Emily:                                        00:17

Welcome to the second episode of The Military President Podcast, hosted by Anthropological Airwaves.

Vasiliki:                                    00:23

Each episode of this special four part series interrogates and explores how the present is shaped by the technologies, logics, histories, and economy of war, through conversations with scholars of war and militarism.

Emily:                                        00:36

My name is Emily Sogn

Vasiliki:                                    00:38

And I’m Vasiliki Touhouliotis. We’re both ethnographic researchers interested in understanding the myriad ways in which the discourses and practices of war shape how people live and die across the world.

Emily:                                        00:52

In this podcast series, we are particularly interested in what the recent shift in political power in the US, specifically the trump presidency means for the military, present our episodes grapple with how to talk about what is qualitatively novel about this moment, where that obscuring the longer histories of race and empire, the animate and produce it.

Vasiliki:                                    01:11

In our last episode, our conversation with anthropologist Joe Masco exposed a productive tension: on the one hand, the US security state is taking up an ever bigger part of the budget ceaselessly elaborating new enemies in dangerous domestically and internationally and for closing our future by harnessing it to an array of threats that it not only imagines, but also creates. On the other hand, the very material and affective conditions that produce a constant preparedness for war in the United States also obscure militarism from our daily lives.

Emily:                                        01:46

In this episode, we explored weapons technologies, specifically drones, as a key element in creating a scenario in which us militarism seems to have a presence everywhere and nowhere at once. Since 2002, the US has been using drones and it’s so called war on terror to strike and surveil bodies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. While drone warfare intensified under the presidency of Barack Obama with an average of one drone strike every 5.4 days, initial report suggests that drone strikes are now occurring every 1.25 days under the Trump administration.

Vasiliki:                                    02:25

While drones assert a greater and greater presence in the lives of those who live in the battlefields of the so called War on Terror for the US, they are not only an effective instrument for killing, but also a powerful discursive device that shapes how we represent war, celebrate or condemn its newness and theorize about its nature and consequences.

Emily:                                        02:47

Drones, and other remote weapons technologies, play central roles in popular and scholarly accounts of war to such an extent that sometimes war and the technologies then enact them become almost interchangeable.

Vasiliki:                                    02:58

To help us think through the relationship between weapons technologies and how war is practiced and theorized. We invited Madiha Tahir to join us on the podcast. Currently a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, Madiha studies the spatial politics of drone warfare in Pakistan. In addition to her doctoral fieldwork. Madiha has worked for many years as a journalist on the ground covering the US’s ongoing drone strikes in Pakistan that began in 2004. Madiha has published really excellent articles in the new inquiry and public culture and directed the documentary “Wounds of Waziristan”.

Emily:                                        03:36

Madiha joined us in New York. We asked her to reflect on what happens when the drone becomes an entry point for our accounts of war.

Madiha:                                   04:01

There’s a lot of great work around drones and the technology, et cetera, but there’s been a slippage between talking about the technology of drones and how it operates and an account of war itself. The way that you see this is of course in media accounts. There’s a lot of discussion and there’s even a fetishization of the technology. There are numerous documentaries out now around around drones and a lot of them have a lot of shots that have to do with the body of the drone to the sort of classic shot of the drone flying in the sky, so there’s a lot of focus on the body of the drone rather than the bodies of the people who are actually experiencing it. I get the sense that then seeps into the theorization around a drove a lot of the work around drones kind of asks broadly the question: how has the drone changed the nature of war?

Madiha:                                   04:53

And the answer to that question usually begins by looking at drone operators. The fact that that is the starting point for a lot of the analyses that follow is I think problematic and what ends up happening is that the drone operators in these accounts very often talk about the drone in a certain way, which is to talk about it as remote, to talk about it as voyeurism drone operators will talk about watching people having sex or watching people shitting. You know, all of these acts that are supposed to be private and the drone operator will say, well, I was watching them and there’s this sense that there’s a secrecy around this. That the drone operator is a kind of a godlike figure that secretly can watch the people on the ground. That’s their perspective and that’s fine, but the next step that happens in a lot of the theorization is then to theorize the nature of drone warfare as remote and distant and sort of leave it at that — and that’s where I think the slippage happens and it becomes really problematic. In my experience with people that I’ve talked to who live in the region where the drones bomb, they’re quite aware the drone can actually, after a decade of the drones hovering overhead, people are actually quite used to the sound of the drone knowing that they’re being surveilled and carry on. So the distinction between private and public that would lend voyeurism or that frame it’s purchase doesn’t actually exist on the ground.

Vasiliki:                                    06:14

One of the things that I noted here and wanted to ask you about was that there has been all of this research on verticality and on the view from above and on the aerial, and I actually find some of that work illuminating. I think it’s interesting to think about the politics of verticality and on racialization from above, but I really appreciate the intervention that you’re making which is to take us to the ground, and to privilege the ground as an analytic.

