Life Under US Drones in Pakistan: An Interview with Madiha Tahir

Madiha Tahir is an independent journalist and a dedicated researcher on the issue of U.S. Drone strikes in the Tribal Regions of Pakistan. She is currently working on a documentary called “Wounds of Waziristan”. This interview was originally published in October of 2013. 

Paul Gottinger: Most of the drone strikes are happening in North Waziristan (Northwest Pakistan) along the border of Afghanistan. Could you give us some background on the culture and the way of life there?

Madiha Tahir: These days you can’t get into North Waziristan, which is where 90% of the drone strikes have been happening. So I go to Bannu, which is a border town where people from North Waziristan come during the day to do business, shopping, ect.

The dominant ethnic group in North Waziristan is the Pashtuns.  There is also a huge Pashtun population in Karachi, which is the now 11th largest city in the world. There has been a long history of ethnic division and fighting in Karachi between Pashtuns on the one side and Muhajir people on the other side.

Pashtuns are fairly marginalized in Pakistan, and in North Waziristan the state’s services are less visible. It’s an area that is governed by a different set of rules than the rest of the country. For example the Pakistani constitution does not apply in the tribal areas (formerly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA). These people didn’t have the right to vote until 1996. It was only in this last election, which happened this last May, that these people had the right to have political parties function. Largely the area is still governed by 1901 British regulations. This means the people in that area legally subject to collective punishment policies. It’s really just an iron hand and a colonial rule that the Pakistani state has inherited from the British.

PG: What do the people of  Waziristan’s economic and social lives look like in a general sense?

MT: In North Waziristan a lot of people do sustainable farming, chromite mining is another big industry, and then people have office jobs: these are basically government jobs in administrative positions.

PG: Has there been a change in the way of life for the people of North Waziristan?

MT: The Pakistani state says, for example, that it is in order to preserve the Pashtuns that it governs them in the manner that it does. The Pakistani state says that it doesn’t want to interfere into Pashtun life in that area and that’s why these rules still exist. However, this is nonsense because since the time of the British that area has been governed and governed quite heavily.

There are draconian laws, and the state does intervene in every aspect of their life: the people of the area have no way to ask for redress. The courts don’t function. So when the Pakistani military conducts operations in this area they tend to kill people, but there is no way for these people to seek justice. So for a very long time traditions like the jirga (a traditional system where elders gather and make decisions) have been thoroughly appropriated by the state. An example of this is the tribe’s malik (their elder or tribal leader). He tends to receive payment by the government for his services of keeping the tribe in check, and he doles out this money to people in his tribe. The control the malik has over money ends up having a large effect on societal structures of the tribe. This whole process has been taking place since the time of the British.

PG: What do people make of the Taliban presence in the area?

MT: People’s attitudes toward Taliban are very confused. On the one hand everyone that I spoke to was incredibly angered by the presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan. People were angered not just by the U.S. presence, but specifically what the U.S. is doing there. The U.S. did not come as guests; they came there as occupiers. And things like the night raids have angered a lot of people.

So you have people who may or may not agree with the broader cause of the Taliban, but are deeply angered by the material conditions that the U.S. occupation has created there. A lot of the groups have splintered within the tribal areas. There is a lot of infighting among the insurgent groups in the area. As a result the social structure where age and hierarchy went together has broken down. So you suddenly have young boys who are part of these insurgent groups and they have power in a way that they didn’t before. This creates strains on tribal loyalties, family, and kinship loyalties. There is a lot of infighting and the people in the area get stuck in the middle of it. So there are multiple levels of violence. The Pakistani military is killing people, insurgents are killing people, and on top of that you have drones.

PG: What is the relationship between the Pashtun people and the Taliban?

MT: I don’t think we can take the Pashtuns as a block. Some people view the Taliban as a resistance to the Americans, others think of them as equally heinous. I think  because the Pakistani state has been complicit in the “War on Terror” there has been a vacuum created in the area. So take the example of the lack of courts. When the insurgent groups initially arose they provided services that the state was not providing. This created some confusion.

