Drone Strikes

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Daniel Martin Varisco

The Error in the War on Terror

In 1978 I arrived in the Yemen Arab Republic to begin 18 months ethnographic fieldwork.  At the time North Yemen, as it was called, was in full development mode.  A protracted civil war after the fall of the traditional Zaydi imamate had ended only a decade before.  Aid was pouring in from the United Nations, the United States, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Russia and mainland China as the country was in the throes of building itself up by its sandalstraps.  Once settled in my field site, the beautiful spring-fed highland valley of al-Ahjur, I could not help but notice that just about everyone was armed, many with kalashnikovs.  This was a tribal area, where the central government exercised little control, but I never felt safer in my life.

I felt safe because as a foreigner I was protected under tribal customary law.  At this time the United States was well liked, often in contrast to the atheist communists of the Soviet Union who supported the socialist regime in South Yemen.  This was before any hint of terrorism, before the Iran hostage affair and long before al-Qaeda.  Osama Bin Laden had just turned 21 and was still in college.  In this tribal area there was an honor code, exemplified by the Yemeni term qabyala, that required protection of unarmed guests, as it did women and children.  In 2004, on a return visit to the valley, I found myself in the difficult situation of explaining why I did not support the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  One of my Yemeni friends noted that he used to think that America was different, but now he believed that the U.S. president was as bad as his own, Ali Abdullah Salih.

Although I have not returned to Yemen in the past seven years, the situation there is always on my mind.  The winds of the “Arab Spring” finally dislodged President Salih after three decades in power.  The transitional government of President al-Hadi is beset with seemingly insurmountable problems:  years of government corruption, economic stagnation, open rebellions of the Huthi group in the north and southern secessionists, and the continuing presence of extremists who label themselves Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Once again Yemen is poised at a critical moment for development, although this time the global implications of local politics overshadow all hopes for progress.

Yemen is front and center in America’s unending war on terror and the weapon of choice is now the drone.  In military terms, a drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle which can hit a moving vehicle full of al-Qaeda operatives with incredible accuracy.  It can just as easily target a car full of civilians or a room full of children.  In Yemen and Pakistan the most lethal drone is the MQ-9 Reaper, also known as the Predator, used for what are termed hunter-kill missions.  Drone strikes in Yemen have quadrupled in 2012 from the strikes in 2011. Estimates vary, but the Long War Journal  estimates that since 2002 in Yemen there have been 59 drone strikes with “enemy” deaths numbering 298 and civilian deaths numbering 82. A reporter for Yemen Post  reports that this year al-Qaeda gunmen killed 74 Yemeni security or military officials, about the same number as the militants killed by drones over the year in Yemen.  Four drone strikes were authorized after Christmas, 2012. Drone strikes are even more common in Pakistan; since 2005 they have caused an estimated 3,000 deaths, with between 473-889 civilian casualties.  Over 300 of 355 drone strikes in Pakistan have occurred under the watch of President Obama, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Drones are effective killers because they are unmanned.  From a military point of view it is better to lose a drone priced at about 37 million dollars than a pilot or crew.  I do not dispute this rationale, but what about the value of those who die in the drone’s wake? Drone strikes inevitably kill civilians from time to time, either due to faulty targeting or the fact that innocent people may be nearby suspected terrorists.  Every time a family mourns the loss of a victim, there is a recruiting tool for yet more terrorists.  Then there are the flight mishaps, especially when drones crash in or near civilian airports, as has been documented. Is it reasonable to expect that every identifiable terrorist can be taken out by a no-end-in-sight drone strategy?

The Reaper is aptly named, given the grim results of its destruction.  Also grim is the fact that drone deaths are almost never covered in the news media, at least here in the United States, except in the rare case of an American citizen, such as Anwar al-Awlaqi, who was killed along with fellow American Samir Khan in 2011. This raised the issue briefly of what right an American citizen has to a trial before being killed, but says little about what being a “suspected” terrorists really means.  It is as though the argument of the neatness of precision bombing justifies use of a weapon which is not in fact failsafe, even if handled properly by the remote controller.  The collateral damage here is not simply loss of vehicles and houses, but more importantly human bodies are incinerated simply on the suspicion that these individuals are said to be terrorists.  If killing terrorists serves as a rallying cry for recruiting new terrorists, then those who hate America are quite happy if we drone on, perhaps getting something from small battles but ultimately not doing much to win the overall war on terror.

