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Defeat of the drones

July 19, 2011


‘GAMING in Waziristan’ is an art exhibition taking place in London’s Beaconsfield Gallery from July 19 to Aug 5.

Using the archives of the UK-based charity Reprieve, documents from 2007-2011 and the work of three artists, the exhibition is an attempt to give visual reality to a war that is largely invisible.

Photographs from North Waziristan, often taken in the moments after a drone strike, are a pictorial attempt at dislodging the reputation of the drone as a tool of sterile, precise and perfect extermination.

The attempt is commendable, particularly in a world where the unseen is summarily relegated to the unreal and consequently goes un-mourned. Particularly apt is the western venue, a milieu where many have settled on drone warfare as the solution to the rising cost of producing a human soldier, the terrorist jargon and target-sterilising the messy business of killing.

But the defeat of drones as the antidote to fears of a terror-filled world is not being effected by art alone (although such a route would indeed be ideal). The recipe for taking out militants in Pakistan has been quite simple: drones — marvellous inventions that can kill but not be killed, that can fly for hours, whose anonymous operators can strike from the silent comfort of an anonymous control room.

The landscape they mapped was stark, the mobility of a single human visible against the relative immovability of mud-coloured infinity. Men and militants could be tracked and hunted, and a single moment of foolhardy repose could mean the elimination of an important leader like Baitullah Mehsud.

But warfare, even this new robotic version of it, is always messy and some others, nameless and faceless from their lack of lethality, were killed — their mourners limited by the sealed-off terrain to those unfortunate enough to be left behind. These supposed militant leaders or those mistaken for them, or living near them, soon numbered hundreds of thousands, forming caravans of hopelessness on the move.

While US officials touted the wonders of drones, those who knew them best turned south to cities away from the constant deathly buzz — away from the prospect of appearing lethal to some distant, unknown persecutor, away from the only landscape they knew how to survive in. The defeat of the drone, an instrument of warfare that played on dated definitions of borders and perpetrators, has resulted from the demographic changes spawned by its own famed efficiency. What the drowned-out wails of powerless victims could not accomplish, the shifts in population have done instead.

As droves of refugees empty out of the drone-ravaged tribal areas, and filter into crowded urban areas, the calculations of the best place to set up your militant shop or jihadi outlet also change. As any mischievous five-year-old will inform you, the worst place to hide is the most obvious one, where everyone looks first.

The limits of the drone then have been spelt out by a change in strategy, a move to new hiding places where teeming millions provide the camouflage that terrain and tribal intrigue once did.

Newly minted AfPak strategists, long-time lovers of drones, are trained to sniff out the singular sin of global jihad in the mutations of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. When ‘ethnic’ warfare appears in the think-tank teacup, eyes begin to glaze over, and attention flags. Those were the old wars, petty post-colonial squabbles over slums and survival, or the right to live in a little less squalor — all missing the neat labelling crying out ‘Islamist global jihad lies here’.

But in war calculations that do persevere, the boredom of one side is always an opportunity for the other. As the violence in Karachi, whose many million fragile egos are also armed and unforgiving, amply testifies, a little local knowledge can go a long way, ignite long-festering faultlines and destabilise not a remote tribal area but a city.

In its calculations, the architects and the executors may never be known and are largely irrelevant; the end result is lawlessness, chaos, a terrified population and the ability to do whatever, wherever and whenever. Through this trajectory, the mutation of the ‘war on terror’, its urbanisation, causes foes to proliferate, making recognition nearly impossible and life for those seeking secrecy near perfect.

As is the case with other abandoned instruments of mass killing, the decreasing strategic value of drones is unlikely to be accompanied with notes of apology or admissions of inertia. In the afterglow of their imagined perfection, drones are likely to continue to ply the skies over abandoned hideouts and once-familiar hangouts yielding ever fewer heads to stake on the posts of victory.

As the US wraps up its operations in Afghanistan, and constructs a victory over terror on Osama bin Laden’s ‘missing’ corpse, it withdraws into the amnesic reclusion that lies between episodes of imperial expansion.

Perhaps in the soul-searching born of sombre parting moments, American lawmakers orchestrating the final exit will pause at the idea that drones do not defeat terror and possibly only displace it, enabling a murky metamorphosis that will continue to terrify.

Drones, even if they disappeared tomorrow, have left Pakistan forever changed, demographically altered, its nascent democratic institutions flailing. It is these urban, dread-darkened streets that those left behind must continue to ply, after the drones, defeated or merely redundant, are finally gone.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.