The Moral Case For Drones: Part III

 (Asim Rafiqui)This essay is part of a series of essays that asks us to challenge the language and the history used to justify the continuing American drone campaign in Pakistan. These  pieces give the basis of my argument against the use of drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and my conviction that extra-judicial killings are not only murder, that they are creating and increasing the very pathologies we fear, and that the Pakistani legal community and institutions have fallen prey to the hegemony of an American perspective, and failed to protect the rights and lives of Pakistani citizens.

The writer and journalist (and friend) Jonathan Cook wrote a piece back in 2006 called How I Found Myself With The Islamic Fascists. Written days after a group of 20 young British Muslim men – most of Pakistani origin were caught plotting to blow up aeroplanes flying between the UK and the USA. This piece was one of the first I had ever read that subtly reminded us that we live in an age were the hegemonic language of The War Against Terror was not only drowning out an alternative language of resistance and political struggle, but labelling it as terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. In two of the most courageous paragraphs I have read on questions about the world after 9/11, Jonathan argued that:

As we approach the fifth official anniversary of the “war on terror”, the foiled UK “terror plot” has neatly provided George W Bush, the “leader of the free world”, with a chance to remind us of our fight against the “Islamic fascists”. But what if the war on terror is not really about separating the good guys from the bad guys, but about deciding what a good guy can be allowed to say and think? What if the “Islamic fascism” President Bush warns us of is not just the terrorism associated with Osama bin Laden and his elusive al-Qaeda network but a set of views that many Arabs, Muslims and Pakistanis — even the odd humanist — consider normal, even enlightened? What if the war on “Islamic fascism” is less about fighting terrorism and more about silencing those who dissent from the West’s endless wars against the Middle East? At some point, I suspect, I joined the Islamic fascists without my even noticing. Were my name different, my skin colour different, my religion different, I might feel a lot more threatened by that realisation.

These were brave words by an individual – to admit an allegiance to a narrative of history which pitted you directly against the hegemonic one being disseminated by the official arms of the American administration, its global media collaborators, the hundreds of human rights and humanitarian institutions trawling for pickings in the wake of its wars, and the international institutions helpless to challenge America’s paroxysms of violence and desperate to make themselves relevant in some way. It would not surprise me if Jonathan Cook was showered with opprobrium as a result of these words.  He had the temerity to suggest that America’s wars were not just, that the terrorists it was claiming to fight not terrorists at all, that resistance to its military adventures was legal and justified, and that if there was terrorism then it what the Americans were doing.

Jonathan Cook’s words have stayed with me because he was one of the few that challenged the American administration’s version of history and just causes. Jonathan was speaking about a specific act in Britain, but his argument was a broader one – that today we see all resistance to American military and political hegemony as terrorism and irrationality, and consider such acts as deviant, abhorrent and the product of violent and evil minds. We think all this while carefully erasing our own massive violence across the globe, a violence that we veil behind noble phrases such as ‘democracy building’ or ‘liberation’.

His perspective remains a minority view, overwhelmed as it is by the master narrative  broadcast around the world by the American administration and its media organizations, a narrative centered around the idea of a new kind of enemy, a new kind of ideology of hate which required a new kind of idea of war. As Mark Danner explains in his piece Words in a Time of War: On Rhetoric, Truth and Power, in the days after 9/11, the hysteria was intoxicating, and contagious:

The enemy in this war, the president told Congress and the nation a week after the planes struck, was “heir to all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century . . . follow[ing] in the path of Fascism, and Nazism, and Totalitarianism” and such a terrible foe called for nothing less than a campaign to “rid this world of evil.” Though for a time the war remained mostly “virtual,” fought mostly “on the dark side,” as Vice President Dick Cheney put it, by intelligence officers, special forces, and, in Afghanistan, a large helping of aerial bombardment, this largely virtual conflict shortly gave birth to a real war, the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

That was in 2001, but the contagion has not receded. Today there are few who consider the American attack on Afghanistan as anything but necessary. The once-talented Indian writer, and celebrity chaser, Salman Rushdie went so far as to congratulate the American’s on their actions in Afghanistan, arguing that:

America did, in Afghanistan, what had to be done, and did it well.

This is the real power of an imperial nation – to influence the language around and about its actions in the world and do so with a concreteness that suffocates all alternative ideas and perspectives. An imperial nation can define the way we see the present, the language we use to describe it, and the rationale we adopt to explain it. That is, it sets the terms of the discourse used to discuss and understand the current state of affairs.

And it has this power over even those who may not agree with its perspective, but are left arguing and explaining the word with the terms, phrases and prejudices it inaugurates. Salman Rushdie’s celebration of American imperial might, and its right to attack and invade a sovereign nation that had nothing to do with the September 11, 2001 attacks, reflects his adoption of a set of assumptions and perspectives that eerily mirror the very assumptions and perspectives the American administration wished to inculcate to justify its wars, whether in Afghanistan, or later in Iraq.