Daniel Martin Varisco is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.  Since 1978 he has conducted ethnographic and historical research in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar.  His latest book is Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (University of Washington Press, 2007).  He currently serves as editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient (www.cyberorient.net), the online journal of the Middle East Section of the AAA. His regular blog is Tabsir: Insight on Islam and the Middle East (www.tabsir.net).

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  1. M. Jamil Hanifi
    Posted May 4, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink


    In his “Drone Strikes” (Anthropology News, March/April 2013) Daniel Varisco softly counsels the raging and confused American warfare machine about the futility of its bloody military operations in the lands of the Others in pursuit of its sadomasochistic “war on terror”. I partially agree with Daniel Varisco; yes, the acts of terror committed by the military forces of the United States in Afghanistan and elsewhere are futile—they will continue to produce eternal resistance to the perceived defiling cultural and political presence of the enraged American imperial stupor.

    But simply because two U. S. citizens were unlawfully killed there by America drones does not make Yemen “the front and center in America’s unending war on terror”. Afghanistan is the major battlefield of this war. It is there that we find the massive round-the-clock visible and invisible presence of the aimless American military machine. The invisible part of this machine consists of squadrons of B-52s (based at the Diego Garcia Air Force Base) and remote control killers called drones—all producing the effect of terror and terrorism in the consciousness of the people of Afghanistan and the surrounding region including Pakistan. Two drones have recently been shot down in Iran. The visible instruments for producing this awareness are hundreds of American tanks, armored vehicles, fighter jets, helicopters, and surveillance blimps over major cities of Afghanistan (providing “intelligence” for American visible and invisible killers) and tens of thousands of ghoulish mass-produced bodies of American “warriors” of terror roaming through the cultural, social and physical terrain of Afghanistan terrorizing unarmed and innocent civilians. The daily kidnapping, torture and summary executions of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan by the United States armed forces constitute terrorism and crimes against humanity. A popular image of the American military operations in Afghanistan is armored soldiers “kicking in doors” to private homes terrorizing unarmed men, women and children. Variations of “Sandy Hook”, “Aurora”, “Oklahoma City”, and “Boston Marathon” massacres are regularly imposed on the people of Afghanistan by American occupying soldiers. The perpetrators of these acts of terrorism and war crimes become “war heroes” in American media. The American media does not report these atrocities because they have become naturalized in American popular culture. ( See “the U. S. War of Terror in Afghanistan” http://zeroanthropology.net/2012/07/23/the-u-s-war-of-terror-in-afghanistan/

    Perhaps unintentionally, Daniel Varisco suggests that terrorism and terrorists reside and are produced only over “There” in the cultural and political spaces of the Other. Terrorism is the infliction of violence or the threat of violence on unarmed civilians, innocent bystanders, and/or unarmed noncombatants (Hanifi, AN, September 2005). The imposition of violence produces fear, trauma, injury, and/or loss of life. As such the tragedy of 9/11 qualifies as an act of terrorism as does the August 1945 destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs by the United States—the first and only such barbaric acts in human history. The atrocities imposed by the founding populations of USA and Israel on Native Americans and Palestinians respectively qualify as acts of terrorism. The massacre of thousands of unarmed civilians by the United States armed forces in Fallujah, Iraq during November 2004 is a savage act of terrorism which has been condemned by numerous international organizations as war crimes and crimes against humanity. (See the 2005 documentary “Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre”). The 1982 massacre of thousands of unarmed Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon by Israeli sponsored militia and the slaughter of millions of unarmed civilians and resisters in Vietnam by the United States armed forces are blatant acts of terrorism.

