The Laughable Certitude of Foundational Intellectuals: The Case of Professor Christine Fair and the Drones


In a recent TV interview, Professor Christine Fair, Georgetown University, made the following unfair (I can’t resist the pun here) statement in response to another expert’s views, contrary to hers, on the question of US drone attacks in Pakistan and their linkage to the accentuation of radical responses to the United States by the Taliban and the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan:

I take extreme exception top [sic] the way my colleague characterized the drones,” Fair said. “Actually the drones are not killing innocent civilians. Many of those reports are coming from deeply unreliable and dubious Pakistani press reports, which no one takes credibly on any other issue except for some reason on this issue. There’ve actually been a number of surveys on the ground, in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]. The residents of FATA generally welcome the drone strikes because they know actually who’s being killed. They’re very much aware and who’s being killed and who’s not. (Cited from Jermey Sahil, The Nation. “Georgetown Professor: ‘Drones Are Not Killing Innocent Civilians’ in Pakistan.”) [Emphasis mine]

Trained as a literary critic, I cannot help but dwell on this passage before moving on to the context of this statement. Professor Fair’s statement is a truth claim asserted at the very beginning: The drones are not killing innocent civilians!!! That statement is offered without any need for proof; it is just a statement of fact, which the professor, by the power vested in her person as the expert on the region and all the other credentials attached to an intellectual life, claims in this case. The statement says: I am a truth claim and I am sufficient unto myself.

I have highlighted certain portions of the statement to analyse the argument, an argument that maintains the truth claim but casts doubts on any challenge that might be posed, might have been posed, or might eventually be posed to the truth claim. So drones, says Professor Fair, so unfairly, are not killing any people: that is a fact. And any information otherwise is based in, of course, “deeply unreliable and dubious Pakistani” media. Now this statement about the suspect Pakistani media also does not need any justification in the metropolitan double-speak; the sources are dubious because they are Pakistani sources. The Pakistanis cannot claim any legitimacy even though they probably have unembedded journalists on ground who also, strangely, might even speak the language of the people they are covering. No, they are unreliable just as any other claims to truth by the so-called third world journalists are unreliable when put to the test of the high standards of media ethics applied in the United States (Think Fox News as a US standard!!!)

The second highlighted statement is even more interesting: this goes on to suggest that not only are the drones not killing civilians but the “natives’ actually LIKE IT! So, now professor Fair’s argument is mobilizing the natives of FATA as the supporters of drone attacks. So suddenly, this entire region of Pakistan, where every intrusion of the federal government is seen as suspicious and unwelcome, has now become quite open to drone bombings in their own “free” lands. I would love to see the surveys that the professor mentioned and also in which langauge they were distributed, how large was the sample, and how did they manage to do it without those surveys being contaminated by the local “unreliable” survey workers. Somehow, I cannot imagine young Pashtun men in FATA sitting in front of their computers answering a survey, in Pashto,  administered by RAND corporation or Heritage Foundation. In fact, now that I have tried to imagine it, I have to stop typing to get the laughter out of my system.

But going beyond this absurd moral certitude of professor Fair, one could argue that her absolutist statement rests on an assumption that drones do not and have not killed any civilians. Furthermore, refutations, if any, must come from the “respected” and “reliable” US media. But since the statement is a statement of fact, just one civilian death–intentional not accidental–would be enough to refute this claim. I will try to do just that.

Last year, a drone strike successfully killed Baitullah Mehsud, the then leader of Pakistani Taliban. I actually wrote a brief blog entry about it. Here is how the strike was reported by the Guardian, a reliable metropolitan news source, on August 7, 2009:

The Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a CIA missile strike, a senior Taliban commander said today.

Kafayat Ullah, an aide to Mehsud, told the Associated Press news agency that Mehsud and his second wife were killed in Wednesday’s missile attack in South Waziristan. He would not provide any further details.

Mehsud is said to have died when a drone plane fired two Hellfire missiles at a remote farmhouse where he was sheltering, early on Wednesday. (The Guardian)

Naturally, I could have not cared less about Baitullah Mehsud’s death; I had titled my blog on him as “Death of a Murderer,” but it is the figure of his “second wife,” killed along with him, that has haunted me since. Was she not a civilian? Was she guilty simply because she was his wife? Who made the decision, sitting in a safe bunker while guiding an airborne, technologized weapon delivery system, that it was OK to kill a powerless woman in the process of killing her husband. I am not talking about accidental deaths here: someone somewhere in the grand hierarchy of American military “decided” that it was OK to kill a civilian if a worthwhile “target” could be eliminated in the process. So killing one of the many women that the United States had planned to “liberate” was OK? But, maybe, now, she has come to speak to us from the other side of this death-world that the foundational intellectuals have helped to create in their uncritical servitude to power. She is your one dead civilian Professor Fair: deal with her ghost now.

