On September 30th, 2011, a senior leader of the Islamist organization ‘al-Qaeda’ was killed in Yemen. There were three things remarkable about this death. First, the man was assassinated from thousands of feet in the air by a laser-guided missile called a ‘hellfire’. Second, the man’s death was directly mandated by the U.S. President Barack Obama. Third, the man killed was an American citizen, born inside the U.S. in 1971, later obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University in 1994 and a Master’s from San Diego State University. His name was Anwar al-Awlaki, and his death was the first of its kind: a U.S. President ordering the extrajudicial assassination of a U.S. citizen. Obama became, in effect, one of the first Presidents to directly order the targeted killing of another American. His actions clearly violating Fifth Amendment constitutional protections, which state that “No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law”.
The targeted killing was planned, coordinated, and piloted by the US’ Central Intelligence Agency—the CIA, and co-implemented with ‘hunter-killer’ teams from the U.S. military’s shadowy ‘Joint Special Operations Command’. And the weapon of choice was the unmanned drone. Drones often resemble conventional military planes, only stripped of the glass cockpit previously housing a human pilot.
Drones are piloted remotely from cockpits that are located thousands of miles away. One of the most popular drones is the aptly named ‘Predator’, the weapon of choice for the CIA. The 27 foot, 1,130 pound drones made their debut in the Balkans back in the 1990s, and today the U.S. Air Force alone operates around 140 of them from locations across the Western United States (mostly at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada), with approximately 30 flown by the CIA.
Awlaki was a big target. Although never receiving a formal trial, he was wanted for using the internet and online magazines to encourage strikes against Western targets. A charismatic cleric and fluent in English, he had been blamed most recently for ‘inspiring’ US army major Nidal Hassan to kill his fellow soldiers in the Texas military base of Fort Hood, and for inspiring British woman Roshonara Chaoudry to stab her MP Stephen Timms because he supported the invasion of Iraq. He was, in sum, the media mouth of al-Qaeda; the so-called ‘YouTube bin Laden’.
The fallout from the drone strike was widespread, sending chills among human rights organizations who saw it as a dangerous overreach of executive power. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement the same day the story broke. The Legal Director put it bluntly:
“The targeted killing program violates both U.S. and international law. As we’ve seen today, this is a program under which American citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept secret not just from the public but from the courts. The government’s authority to use lethal force against its own citizens should be limited to circumstances in which the threat to life is concrete, specific and imminent. It is a mistake to invest the President – any President – with the unreviewable power to kill any American whom he deems to present a threat to the country.”
Obama made little comment himself on the Awlaki killing, describing it as “another significant milestone” against al-Qaeda. Yet Awlaki’s killing, together with two other Americans killed in Yemen within weeks of this strike, including his 16 year old son, are but the latest casualties in an expanding drone war that is rapidly spreading across the globe in total secrecy, without any of the traditional checks and balances of a declared war; indeed operating entirely outside of the democratic process itself. Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan are all countries that fall under the secret and not-so-secret crosshairs of the Predator drone. It is to this brave new world that I want to turn my attention to, focusing in on a country that has felt the full force of drone strikes since 2004, and the country where these shadow wars began: Pakistan.
To give a small piece of historical context, the intelligence agencies from Pakistan and the US have a history of covert cooperation. The special relationship began in 1979, when the CIA began channelling money through Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate to fund the Islamist uprising in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. Jimmy Carter, and later Ronald Reagan’s administrations, would secretly send millions of dollars to fund controversial muja-hi-deen warriors in a Cold War proxy battlefield that would give later give birth to Afghanistan’s deadly warlords, the Taliban, and provide sanctuary to al-Qaeda. It is no overstatement to say that the so-called ‘terrorists’ that drones chase today in Pakistan were once the ‘heroes’ funded by anti-Soviet operations.