Madiha:                                   06:42

So one of the frames for discussing drone warfare has been the manhunt done now vertically from the air. Right. And to me the question then arises is, okay, so to Manhattan, which the drone is searching for its prey. What is the Pakistani military in that scenario that is actually working with the US and fights and negotiates with the US in figuring out who to kill and when is the Pakistani military merely a cog in the American kind of drone process or does it have its own politics? What, you know, what are, what is the informant network in that scenario? There are a number of spies on the ground, what is the second order and third order consequences of drones in that scenario? So you know, people that are suspected of being spies are killed off all kinds of political negotiations and discourses happen around the drones.

Madiha:                                   07:37

So I mean, it’s remote from the perspective of the drone operator, but it’s not remote from the perspective of a whole range of other people involved in the killing process, in a whole range of other people living through the process. Part of what has happened with a drone is that to the extent that it claims to be a precise technology does so on the basis of getting into the capillaries of the social via surveillance and that thoroughly reworks the space in terms of forms of community trust and there’s a lot of suspicion about who’s who and who’s doing what, so it actually kind of reworks relations at a very kind of granular level.

Emily:                                        08:18

So one of the things that I was struck by in, in reading your piece in Public Culture, what were you doing this work from the ground was that there’s the sense of determinacy in indeterminacy. Like there’s a certainty of a certain kind of dominance that has rewritten the space and where people are allowed to go, the kind of cards that people have to carry in order to be legitimate, then yet there’s a lot of uncertainty, right? That you can never get it quite right. That there’s never a way to effectively kind of master the system in order to keep yourself safe. And I’m wondering if you could say a little bit more about what you are able to see from the ground. Yeah.

Madiha:                                   08:53

No, I don’t want to lend the impression that the Pakistani state or the American state for that matter are entirely in control. The fact that there are informal networks paid and unpaid in this space. Now, as I said thoroughly, we work to space and there’s a lot of suspicions. There was one story I heard where there was a father and sons and the sons did not want to talk to the father openly because they were afraid that he would report them to the political agent and thought that they had affiliated with the one of the groups in the area. You know, the father didn’t want to talk to the sons because he was afraid that the so-s thought that he was aligned with the government and might and they might have him killed off. And so it was the wives of one of the sons who was made sort of the go-between. And this is happening at a very sort of family level. These are the kinds of stories that I’ve heard, so there’s an immense level of indeterminacy and questions about what is going on and who’s affiliated with whom that across all kinds of all kinds of networks. And then the Pakistani state then uses that indeterminacy, and it suits the Pakistani state, and by extension the Americans to actually continue to have that space be so worked over.

Vasiliki:                                    10:14

In your article in Public Culture, you make clear the importance of colonial divisions to the mobility and immobility of certain populations and how that affects not only who is being targeted, but also information about these targets because people have to take particular routes, if they can take them in order to get to places where their story can then circulate from about the drone strikes. So the piece does a really incredible job of linking what’s happening today to this, you know, ongoing and longstanding colonial project. I’m wondering if you can speak to what the drone does in this longer, colonial history. Is there something new about it?

Madiha:                                   11:01

I mean, I, I think that’s a difficult question to answer, in terms of the newness of the drone, because each of these things has a longer genealogy and longer history and it’s such a dispersed kind of object. I think its dispersion is actually one of the things that is maybe newer. This technology requires, I mean even just on the American side, multiples of people to actually make it operative. To me it’s not actually clear what the borders of the drone are in a way that maybe was clear with a tank, you know, or as clear with other forms of weaponry. But it’s not clear to me where the, where the drone begins and ends. Actually, I think to some that is a political question. So the idea, again going back to the remoteness of drone warfare, that frame only works to the extent that one imagines the drone as a particular bounded kind of object. But the moment you sort of start talking about the spine networks and you start talking about the Pakistani military, the drone becomes something else. It’s a different kind of dispersed object. So figuring out what the borders of this technology is a political question, an epistemological question, a moral question. Um, so maybe that is something that is newer about this technology,

Vasiliki:                                    12:29

The kind of the elusivity of its borders…

Madiha:                                   12:31

The elusivity of its borders and the way in which it is parasitic on so many social and institutional networks.

Emily:                                        12:40

Yeah. I mean, one of the questions that we’ve been coming back to and kind of drove us to want to do this podcast, is talking about what calling something new does to how we understand war as something that is durable and draws on preexisting formations like colonialism and what it kind of reveals about a particular method of warfare. And then what it kind of obscures about a larger geopolitical phenomenon. I’m wondering what you think about this idea of newness as something that actually does work, perhaps to obscure the way that we’re able to see, uh, the, the ongoing effects of a technology like drones.

