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Life Under Drones in Pakistan


Madiha Tahir is an independent journalist who worked in Pakistan for two years covering conflict, culture, and politics. Her work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, Democracy Now, and BBC and PRI’s The World. In July she gained some notoriety for surprising NSA recruiters at the University of Wisconsin with tough questions about the nature of the NSA. She is currently finishing a short documentary called “Wounds of Waziristan” about the stories of those directly impacted by the drones in Pakistan. 

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

Madiha Tahir: The dominant ethnic group in the area is the Pashtuns, who are fairly marginalized in Pakistan. In North Waziristan the states services are much less visible than in most of the rest of Pakistan. 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). The people in this area didn’t even have the right to vote until 1996, and it was only in this last election that political parties were allowed to function. The area is still largely governed by 1901 British regulations where people are legally subject to collective punishment policies. It’s really just colonial rule that the Pakistani state has inherited from the British.

The line the Pakistani state uses to justify governing the region like this is that they want to preserve Pashtuns by not interfering into their life. However, this is nonsense because since the time of the British the area has been governed quite heavily.

There are draconian laws, and the state intervenes in every aspect of people’s 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 and kills people, there is no ability to seek justice. Traditions like the jirga (a traditional system where elders gather and make decisions) have been thoroughly appropriated by the state for a long time. One example of this would be a tribe’s malik (their elder or tribal leader). A malik usually receives payment by the government for his services of keeping the tribe in check. He then doles out this money to people in his tribe. The control the malik has over money has a large affect on the 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 the Taliban are complicated. 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 simple fact of the U.S. presence, but specifically what the U.S. is doing there. Things like the night raids have angered a lot of people.

People may or may not agree with the broader cause of the Taliban, but they are deeply angered by the 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. As a result the social structure where age and hierarchy went together has broken down. Suddenly you have young boys who are part of these insurgent groups gaining power in a way that they didn’t before. This creates strains on tribal loyalties, family, and kinship loyalties, and people get stuck in the middle of the infighting. 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 Pakistani State?

MT: There has been a vacuum created in the area because the Pakistani state has been complicit in the “War on Terror”. 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 support for the insurgent groups.

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 many 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 certain individuals handed over. The political agent of the area, a representative of the president, attempted to force people to comply with this by establishing an economic blockade. This blockade went on for months, and it created an incredible amount of anger because people’s businesses and livelihoods were destroyed.

Then the drone strike that killed Nek Muhammad, a militant fighter, occurred in South Waziristan. Thousands of people turned out for his funeral to show their opposition to the economic blockade and the operations that the Pakistani military was conducting in the region. 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 worry that polio vaccine workers may be spies.

The Pakistani state retaliated by stating that any person in the area who complies with the militants will not receive any legal papers, which the people of the tribal area need in order to leave the area—even within Pakistan. They also need these papers 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 retaliation for the state repression. The state then imposed a 24/7 curfew that went on for a month. 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: 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 also used the area as a staging ground for its 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 the Pakistani state hasn’t been able to control the area as well as they thought they’d be able to.

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

MT: Drones strikes 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 usually tend to 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 market, 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 then after people arrive to help the victims a drone strikes again.) As a result, people wait before they try to rescue drone victims. The U.S. has attacked funerals as well, so the drones affect many aspects of people’s lives. People I spoke to referred to those killed by the drones, not as civilian victims, but as Shahid (martyrs). This is a very specific word, which means somebody who has been killed for a political cause. When you believe these people died for a political end you react to the death very differently than if the person 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 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: Is there a political solution possible in Waziristan?

MT: The U.S. has to leave, but they also have to stop funding the Pakistani establishment, and they have to start taking the Pakistan civilian government seriously. The tribal areas also need to be incorporated into Pakistan. How this is done is up to them, but 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 impossible as long as the United States continues its meddling, occupation, and funding of the Pakistani political establishment.

PG: What do Americans most need to understand about the drones in Pakistan?

People who I’ve talked to who have been directly impacted by drone strikes simply want the U.S. to leave and for the bombing to stop. They don’t care about distinctions about if the C.I.A. is bombing them or if it’s the military. If you’re standing in Waziristan these distinctions don’t matter. These people 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. watches everyone and has the power to determine who lives and who dies. 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. This idea that if you watch someone go to some certain place then you know that they are X, but in actuality you don’t know very much.

I was just reading about the 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 really frightening 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 then there’s a whole new set of people that are targets. So it doesn’t end it’s just goes on and on.

Paul Gottinger is a writer from Madison, WI where he edits The White Rose Reader. He can be reached at

This interview is an excerpt from a longer conversation, which can be found here.

Paul Gottinger is a journalist based in Madison, WI whose work focuses on the Middle East. He can be reached via Twitter @paulgottinger or email:

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