So you see, professor Fair, we can now account for at least one civilian, a woman, who WAS killed by a drone as so many reliable “western” sources mentioned without dwelling on it much. Does that prove your statement wrong? I guess not, for your kind–the foundational intellectuals–are not really about truth. You are needed to offer your rationalizations for the actions of the powerful and obviously you will continue doing so, no matter what we offer as a refutation.

  3 comments for “The Laughable Certitude of Foundational Intellectuals: The Case of Professor Christine Fair and the Drones

      Christine Fair
      May 28, 2010 at 8:02 pm

      It’s been a bad week for drones. On Friday, U.N. official Philip Alston announced he would be asking the United States to move the controversial, Central Intelligence Agency-run program under the aegis of the military, and international law. He joins a growing chorus of people opposed to the use of drone airstrikes to target militants ensconced in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), on legal, humanitarian, and operational grounds. (Alston is at least more informed than most drone foes in that he recognizes that the drone strikes in Pakistan’s FATA are CIA-led covert operations rather than “military strikes.”)

      The anti-drone argument goes like this: Because drone attacks kill innocent civilians and violate Pakistan’s sovereignty, they are deeply and universally despised by Pakistanis, and contribute to deepening anti-U.S. sentiment in the country — enmity that could boost terrorist organizations’ recruitment and eventually force Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders to abandon their cooperation with the United States.




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      During his testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2009, David Kilcullen, a former counterinsurgency advisor to Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus, said it was time for the United States to “call off the drones.” Later that month, Kilcullen and Andrew M. Exum, who served as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004, published a provocative editorial in the New York Times, titled “Death From Above: Outrage from Below,” in which they estimated that over the “past three years” drones had killed just 14 “terrorist leaders” at the price of some 700 civilian lives. “This is 50 civilians for every militant killed,” they wrote, “a hit rate of 2 percent.” Their conclusion? Drone strikes produce more terrorists than they eliminate-an assertion that has become an article of faith among drone-strike opponents.

      It would be a damning argument — if the data weren’t simply bogus. The only publicly available civilian casualty figures for drone strikes in Pakistan come from their targets: the Pakistani Taliban, which report the alleged numbers to the Pakistani press, which dutifully publishes the fiction. No one has independently verified the Taliban’s reports — journalists cannot travel to FATA to confirm the deaths, and the CIA will not even acknowledge the drone program exists, much less discuss its results. But high-level Pakistani officials have conceded to me that very few civilians have been killed by drones and their innocence is often debatable. U.S. officials who are knowledgeable of the program report similar findings. In fact, since January 1 there has not been one confirmed civilian casualty from drone strikes in FATA.

      Not only do drone opponents rely upon these fictitious reports of civilian casualties, they also tend to conflate drone strikes in Pakistan with air strikes in Afghanistan, lumping the two related but very different battlefields together as one contiguous theater. They also conflate different kinds of air strikes within Afghanistan.

      These distinctions matter, a lot. In Afghanistan, it is an ignominious truth that hundreds of civilians are killed in NATO airstrikes every year. But most of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan have not stemmed from pre-planned, intelligence-led attacks; rather, civilians are most likely to die when troops come into contact with the enemy and subsequently request air support. This is because when it comes to air strikes, NATO forces in Afghanistan have a limited range of air assets at their disposal. As a result, when troops come into contact with insurgents and call for air support, they get the ordinance that is available, not the firepower that would be best suited to their needs. Sometimes large bombs are dropped when smaller ones would have been better, and the risk of civilian casualties increases accordingly.

      By contrast, drone airstrikes are pre-planned, intelligence-led operations, and are usually accomplished with minimal civilian deaths — as even Human Rights Watch acknowledges. They are the product of meticulous planning among lawyers, intelligence officers, and others who scrupulously and independently confirm information about potential enemies, working to establish a rigorous “pattern of life” to minimize the deaths of innocents. Others in the Air Force, using a classified algorithm, estimate the potential for civilian casualties based upon a variety of local data inputs. While one should not be blasé about the loss of any civilian life, it is important to note that the different kinds of air operations are not created equal.

