(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: hyperion327)

A blog post published by Reuters reporter Myra MacDonald and on the internet today highlights a recent report from clinics at Stanford University and New York University and argues the “anti-drone campaign” is doing damage. It has been widely circulated on the internet yet makes a number of dubious or completely disingenuous arguments about critics of drones, which is why it deserves to be deconstructed and examined.

MacDonald writes, “Just as the United States stands accused of ignoring people on the ground, so too do some of the most vocal of the anti-drone campaigners in ways that can be just as insidious.” One of the biggest charges she levies is that those “who shout the most about casualties from US drone strikes rarely condemn so loudly the many more deaths of civilians as a result of Pakistan army operations in FATA or Taliban violence.” She also suggests that the “anti-drone campaign” is not “vocal” enough “in challenging Pakistan’s slowness to incorporate the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into “the political mainstream.”

…The region continues to be run according to the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), which deprives its people of many of the rights granted to other Pakistani citizens and leaves them vulnerable to collective punishment.  Few pay attention to the region’s deliberate marginalisation so that it could be used – since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 – as a deniable staging ground for the Pakistan army’s jihadi proxies – whose ideology spawned the same Taliban who are now terrorising the local population…

MacDonald then adds there is something worse than “hypocrisy” here. The “anti-drone campaign” is often “used, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly, to bolster a narrative inside Pakistan which runs counter to the interests of the people of FATA.” She contends the “anti-drone campaign” believes “militancy sprang from FATA itself in response to the US-led war in Afghanistan and drone strikes.” The problem with this is this leads to a “questionable conclusion that making peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban will help the people of FATA.”

Drone Critics Not Really Concerned with People of FATA, Just Their Agenda

First, MacDonald’s statement about the “anti-drone campaign” having a belief that means they are for “peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban” is a strawman. There is no citation. She provides no example, where human rights advocates think if the drones stopped militants would stop fighting and the people could negotiate with the militants and there would be peace. There may be leaders in and outside of Pakistan, who think this way, but MacDonald provides no examples.

On the issue of not being vocal enough about FATA not being incorporated into the “political mainstream,” does she know of the work the Foundation for Fundamental Rights is doing?

The organization, as it states on its website, is an “organization of attorneys and socially active individuals working towards the advancement, protection and enforcement of fundamental human rights” in Pakistan. Moreover, it has an initiative that aims to provide legal aid to Waziristan residents because they are in the FATA region, a region where the organization claims the Pakistani legislature “has failed to provide the tribal people with a system of governance ensuring rights of individuals in the Constitution.”

The Jurisdiction of Supreme Court and High Court of Pakistan does not extend directly to FATA and Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA), according to Article 247 and Article 248, of existing 1973 Constitution of Pakistan. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly has no power in FATA, and can only exercise its powers in PATA that are part of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The assembly cannot implement the law directly as it can do in other parts of the province or Settled Areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. This has created a political vacuum in FATA, Frontier Regions and PATA. Such lawless conditions are said to serve the interests of terrorists, as there is absence of various government departments like police, judiciary, local governments, and civic amenities. There are no civil, sessions, High and/or Supreme Courts of Pakistan in Tribal Areas.

This organization of lawyers helped Stanford and New York University researchers on their report, which MacDonald think is a “case study on what can go wrong in the anti-drones campaign.” They are meeting with American activists from CODEPINK right now and are undoubtedly sharing details about the history and political status of FATA. They are concerned about the “political vacuum,” which creates “lawless conditions” that serve terrorists. But they are also concerned about what US drone strikes are doing to further complicate the environment in FATA as well.

Bad Methodology

MacDonald criticizes the bad methodology of the Stanford/NYU report:

…There was no field research in FATA. And of the 69 people interviewed with direct experience of drones, the majority were arranged by the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), Reprieve’s partner organisation, which funded their transport costs from FATA to Pakistani cities. No effort was made to randomly select the interviewees; nor was there a control group to check the accuracy of their statements…

What MacDonald is insisting is the researchers should have been prepared for “drone victims,” who would exaggerate or fabricate their experiences. People who lost family members, who had their limbs amputated, who had their eye removed, who suffered head trauma, who now regularly experience psychological distress and are on medication—She is suggesting that these people might have told lies or omitted details of their experience for the benefit of the report. Perhaps, she thinks that the ISI coached them (one journalist from The Atlantic has proffered this insinuation).

