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The Shadow of History Passes Over Pakistan

By Priya Satia

Published: May 20 2009 23:24 | Last updated: May 20 2009 23:24

 

As Pakistan spirals out of its grasp, the Obama administration is at last considering halting drone attacks there. Influential military officials such as Colonel David Kilcullen, a former adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq, have testified that, despite damaging the Taliban leadership and protecting US pilots, the strategy is backfiring. The Taliban’s recent gains come on the heels of President Barack Obama’s intensification of remotely piloted air strikes – 16 strikes in the first four months of 2009 compared with 36 in all of 2008.

This scepticism about drones is well placed but a halt is not enough. Only a permanent end to the strategy will win Pakistani hearts and minds back to their government and its US ally. They, like Afghans and Iraqis, are struck less by the strategy’s futuristic qualities than by its uncanny echo of the past: aerial counterinsurgency was invented in precisely these two regions – Iraq and the Pakistani-Afghan borderland – in the 1920s by the British.

The memory of that colonial past shapes the military and political dynamics of any aerial strategy in the region. Col Kilcullen shrewdly discerned that Pakistanis see the drones as “neocolonial”. Oddly, the historical use of aerial policing in the region has been absent from public debate about the issue, despite the light it sheds on the likelihood of the tactic’s success.

The British, too, turned to aerial surveillance as a way out of the double bind of persistent anti-colonial rebellion and popular demands that their troops be brought home. When the British public grew critical in turn of the violence of the new strategy, officials proclaimed that it worked more through the threat of bombardment than actual attack, gamely embracing “terror” as its main tactical principle. As I discovered while researching Air Ministry documents, officials privately confessed that the public was not ready for the truth that air warfare had made distinctions between civilians and combatants “obsolete”. And the Middle East offered an ideal terrain for its education: this was the region in which civilian deaths would be easiest to stomach, air staff officials argued, since Arabs and Pathans “love fighting for fighting’s sake. . . They have no objection to being killed.” In 1924, Squadron Leader Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command in the second world war, reported having shown Iraqis “what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village ... can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed.”

But British aerial control failed miserably, and regional memory of that past ensures that the strategy raises the spectre of ruthless western imperial ambition – no matter how much US officials protest their altruism.

Certainly, aerial control did save British lives and money, but Iraqi and Afghan anger about civilian deaths and constant foreign surveillance produced decades of coups and conflict with the west, leading up to the current wars. Determined insurgents found ways to evade the “all-seeing” eyes in the sky. As long as the Royal Air Force remained in Iraq, where it functioned as an imperial administration (1922-58), the legitimacy of the “independent” Iraqi government was compromised and insurgency was rife.

The air policing regime lasted as long as it did because heavy censorship and secrecy prevented even officials from perceiving the extent of the damage it was doing. No one knew how many Iraqis and Afghans were killed. Likewise, today’s drones operate in secrecy. The trickle of reports on air strikes cannot assess the number and identity of their victims. The US government routinely offers no comment on strikes. In a rare front-page story on the drones, The New York Times reported that 70 of the 195 $150m Predators had crashed but said nothing about human losses. In a recent interview, Col Kilcullen said in Pakistan 14 al-Qaeda leaders had been hit, at the cost of 700 civilian lives – “a hit rate of 2 per cent on 98 per cent collateral. It’s not moral.”

The controversy over civilian deaths in a strike on Afghan villages last week is partly due to the fact that the bombs ripped people to shreds, leaving nothing left to count.

In short, there is no public scrutiny of drone activity or any reason to take their effectiveness on trust. Today’s drones may be more precise than the crude bombers of the past, but they will not create a secure environment for Iraqi, Pakistani, Afghan or US interests. Military sceptics warn of the impossibility of analysing the data the drones collect.

News reports confirm that civilians are often caught in their lethal sights. Uncertainty about the number of deaths feeds rumours of the worst kind. Similarly, news of a temporary halt will not allay suspicions of their continued, even more covert use: the effort to defuse Afghan anger over last week’s strike shows that when a covert imperial power issues a denial, no one listens. The casualties and the imposition of continual foreign surveillance provoke more anger and insecurity than the system contains.

Just as the British failure produced our present discontents, mistaken faith in an aerial panacea will fuel the conflicts of the future. Mr Obama must heed local rulers’ requests to end drone attacks – as a matter of tactical as much as political wisdom.

The writer is assistant professor of modern British history at Stanford University. Her book, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East, was published by Oxford University Press last year