The modern relationship between Pakistan and the US is cemented in this secrecy: there is the public face of the relationship and then there is the private reality. In what can only be described as a bizarre geopolitical situation, the U.S. government refuses to recognize that it carries out the ‘secret’ drone strikes, and the Pakistani government refuses to recognize it consents to the strikes (going so far as to publically denounce them), despite many of the attacks being launched from airbases inside the country. The leaking of US cables in the 2010 WikiLeaks episode provides ample evidence for this duplicity. In June 2009, President Zardari stated in public that “I will take the issue of drone attacks to the United Nations if they do not stop’, but previously in November 2008 he wrote in a secret US cable “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me”.
Thousands of people have been killed in the extrajudicial strikes which began in 2004, with the underlying logic that they are ‘guilty until proven dead’. On the 19th of October 2011, drone attacks in Pakistan reached a grim milestone. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas now total 300, of which 248 were carried out under Obama’s presidency alone. The contested death counts are as follows: up to 2,912 people have been reportedly killed, with civilian deaths accounting for up to 775, with 160 children among the dead.
The region in which the drones strike is a very specific geographic area called the ‘Federally Administered Tribal Areas’. Spanning over 27,000 square miles, this mountainous stretch of land is inhabited by three million ethnic Pashtun residents, spread among seven agencies. Like Afghanistan, the tribal areas contain a number of interconnected militant groups, each with overlapping and sometimes contradictory ambitions, from al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Historically, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas was created as a ‘buffer state’ by the British Raj, and subject to a piece of legislation that set it apart from the rest of British India: the draconian ‘Frontier Crimes Regulations’ act of 1901. This act gave the federal government the right to appoint a ‘Political Agent’ for each agency, who was invested with considerable and unaccountable power. Upon independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan continued the colonial policy of isolating the tribal areas from the rest of the country’s laws. The resulting inhabitants were consequently second-class legal subjects: subject to Presidential authority and the authority of political agents, without the constitutional rights of other Pakistani citizens. A clear example of an exceptional legal space.
Indeed, there are several compelling legal arguments that drone warfare is in gross violation of international humanitarian laws. Much of the discussion centers on what counts as a legitimate “target” for assassination and “self-defense”. As the UN Special Rapporteur (on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions) Phillip Alston puts it, “A lack of disclosure gives States a virtual and impermissible license to kill”. This led a prominent law professor to suggest that drone pilots could be liable for war crimes. This is in addition to the fact that the U.S. has not formally declared war on Pakistan, meaning the drone strikes do not take place in any kind of recognized battlefield. And of course there is the startlingly obvious fact that drone warfare is in gross violation of Pakistan’s recognized sovereignty.
Yet the legal critique of drone warfare is complex. In line with Agamben, it is precisely the creation of an exceptional space by the law that has created millions of vulnerable bodies. The tribal areas fall under Agamben’s (1998, 2005) definition of a “state of exception”—where the juridical protections of law are suspended and the sovereign is able to subject the territory to unmitigated violence. Such a reading is one that illustrates the processes through which the Pakistani government turns a “blind eye” to the CIA’s bombing campaign, leaving hundreds of civilians dead in its legal shadow. But it is not simply that law abandons people, through an inclusive exclusion. Drone warfare, despite being waged in the shadows, and despite no official recognition or chance of public accountability, is constantly referred to elliptically under a set of broad legal rationales, both domestically and internationally. Internationally, The US relies on a controversial application of Article 51 of the UN Charter to justify targeted killings.
A targeted killing conducted by one State in the territory of a second State does not violate the second State’s sovereignty if either (a) the second State consents, or (b) the ﬁrst, targeting, State has a right under international law to use force in self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter, because (i) the second State is responsible for an armed attack against the ﬁrst State, or (ii) the second State is unwilling or unable to stop armed attacks against the ﬁrst State launched from its territory.
This geopolitical interventionism is captured in Stuart Eden’s book ‘Terror and Territory’. He writes that: “… a state that fails to exercise one of the standard definitions of sovereignty—effective political control of the ‘monopoly of legitimate physical violence’ within its territory—finds that its sovereignty more generally is held to be ‘contingent’” (2009:162). In addition to international law, domestically, the U.S. justifies drone attacks and targeted killings on the grounds that they are part of the on-going war on terror initiated after 9/11, an event that led Congress to grant the President the ability to use all necessary force against persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the attacks of 9/11 (Authorization for the Use of Military Force). In summary, there are international and domestic laws that the Obama administration appeals to for targeted killings. And even on a smaller scale, it was recently revealed that the CIA consults lawyers to decide who or not counts as a legitimate drone target. The CIA has a team of up to ten lawyers in Northern Virginia, all consulting five-page requests to kill another human being. Of course, these documents have not been made public.
