How Not To Speak About Drones

A flurry of new reports about the American drone program had people all very excited. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both released new reports that stated the obvious: killing civilians is bad and must stop. The Amnesty Report, titled Will I Be Next: US Drone Strikes In Pakistan and Human Rights Watch report title Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda: The Civilian Cost of U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen

But both reports are fantastic exercises in hypocrisy, mendacity and a cowardly ceding of the discourse of the war in Afghanistan and Yemen to the US State Department and the US military. They speak about errant drone strikes while accepting errant military invasions and occupations. Amnesty wants to focus only on ‘civilian’ deaths, thereby ceding the entire ‘precision’ argument to the US military and the US State Department. As if more accuracy will remove the illegality and the real crimes here. Human Rights Watch goes even further and in its very title alone ceded that we are fighting the bogey-man Al-Qaeda in Yemen and that there are ‘good’ civilians we should be more careful about.

The unthinking adoption of the discourse of war that has been laid out by the executive, state and military branches of the USA, the mindless regurgitation of the presumptions of the conflict and the means of its execution, is one of the best hallmarks of the failures, hypocrisies and cowardice of these human rights ‘workers’. By refusing to confront the language and confusions sown by power, by refusing to hold a consistent and human line of argument against all violence and wars, they become front line partners in the propaganda machinery of war. These organizations and their reports offer the carefully selected arenas of moral concern that allow the broader wars, detentions, torture, killings, dispossession and other injustices to continue, while distracting the populace with an acceptably ‘moral’ issue to focus all its attention on.

By separating the drone program from the broader war in Afghanistan, and manufacturing it as something that can be discussed independently of American counter-insurgency campaigns in the area, the human rights organizations have once again shown how they will remain silent in the face of the most egregious and immoral uses of imperial power, but adopt righteous and ‘outraged’ postures on issues that are frankly derivative and inconsequential.

None of the reports takes issue with the illegality and brutality of the American military and political occupation of Afghanistan. The entire assault on a sovereign nation, and the illegality of the occupation (for which we created the euphemism ‘nation building’) is discussed or argued against. The fact that Afghanistan’s civilians are being killed in night raids, aerial bombardments, and conventional military ground operations is no different from the fact that they are being killed in drone attacks. The American drone program is an integrated part of the US counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan. It is being supported by ground operations being conducted by the Pakistani Army, and it cannot be discussed as a unique ‘evil’ or ‘civilian killing machine’ as these human rights organizations want to pretend it can.

And there is something particularly glaring and hypocritical about Amnesty International’s impotent arguments against drones when it remains such a strong supporter of the American ‘feminist’ war in Afghanistan. Their ill-conceived ‘Keep The Progress Going’ poster campaign – one that associated the American military presence as a women’s liberation movement – betrays the true colors of an institution that has pretty much lost its mooring.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It is an organization that today is run largely by Washington D.C insiders – people closely associated with those who make the decisions about war and peace. That is, Amnesty is the sugar-coating that the American political establishment can use to excise away its war crimes. As Coleen Rowley and Ann Wright point out:

The new Executive Director of Amnesty International USA – Suzanne Nossel – is a recent U.S. government insider. So it’s a safe bet that AI’s decision to seize upon a topic that dovetailed with American foreign policy interests, “women’s rights in Afghanistan,” at the NATO Conference last month in Chicago came directly from her.

Nossel was hired by AI in January 2012. In her early career, Nossel worked for Ambassador Richard Holbrooke under the Clinton Administration at the United Nations. Most recently, she served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organizations at the U.S. Department of State, where she was responsible for multilateral human rights, humanitarian affairs, women’s issues, public diplomacy, press and congressional relations.

She also played a leading role in U.S. engagement at the U.N. Human Rights Council (where her views about the original Goldstone Report on behalf of Palestinian women did not quite rise to the same level of concerns for the women in countries that U.S.-NATO has attacked militarily).

The drone reports offer a clean chit to the American right to bomb across international borders, and also further the assumption that it is Al-Qaeda (with all its anti-American connotations) that is the enemy being fought on the ground. These organizations have a long and celebrated history of white-washing American war crimes and illegal acts of violence. By sinking entire invasions, military occupations, torture programs, rendition practices, indefinite and cruel detention policies and much more, under a ocean-liner load of legalese and textual obfuscations, they have been a core part of the US political and military establishment’s programs to bamboozled the unsuspecting and the mildly morally offended. And no where is this game more obvious than in these two new reports.

