a report linking the drone campaign’s civilian toll to rising anti-American sentiment. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International raised accusations of extra-judicial killings. In short, opposition has been substantial.

But as historian Manan Ahmed noted, if we are debating percentages and legality to adjudicate the success of the drone program, “we have already lost the conversation.” The numbers obscure more than they elucidate. If there is any clarity they furnish, it is insight into an imperial imagination that animates this numero-centric conversation.

The colonial treatment—epistemic and administrative—of FATA inhabitants by Pakistan, the United States, and former imperial powers, is no novel proposition. The representation of individuals as numbers—of lives and existence as statistics—too, has a colonial vintage. In the drone debate, statistics have become a technology for imperial rule.

Rule by Numbers

Statistics were not the immediate choice of the colonial machinery. In fact, the initial informational aspirations of imperial Europe created not numbers but prose. The Description de l’Egypte, and the reams of village descriptions by early functionaries of the Raj were anything but number-heavy.

However, the extensive detail of these reports soon collided with the burgeoning import of statistics. The administrative requirement to cast a broad gaze in order to rule large populations prioritized numbers for their ability to normalize diverse populations and contexts. Numbers flattened everything. They turned large groups of people into easily quantifiable and comparable quantities. Prose was messy with details and forms of knowledge that could not easily be rendered into statistics. Numbers standardized and erased detail, accommodating difference only so far as necessitated by administrative needs. And, in standardizing, they created the world they only claimed to represent.

Numbers also offered a “shared language” for a vast imperial bureaucracy dealing with widely different communities, and the disorder of the prose was soon “domesticated into the abstract, precise, complete, and cool idiom of the number,” describes noted anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai. Statistical techniques replaced subjective descriptions to enumerate, catalog and tame the colony for imperial administration.

Certainly, the numbers lent themselves excellently to broad descriptions of the colonies, which the prose could not neatly offer. But they also served a far more critical function for the colonizers.

Numbers helped resolve a chief anxiety of colonial administration: the fear of administrative impotency: do we (the British) understand the colony? Can we govern it? The unwieldy detail of prose opened more questions than it answered. It made policy prescriptions difficult. Numbers, on the other hand, reduced a complex reality to precise arithmetic. They made the complications of daily life and local knowledge pliable to comprehension, making policy-planning easier. Numbers helped allay the colonizers’ fears that they could not administer—or rule—properly.

Distinct from whether numerical representation actually provided accurate insight, it “created a sense of controlled ingenious reality,” argues Appadurai. Numbers could be debated, discussed and decided upon, far away from the intractable realities of the colonized. With numbers, the empire could sweep troublesome detail under the rug and feel in control.

Counting FATA

It is illuminating to consider the contemporary dialogue surrounding the drone program in the light of this history. As in imperial Europe, numbers now nurse American anxiety. They provide an escape from having to confront the aftermath of its Cold War ineptitude. Prioritizing numbers and carrying on the drone debate in terms of the ratios of guilty and innocent lives—of just and unjust executions—obscures history.

The American state needs numbers in order to ignore grappling with its own actions in the past and their intense, negative fallout today. Numbers also facilitate America’s imperial fantasy of administrative control. Statistics crowd out descriptions of the historical realities of FATA that would expose the arbitrary underpinnings of the categories of “militant” and “innocent” that exist divorced from American violence. In truth, the dynamics of violence are inextricably linked to American militarism in the region.

A thorough and engaged understanding of the racial, class and political aspects of violence is necessary for a broader discussion on drones. We need to understand that, for the most part, no clear distinctions exist between “terrorist” and “civilian,” that these are categories that are created by and are intrinsic to American violence.

The world that numbers provide, in which “militants” and “innocents” are neatly disaggregated, doesn’t quite exist on the ground. But, such truths certainly make imperial rule more complicated. So, the U.S. scuttles historical and political detail by focusing on statistics and debating the correct calibration of its killing policy.

Irrespective of whether those statistics are being used to endorse or undermine the drone campaign, this dialogue addresses FATA residents only as denizens of a neo-colony.

We need to decolonize the narrative of drone deaths and toss statistics out of the debate, but a drive for this remains noticeably absent from American popular media and public imagination. This reticence from bold dissent is symptomatic of the enervation of the American left. Critique is restricted to how best to wield power, and radical challenges to imperialism are virtually non-existent.

Academics bear paramount responsibility in reviving a culture of informed self-criticism, reminds Noam Chomsky. They are uniquely placed to produce humanized knowledge about the people living under drones, providing the tools to counter oppressive policies and exclusionary discourse. Unfortunately, we have instead seen the rise of such intellectually bankrupt and financially flooded disciplines as terrorism studies and security studies, whose animating impulse is in an unquestioned acceptance of the politically-defined categories of terrorist and victim. Such work, and its quotidian counterpart in the debate on drone strikes, actively marginalizes efforts to confront imperialism.

Tariq Ali once commented that until Americans recognize their country as an empire, and embrace the attendant civic responsibilities, American imperialism will remain one where the metropolis is the ultimate outlaw, transgressing ethics with impunity. To introduce and prioritize history and politics in the discourse on drones is not merely to arrest the myopic and delusional policies of American imperial control, but also to acknowledge the fullness and centrality of the lives of FATA residents, and to demand a cessation of imperial interference in them.

Numbers offer us a world fully counted—and utterly unknown—where victims and survivors have no humanity. In Swat, following the army operation, we had some contemplation of their misery and poems to capture their sadness; we need the same in FATA.

Until the lexicon of numbers is replaced by a debate that confronts American imperialism, death and survival in FATA will remain enumerated, not eulogized or celebrated. Numbers cannot count justice.