Remember the 2010 White House Correspondents dinner? Of course you don’t. Let me remind you of a quip the Commander-in-Chief shared with his audience of suited and booted journalist folk. President Obama, who oversaw the largest escalation of CIA drone attacks in Pakistan that very same year, casually warned the Jonas Brothers to stay away from his daughters, lest he send in a fleet of ‘Predator’ drones to wipe the smile of their Disney-chiselled faces (one assumes with a laser-guided Hellfire missile).
Ah yes, the Predator drone—that iconic figure of America’s shadow wars—now hovers in the skies above Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, alongside its ‘Reaper’ brethren. And these joyfully named robots are very much here to stay; reshaping the geopolitical coordinates of the world map as they go about chasing al-Qaeda affiliates in the Horn of Africa.
How then, should we welcome our new Predator overlords?
Certainly we seem conflicted. Last week, a well-publicized summit in the U.S. drew together activists, academics, and journalists to call for increased regulation over the expanding drone wars—if not their outright cessation. And in Pakistan, where there have been over 300 strikes and 3,000 associated deaths, protestors burning Predator effigies suggest they do not approve of 8 years of territorial violation.
Over in the U.S., a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll suggested that most Americans do approve of the drone attacks, even against their fellow citizens. Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda ‘YouTube’ bad guy was slain in Yemen by a Hellfire missile in September 2011, but he was actually born in the U.S. in 1971, and later obtained degrees from Colorado and San Diego. His death was labelled by some as the dawn of a brave new world of state-sponsored assassinations from the clouds, and others as a clear indication that George W. Bush’s Executive Branch remains dangerously uncoupled from legislative restraint.
That transcendent, trustworthy, tomb we call The Law is often brought to bear on the secretive drone wars. Human rights activists and lawyers do painstaking work piecing together the ‘kill chain’; gathering missing pieces of information; and championing the voices of the innocent, the silenced, and the dead. In response, the Obama administration shouts back that The Law is on their side; that the drone strikes conform to domestic and international law. John Brenan, the White House’s top counterterrorism official, recently stated that they were not only legal, but ‘wise’.
The foreign affairs veteran continued: “Remotely piloted aircraft in particular can be a wise choice because of geography, with their ability to fly hundreds of miles over the most treacherous terrain, strike their targets with astonishing precision, and then return to base”.
As a geographer, my ears usually prick at the mere mention of our humble discipline. So Brenan’s delicate fusion of wisdom with geography naturally intrigued me.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, home to around three million Pashtun tribesmen, do indeed rest over a mountainous—even intractable landscape. The area is frequently labelled as the epicentre of global terrorism; the primary target of U.S. National Security.
But what makes it a truly ‘treacherous terrain’ is its human history of intervention.
It is a history that started with the British during their occupation of India in the 19th Century. They crafted FATA to act as a ‘buffer state’ against the Russians in that not-so-great ‘Great Game’. The modern Pakistani Constitution of 1973 inherits much of this colonial-era legislation and separates, or ‘exceptionalizes’ these Pakistanis from the normal rule of law, and crucially, from the same legal protection.
It is also a history that is intimately tied to the CIA during the late 1970s and 1980s. The CIA routed millions of dollars, materials, and trainers through this ‘treacherous terrain’ in the Afghan mujahideen. After they left, and after the Cold War melted away, the thousands of ‘freedom fighters’ as Reagan called them, and the thousands of madrassas that housed them, didn’t just crumble with the Berlin Wall.
What I’m suggesting is that the apparent wisdom of deploying CIA drones to Pakistan is predicated on a singular view of geography: mountains and streams and capital cities. It’s not.
The CIA’s drone wars in Pakistan are chasing militants in a geography that they shaped in the 1980s, that the British constructed in the 19th Century, and one that is being continually remade with each blow of a Hellfire missile. To reduce FATA to a singular territory, or to lines on a map, is to ignore its history and the global geopolitical processes that defy its borders.
So how do I welcome our Predator overlords? How do I react to the coming drone army as it migrates from Pakistan?
With a deep fear.
A fear that human geography and human history is erased in discussions.
A fear that ‘territory’ is only understood through lines on a map, or mountains jutting up from the ground.
And a fear that the ‘surgical nature’ of drone strikes is wilfully blind to the future geographies that are being made, and the human stories that are being written.