One of the rhetorical devices used in the War Against Terror is conflating the enemy into something that we can no longer differentiate, name or understand. It has become impossible to know whom we are fighting, and what we are fighting against, and this confusion serves those who are making a moral case for drones. For example, Peter Bergen wrote a piece in The New Republic called The Front:The Taliban-Al-Qaeda Merger which offered us an excellent example of how our ‘enemies’ were conveniently merged and conflated so that we could never really question the legality, progress, intentions and aims of the war.  I quote Peter Berger in his opening argument:

The effort to secure Afghanistan is not a matter of vital U.S. interest. But those who make this case could not be more mistaken. Afghanistan and the areas of Pakistan that border it have always been the epicenter of the war on jihadist terrorism–and, at least for the foreseeable future, they will continue to be. Though it may be tempting to think otherwise, we cannot defeat Al Qaeda without securing Afghanistan.

Here we see the conventional boogeymen of our times, something that Berger calls jihadist terrorism, and later uses it to argue that we must stay in Afghanistan even if its not in America’s interest! (my emphasis) What did not occur to Peter Berger, and what is plainly clear from the anecdotal evidence he provides, is that those who are fighting against our occupation are arriving in Afghanistan because we are there. As evidence for the arrival of Al-Qaeda he provides the following anecdote (notice how quietly, subtly Berger conflate being an Arab resistance fighter against American invasion and occupation troops in Iraq with being a member of Al-Qaeda)

Taliban leaders have drawn especially close to Al Qaeda. (There are basically two branches of the Taliban–Pakistani and Afghan–but both are currently headquartered in Pakistan, and they are quite a bit more interwoven than is commonly thought.) Today, at the leadership level, the Taliban and Al Qaeda function more or less as a single entity. The signs of this are everywhere. For instance, IED attacks in Afghanistan have increased dramatically since 2004. What happened? As a Taliban member told Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau of Newsweek, “The Arabs taught us how to make an IED by mixing nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel and how to pack plastic explosives and to connect them to detonators and remote-control devices like mobile phones. We learned how to do this blindfolded so we could safely plant IEDs in the dark.” Another explained that “Arab and Iraqi mujahedin began visiting us, transferring the latest IED technology and suicide-bomber tactics they had learned in the Iraqi resistance.” Small numbers of Al Qaeda instructors embedded with much larger Taliban units have functioned something like U.S. Special Forces do–as trainers and force multipliers.

This would be interesting if it wasn’t so stupid. If we read carefully we see that Arab resistance fighters against an American occupation force – an illegal one at that, are referred to as Al-Qaeda, and that the claims of the Taliban spokesperson are ignored – he uses the words like ‘Arab mujahedin’, ‘Iraqi resistance’, which Bergers changes into ‘Al-Qaeda instructors’.

In the heads of seemingly intelligent people, it is all getting quick mixed up, undifferentiated and unclear. And there in lies the beauty of this war. We just don’t know whom we are fighting, and our government can constantly move the targets and the subjects around to suit its interests. The same minds find no issue with the fact that the USA considers all men above the age of 18 in a ‘drone zone’ as ‘militants’, and hence they will find no issue with referring to all Arab men in a nation we invade and occupy as ‘Al Qaeda’! There is a clarity in simplicity.

What also does not occur to Berger is that in both instances – the Taliban and so-called Al-Qaeda, emerge from centers of violence and war created by the Americans. That both are reactionary fighters in the face of pre-emptive and unprovoked American wars. Both are resistance fighters, and by law, well within their right to resist a foreign occupier. We see many such stories – complete with their prejudices of moral righteousness carrying along intact. Some can debunk such nonsense, but it seems to matter not in the long run.

Today it is common to see the terms terrorist/Taliban/Al-Qaeda being used freely, and without any justification, to explain the deaths of those we have already killed. Just like Peter Berger’s sleight of hand in conflating Arab resistance fighters with Al-Qaeda, the words terrorist/Taliban/Al-Qaeda have come to stand for a few things, all of which any civilized, law-abiding and freedom loving person would oppose:

  • Mindless, unthinking fanaticism
  • A determination to kill all Americans
  • A genetic pathology that drives them to love violence
  • A disregard for human life, liberty and freedom
  • Islam as a driving force.

A constant reference to terrorists, or Al-Qaeda ensures that the citizenry cows in fear, and stops thinking critically, for after all, we are killing ‘bad people’. Nothing can challenge the labels, the categorization, the post-murder justifications. The entire process remains secretive and the public is repeatedly told to trust its government as it consists of good and honorable men and women who make sure that each man they murder, deserved to be murdered. That these men, like John O. Brennan, have repeatedly lied to us in the not-so-distant past, have justified and explained illegal and immoral acts, is not allowed to give us pause, or to increase our efforts at demanding greater transparency and accountability of their actions. In fact, we seem to be rewarding them with even greater responsibility and success in their chosen careers.