All of which is to say that the law is not easily separable from war, anymore than war is separate from peace. Rather, law can be weaponized and mobilized to enable war: whether it’s in shadowy CIA offices or on the international stage of the UN. Warfare has thus become a modern legal institution. When we think of war as distinct from peace, we imagine it as outside of law: war is often the exception to the routine legal arrangements of peacetime. We are likely to think of legal rules as ‘limiting’ and ‘restricting’ military action and violence. But the reality is that both proponents for and against drone warfare, whether CIA officers or human rights lawyers, both ‘battle in the shadow of the law’. Perhaps then, we should avoid the very terrain upon which drone warfare is frequently discussed: as a legal issue. Since the CIA and military planners actively use law to make war, the terrain is already pre-scripted and captured by the state apparatus. Is there another way outside of a legalistic vocabulary; is there another way of looking at drone warfare?
One such space for critique is opened up by critical geopolitics. Critical geopolitics challenges the hegemonic discourses about the world with an impetus to undermine imperial geographic reason, such as dividing the globe into a ‘clash of civilizations’. Following poststructural formulations and underlined by postcolonial sensibilities, it stresses the importance of words in creating imaginative geographies. Such an intervention has never been more important: geopolitical shorthands, such as ‘arcs of extremism’, ‘the war on terror’, ‘9/11’, ‘axis of evil’, ‘the Greater Middle East’ , and ‘failed states’, script the world by enabling and disabling potentials for military intervention. There are two interrelated discourses that script drone warfare: that it is surgical and precise; and therefore there are few—if any—civilian casualties.
Turning to the first of these, drone warfare is discursively cast as a precise targeting technology. To illustrate this, recently, John Brenan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, claims: ‘that nearly for the past year [there] hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop’. The drone is heralded as the very apex of a targeting logic—accurate, efficient, and precise. This military logic traces a distinct philosophical blueprint. In 1938 Martin Heidegger wrote of the “age of the world picture”, in a classic essay on the split between subject and object, one of the hallmarks of modernity. For him, the world of modernity is conceived, grasped, and conquered as a calculated picture, engineered by science and technology. Ray Chow (2006) extends this metaphysical analysis to contend that the world has further been produced as a “target”.She argues that the entire globe, under a modern military eye, is rendered as a grid of targets to be destroyed as soon as they can be made visible. Indeed, to see is to destroy. Vision is thus crucial to an occularcentric Western society, and always already entangled within military culture. The ability to gaze from “nowhere” and yet represent “everywhere” is what Haraway (1988) labels the “god-trick”. She argues that the eyes have been perfected by the logics of military, capitalist, and colonial supremacy; one that is fundamentally located within a nexus of disembodiment
This disembodied visual logic is perfected in the doctrine of airpower, the dominant theme of US national defense post World War II. Caren Kaplan (2006) names this a “cosmic view” that both uniﬁes and separates “targets” from above. The sky is the space in which technology masters the world. It is clean, disembodied, and a place where nobody dies (that just happens on the ground). Do we not see here a colonial logic of “us” in the sky, versus “them” on the ground? The drone is capable of performing this logic, through a vertical indifference to territory and sovereignty. This digital view of the world, a dream of targets that dismisses ambiguity, reinforces the same old god-trick of a view of somewhere from nowhere, and (re)produces the subjects of Empire. As such, the drone is not an aberration—but the apex of an expanding targeting zeitgeist. In this age, “to be” is to be locked within the cool certainty of a crosshair.
