Gunboats and gurkhas in the American Imperium

A complicit government in Pakistan, enabled by US interlocutors, continues to support US drone strikes.

Pakistanis are enraged by ongoing US drone strikes in their country [EPA]

Meet Resham Khan. The 52-year-old shepherd was brought on a stretcher to a psychiatric hospital in Islamabad in January, traumatized and unable to speak. The father of six witnessed 15 members of his extended family perish last June when a US drone attacked a funeral procession in his native North Waziristan. The atrocity has left him mute and emotionally paralyzed, his vacant eyes staring into the distance. He gave up on food and drink in the months following the attack; shortly afterward, the pious Muslim gave up on prayer too. His condition also prevented him from looking after his ailing mother who died soon thereafter. And his surviving children have suffered. When the Reuters journalist finally got him to talk, one of the few things he said was ‘Stop the drone attacks.’

Kareem Khan, too, has suffered. On December 31, 2009, his son Zaenullah Khan and his brother Asif Iqbal were among the three people killed in a US drone attack which destroyed their home in Mir Ali, North Waziristan. Kareem’s absence spared him the sight of his mutilated family; and unlike the helpless shepherd, he had the wherewithal to demand justice. In November 2010, his lawyer, Barrister Shahzad Akbar served legal notices to the CIA station chief Jonathan Banks, former Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and former Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta for $500 million in damages.  Banks, who was in Pakistan on a business visa, took fright and soon fled the scene, and the US government was so terrified of the legal challenge that last month it denied a visa to Barrister Akbar to travel to the US. More survivors have since come forward demanding justice.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani state hasn’t just forsaken the people of FATA, it has actively aided the slaughter and abetted the cover-up. After each drone strike, the Pakistani military rushes out an official who ‘on the condition of anonymity’ announces that all the dead were ‘militants’. The press dutifully reports the numbers without asking why the claim should be trusted when the state has made no effort to confirm the identity of the dead. The numbers are subsequently laundered by Washington-based think-tanks and recycled back to the media. The media then report the stats with attribution to a ‘foundation’ or an ‘institute’, giving them a pseudo-academic pedigree.

In addition, the human rights industry is either AWOL or has actively abetted the programme. In a recent appearance on Democracy Now!, the head of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth justified the attacks while waxing idealistic about the rule of law. Most have taken their cue from Harold Koh — Obama’s own John Yoo — who has declared the extrajudicial murder of the indigent thousands of miles from home ‘legitimate self defence’. The terrorized population now finds itself silenced, adrift between the Scylla of a mercenary state complicit in their oppression and the Charybdis of comprador hacks erasing their suffering.

The establishment

In William Faulkner’s modernist masterpiece The Sound and the Fury, the tradition-bound Southerner Quentin Compson is so shamed by his sister’s promiscuity that he decides it would be less dishonourable to falsely confess to incest than to let the world know of her shame. In a similar vein on June 18, 2004, when a US Predator drone killed the Wazir chieftain Nek Muhammad, the Pakistani government claimed responsibility for the attack rather than admit that its sovereignty had been breached by a foreign power. For the next few years the same policy persisted where Pakistan would claim responsibility for attacks carried out by the US, some of which killed a large number of civilians.

In Faulkner’s story Compson’s troubled conscience eventually leads him to suicide; but in Pakistan, the troubled frontier has yielded the suicide bomber whose targets are often civilians with no role in the betrayal. In a short-sighted attempt to retain legitimacy, the state has endangered its citizens twice over, first by sanctioning their murder by US drones and then by exposing soldiers and civilians to the predictable blowback.

The drone attacks in Pakistan which started while Pervez Musharraf was president intensified immediately on his departure. There were a total of 17 drone strikes during his presidency which ended on August 18, 2008. Since then, there have been 236. In a 2009 interview with Seymour Hersh, Musharraf confessed to being ‘troubled’ by this development. But his reservations had less to do with the human cost of the attacks than with the resulting perception of the Pakistani state’s increasing impotence. After his request for the transfer of the drones to Pakistani control was turned down, Musharraf said he had to beg the US officials to ‘just say publicly that you’re giving them to us. You keep on firing them but put Pakistan Air Force markings on them.’

“Collateral damage worries you Americans…it does not worry me.”

Asif Ali Zardari

If Musharraf had the capacity to be troubled, his successor has proved immune to such sentiment. Indeed, Asif Ali Zardari – ‘Mr. Ten Percent’ to Pakistanis, ‘widower Bhutto’ to everyone else – is an unabashed proponent of collective punishment. In May 2009, after over two million people had been driven from their homes by the Pakistani Army’s major counter-insurgency operation in Swat, Zardari pronounced himself untroubled by the fact that the refugees were languishing in the squalor of teeming camps in the sweltering heat of the plains. Seymour Hersh reported that Zardari ‘insisted that the fault lay with the civilians, who, he said, had been far too tolerant of the Taliban. The suffering could serve a useful purpose: after a summer in the tents, the citizens of Swat might have learned a lesson.’