Indeed, the US government has repeatedly argued that it has a ‘process’ in place, and we should trust it because we are dealing with a particularly devious and inhuman enemy – terrorists/Taliban/Al Qaeda who do not obey or behave as normal human beings, and whose motivations for violence do not have a reason, justification or rationale. Many have simply bought into this argument because it is made by the most powerful and influential people in the world. As Holder argued:

Given the nature of how terrorists act and where they tend to hide, it may not always be feasible to capture a United States citizen terrorist who presents an imminent threat of violent attack,” Mr. Holder said in a speech at Northwestern University’s law school. “In that case, our government has the clear authority to defend the United States with lethal force.

But what if we are not defending the United States, but its far tentacles that touch the lives of millions in the form of invasion and occupation armies, torture centers, night raids, ambushes, check-points, military bases, concrete blast walls, expropriation of key raw resources (can we say O.I.L), summary arrests, renditions, trained militia and assassination squads, usurped political processes, hand-picked venal political leaders, and a constant drumbeat of propaganda telling the inhabitants of a blighted land that they are free, liberated and grateful?

Can you play games with the law when you are playing games with the world? Can an illegal invasion, be the basis of legal killings? Can corrupted political and legal institutions be the source of just laws? Can we torture with abandon, detain indefinitely, murder without due process and still hide behind a language that attempts to make it all seem good and just? Can we go about telling the rest of the world to curtail and constrain its legal rules and the rights of its citizens, and still stand in front our own citizens and claim that what we are doing is in fact just and legal?

I suppose we can, because we are the ‘essential nation’, we are the imperial power. We create our own reality, and we demand that others adhere to it. The question now remains, for how long?

One of the most illuminating moments in Eroll Morris’s documentary The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara – occurs when Robert McNamara offers his explanation for why the war in Vietnam went so terribly wrong. Aside for the detailed discussions about the escalation of the conflict due to domestic political issues, he makes the following statement which I believe best captures why nations, any nation, can find itself mired in a conflict and unable to resolve it.

Let me quote Robert S. McNamara himself:

Let me go back one moment.  In the Cuban Missile Crisis at the end I think we did put ourselves in the skin of the Soviets. In the case of Vietnam we did not know them well enough to empathize.  There was total misunderstanding as a result.They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interest, which was absolutely absurd. And we…we saw Vietnam as an element of the cold war and not what they saw as…a civil war.

Robert S. McNamara then discusses how he later met with his ‘former enemy’ – on a trip to Vietnam in 1995 he meets with the former foreign minister of Vietnam, Tran Van Lam, and quickly getting into a heated argument which went a something like this (as told by Mr. McNamara in the film):

TVL: ‘You were totally wrong! We were fighting for our independence, you were fighting to enslave us!

RSM: Do you mean to say that it was not a tragedy for you when you lost 3, 400,000 of Vietnamese…killed…what did you accomplish? You did not get anything more than we were willing to give you at the beginning of the war!

TVL: Mr. McNamara, you must have never read a history book! If you had you would have known that we were not pawns of the Chinese or the Russians….did you not know that? Don’t you know that we have been fighting the Chinese for over 1000 years? We were fighting for our independence! And we would fight to the last man and we were determined to do so! And no amount of bombing or US pressure would have ever stopped us!

It reminded me how even today American is fighting the wrong war in Afghanistan. Once again the Americans refuse to get inside the skin of their opponents, and see how they see the world. Overwhelming force is used to hold things together in Afghanistan, but no effort is made to see an alternative narrative to the war, its legitimacy, and its resonance with a wide part of the Afghani population. Even as it fights an opponent who has limited financial resources, limited supply lines, older weaponry, few vehicles, no aircrafts, and no allies, it finds itself bogged down in a war it can’t win or presume to end.

The hegemonic narrative may work well up to a point, but those who suffer and die at the wrong end of it, it only inspires determination, resistance and patience. We don’t have to like those on the other side of it, but it behoves us to find a way to understand their narrative if we are to find a way out of this mess.

We cannot avoid the fact that these are wars of America’s making, and occupations of America’s choice. The men resisting it are doing so in the face of tremendous odds, but with a conviction that they are fighting against an illegal occupier and a foreign invader, both of which remain facts that cannot be disputed. To believe that an attack on an American soldier sent to Afghanistan to act as an arm of the illegal occupation is an attack on America is continue to stretch matters too far beyond credibility. To claim that acts of resistance against American and ISAF military forces are acts of terror, or being carried out by terrorists, turns on its head all our understanding of the laws of war. We have chosen to place ourselves in position from where thousands are rising to resist us. And thousands will continue to do so. By simply labeling them as terrorists and trying to kill them, we are avoiding facing the truth of the very histories we have produced.