Accounting for the Drone Debate

Feb 2013

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

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 alternative 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 FairJoshua 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 statisticsNew 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. Read on >>

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9 Responses to Accounting for the Drone Debate

  1. […] on numbers without getting the story behind them, Hamzah Saif has since been the first I know of who aptly describes this dilemma and has done so much better and more concise words than I could have. JS […]

  2. […] 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. More here. […]

  3. […] Accounting for the Drone Debate […]

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