Over at the CIA, one spokesman similarly defended the drone program (without of course acknowledging its existence). He said ‘While the C.I.A. does not comment on reports of Predator operations, the tools we use in the fight against Al Qaeda and its violent allies are exceptionally accurate, precise and effective’, adding ‘Press reports suggesting that hundreds of Pakistani civilians have somehow been killed as a result of alleged or supposed U.S. activities are — to state what should be obvious under any circumstances — flat-out false’.
Yet the official discourse that there has been no ‘collateral damage’ in Pakistan’s tribal areas for over a year is absurd. According to The New America Foundation’s ‘The Year of The Drone’, which compiles news reports of drone attacks, over 800 people died from drone strikes in 2010 alone, of which 46 were classified as ‘civilian’. Yet even the binary between ‘militant’ and ‘civilian’ is of course extremely problematic, given there is no due process for these people killed – and no known legal guidelines for what a ‘combatant’ is, leaving the entire process completely discretionary to the American CIA drone crew.
The reality of drone strikes on the ground is in stark contrast to the digital view from the sky. There is a an embargo on journalists and news reporters in the tribal areas, so it is difficult to asses this. But there are spaces of counter-narratives. Between the 19th of July and 5th of August, at the Beaconsfield gallery in London, UK, an exhibition entitled ‘Gaming in Waziristan’ was shown. The centrepiece of this was a multimedia display of photos called ‘Documents from the Frontier, 2007-2011’ by Noor Behram, and courtesy of ‘Reprieve’ a human rights organization that advocates for ‘ghost’ prisoners. Noor is a local journalist from North Waziristan, born in 1972. For the past 3 years, he has taken pictures and footage of civilian drone victims, with an emphasis on women and children that have been killed in the strikes. Since 2007, he has documented over 60 strikes. Noor’s photos and video footage were converted into a looping QuickTime video that was broadcast by a projector onto a massive screen in the upper gallery. Each image or video segment was accompanied by text describing the location, date and number of people killed in the strike. The photos viscerally captured the carnage wrought by Hellfire missiles across the Pakistani landscape: twisted metal remnants of cars sitting atop of piles of stone rubble that once served as family homes.
But it was the images of dead children that were the most disturbing. Two stood out to me. One is a close-up of a dead child taken by Noor in 2009. His face is pale white like any corpse, only surrounded by a wreath of colourful flowers. The second photo was also of a dead boy who looked no older than ten. His face was expressionless, but the upper part of his head was blown wide open – a smashed skull revealing what was left of his brain. This was the most harrowing of all images, worse even than seeing severed hands and the unidentifiable pieces of flesh and clothing that villagers had scooped up, in a desperate attempt to gather together the loved ones that had been stolen from Predators high up in the sky.
Also, in what is largely the first of its kind, a 2010 report by Christopher Rogers of CIVIC (Civilians in Armed Conflict), contains the views pooled from over 160 Pakistani civilians suffering direct losses from drone strikes. The summary of the findings are saddening. Far from the ‘bugsplat’ the military names dead human beings, they were families and friends that were tormented by the sound of drones hovering over them 24 hours a day. Many locals refer to the drones as ‘bangana’, the Pashtun word for ‘wasp’, in reference to the buzzing sounds the drones emit. In North Waziristan, Guy Nawaz was watering his fields when he heard the tell-tale boom of a drone strike: ‘I rushed to my house when I heard the blast. When I arrived I saw my house and my brother’s house completely destroyed and all at home were dead’. Eleven of his family were killed, including his wife, two sons and two daughters, as well as his older brother, his wife and four children. He added ‘I blame the government of Pakistan and the USA… they are responsible for destroying my family. We were living a happy life and I didn’t have any links with the Taliban. My family members were innocent… I wonder, why was I victimized?’ The futility of drone strikes was echoed by Safia, who lost her 30 year-old husband and 7 year-old son when a militant vehicle was struck by a drone as it passed her house:
I hope the Taliban are all killed. But I hope the drone attacks are stopped immediately. They are not effective against the Taliban hideouts. USA and Pakistan should realize the fact that for the last 5-6 years the drone attacks have been taking place but no Taliban has left extremism or terrorism… the drone attacks hurt the Taliban, but are not effective against them and innocent people are also hurt .
