The Killing Skies

“There’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” (The president of the United States, November 18 2012)

Well said, President Obama.

I have heard ad nauseam about the complexity of the drone strikes issue. I must confess my lack of sophistication; I have searched for nuance and found only concerted attempts at confusion. I have also found reports of a truly frightening number of Pakistani civilians and children. The drones found them first.

Who will win the war on terror? The answer is obscured by the fog of war, but I can tell you that Pakistan will lose. We lose every day. We are targets and collateral damage. ‘Infidels’ and ‘legitimate strike zones’. We are attacked for helping the US, and attacked for not helping the US sufficiently.

There is nothing I can say to the Taliban, because it is futile to reason with them. But the United States?

We are told that all wars have civilian casualties and that drones are the most efficient way forward.

Is the US at war with Pakistan? If so then indeed: I thank them for their restraint, for not setting up concentration camps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Japanese Americans in WWII), for not using Napalm airstrikes (Vietnam) and for not leaving 100,000 dead in a conflict to find fictional WMDs (Iraq).

But if they are not, then there is no merit to this assumption that they will and must and can kill our civilians, and should be patted on the back for not killing more.

The low number of civilian deaths reported from the US has less to do with Tony Stark levels of accuracy with deadly weapons and far more to do with arithmetic gymnastics. A New York Times article from last year indicates that Obama’s method of counting civilian deaths classifies all military age males in a strike zone as combatants unless posthumously proven otherwise.

There have been terrorist cells and plots discovered in cities across the UK, the rest of Europe and the United States itself. These terrorists indubitably had as their end goal the death of American civilians. And yet, surely there is no debate within US high command as to whether a drone strike in the general area is a plausible response. Because that would be insane.

And shifting the backdrop to Pakistan does not make it less insane.

I find little merit in the ‘value’ of high-value targets when weighed against our losses. The revolving door position of the ‘Number 2 man of (insert terrorist organisation here)’ has become a morbid joke. If the US awards itself points for every second in command they kill, it is little wonder they are pleased with this disaster. One would think they had learned about the error of using conventional scoreboards in unconventional warfare after their ‘great victory’ (going by body count) in Vietnam.

Clearly, killing a seemingly endless roster of ‘number 2 men’ – and the drone strikes in general – have not brought the US closer to victory. Against guerrillas, who have no white flags to raise and no territory to conquer, the only marker of ‘victory’ would be to shatter their capacity for violence; once the Taliban can no longer mount attacks, they are effectively defeated. Statistics for the last five years look bleak on this measure: the number of drone strikes does not seem to correlate negatively with the number of terrorist attacks.

As we saw in the run up to the elections in Pakistan, militant capacity for violence is alive and well. Somehow, they have managed to get over the loss of a dozen ‘number 2 men’ rather than going home and moping, which I assume was the expected outcome.

Studies show drones become more popular among the US public when the fear of terrorism is high. What do the Tsarnaevs have to do with murdered civilians – or killed terrorists – in Pakistan?

Nothing. Domestically, they give an illusion of control, of fighting back against the bogeyman, of American strength without American sacrifice. They are not security measures, they are security blankets. Among the most murderous and expensive in history, to be sure, but nevertheless security blankets for frightened children, fuelled by the corpses of our own.

We are all to a greater or lesser degree complicit in the same unforgiveable callousness that makes other places, other countries ‘less real’. But for the sake of our humanity this is a callousness that we all have to strive to overcome – because we are not real to the drone pilots or to the American public, not in any way that counts.

It is expediency rather than any feeling of kinship – no matter how much we in the cities may love McDonalds or Game of Thrones – that keeps drones from going about their grim business above Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. It is also expediency that keeps us – you and I and our children and our parents – from coming home to a nightmarish smoking ruin.

And the problem with the pendulum of expediency is that it is a pendulum, and not only can but in a long enough timeframe must swing the other way.

The Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked near Liberty Chowk in Lahore and very unfortunately, the assailants ultimately escaped. But I would rather that than have come home to ash and fire and debris, with a rising helpless panic in my throat, knowing that if my life – if any one of our lives – was taken or emptied in a moment, US policy is to shrug and say “but we got the terrorist.”

Even when they didn’t.

The American Dream, the cultural context in which mainstream Americans are raised, is in many respects a good myth – a fairytale of essential equality, of social mobility and of rugged individualism. It can inspire and embolden. But there is a dark side to the Dream, and never darker when you, yourself, are not an American.

It is their near-sacred regard for their supposed exceptionalism and manifest destiny – a national belief that does not push them to do the right thing but instead mentally positions them to believe that ‘the American Way’, like truth and justice, is a self-evident good, a good unto itself, its rightness woven into the very firmament of our universe, whatever their actions may be. How can America do wrong, asks the Dream, when American Rightness is as much a law of nature as gravity?

To sacrifice another country’s civilians by the hundreds to quell your own domestic uneasiness can almost be expected when one nation is powerful and the other is not. Such is the way of the world. But rarely has there been such hypocrisy, such blind insistence that such transgressions are not only an act of might, but of right.

I cannot see the justification in killing hundreds of our civilians, already shattered by the war with the Taliban, on the off chance that someone they were standing next to may, at an unspecified time in the future, play some uncertain role in possibly but almost certainly not harming an American citizen. All states place greater value on their own civilians, but this equation has become so perversely lopsided that the ability of the American establishment to see foreigners as human beings must seriously be called into question.

If you find yourself sympathetic towards the Taliban because they oppose the US, or you find yourselves supporting American drone strikes because they occasionally kill ‘high-value targets’ alongside ‘everything else’, you are labouring under an understandable but tragic misunderstanding. In this great game, we are not on either team – we are the ball. We cannot win; our role is to get kicked by both sides.

It is foolishness born of desperation to believe that either the Americans or the Taliban have our interest at heart. Oppose the drone strikes. Oppose the Taliban. I guarantee you it is not a contradiction in terms. And if you believe in either sovereignty or the sanctity of civilian life, it is the only possible position.

By: Zaair Hussain

2 thoughts on “The Killing Skies

  1. Pingback: نام کیسے پڑا ؟ | میں کیا ہوں ۔ ۔ ۔ ۔ ۔ ۔ ۔ ۔ What Am I

  2. Pingback: چھوٹی چھوٹی باتیں ۔ قسمت | میں کیا ہوں ۔ ۔ ۔ ۔ ۔ ۔ ۔ ۔ What Am I

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