Altitudes of Imperialism

What a century of aerial bombardment in Waziristan tells us about the CIA’s decade-old drone programme

A pre-strike surveillance image from a drone in North Waziristan, taken on 19 January 2010. The Washington Post / Getty Images
A post-strike surveillance image from a drone in North Waziristan, taken on 19 January 2010. The Washington Post / Getty Images

IN JUNE 2004, Nek Mohammad was eating dinner with four others, including two boys, in the courtyard of a family home in south Waziristan, when a Hellfire missile plunged from the air and killed them all, leaving a six-by-six-foot crater in the centre of the compound. A former Taliban fighter, Mohammad was wanted by the Pakistan Army. The attack that killed him is now regarded as the very first US Central Intelligence Agency drone strike in Pakistan.

This June, therefore, marked a decade of the CIA’s drone programme in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The ghastly anniversary coincided with Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a major military offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Waziristan, which has seen more drone strikes than any other area in the region. The CIA’s unmanned planes and the Pakistan Air Force are important parts of the ongoing operation, which was launched in response to an 8 June militant attack on Karachi airport. The assault has driven more than 450,000 people from their homes, in blistering summer heat.

Despite the mass displacements and mounting casualties—roughly three thousand people have reportedly died in an estimated 390 CIA strikes in Pakistan—there is no end to the drone programme in sight. Critical but largely unpublicised debates are underway about how to count the members of the dead—as civilians, militants or simply the unknown. (A decade later, we still don’t know whether those killed with Nek Mohammad were only found guilty by association.) These issues are by no means new. Aerial bombardment has been taking place in Waziristan for nearly a century. For just as long, the technologies with which bombing is conducted and the terms in which it is understood have kept such warfare, and its consequences, largely free from public scrutiny.

The aerial bombing of Waziristan began when Britain redeployed its greatly expanded air force at the end of the First World War. The fleet, which had grown from 110 to 23,000 planes during the course of the conflict, was dispatched around the empire to carry out “air policing” of restive colonies, and “air control” of anti-colonial insurgencies. Between 1919 and 1939, planes patrolled and bombed Iraq, India, Palestine, Egypt, Somaliland, Sudan, Yemen, Transjordan and Kenya. They bombarded the north-west frontier of India until 1947. Pakistan’s fledgling air force then took over the colonial practice, and continued it into the 1950s against insurrectionists in Waziristan.

In the early twentieth century, mechanised flight was still a new technology; its military and moral implications were worked out in the imperial context of the interwar period. Ethical concerns about the unprecedented reach of bombing by air (which was unrestrained by natural or social geography) developed alongside an appreciation of its “moral effect” (which involved questions of who, what and how much could be destroyed to demoralise the enemy).

Perhaps the first instance of aerial bombing in the subcontinent took place in Punjab in April 1919, when the British attempted to crush demonstrations against draconian detention laws promulgated by the Rowlatt Act. A day after imperial troops opened fire on five thousand people in Jallianwalla Bagh, Amritsar, British planes dropped bombs on protestors in the city of Gujranwala and neighbouring villages.

These acts of colonial violence had profound effects on the subcontinent. In their aftermath, Rabindranath Tagore renounced his knighthood and Mohandas Gandhi mobilised his first civil disobedience movement in India. Today, these events are part of school textbooks across South Asia. At the time, they shaped the ways in which aerial bombardment was first discussed—ways that underlie contemporary conversations about drone warfare.

Reports from the Hunter Commission (which was formed by the British government in October 1919 to investigate the “Punjab disturbances”), and from an independent Congress Committee (which boycotted the Hunter Commission and carried out its own investigation) contain a rare transcript and discussion of the interrogation of a British air force officer involved in the bombing of Gujranwala. Under questioning, the officer emphatically stated that, from two hundred feet above the ground, he could see “perfectly well” what he was doing. Despite this commanding perspective, however, he said he “could not discriminate between the innocent people and other people.” What’s more, he continued firing into streets and homes long after protestors had started fleeing; the purpose of “doing more damage,” he admitted, was to produce a “moral effect”—to not just disperse protestors, but also to induce such fear that people would not dare to congregate again.

In other words, the “moral effect” required the use of excessive violence. The Hunter Commission repudiated this as a “doctrine of frightfulness” that could undermine the legitimacy of British rule, and the British almost never again used aerial bombing to quell anti-colonial mobilisations in the subcontinent (although they considered it during the Moplah rebellion in Malabar in 1921).