Noor’s exhibition as well as the views from people on the ground are a set of counter-narratives; a powerful and visceral reminder of the human costs of a war presented to the world as robotic. Despite the viewpoints from empire—war is waged between people and violence is always violent. This counter-narrative is so easily lost when consuming the news feeds and official lines from the military. As Rachel Woodward states: “Representation, a social practice and strategy through which meanings are constituted and communicated, is unavoidable when dealing with militarism and military activities. Armed Forces, and defence institutions, take great care in producing and promoting speciﬁc portrayals of themselves and t heir activities in order to legitimize and justify their activities in places, spaces, environments and landscapes (Woodward 2005:729).
The project of critical geopolitics is therefore crucial to resisting and challenging the transcendent ‘view from the sky’, by highlighting the damage done to bodies on the ground. Highlighting the emotional reporting of Guardian journalist Maggie O’Kane and her coverage of the humanitarian disaster in the Balkans conflict in the 1990s, O Tuathail suggests an ‘anti-geopolitical’ eye that ‘…disturbs and disrupts the hegemonic foreign policy gaze, a way of seeing that, while hardly unproblematic itself, persistently transgresses, unravels and exceeds the frame-works scripting Bosnia in Western geopolitical discourse’. Similarly, in outlining her vision of a ‘subaltern geopolitics’, Jo Sharp studies non-Western perceptions of current geopolitics and the ‘war on terror’ in order to dislodge the hegemony of Western geographical imaginations. She challenges traditional realist geopolitics by presenting the views of the marginalized and finds that the war on terror is by no means a shared or universal experience: it is differentially distributed and violently uneven. Drone warfare in Pakistan is, at root, split between suburban drone pilots that sit in air-conditioned trailers and look at video screens, adjusting their view of the world 8,000 miles away with a joystick: and the reality of drone strikes from the ground.
The intervention presented so far is lodged precisely in countering the discourse and aesthetics of the U.S. military’s presentation of robotic killers. Drone warfare is not a video game, with clean lines and surgical strikes, but for many, it looks like it. There is therefore always a politics located in representation, in deciding what is seen, who is seen, and who is heard. As Jacques Rancière puts it: ‘Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time’. Dismantling the aesthetic divide between what is seen and what is not seen, undermining the careful policing of representation, and thereby revealing the true cost of a technological ghost war, is a crucial project for an ethical and just critical geopolitics, one that accounts for the people affected most brutally by predator drones.
Drone wars are spreading fast. There are now at least 60 bases integral to US military and CIA drone operations. US drone strikes in Yemen have been one of the Obama administration’s most closely guarded secrets, as unilateral intervention could undermine the government’s already tenuous grip on power. In Somali there is a similar pattern: drones targeting Al-Shabab, another Islamist group linked to al-Qaeda. Indeed, this pattern is a hallmark of Barack Obama’s new counterterrorism policy: The President’s 2011 ‘National Strategy for Counterterrorism’ casts al-Qaeda’s ‘allies’ and ‘affiliates’ as the main threats to US safety, and since many of these groups exist in so-called ‘failed states’ around the world, the document paves the way for drone intervention in any place on earth that is ‘affiliated’ or ‘allied’ with al-Qaeda: vast and ambiguous stretches of the planet such as North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Central, Western, and South Asia.
The CIA has created a violent shadow war—in a long list of shadow wars that have often had disastrous results. The CIA is a nominally a civilian entity, but since September the 11th, its paramilitary wing has increased in size, scope, and influence. There has been an enormous shift from intelligence analysis to covert operations, now oriented around drone strikes. The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center is staffed by 2,000 officers, who are in control of the expanding drone fleet, which currently stands at about 30 systems. Indeed, according the Washington Post, 20 percent of CIA analysts are now “targeters” that scan data for individuals to recruit, arrest or place in the crosshairs of a drone. Human rights activists argue that the CIA now functions as a military force beyond public or even governmental control. But perhaps the lesson runs deeper: secrecy has always been a deadly sovereign channel for extrajudicial violence.
