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    Life in the Dronescape: An Interview with Madiha Tahir

    Written by

    Alex Pasternack

    Founding Editor

    A man in Waziristan, Pakistan, where US drones fly. At least 400 civilians have been killed in around 340 drone strikes in Pakistan (Flickr / Omer Wazir)

    The drone discussion has reached some kind of fever pitch in the West, turning the very word into a subject of debate (the industry prefers "UAV" instead) and a murky symbol for lots of techno fears. But in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, drone means something quite different: the nearly constant threat of murky justice from above.

    The White House has emphasized that though it isn't without its mistakes, the CIA-run drone program is "necessary, legal, and just," which is how a representative defended American drone strikes at the UN on Friday. But this is a mysterious justice, one that despite claims of accuracy and precision, comes with a mostly untold share of collateral damage.

    In 2012, journalist Madiha Tahir traveled to northwest Pakistan to document the lives of people who live under drones. It's a place that has been riven by colonial-era frontier rules, battered by Islamic militants, and abused by the Pakistani military. And since 2004, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have also been policed by secret orders and remote control pilots from thousands of miles away, in the U.S.

    Whether or not the horrible mistakes implicit in war are compounded by the virtualizing technology of unmanned vehicles (think of the informal term used by drone operators: "bug splat"), the secrecy of the war on terror and the political vacuum of "savage" dronescapes like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan have given rise to a new kind of fight. It's one that, as Tahir points out, is not only "dirty," but stretches the definition of collateral damage to places that can be hard to see.  

    "Wounds of Waziristan," her first documentary, puts an emphasis on what things look like on the ground in her native Pakistan, with the aim of making the effects of the war more visible. I spoke to her last week on the occasion of the film's release. You can watch it here.

    MOTHERBOARD: What's the relationship between the people who are on the ground in the Tribal Areas and the drones?

    Tahir: It's now nine years since the drones started. So you have effectively an entire generation that's grown up under drones. And in the interviews I conducted, they all talked about the buzzing of the drone. At the drone conference, [AUVSI chair] Michael Toscano was talking about the buzzing of the drone too, and how the buzzing was great, because it allowed scientists to control the direction of the elephants, so you can control their movement and keep them from harm. But the actual use to which the drone is put in real life—the Predator—creates terror and trauma in humans. In Waziristan, there are lots of increased reports of drug-taking, psychiatric drugs, but also just trauma.

    The psychiatrists I've interviewed there have talked to me about it. There is something different about the stress that comes from a drone. Obviously people in this area are subjected to different forms of violence. The Pakistani military is absolutely brutal. There are these insurgent groups that are also quite brutal. And lastly, you have drones. The thing about the drones is that because they are at a certain remove, there is a sense of uncertainty, a sense that you can't control this. Whether it's true or not, people feel that with militants, there is some degree of control. You can negotiate. There is some cause and effect relationship. But there is no cause and effect with a drone, as far as people in the area are concerned. It creates an acute kind of trauma that is not limited to the actual attack. It has to do with the constant threat flying above.

    Are you categorically opposed to the drone as a weapon of war? Is there a way, you see, that it might be used "justly"?

    I'm not categorically opposed to anything because we don't know all the categories. But, in the actually existing world in which we live, I am opposed to drone warfare. Technologies are embedded in social and political constructs. Drone warfare cannot function without gross power differentials. States must consent or be forced to consent not to shoot down drones. And, it cannot function without a particular, problematic view of marginalized, racialized others. These things are inherent to drone warfare in the actually existing world in which we live.

    Your film begins with President Obama's description—that he's "haunted" by the loss of civilian lives. What moved you to make that that description a guiding motif in the film?

    A couple of things. I've been trying to think about the ways we can talk about drones beyond the legal reports. So what are the ways that we can think about what it means to experience life under drones. Another aspect is that yes, Obama said he is haunted by loss of civilian life, but that nevertheless we need to continue with our war. I thought that was interesting because there's a whole literature within academia and in fiction about ghosts and haunting and what that means. If you think about Toni Morrison's Beloved. The sociologist Avery Gordon has an excellent book on this called Ghostly Matters. Being haunted is about not being able to go on as if you were not being haunted. Even horror films are about this.

    To me, his phrase seems somewhat disingenuous. But I wanted to take him seriously. Because I think in some ways politicians are so used to us not taking them seriously, when in fact it's a way of giving them a pass. But what if you actually took these people seriously, at their word—not in a naive way, but critically hold them accountable for things they were saying. So that was the other thought. I wanted to find a new way to explore what is the real experience in the waste and the rubble of this war.

    Haunting is a frame to think about experience and ethics. There's a line in Adorno about ghosts: "Only a conscious horror of destruction can create the proper relationship with the dead." I think that's true for the living too. We have to understand in our bones in some sense what the experience of destruction is. That's a way to create an ethical relationship with the people who are actually victims of this war. The law can adjudicate certain questions that are certainly important, but if you want to talk about an actual relationship with the people who are on the receiving end of these secret wars, you have to start by understanding their experiences.