    The threat of violence, on the other hand, produces some of these effects plus the chronic mindset of “we are about to be hit” (WAH) by a terrorist agency. In the aftermath of 9/11 the ruling machinery and the “security industry” of the United States successfully installed this mindset in American society—be constantly on guard, a “terrorist attack” is perennially lurking. Several structural changes emerged from this WAH orientation in the United States including the Department of Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center, the National Terror Alert Response Center, and hundreds of subsidiary government bureaus and private corporations. Virtually all American state and local public safety agencies include a “counter-terrorism” section. Currently hundreds of American universities and governmental agencies offer academic research and study programs about terrorism, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency. A number of anthropologists specializing in the Middle East and South Asia are actively involved in these programs. Forensic anthropology has become a popular specialization in several major American universities. Students with degrees in this subfield are highly in demand in law enforcement and the defense and security industries of the United States.

    The WAH mindset in the United States is cradled in the institutionalized fear of Islam (“Islamophobia”) and Muslims and, occasionally, the agency of other Others—Otherphobia—“people hate us [Americans], we have to grudgingly accept that” (Tom Menino, Mayor of Boston on “Geraldo” radio talk show, April 17, 2013). Mayor Menino is correct in this sadomasochistic and narcissistic assessment. The most militarized, most despised and disrespected political cultures in the eye of the world (Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, South America, and Canada) are located in the United States and Israel—two countries fused by their Zionist “unbreakable bond”. Together, these two warfare states produce about eighty percent of weapons circulating in the global market. In both countries, weapons constitute their major export. Mr. Menino’s sadomasochistic observation articulates the thesis that America and Americans are despised by Muslims and non-Muslims. The more than seven hundred American military bases around the world provide a historical and global backdrop for this thesis and its derivative WAH effect.

    A glimpse at this contemptuous view of Americans when interacting with Others is offered by Richard N. Frye, the distinguished historian (and ethnographer) of Iran and Afghanistan. During 1953 when Frye was in Tehran he saw “graffiti saying ‘Americans go home’, lit. ‘get lost’” (Richard N. Frye, Greater Iran: A 20th-Century Odyssey, 2005, p. 140). Frye taught English in a government school in Kabul during the early 1950s. Recalling what he received about the United States from Europeans residing in Kabul, Frye writes: “Invariably, criticism of the United States as materialistic and uncultured society came from all Europeans, and it was difficult to defend American boorishness abroad” p. 40). Several international organizations in Europe have declared President George W. Bush, as a war criminal. For this reason Bush will never visit Europe for fear of being dragged to the International Court of Justice. To my knowledge, at least in modern times, no head of state except US President G. W. Bush (in Baghdad, December 14, 2008) has been treated as the target of flying dirty shoes in wide open public space by a citizen of Iraq.

    Terrorists are producers, disseminators and implementors of terrorism. The agencies that designed and imposed the tragedy of 9/11 qualify as terrorists. Whether armed resistance to the unlawful and violent American imperial presence in Afghanistan is an act of terrorism is subject to how we conceptualize terrorism. The aim of the resistance—not “insurgency”—in Afghanistan is to expel the armed Euro-American occupiers and their armed and unarmed local hosts, collaborators, facilitators, scouts, and pimps. The Afghan resistance does not target the civilian population of Afghanistan or Washington DC. The WAH effect in the consciousness of the people Afghanistan is informed by this understanding. The American occupation forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and their media partners invariably substitute imaginary “terrorism” for what in reality is resistance to their presence in the occupied lands.