But Waziristan and the tribal belt were a remarkable exception. The British dropped between 2.5 and 7 tonnes of ordnance there everyday for a full month between November and December 1919. Afterwards, aerial bombing was routinely used to collectively punish tribes in the area for a range of offences, from attacking British assets to resisting the construction of roads on tribal lands. Instead of targeting rebellious “lashkars,” who were often on the move or hidden in mountainous terrain, the British bombed villages, which were highly visible from the air.

Partly because of the tribal regions’ geographic isolation from the point of view of the empire and British citizens, there was little public debate on the use of air power against these frontier people. The British government’s methods faced their first major challenge only in 1932, when the General Commission of the Geneva Disarmament Conference began drafting its Air Disarmament Resolution for the “prohibition of bombardment of the civil population,” which is now a part of the Geneva Conventions.

A flurry of correspondence between the viceroy’s office in Delhi, the India Office in London and the Air Ministry expressed grave concern that the resolution would require the British to stop aerial bombing in Waziristan and on the north-west frontier. Officials worried that the “whole moral effect of air power would be destroyed” if bombing villages was to be considered equivalent to bombing civilians. In its “Air Staff Note on Reasons why the Bombing of Villages Overseas is essential,” the ministry argued that villages in the region were “little more than a collection of forts.” On this view, rural family homes were rendered legitimate military targets. The ministry also suggested that it was “far more humane” to drop bombs from the air than to send in punitive ground expeditions which result “in heavy casualty lists, deaths from disease, and expense which runs into millions of pounds.”

Thus, at the very moment when international humanitarian laws for conduct in war were being developed to protect civilians by distinguishing them from combatants, the British government was trying to obliterate that distinction. By denying the humanity of the victims of aerial bombing, it fundamentally transformed calculations of the human and material costs of war. In effect, only British casualties and expenses mattered.

The same year as the Air Disarmament Resolution was formulated, Tagore wrote strikingly of the “altitude of imperialism.” For him, mechanised flight was inseparable from aerial violence, not because distance dehumanised the people below, but because “the black buzzing cockroach” left us only one sense with which to assess, feel and judge. “As the aeroplane rose higher,” Tagore wrote on a flight to Iraq, “our relationship with the earth became narrowed down from that of five senses to one—of sight, and even that no longer intimate.”

Shorn of our full sensory experience, Tagore held, we lost the ability to act in a fully ethical way:

We saw the earth in the prelude of that effacement, its existence grew dim, its claims on the consciousness grew fainter and fainter. In such a state of mind, I realised, man can grow cruelly destructive if he is out to rain bombs from the aeroplane. Then, delicate calculations as to the offence of the victims no longer paralyse his raised arm, for the very basis of that calculation has vanished.

Today, the United States government claims that drones have such extraordinary aerial sight that they can single out individuals (rather than meting out collective punishment to entire villages as the British once did). Whether or not this is true, according to research by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism most drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have targeted family compounds and domestic buildings, rather than vehicles or madrasas.

At least two non-governmental organisations—the New America Foundation in the US and the Pakistan Body Count in Pakistan—attempt to provide cartographic and statistical data on all of the CIA drone strikes carried out over the past ten years. But the two groups differ on how they categorise casualties. The New America Foundation claims that only 58 “known militants” have been killed by the attacks, accounting for only 2 percent of the total deaths. Civilians, it says, account for only another 10 percent (between 258 and 307 deaths). The rest it categorises as “unknowns.” In contrast, Pakistan Body Count does not use the generic category of “militants”; instead, it specifies whether those killed belonged to al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Furthermore, it assumes that the dead who have not been positively identified as belonging to either militant group were all non-combatants. As a result, it counts far more civilian deaths (between 1,284 and 2,530). It also tabulates the number of women killed, and the number of people injured in each strike.

Accurate numbers on civilian deaths and injuries matter deeply, as they shape our understanding of the ongoing drone war. But the past suggests such counts cannot be entirely empirical; they are also political and ethical. Given the history of aerial bombing in Waziristan, where the use of excessive violence and the obscuring of civilian deaths has gone hand in hand, we need to debate substantially, rather than simply presume, who counts as a “militant” and who a “civilian.” And, while we must continue raising questions about civilian deaths and the human costs of war, we must not forget to ask what drone strikes achieve beyond destruction. Ten years into the CIA drone programme in Waziristan, and after a century of aerial warfare in the region, perhaps we already know the answer.