It was thus unsurprising when a US embassy cable surfaced showing Zardari encouraging the US to continue its drone strikes. ‘Collateral damage worries you Americans,’ he said. ‘It does not worry me.’ His Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was equally sanguine. ‘I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people,’ he said. ‘We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.’

Meanwhile, discontent has been seeping from the files into the ranks of the Pakistani military. Few relish the idea of serving as Gurkhas for the American empire or of dying fighting their own people. But the brass has remained by and large impervious, sometimes engaging in embarrassing attempts to deflect criticism from their complicity. In a media briefing on March 8, Major Gen Ghayur Mehmud tried to justify the US drone policy by claiming that the majority of those killed were militants. Other than furnishing hawks in Islamabad and Washington with a factoid, the briefing achieved little beyond further tarnishing the army’s image. The army quickly rushed out its spokesman Major General Athar Abbas to claim that the general had been quoted out of context.

The military’s embarrassment was compounded when days later, on March 17, a drone massacred 45 tribesmen, including children, gathered for a jirga (tribal council) to resolve a local dispute in Dattakhel, North Waziristan. The incident happened only a day after the ISI had facilitated the release of Raymond Davis, a US mercenary who had murdered two young men widely believed to be ISI assets. The attack finally compelled Pakistan’s military chief General Ashfaq Kayani to condemn the US for ‘carelessly and callously’ targeting civilians, in ‘complete violation of human rights‘. Kayani should know about violations of human rights since in an interview with Brian Cloughley he had himself recounted an incident in 2005 when a drone slaughtered a group of tribesmen gathered in a village to watch a performing monkey.

As with Zardari and Gilani, however, Kayani’s words were geared mainly for public consumption. Since the incident, no attempt has been made to pressure the US by cutting off NATO’s main supply arteries which run through Pakistan. The drone attacks have continued unabated, killing many more, including women and children. The rest of Pakistan’s political establishment has been equally hypocritical, keeping a large gap between word and deed. Though all major parties in the parliament pronounce themselves opposed to the drones, none has taken any tangible action (except for an inconsequential resolution passed in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly).

The intelligentsia

US to stop using Pakistani airbase for drone attacks

A small section of the Pakistani intelligentsia, mainly writing for the English language press, approves of the drone attacks. These are the only voices that the western media generally picks up. Their support is predicated on the drones’ supposed accuracy and popularity. All these claims, without exception, rely on a single source: the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a letter head organization of dubious provenance. Its public face, Farhat Taj, is a zany middle-aged graduate student with a reputation for preposterous claims based on unnamed – many suspect invented – interlocutors. But neither the source’s credibility nor common sense has proved a barrier to Pakistan’s liberal hawks invoking its authority to support their calls for greater violence.

Irfan Husain, a columnist for Dawn, makes a case for ‘more drone attacks, not less.’  Husain (who once served on the advisory board of an Israel lobby astroturf operation campaigning for the normalization of relations between Pakistan and Israel) bases his claim on the pronouncements of ‘Dr Farhat Taj’. (The curious elevation of Taj’s status to ‘Dr’ suggests that Husain is aware he is skating on thin ice.) He quotes her as saying that the ‘ordinary people in FATA are delighted’ by and ‘feel comfortable with the drone attacks’. ‘They would welcome anyone,’ she adds, ‘Americans, Israelis, Indians or even the devil to rid them of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.’ To Husain, this ‘makes perfect sense’. And sceptics — such as the media, Imran Khan, or two-thirds of the Pakistani public — are on the other hand merely ‘acting as cheerleaders for these terrorists.’ 

Farrukh Saleem, a ruling party courtier who, in keeping with the ‘war on terror’ zeitgeist, has reinvented himself as a defence analyst, references a poll – which does not mention drones – to conclude that the strikes can’t be an issue for 92 percent of Pakistanis because they listed inflation, terrorism and unemployment as the biggest challenges facing them. As with all drone apologia, Saleem then turns to the Aryana Institute, albeit with a novel attribution. Though the Aryana ‘study’ was published in the very paper Saleem is writing for, he curiously prefaces its claims with ‘according to the BBC,’ presumably to give it the gravitas it would otherwise lack. The drones, he argues, are considered accurate by ‘around 80 percent of people’ in FATA — a fact further confirmed by general Ghayyur Mehmood of the 7th Infantry Division, a unit so illustrious that among its ‘notable commanders are General Yahya Khan’. Yahya Khan is of course notable among other things for overseeing the mass slaughter of civilians during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.

More circumspect, yet equally firm in his support of the drones is Pervez Hoodbhoy, a onetime anti-nuclear activist who more recently has been hosting what the BBC described as the ‘ideas’ arm of the ‘war on terror’, a British Foreign Office-funded propaganda operation featuring the controversial Quilliam Foundation. Hoodhboy has argued that ‘most tribals actually welcome the drone attacks’. The claim is inevitably referenced to Farhat Taj, whom Hoodbhoy also quotes as saying: ‘In Waziristan people get really upset when there are no drone attacks.’ After registering some doubt as to whether this statement can be ‘fully believed,’ he proceeds to affirm it because many of his FATA students ‘want the beasts killed’ (In another place he also made a reference to the ‘militant fanaticism of Pathan tribals’). Having earlier acknowledged the human cost of the attacks, evidently no price is too high for Hoodbhoy’s beasticide.