In 2004 the U.S. was pressuring the Pakistani state to get the insurgents out of the tribal areas. The Pakistani state, as it has done may times, tried to broker an agreement where the insurgents and the people of the area had to follow certain regulations . That agreement, called the Shakai agreement, broke down. The Pakistani state wanted the people of the area to hand over certain individuals. The political agent in the area, a representative of the president, established an economic blockade—which went on for months—in order to try to force the insurgents and the people of the area to follow the state’s regulations. This created an incredible amount of anger among the people of the area because their businesses and livelihoods were destroyed.

Then the drone strike the killed Nek Muhammad, a militant fighter took place in South Waziristan. I think the Pakistani state and the U.S. thought that that would be the end of it. But instead thousands of people turned out for his funeral. This was a consequence of the economic blockade and the operations that the Pakistani military was conducting in those regions. More recently in 2012 these insurgent groups banned polio vaccinations because they were used as a ruse to capture Osama Bin Laden. So these groups now think that the polio vaccine workers may be spies, and as a result they have banned polio vaccinations in December of 2012.

The Pakistani state retaliated by stating that any person in the area who complies with the militants will not get any kind of legal papers. The people of the tribal area need identity cards in order to leave the area, even within Pakistan. They also need these cards in order to get deeds for houses and passports. This is another example of a collective punishment policy by the Pakistani state. Then earlier this year there was an attack on some Pakistani soldiers in this area in retaliation for the state repression. The state then imposed a 24/7 curfew that went on for a month. So you can see that the Pakistani state treats these people almost like internal prisoners.

PG: Does all of this represent a major change in the Pakistani government’s policy toward the Tribal Areas since the “War on Terror” has begun, or is this something that is more or less a continuation of previous policies?

MT: I think it has been a continuous process in the sense that the Pakistani state has not provided these people with any services for a long time, and has viewed this area as not part of Pakistan proper. The area is geographically and politically on the margins. The Pakistani state has used the area as a staging ground for it’s own uses: the current U.S. war in Afghanistan, the assistance of the U.S. in the funding and creating the mujahideen in the 1980s, and fighting with India in Kashmir are all examples of this. So the Pakistani state and the Pakistani military, which has the upper hand in all of this, has been using the area for its own ends for a very long time. This was just ratcheted up after the start of the U.S. War on Terror, but I don’t think the Pakistani state has been able to control the area as well as they thought they’d be able to.

PG: Can you compare what’s happening in the Swat valley to what’s going on in South Waziristan? Are there major themes that carry over between the two, or is it a very different situation?

MT: Well the Swat valley is a Pashtun area and one should understand the discrimination against Pashtuns by the Pakistani state. It’s not only Pashtuns that are treated horribly, the Baloch are treated awfully as well. In fact, there is a huge insurgency and separatist movement in Balochistan, the largest province in Pakistan. The difference is that there is a certain sympathy for the Baloch people among urban liberals in Pakistan. However, this sympathy does not seem to extend to the Pashtuns in Swat, or in Waziristan.

I went to Swat after the Pakistani military operation there in 2009. It was totally shocking. There were bombed out schools and buildings. The militants blew some of the buildings up, but others were blown up by the Pakistani military. I went to Matta, one of the places where there was the heaviest fighting. I met with people there, including women who told me, ‘it was the people with money who were able to leave and it was the poor who had to endure all the fighting.’ There was, as with in South Waziristan, a real disillusionment with the Pakistani state. After the Swat valley operation a video was leaked that showed Pakistani military members mercilessly beating, what appeared to be, random Pashtun men that they had caught. This is just an example of the ruthlessness that is meted out to these people.

One of the interesting things that people in Swat were saying was ‘bring sharia  because then we will have justice.’ This goes back to the fact the courts were completely nonfunctional in Swat. Swat is not part of the tribal areas, but even still the courts were basically nonfunctional. What people were talking about when they were asking for sharia was the return of how things were prior to 1969. Before that Swat was still autonomous and had not been appropriated by the Pakistani state. People remember this time with a lot of nostalgia. People remember that time as a time when there was just rule and expedient courts. This was a time of sharia. So when people call for sharia it’s a call for justice. It’s important to understand what people are asking for when they ask for sharia.