MacDonald is critical of the fact that FFR helped arrange interviews. She criticizes the researchers for not physically going to FATA to talk to people on the ground there. She makes this criticism just a few paragraphs after admitting it is virtually impossible for people to go into FATA and figure out what is happening:

First of all let’s be clear we don’t know, and can’t know, exactly what is going on in FATA. It is hard for outsiders to go there; foreigners visit accompanied by the army; people inside are afraid to speak openly and its journalists say their reporting is hampered by threats from both the military and the militants (for an excellent, report on this, and useful research on a FATA in general, do read this study by Intermedia (pdf)).

The researchers, who helped produce the “Living Under Drones” report, outlined similar issues that made it hard to conduct primary research before presenting their findings. For example, they noted how difficult it is to access FATA because the Pakistani government blocks access with “heavily guarded checkpoints,” residents have an “often justifiable” mistrust for outsiders (particularly Westerners), FATA residents “fear retribution from all sides—Pakistani military, intelligence services, non-state armed groups—for speaking with outsiders.”

It is a Catch-22. The researchers should have gone to FATA to talk with residents but had they gone they would have likely had trouble getting 69 people to talk to them for their study. They would have been putting themselves in danger of attacks from militias. So, maybe MacDonald thinks they should not have bothered to do the study. Since they could not do it the way she thinks it should have properly been done, it had done more damage to the effort to promote understanding of the reality of drones in Pakistan.

‘Blaming the Victims’

MacDonald entirely manipulates a section of the report and argues the report “blames the victims.”

…it falls for the myth – one heavily promoted in Pakistan’s Punjabi heartland – that the presence of militants in FATA is due to its “traditional” (read backward) culture rather than having been foisted on it from outside.  The many tribal laskhars raised to fight the militants are ignored.

FATA is inhabited by Pashtuns whose social life, it says, is framed by “Pashtunwali”, a tradition of honour, hospitality, and equality.  “One particularly important principle of Pashtunwali is … hospitality…the guest is protected and his enemies repelled for as long as he stays.”

“This duty to provide hospitality to all may create complications where it leads civilians to provide shelter to armed non-state actors, not out of support for their cause, but to fulfil a fundamental duty.”

It is a classic case of blaming the victim. Rather than representing the views of the people of FATA, it actively promotes a narrative which has been used against them – one that claims that militancy is inherent in the Pakistani tribal periphery rather than produced from within Pakistan’s ruling system; one that says that it can be resolved by ending U.S. drone strikes and the foreign military presence in Afghanistan rather than tackling militancy and extremism in the heartland…

Here’s the particular section of the report MacDonald is interpreting:

…Pashtun social life and legal norms are framed by Pashtunwali/Pukhtunwali (“the way of the Pashtuns”), an ethical code and “system of customary legal norms.” Its fundamental principles include “[h]onour of the individual and honour of groups; [f]ighting spirit and bravery; [e]quality and respect for seniors; [c]onsultation and decision making; [w]illpower and sincerity; [c]ompensation and retaliation; [g]enerosity and hospitality; [p]ride and zeal.”

One particularly important principle of Pashtunwali is melmastia or hospitality. Such“hospitality whether individually or collectively expressed, is one of the major cognitive, tangible and coherent symbols of ‘Pukhtunwali’ to the Pathan.” This concept, in turn, is related to the principle of nanawatey/nanawati, or asylum, sometimes defined as “to enter into the security of a house.” Thus, “the defense of the guest comes under the norm of nanawati. . . . the guest is protected and his enemies repelled for as long as he stays.” Together, the two concepts impose a high burden on Pashtuns to provide for and protect guests and those seeking asylum. The Pashtunwali demands “the feeding of strangers and friends, both in [sic] guest house and in the home.” This duty to provide hospitality to all may create complications where it leads civilians to provide shelter to armed non-state actors, not out of support for their cause, but to fulfill a fundamental duty. [emphasis added]

It is anybody’s guess how MacDonald is making her conclusions, but what the report is explaining here is how culture might create situations where the US is targeting a terrorist, who is inside a home with perfectly innocent people. It is context for why there would be civilian casualties, not some kind of passage aimed at blaming Pashtun culture for the presence of militants in FATA.

Anti-Drone Campaigners Ignore the Taliban

Finally, let’s return to one of the more egregious insinuations made by MacDonald, that the MacDonald doesn not really care about the Taliban or Pakistan army’s violence and do not pay it attention.