    On both sides of the debate, drones have become a new, uncanny entity in warfare. But to people on the ground in Waziristan, does the "drone-ness" of drones matter? Is a drone any different from, say, a more conventional bomber with a pilot inside?

    It depends on one's position. If you're standing in Waziristan, these distinctions probably don't matter. Certainly though there is something about drones that has captured the imagination of liberals and activists in the West. Meanwhile, the military is trying very hard to say there is nothing different about drones, that they're just another tool, which is part of the fight to call them "unmanned aerial vehicles" rather than "drones." We tend to focus on drones, but why that is, what that is, is an open question.

    Secrecy seems central to that openness. I mean, the secrecy abets the technology, and the technology comes to rely on secrecy.

    It's partly secrecy. But it's other things as well. I think drones have diminished the idea of heroism. Heroism is fundamentally about putting yourself at risk, about being willing to sacrifice. That aspect as well—you saw that in the controversy over medals for drone pilots. Some said this was doing a disservice to people who have actually fought in wars. There is some sense amongst us, some unspoken sense, that this is a dirty fight. Because it does not expose us to risk, it takes away the glory and the heroism.

    Not that I necessarily believe in these things, but I think this is part of the hesitation or worry about drones. They are reconfiguring our ideas about war, heroism, sacrifice, and honor, and there's a certain resistance to that. Quite apart from the fact that drones kill people--because regular manned aircraft do too as well as other weapons--they seem repugnant to many of us because risk is entirely displaced onto the other side.

    They are reconfiguring our ideas about war, heroism, sacrifice, and honor, and there's a certain resistance to that. Quite apart from the fact that drones kill people--because regular manned aircraft do too as well as other weapons--they seem repugnant to many of us because risk is entirely displaced onto the other side.

    There's a kind of obscurity to drones but also to the Tribal Areas—a weapon that's hard to see in a place that's far from view.

    There is an obscurity. But we should be clear that the obscurity is to us. Even I, as a Pakistani but someone not from the Tribal Areas have to struggle and make the effort to get to know the place. The obscurity isn't a natural feature. It has been made obscure by the Pakistani state and the Pakistani military. A lot of people will also say there are no journalists who know what's going on. That's not true, there are a lot of journalists working in FATA. They live there.

    I had gone there to figure out what people think about drones but also to understand what the hell is going on. I cannot go into North Waziristan, it's blocked. South Waziristan is only accessible by embedding with the military, which I won't do. I go to the border area, the border towns. People who come there to go shopping, or students at the university, and just talk to people. That area has also gotten more volatile, so it's not the safest place either, but it is accessible. You go there and try to figure out what's going on. And they don't all agree, and after awhile you begin to get a sense of why people feel the way they do.

    Madiha Tahir with Usman Khan, whose father was killed in a drone attack on March 17, 2011

    Despite the continuing secrecy around drone strikes, there's been a surge in independent reporting and commentary on them recently—by the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others. What's the significance of these reports?

    The reports are useful for two reasons. One is for documentation. The Amnesty report seems to have been very carefully done. That's important, the sheer fact of documentation. Secondly, they're important as tools in an event-driven media industry. To say, here's an event to generate discussion. And it's sad that it has to be the legal report as event rather than the death itself.

    But also, while these reports are sharply critical of what's been going on, on the other hand, I think the first recommendation in the UN report said that drones can be properly used "if used in strict compliance with the principles of international humanitarian law." So they're in some way also normalizing possible uses. This is what the law is: calibrating the proper level of violence that is acceptable. Things get left out in that process. The social, the historical get left out. The racialization of this war doesn't get discussed. The power differentials that make drone warfare possible don't get discussed. The ideal world in which the rules are obeyed and the law is followed, particularly international law, when you actually don't have a court that can adjudicate it, it really doesn't fit with what our programs are actually doing. In that way, I'm a little on the fence about the use of legalese to generate the discussion. I see the importance, but it also concerns me.

    How are drones accepted, if at all, among Pakistanis now?

    During my research, one guy said to me, "I always say a prayer before I go out and get into the car." Another guy said, "It's fine, let them get rid of the bad guys." And this other guy was contradicting him, saying, "Look, no, my neighbor was attacked. they killed his uncle and so and so." There is obviously a minority that supports drone strikes. There's a complicated set of reasons why. Some of it is secular, some of it is the English-speaking media, whose world view is the same as that of the West, and they view the mass of Pakistanis with suspicion. Drones have been normalized among a small group of people. And then there are Pashtuns, who are from the tribal areas, who have different reasons. They are actually facing militant violence and army violence. I have more understanding for why they would want to chose that.

    Because it seems to be the best of terrible choices?

    And I think the question for the rest of us, is why do they have that choice? It's an awful choice. These are awful choices.