PG: How do most Pakistanis see the U.S. drone attacks? Is there a difference between how the drone attacks are seen by the people directly impacted and the people in the larger urban areas like Karachi and Islamabad?

MT: I’ve spoken to family of victims and survivors of drone attacks in the tribal areas. There is not a single one that is for the drone attacks obviously. I think that is the predominant attitude in the tribal areas, particularly in North Waziristan, which is subject to drone attacks. But there is some discussion. People are feed up with the Pakistani military and they are feed up with the violence of the militants. So out of the frustration some of the people who are not directly impacted, but still live in these areas say, ‘if these are our choices… If there is no fourth choice, and we have to live with the violence of the Pakistani military, or the violence of the militants, or the violence of the drones, then maybe the drones are the best option. But these choices are made in a very specific context with limited options.

Then there is a very small, but vocal group of Pashtuns that may not be from the tribal area, some are from Peshawar, or other more urban areas, who are quite educated and view themselves as the modern, secular, rational Pashtuns. Their discourse is consumed with a fetish of technology. They have a kind of faith in the power and precision of the drones. Their argument is that Pashtuns are a demonized people, but they are a peaceful people. So this militancy has been brought in from the outside, and therefore let the militants be killed. But if you push them, as I have done, and tell them that Pashtuns are being killed as well they will say, ‘no civillians are being killed’. They will say, ‘if you are inviting a militant into your house you are complicit.’ In the tribal area there is traditionally a hujera, a guesthouse that is separate from the house. It is a tradition that people can come in and stay there without the knowledge of the homeowner. Sometimes people will come into the hujeras at night and there can be drone attacks. The modern, rationalist, pro-drone discourse is one where they say we have to save the Pashtun Nation. And in order to save the Pashtun Nation we have to kill a few people. You can recognize these same ideas in the attitudes towards terrorism here in the U.S.   

Then there are the Islamist political parties who are very anti-drone and very anti-U.S. occupation. In the wake of a struggling left in Pakistan—the left is pretty much dead in Pakistan—these are the parties that have picked up a strong anti-imperial line.

Then there are urban, liberal, English speaking elites who tend to be for drones. There reasoning is very similar to people in the United States, and that is ‘if we don’t get them there, they will come and get us here.’ This belief is accompanied by the belief in the precision of the technology.

One should remember that by and large the majority of Pakistanis are caught up in there own daily struggles of water shortages and electricity shortages. But to the extent that you ask people about drones they are against them. That’s why sometimes these people side with the Islamic political parties even though these parties have never gotten a lion’s share of the vote. They get quite small numbers, but they are speaking to this anti-imperial sense of injustice. The elites and liberals are fairly alienated from most Pakistanis. And since there is no secular anti-imperial left discourse in Pakistan, people are left with the binary of the pro-drone, liberal elites who side with the Americans, or the Islamists.

PG: Can you talk about the victims of drone strikes and the effect drones have on the people of Waziristan?

MT: Drones have been going on now for almost a decade, in 2014 it will be 10 years. There is an entire generation that has grown up under the eye of the drones in Waziristan. People tell me there are multiple drones that hover during the day, but they tend to usually strike at night. You never know when they are going to strike, and that has created an incredible amount of psychological stress. Psychiatrists I’ve spoken with told me drones cause a different kind of stress than the stress caused by insurgent groups. They said the difference between the two is that with the insurgents you have a sense, whether it is true or not, that you have control. The thought is ‘as long as I stay out of your way, I don’t get killed.’ With the drones there is nobody on the other side. Clearly there is someone on the other side, but it’s not something that can be dialoged with. And you don’t know at what point you’ve been marked, or why you’ve been marked, and when you are going to meet your death. This creates incredible, acute stress among people of the area.