Hoodbhoy claims that he has to base his argument on evidence whose credibility he himself cannot vouch for because a ‘scientific survey of attitudes in FATA in today’s dangerous circumstances is impossible’. This bespeaks laziness or dishonesty because a scientific survey of attitudes had indeed been conducted and widely reported. Pakistan’s liberal hawks chose to ignore it because its findings did not accord with the worldview they had been projecting on the citizens of FATA. The poll conducted by the New America Foundation (itself a booster of the drone war) and Terror Free Tomorrow found 76 percent of the respondents opposed to drone attacks (only 16 percent deemed them accurate), 87 percent opposed to US military action against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and that 59 percent consider suicide bombings against the US military justified.  

So does that make them ‘cheerleaders for these terrorists’ as the hawks would have it? Not quite. The same poll also found 77 percent opposed to the presence of Al Qaeda in the region, 69 percent opposed to the Pakistani Taliban, and 61 percent to the Afghan Taliban. However, at the same time four times as many identified the US as most responsible for the violence compared to the Pakistani Taliban. It also found 83 percent opposition to suicide bombings against the Pakistani military and police.

But perhaps most disturbingly for the liberal hawks, the poll also revealed that the most popular political party in the region was the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the one party that has taken the most uncompromising line against the drone attacks. Its leader, the former cricketing legend Imran Khan, is a hate figure among Pakistani liberal hawks and was declared ‘one of the forces of darkness‘ by their tribune Fahat Taj. Darkness has evidently claimed wider territory since, according to a June 2011 Pew survey, at 68 percent the antiwar Khan has the highest approval rating of any public figure in Pakistan.

Squirters and Bugsplat

The drone war has developed its own slang. The scared humans on the ground running for cover are labelled ‘squirters.’ Successful attacks are called ‘bugsplats’. The likeness with extermination of insects is evidently not lost on the drone warriors. Many drone operators have commented on its ‘antiseptic’ nature and the emotional detachment it engenders. “It’s like a video game,” said one to Peter Singer, author of Wired for War, “It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s fucking cool.”

“It’s like a video game…it can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s fucking cool.”

The few journalists who have bothered to investigate what it is like to be on the receiving end of these death machines –Graeme Smith of Globe and Mail, for example – have discovered traumatized villagers spending their meagre resources on psychiatric medicine. Sedatives by night, anti-depressants by day – and of whatever remains, most is expended on frequent visits to Peshawar for psychiatric treatment. The price of some anti-depressants has risen six-fold according to Smith, and the consumption of sedatives has increased by 30 to 40 percent. The anxiety siezes all, and most find the constant fear of death worse than dying. Even animals sense the terror. ‘The buffalo get skittish,’ one FATA resident told Smith, ‘they look at the sky and make noises like they’re weeping.’

It is now common practice for drones to attack funerals, even rescuers. People, as a result, are too scared to rescue survivors lest they fall prey to a secondary attack, as so many have. At times the drones deliberately terrorize villages by flying very low, often in packs. A recent survey by the NGO Horizon found that caught between the violence above and below, up to 80 percent of Waziristan residents suffer from mental illness, especially children. (Not everyone is hostile to these strategies however. It was an unnamed Pakistani official who, according to an embassy cable, first encouraged the US to launch secondary strikes to target rescuers. It is also cheered by the ever-reliable Taj, who exclaimed that the ‘new drone attack strategy is brilliant‘.)

But these are uncomfortable truths which conflict with the image of an antiseptic war promoted by hawks both in Islamabad and Washington. It is so much easier to believe in the insane fancies of Farhat Taj. Who doesn’t like a bloodless war? (It is also worth noting that in the listing for all the incidents noted above the New America Foundation database does not record a single civilian death!)

Those who had been relying on the US, economically weakened and chastened by recent military setbacks, to adopt a less interventionist policy would be disappointed. As Andrew Bacevich, the ablest chronicler of US military strategy, observed in his prophetic American Empire, since the mid-1990s the US has tried to bypass constraints on interventionism by adopting a policy of ‘gunboats and gurkhas’ – the use of airpower and mercenaries in place of resource-intensive military deployment. A decade later, the costs have been reduced further by replacing piloted aircraft with unmanned drones and American mercenaries with foreign gurkhas. Since 2002, the US has given Pakistan $13 billion in military aid, nearly the same amount it spends on military operations in Afghanistan in a single month – a bargain, no doubt. The US leadership can also be confident that unlike a dead American GI, the 2,795 Pakistani soldiers killed and the 8,671 wounded fighting its war will never come to haunt it in an election. Gunboats and gurkhas may yet extend the American empire’s lease on life.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a Glasgow-based sociologist and the co-editor of He can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter: @im_pulse.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.