Reflections on UPIC and U.S. Drone Strikes

In April, I was privileged to be asked by Intersections International to join the UPIC delegation to Pakistan. I am an Islamicist by profession, focusing on Muslims and American popular culture. However, my degree is in “Indo-Muslim Culture,” and I remain deeply interested in the lives and cultures of Muslims of South Asia, particularly in Sindh (Pakistan) and Gujarat (India). I had been to Pakistan once before, in 1992, for a leisure trip with a friend of mine whose family is from Pakistan. I had not been back in 20 years. 

The role of Pakistan in the War on Terror, or whatever name we are using at the moment, is muddled at best. It is clear from an American perspective that the government is factionalized, and some parts are openly working with the US, and sometimes secretly working with the U.S., and other factions are secretly working against U.S. interests.

The victims continue to be Pakistani civilians who are victimized by the Taliban, who are victimized by Pakistani military forces, and who are victimized by U.S. drone strikes. It is the latter over which we, as American citizens and global inhabitants, have the ability to control. While drone strikes are one of the areas in which the Pakistani government is “secretly” aiding the U.S., it does not excuse the ways in which the U.S. is using drones in Pakistan.

There is a strong and important debate about the ways in which we need to think about U.S. use of drones for both in terms of national security and in terms of domestic rights. The video below is from a debate at the Council of Foreign Relations on this issue.

We must also remember the human cost of the drone strikes on civilians in Pakistan. NYU and Stanford issued a report called Living Under Drones, which talks about the human cost of the indiscriminate drone strikes. Below is a video from that report.

Knowing all of this before going to Pakistan it was still a shock to me to hear about the fear in which people were living, even in urban areas. It was not just about direct drone strikes, but the ways in which rural strikes caused urban centers to be flooded with Taliban, like rats escaping a deluge. People were telling me how they were afraid to go pray, attend weddings, funerals, or large family gatherings, because they would become targets for the Taliban. Outside of urban centers they were afraid of drones as well. 

When I was leaving, I said — half in jest — that I didn’t know if I should be more afraid of sectarian bullets or U.S. drone strikes, especially being a U.S. citizen of color outside the borders of the U.S. When I got to Pakistan, I realized that the fear wasn’t palpable. it was normalized. It had passed beyond anyone’s ability to control and had become part of the background of cultural trauma that the average Pakistani, whom I met, experienced. 

If we are a nation of laws, the laws do not stop at our borders, but are an expression of the type of nation we wish to be. Right now, drones represent us and there are no laws that we know of to curtail them. As Americans, we should demand transparency and accountability.