The focus of the report was not the Taliban or the Pakistan army’s impact on civilians. Its focus was on drones. Nonetheless, the Stanford/NYU report noted, “For the past decade, violence in northwest Pakistan has involved a range of armed non-state actor groups, Pakistani forces, and US forces (through drones). The armed non-state groups reportedly operating in the region include Al Qaeda, the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani Network, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, Pakistan (TTP), and Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM). Some of these groups have been involved in attacks against Pakistani civilians and government targets, while others have engaged in battles with US and Afghan forces across the border in Afghanistan.”

The researchers wrote the Taliban has “attempted to control local FATA governance functions,” but “the methods employed by the Taliban in FATA have often been extremely violent, and analysts have noted the ways in which they have weakend the existing social structures.” Also, “Taliban forces have been responsible for a wide range of severe abuses against civilians in FATA. According to the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), an organization dedicated to promoting the right of civilian victims to amends, attacks by armed non-state actors in northwest Pakistan have ‘directly targeted civilians, shattering lives and spreading fear.’”


The response of the Pakistani authorities to increased militancy in FATA has involved military engagement, interspersed with failed ceasefires and peace agreements. Pakistani forces engaged in the conflict in northwest Pakistan include the federal paramilitary force Frontier Corps (FC), the Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI), and tribal lashkars (traditional tribal militias). Pakistani forces have been responsible for severe rights abuses, particularly in the course of counterterrorism operations. These have included extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, as well as complicity in the murder of journalists. Amnesty International has noted that “government forces are also culpable of systematic and widespread human rights violations in FATA and [the Northwest Frontier Province], both in the course of military operations and by subjecting suspected insurgents to arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance and apparent extrajudicial execution.” According to Human Rights Watch, “[t]he government appeared powerless to rein in the military’s abuses.”

She writes, “The report was welcomed by both the Defa-e-Pakistan, an alliance of Punjab-based militant and sectarian groups, and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, blacklisted by the United Nations as the humanitarian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba.” Does she really think that Stanford, NYU, Reprieve or FFR produced this report for the benefit of militant or sectarian groups in Pakistan? This is such a smear, a complete trashing of efforts by people concerned about human rights and the law.


In conclusion, why is MacDonald writing this? Why have a number of journalists pounced on the report to make sure Americans do not take its findings too seriously? Because she like other journalists thinks the US and Pakistan can either allow drone operations—a least worst option—or it can cease drone operations and let the Taliban have more control? Because she thinks a moratorium on drones would lead to the Pakistan army wreaking more chaos and violence in the FATA region?

Why do the two have to be presented as mutually exclusive? Why can’t the US, Pakistan and other countries invest in studying Pakistan and developing non-military ties with Pakistani groups and tribes to address the threat of terrorism? Why can’t there be a focus on economic and social problems in Pakistan that fuel terrorism and also give the Pakistan government and its military the ability to wage brutal violence with impunity? And why can’t reporters like MacDonald take the anti-Americanism of people in Pakistan a bit more seriously? Why isn’t it more genuine or indisputable to them that a majority of the people in FATA oppose the US war on terrorism and want the drone strikes to stop now?

She wrote in another post:

One of the most frustrating aspects of the debate on drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas is that it rests on a tangle of assumptions on which neither Washington nor Islamabad can agree. The result is a corrosive discussion which undermines U.S.  legitimacy and gives Pakistanis a focus for anti-Americanism which drowns out all other issues, including how militancy should be tackled and the Afghan war brought to an end.

Yet, drones are—as the recent reports show—leading more and more residents of FATA each day to think that the enemy is not the Taliban or other militant groups, which may or may not be associated. It is leading them to think that the United States is the enemy. The drone strikes are inspiring people in Pakistan to commit attacks. The attacks are only perpetuating militancy and are likely having some effect that complicates whatever the US might be trying to accomplish in the Afghanistan War. (But, to MacDonald, Pakistani politician Imran Khan and activists, who march to Waziristan this weekend will be “a public relations coup for the Taliban.”)

Moreover, these reports that MacDonald condemns with sweeping generalizations come from Americans. They are responding to policies carried out by the US government. They are part of civil society in the US and have some obligation to take a stand against policies that may be illegal, immoral or widely misunderstood because they are being kept secret. The US drone policy is that sort of policy.