      How does the situation in the air over Afghanistan compare to that in Pakistan? The short answer is that we don’t know — drone strikes in Pakistan are conducted under the auspices of the CIA and occasionally the Joint Special Operations Command, and are covert operations that the United States government does not even acknowledge take place. (If you’ve seen footage of civilian casualties at all, they’re in Afghanistan, not Pakistan.) But if we know little about the drone strikes, we know enough about the alternative means of eliminating terrorists in FATA to know that they’re probably worse. Pakistan has no police in FATA to arrest them. The Pakistan army is now in its 13th month of sustained combat in the region, an effort that has flattened communities and displaced millions but done little to chip away at the insurgents’ strength. Drone strikes may not be perfect, but they’re likely the most humane option available.

      Of course, the actual impact of the drone strikes is only part of the equation — the perception of them in Pakistan matters enormously as well. But here, too, the conventional wisdom — that Pakistanis hate the drone strikes, and consider them an affront to their national sovereignty — is not entirely correct. Pakistan’s government makes a big show of opposing the strikes, but it’s not much more than political theater. In fact, the United States secured permission to launch strikes from then President Pervez Musharraf in 2006 — Musharraf was adamant at the time that the strikes be confined to the FATA and they have been. Musharraf also warned U.S. President George W. Bush beforehand that Pakistani military and civilian officials alike would protest the strikes, out of domestic political necessity — it was nothing personal. Presidents Asif Ali Zardari and Barack Obama have inherited this combination of operating agreements and kabuki politics.

      What about the Pakistanis in the regions where the strikes are occurring? The truth is, we don’t really know what they think. Collecting reliable and rigorous opinion data in FATA is difficult — the lack of a current census, the influx of Afghan refugees and emigration of FATA natives fleeing the unstable region makes it nearly impossible for even the best polling firms in Pakistan to draw a scientifically defensible sample of FATA residents. As a result, all we have is a smattering of anecdotal accounts, which vary depending upon who is asked, and where, when, and how they are interviewed. On one hand are those who rubbish the Pakistani media claims of civilian casualties and assert that the drones effectively kill militants but not civilians. On the other are outraged residents who live in fear of the constant buzzing of the drones circling above. It’s unreasonable to extrapolate any kind of majority opinion from either one of them.

      What is clear enough, however, is that the drone strikes, however unpopular they may be, are likely to be more popular than the realistic alternatives: the Taliban’s violence or the Pakistani army’s operations, which have displaced millions. Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani journalist and commentator, vividly captured the complex reality in his May 11 piece in The News: “The relative popularity of drones is almost as emphatic as their absolute unpopularity. Pakistani military operations have a reputation in the region now, for being so brutal, that entire parts of towns are destroyed. Drones that destroy one or two homes at a time, obviously represent less damage, and therefore, an option that is preferable to the military’s artillery campaigns.”

      That’s why, if the United States does pull its drones out of FATA, Pakistanis will have two options. Either the government simply gives up the fight, or the Pakistani military — which is already stretched thin — may have to pick up where the Americans leave off. After the Pakistani army’s arduous battle to wrest control of the Swat Valley back from the Taliban beginning in earnest in 2009, Musharraf argued that the United States should give Pakistan drones to pull off future strikes without the massive footprint of a ground force operation. After subsequent requests were rebuffed, Pakistan first sought to buy drones from Italy, but now plans to manufacture them locally.

      Nevertheless, American and Pakistani citizens do need to weigh the relative costs and benefits of drone attacks. Doing this requires some concessions from the U.S. government. First, it should abandon the absurd claim that it does not conduct drone strikes — since Google Earth images of U.S. drones at the Shamshi airbase in Baluchistan were published in 2009, the charade hardly seems worth the effort. Second, it should provide evidence of what exactly the drone attacks have produced so far: who has been killed, and how important those people were to the enemy’s capabilities. Drone critics can surely question and even reject the process by which individuals are declared “fair targets” and the legality of these extrajudicial killings. But such a debate can only happen when the U.S. government clarifies how targets are selected and vetted.

      Until the U.S. government owns these attacks and presents information about their outcomes, at best unrealiable and at worst fabricated civilian casualties figures will dominate the drone debate. And that would be the real tragedy — it could force policymakers in the United States and Pakistan to discard the least bad tool at their disposal.

        May 28, 2010 at 9:13 pm

        Though I still do not agree with your argument, I am deeply grateful for this more detailed explanation of your earlier TV statement. I am a humanist and literary critic by training and also a former military officer. So in a way my views are conditioned by my lived experiences just as yours are too and even if I disagree with you I do certainly respect your right to express those views.

        In my life I have seen one Pakistani dictator after another becoming instrumental to US policy in the region, so forgive me if I do not place much faith in the US (or for that matter Pakistani) policymakers and technocrats.

        Anyway, I am just an obscure scholar trying to make a difference and you need not to worry about my views as you have access to media and research resources much beyond my reach.

        So, peace and love and God bless.

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