Daily life has been pretty well disrupted because the United States has been engaging in “double tap” (a drone strikes and when people show up to help the victims a drone strikes those people.) As a result of this people wait before they try to rescue victims. It has affected funerals because the U.S. has attacked funerals as well. When I spoke to the people of the area they referred to those killed by the drones, not as civilians who’ve been killed, but as Shahid or martyrs. This is a very specific word, which means somebody who has been killed for some political cause. If you believe that these people died for a political end you will react to the death very differently, and it will affect your life very differently than if someone died from a heart attack, or accident.

In the U.S. there is a lot of talk about “blowback”, and I understand why it exists—it’s kind of a strategic argument—but it’s also a very self-involved argument. The question shouldn’t be are we killing more of the bad ones than the good ones, or vice versa. That’s a horrifying question. We have to think about how the drones are affecting the lives of these human beings, and how they will continue to affect them for decades.

PG: How are drone attacks in Pakistan discussed in the U.S. and how is that problematic?

MT: The discussion in the U.S. has been a very legal discussion. Even journalists have picked up the legal language. The discussion in the popular media is about the number of militants versus the number of civilians. This is really just a legal principle of proportionality. We can’t seem to get out of framing the issue this way and it’s really problematic. I mean you can legalize a war, and half the things the NSA is doing are entirely legal, but that shouldn’t be our moral standard.

The government plays on this idea of a secret. Some secrets are very important. We can see that from what’s happened to Bradley Manning and what they’re trying to do to Edward Snowden. These leaks are incredibly important. But in the context of drone attacks it has been really problematic that the secret nature of the attacks is what the media has focused on. The drone attacks have been a public secret for almost a decade. The media has not been willing to say what is true, which could render the government’s supposed secrecy irrelevant. Instead things aren’t thought of as true unless the government itself says they are. So for example for a very long time we have had these reports coming out that kids have been killed in these drone attacks. Yet until it was confirmed from the U.S. official government documents, it wasn’t a big story. Until there is some official leak within the government it’s not a big story. And this ends up legitimizing American power as the only power that gets to determine when something becomes the truth.       

PG: Can you talk about how the issue of drones is debated on the left in the U.S.?

MT: I was there when the Code Pink marched in Pakistan in October. Code Pink went with the Pakistani politician Imran Khan. We marched to South Waziristan, and we met some survivors and families of victims. Medea Benjamin, the founder of Code Pink, published an article in which she talks about her discomfort that Karim Khan, whose brother and son were killed by drones in December 2009, seeks a desire for revenge. According to her article, several people in the delegation were uncomfortable with his desire for revenge. I find that very strange. It seems like the right wants the drone victims to be completely evil, and the left wants them to be pure. Both ways of seeing the victims is dehumanizing.

PG: Do you believe the election of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister of Pakistan back in May will mean a continuation of the same drone policies? And do you think the main opposition candidate, Imran Khan, could have changed the drone policies had he won?

MT: This was a historic election because this was the first time a democratic government completed its term and there was a peaceful hand over of power to another. Nawaz Sharif initially did make some noises about the drones, but only a few days after he came into power there was a drone attack. This was the U.S. making it quite clear that they were going to continue their drone policy.

Pakistan’s foreign policy is dictated by the military establishment and is not really in the hands of the civilian government. I think until the Pakistani military comes under the jurisdiction of the civilian government it will be very difficult to change national policies.

Imran Khan’s PTI  (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Pakistani Movement for Justice) went from being a joke to what is essentially the second largest party—in terms of the votes it received. Khan had two planks. One was anti-corruption within the government. The other was anti-drone. He had a lot of marches, like the one in South Waziristan, and many other protests. The PTI is the dominant party in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Northern region that abuts the tribal regions. This is a heavily Pashtun region. His party won very heavily there. In fact, the ANP (Awami National Party, the secular Pashtun party), which has for a long time been the representative party for the Pashtuns ended up losing heavily. This is partly because they were unable to deliver on many things and partly because of corruption, but they also lost because the modern, secular leadership of the party express pro-drone sentiments. I think that disgusted the Pashtuns in the area because the region is very explicitly anti-drone. But Iman Khan would probably not be able to change the policy on drones because the real power lies in the Pakistani military.