    Varisco’s gentle advisory to the American warfare machine leads this reader to conclude that in the universe of terrorism the United States is merely an innocent victim and bystander. This is far from empirical realities. The barbaric disruption and destruction of the lives of hundreds of thousands (some estimates suggest millions) of the unarmed people of Afghanistan by the United State over the last thirty five years is a thick compendium of acts of terrorism. The use of depleted uranium in southwest Afghanistan during the early stages of the American occupation has produced thousands of deformed human newborns. This is terrorism tainted with crimes against humanity. In American discourse the 9/11 narratives are invariably punctuated with “3000” casualties. The mass slaughter of exactly “3000” imprisoned and unarmed resisters—prisoners of war—in Dasht-e Laeli, northern Afghanistan, during 2002 is a savage act of terrorism and a stark violation of international conventions of warfare. The credit for the production and sponsorship of tens of thousands of “freedom fighter” terrorists during the 1980s and 1990s in Afghanistan belongs to the United States. The United States is the founding father and nurse of al-Qaeda when the latter was terrorizing Afghanistan during the 1980s. The killings of armed and unarmed resisters to American imperialism in Pakistan are blatant acts of terrorism. The United States continues to test biological and chemical weapons on civilians in Afghanistan in preparation for what the American government and media, with gleeful sadism, call “population centered wars” of the future. The United States is the world’s greatest producer and a prominent receiver of terrorism. Given the easy and uncomplicated availability of the knowledge and tools for the production and circulation of destructive technologies in the global cyber system and, unless the American warfare state radically changes its policies and practices of producing and circulating terrorism, it is likely that America will become the major global consumer of terrorism as well despite President Obama’s delusional roar that “Americans refuse to be terrorized” (April 20, 2013). The agency and consequences of American produced terrorism are flip sides of the “we are about to be hit” coin—simultaneous homicide and suicide, much like the narrative of the origin of Christianity and fundamentally an exercise in cannibalism.

    Over the past fourteen years, the massive visible and invisible military presence of the United States has produced a WAH effect in the consciousness of the people of Afghanistan and the surrounding region. The terrorizing presence and operations of B-52s and drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere produces local oceans of hatred, contempt, disrespect, and every available form of violent and non-violent resistance aimed at the ideology, policies, and practices of the freaked-out American military machine and its subsidizers—the American people and “the American way of life”. These bottomless wells of resistance to American imperialism long for the day when USA will meet its industrial equal on the battle field and they believe that this will happen sooner than later. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the complacent hubris of the state apparatus and the uninformed and indifferent masses of the United States receive these oceans of resistance as “terrorism” and “insurgency”. The American ruling machinery, media and popular culture receive “terrorism” and other cultural and political problems (e. g. poverty, drug abuse, 9/11) as personal matters with individual faces on them. In engaging poverty they focus on one or two poor individuals or a poor family; to address drug abuse they focus on a drug user or pusher; to address the tragedy of 9/11 they focus on Osama Ben-Laden. The American political and social system appears to be incapable of processing the cultural, historical, ideological and political forces that produces terrorism and other political and social effects. The Boston Marathon bombing is viewed as the consequence of self-inflicted radicalism or only “radical Islam” even though informed global media and enlightened locations in popular culture explicitly and convincingly locate the agency of this specific act of terrorism in the violent and unwelcome American imperial presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/23/boston-bombing-suspects-motivation-afghanistan-iraq_n_3140547.html?icid=maing-grid7%7Cmaing8%7Cdl1%7Csec1_lnk1%26pLid%3D302835) For Americans to understand a modicum of response to what their armed forces are doing in Afghanistan, they need to soberly contemplate a hypothetical exercise in which an aimless and enraged industrially equipped Pashtun occupation army and Taleban operated B-52s and Predators are plodding through the landscapes and skies of a pre-industrial Texas.

    Here is a lesson in balanced reciprocity for the American ruling apparatus: If you stop terrorizing the world, the world will stop terrorizing America!

  2. Posted January 17, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    “Is it reasonable to expect that every identifiable terrorist can be taken out by a no-end-in-sight drone strategy?” No, it isn’t, but unfortunately reasonableness does not come into the equation. Having watched enough people people descend into the vacant-eyed throes of video game addiction when only pseudo-power is wielded, I wonder fearfully what will happen as these technologies and their mentality spread.

2 Trackbacks

  • By Arab News Blog » Drone Policy in Yemen on May 11, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    [...] of the strategy in combating Al Qaeda recruitment. The talk builds on a commentary published in the Middle East Muddle blog of the Anthropology News [...]

  • By Arab News Blog » Drone Strikes on February 7, 2013 at 10:20 am

    [...] [Drones are now at the top of the news cycle. This commentary was originally published in the January online edition of Anthropology News.] [...]

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