Yet there is something different about drones, something that represents a change not just in technology but in thinking. What I provocatively term the Predator Empire attempts to capture this shift. The project of ‘nation building’ and ‘winning hearts and minds’ is clearly no longer a priority for Obama’s CIA, which assassinates in secret, and with its very own license to kill beyond any form of legal scrutiny. This license to kill is the sad sun rising across any nation the U.S. deems necessary. Such a large horizon stretches before a shadowy Predator Empire, no longer contained, and no longer forced to engage with a single nation state, enemy, or territory.
Drones are technologies that allow the U.S. military (and its covert executive) to kill more people in more places, without the traditional ‘hassle’ of logistics, supply lines, and public debates. America’s new empire is the Predator Empire, both a weapon and a geopolitical strategy for a post-Cold War world of globalization, where the sovereignty of nation states is increasingly rendered contingent by aerial intervention. In this sense, drones are not simply the vessels by which American imperialism is transmitted, rather, they are strategic actors that perform and produce a new geopolitical arrangement and aesthetic that has changed the very loci of warfare. They militarize and securitize global space in a manner previously thought impossible, with very little cost, which has already reduced the threshold upon which the US goes to war. That Predator Empire signals the end of ground war is perhaps premature. What it does augur is something altogether more frightening: extrajudicial assassinations, instantly available, anytime, anywhere.
And the technology is accelerating at a frightening pace, with drones soon able to recognize humans and scan them for biometric data. The US military regularly produces roadmaps that contain future strategy and tactics. One such is the US Army’s (2010) “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2010–2035”, and it celebrates the rapidly accelerating autonomy of drones. Autonomous drones that can think on their own—not just receive directions from pilots—are projected as the future of military practice and culture. This automation reaches its apex with the so-called SWARM capability. Under this tactic, the Army envisions tiny insect-like drones that can interact with each other in marauding swarms—much like a team of robotic locusts. These tiny drones, called Nanos, are “capable of conducting surveillance for an extended timeframe by lying dormant to conserve power or perch on power lines to draw needed energy” (US Army 2010:58). As the report explains:
“By 2025, Nanos will collaborate with one another to create swarms of Nanos that can cover large outdoor and indoor areas. The swarms will have a level of autonomy and self-awareness that will allow them to shift formations in order to maximize coverage and cover down on dead spots. Nanos will possess the ability to ﬂy, crawl, adjust their positions, and navigate increasingly conﬁned spaces” (US Army 2010:65, emphasis added).
In terms of their ability to target, future drones will be highly sophisticated. Keeping in tune with the science fiction overture: “Future sensors will provide the capability to track specific individuals, recognized through automatic target recognition capabilities, including if they are carrying weapons or other equipment. They also will be able to distinguish between males, females, and children, as well as different types of animals” (US Army 2010:90). I even read last week on drones able to scan heartbeats from the sky in order to assess ‘adversarial intent’. And of course, drones are no longer purely military tool, and nor will these technology stay within the military sphere. The police in the US and UK are already trialing them, along with Border Patrol in the US.
The justification for bombing Pakistan, and now Yemen and Somalia, does not simply rest upon the contours of an imaginative geography and its ‘architectures of enmity’, as Derek Gregory would call them, that partition an ‘us’ and ‘them’, nor is it completely enabled by the use of law to disregard international legal systems – so-called lawfare. Instead, the CIA and the administration that nourishes it, fetishizes the ‘surgical’ strikes of the Predator drone, which like a miraculous bolt of lightning from Zeus, cause no civilian deaths. It is here that the paper has lodged its critique: drones are not the precise, robotic saviors they are frequently sold as. They are responsible for countless civilian deaths and untold emotional and physical damage that will be felt for generations. It is hoped that the stories and representations from the people of Pakistan are one small step towards challenging the legitimacy of the expanding Predator Empire and the geopolitical discourses that fuel it. If George W. Bush and his administration were known for their controversial rollout of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, then the dubious honor befitting Barack Obama is that he is the ‘assassination’ President. As Commander-in Chief, he has presided over a rapidly escalating covert war that has killed thousands of people, auguring a new geopolitical arrangement and precedent, all the while denying its very existence. Ghosts chasing ghosts.