PG: Can you talk about how Pakistani civil society responds to infringements on Pakistani’s national sovereignty such as drone attacks and the operation, which captured and killed Osama Bin Laden?

MT: In Pakistan there is a labor left (concerned with labor issues), there are the Islamists, then there are the liberals. This is the breadth of the discourse. These are the options.  Pakistani NGOs and liberals don’t want to talk about the drones, or the war on terror. They absolutely don’t want to talk about it, in part because they support it. For example, Pervez Hoodbhoy, who is a leftist on some other issues has written some incredibly absurd things on this issue. Part of his claim to fame is that he was friends with Edward Said. However I think Edward Said would be absolutely appalled by some of the things Pervez Hoodbhoy has been writing. Pervez Hoodbhoy writes in Z net, which is a leftist website. So it’s really strange to see this kind of alliance. These people are pro-military operations. Hoodbhoy was for the operation in Swat. They tend to be for drone attacks. They tend to divide Pakistan between the rational scientific people, which include them, and the irrational barbarian masses. I’m speaking in reductive terms, but honestly not that much.  If you actually read their stuff it’s kind of like this. It talks about the Muslim mind and this kind of thing. They equate religiosity with fanaticism.

Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was killed by his bodyguard because Taseer had been trying to get a woman, who had been charged with blasphemy, out of prison. He had gone to see her and he was supporting her, which was wonderful. His bodyguard killed him over this. Then there were protests around the blasphemy issue, which was great. People were organizing around it. But in this context nobody wanted to talk about the war, they repeatedly shut it down when people tried to bring it up. I think you can’t talk about the blasphemy issue without talking about the war because all of these things are really connected. Part of the reason issues like blasphemy have such sway in Pakistan is because the Islamists are selling it along with the idea that we deserve dignity and sovereignty. The problem is that there is no strong, secular, anti-imperial left in Pakistan. That left is really struggling right now because it was under attack for decades in the 1960s and 1970s.

PG: What do Americans most need to understand about Pakistan and what message do victims of the drone strikes have for Americans?     

MT: People who I’ve talked to who have been directly impacted by drone strikes simply want the U.S. to leave and they want the bombing to stop. They don’t care about distinctions over if the C.I.A. is bombing them, or if it’s the military. These are considerations Americans need to think about, but thinking about these things doesn’t make sense if you’re standing in Waziristan. These distinctions don’t matter. They simply want the bombs to stop end of story.

I also would connect the drones to the NSA surveillance that is happening in the U.S. The U.S. has the power to determine who lives and who dies while surveiling everyone. Drones are surveillance technologies. There is a particular ideology that is imbedded in the surveillance state, which is that if you have the data you understand things. If you watch someone go to some certain place then you know that they are X. When you actually don’t know very much. I was just reading today about disposition matrix which is the way that the Obama administration decides who to kill. They are taking this data, whether it’s data in the United States, or Europe, Pakistan, or Afghanistan and they are feeding it into these grids and databases. This is a really frightening way to look at the world because these databases work through feedback loops. So if you think you’ve killed the right person, or you’ve rendered the right person then you look at their networks and there’s a whole new set of targets. So it doesn’t end it just continues indefinitely.

PG: Is there a political solution possible in Waziristan?

MT: The simplest thing is that the U.S. has to leave. I don’t mean just leaving physically, they also have to stop funding the Pakistani establishment. They have to start taking the Pakistan Civilian government seriously. FATA, the tribal areas, also need to be incorporated into Pakistan. How this is done is up to them, but certainly the services of the state need to be extended to that area. There is a whole range of socio-political issues, which need to be resolved. They will require money and also will among political leaders, but this is not possible as long as the United States continues its meddling, occupation, and funding of the Pakistani political establishment.

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Author: Paul Gottinger

I'm a journalist writing on war, civil liberties, racism, police misconduct, and terrorism.

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