I am working on a longer piece about how to understand and thank about the drone program. It is an extension of comments I wrote earlier where I argued that 1) you have to think about the drone program as part of a broader counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan, 2) you have to realize that the Americans are facing a popularly supported guerrilla movement and not a handful of ‘Al Qaeda’ operatives, and 3) that the aim of a counter-insurgency campaign is to ‘drain the waters’ i.e. remove popular support for guerrillas who can only operate with the collaboration and assistance of the civilian populations that give them shelter, food, transport and disguise. As I commented to friends earlier (apologies for some of the repetition!) :

Amnesty International and HRW done reports are riddled with hypocrisies, and are in fact doing more to allow drone attacks to continue in the future by asking the US government for a ‘structure of transparency’ thereby giving the Obama and all future administrations an escape hatch. What we may see is the creation of a fraudulent oversight body like FISA – one that basically rubber stamps with a legal voice and language, all the decisions that administration makes about the ‘kill list’.

All drone attacks are illegal. This is an aerial bombardment campaign against a nation and its citizens that are not at war with the USA. They are being carried out by a nation that is an illegal military occupier in Afghanistan, that has no legal basis for its presence there, that has foisted an illegal ‘government’ in the center – a government that has no support or legitimacy across the country (I dare Karzai to take a lone walk on any street in Kabul and see if he survives). If these ‘human rights’ organizations will concede the most egregious violations of international law, if they will remain silent at the most egregious violence and brutalities of the military occupation, if they will indulge in a language that uses the same frameworks that is fed to them by the US State Department (we are fighting Al Qaeda, American is under threat etc.), that drones are precision weapons rather than the weapons of mass terror, terrorizing of the entire population as part of a counter-insurgency campaign to ‘drain the waters’ where guerrilla groups operate from, then these reports are merely dressings and acts of appeasement.

Just reading the reports is a fabulous exercise in obfuscation and word games. Their entire pretext is that there is a ‘threat to America’, not that there is a popular resistance to American and ISAF presence in Afghanistan, a presence that was always illegal, and certainly a 11 year occupation that is no more legitimate than the Soviet Union in Afghanistan back in 1979. These reports just don’t work. They are yet another example of the failure of these human rights organizations that cut off history, that adopt accommodating positions which never confront the hard questions, but gently insert themselves into slivers of acceptability by arguing for a completely fictitious separation of combatants and civilians, a separation that has been of little interest to war powers since around WW II.

A guerrilla movement relies on the popular support of the population. It moves amongst them and finds shelter, food, transport and disguise amongst them. Any counter-insurgency campaign is aimed at terrorizing the civilians into reducing / ending their support for the guerrillas. American counter-terrorism doctrine still turns to Malaya, Philippines and Vietnam for its lessons. And these are the lessons – displace or kill and ‘drain the waters’. It is the war that is illegal, it is the occupation that is the crime – the drones are merely actions of an illegal reality. The Americans do not do body counts because they do not matter – it’s an aerial terror campaign, and along with the Pakistani army on the ground, it is a fundamentally old-style COIN campaign which will, as they have in the past, failed because it doesn’t understand the motivations of the guerrilla movement. Drones are a symptom of the broader pathology of occupation which Amnesty – the same group that celebrated American military occupation in Afghanistan because it will liberate the women (see here: but we will not hear it from the grand minds of HRW or Amnesty. It is far easier to adopt mindless ‘don’t kill the civilians’ postures and pretend you are ‘confronting’ power. The power will soon accommodate your request, tease you into a stalemate, and confuse you with their legalese. At worst, they will give you a pretend transparency, veil the operations under further secrecy, fob you off with a few reports and a rubber-stamp court structure.

Drones are weapons that help de-politicize war, that allow us to stop talking about the deaths of brown-skin wogs in poorer countries, and that allow us to retain weapons of terror and policing where we are politically not able to maintain soldiers and forces. The goals remain the same, the methods are made quieter, more politically palatable and more secret. Transparency is a fraudulent request because we have a lot of transparency, and given the absolutely cowardly behavior of the US federal courts in the face of the sitting administration’s abuse of political power and legal understandings, transparency will just be a formality that changes nothing.Drone attacks are illegal and acts of war. They are covered by the standing Geneva conventions, and all war crimes legislation. We do not need more transparency. We need prosecution.

Clearly there is a lot more to be said. I am working on it.

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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