Madiha:                                   13:20

I know that this is a question that is asked quite a lot about what is new about the drone, but I try to stay away from that because it’s more important question for me is how does it operate rather than what’s new about it. And so yeah, I do think that the way in which the newness is emphasized works to obscure the longer genealogy and the longer history of the colonial networks and ideas and things on which it’s parasitic, but also it works to give it a kind of a scientificity. It’s like we’ve got it this time. This is not the old British colonialism of categorizing and calling certain races inferior. This is actually quite, you know, data-centric, and sophisticated algorithms are involved and so we’ve got this down to a science.

Emily:                                        14:03

You have this fascinating phrase that you referenced in your piece in public culture that you described the way in which an MIT scientists use cell phone records to quantify the magnitude of, of damage caused by drone strikes in a particular region. And you call this a data double, which I found a really interesting phrase. It struck me because in so much of the discourse on the effects of war and American militarism, this reliance on quantification is seemingly everywhere from analyses of troop levels, casualty counts, rates of specific injuries. And when I encountered these in my own work, it often strikes me that this impulse to quantify seems to go hand in hand with an effort to kind of symbolically contain the effects of war, to give it a rationality and an order that it can’t really have on the ground. And in the spaces where these numbers are supposedly originating in. So I’m wondering if you can say a little more about the figure of the data double and the work that you see at doing to shape the ways in which war is represented in public discourses.

Madiha:                                   15:04

When I used, the data double, I was citing the work of Rita Raleigh, you know, much of the discourse around drones operates on numbers, particularly the ratio of militants to civilians. And it is assumed that these are, you know, these are ontological categories that exist on the ground and that the main problem is just sorting people into these categories and just getting it right and that therefore the problem is lack of information and once we have sufficient information we can categorize people accurately and that the data double idea was to highlight that the representation of people as data does something, particularly in the sophisticated data networks and kind of work that’s being done now, people are broken up into what are called dividends, right? People are broken up into so many different data points and then those data points are recombined with other data points to produce other kinds of realities. But in the end with drones, that data double has to ultimately be grounded into a body. You have to have a flesh that you are going to target.

Vasiliki:                                    16:15

I have struggled in my own research with the relationship between war and the weapons technology. So I’m wondering if you can maybe speak a little bit to that and how we talk about the relationship between war and weapons technology, in a way that doesn’t collapse the two, right, but that can also speak to the tremendous power that weapons technologies have to shape how killing is done and how death happens and also how people live in these places, because as you point out to us, people hear drones, they live with the presence of these drones, whether or not they are actually being killed.

Madiha:                                   16:56

Absolutely right. Like the fact that it’s a drone dropping a Hellfire missile versus a manned aircraft doesn’t matter to the to the extent that there are people at the end who ended up dead, but yet it matters which technology we’re using. So in Afghanistan for instance, because there’s a belief in the military that the drone is a more precise weapon, it was being deployed in more populated places and was having had a higher casualty rate because they were deploying it in places they wouldn’t have deployed manned aircraft in Pakistan, Waziristan, where the drones have mostly bombed, you also have Pakistani military operations, so you also have jets and helicopters and other things overhead. And because the Pakistani army has been so total in its devastation, the drone by contrast, then begins to appear as a precision weapon. And that matters at the level of discourse as well, and material ends so that you have a situation where if somebody has been … claims that their family member has been killed by the military or for that matter by the Taliban, there’s a lot of sympathy, etc. somebody says that their family member has been killed by the drone. There is suspicion as to whether they were actually right and this is partly a result of this kind of contrast that’s happening in the present moment, but also a longer history of a sense of awe around the American sort of scientific regime. It’s backed by a certain kind of power and so the belief that the US must have gotten it right.

Vasiliki:                                    18:35

Right, and I think that one of the really important things that you just shared with us is that you can’t treat the technology on its own. That technology is embedded in all sorts of other technologies, taking technology and the sort of dual sense of the term as both material objects and also different strategies of governance and even authorities or agents of that governance as well. So I think that that’s actually a really important for telling a certain story about war, that you can’t isolate the technology and it seems that so much of the writing about drones in particular has actually looked at them in isolation.

Madiha:                                   19:13

Yeah, oh yeah. There’s a sense that the drones are actually operating on this otherwise kind of inert space and it’s just not the case. There’s so much other stuff going on, so many military operations going on at any given moment from small operations to bigger ones.

Emily:                                        19:33

When I have heard debates about drones kind of within military communities, I hear them spoken about in a very similar way, that they’re kind of an appendage to traditional military structures and that not only because they can go into spaces where regular military can’t go physically, but also legally, right. That they’re able to kind of traverse these boundaries and this amorphous kind of legality that that soldiers can’t. So, they basically use them as this tool to enable them to have kind of extra-national mobility.

Madiha:                                   20:10

Yeah, I mean absolutely. I mean it’s to that extent it’s kind of interesting, right? Because the drone somehow never violates sovereignty. That’s the way in which I think of it as a fetish object because as long as the drone is doing it, it’s kind of as though it’s not happening. But if an American body crosses, the American military or an American soldier crosses the border, then suddenly it becomes a question of the violation of, of sovereignty. And in fact, this is one of the justifications for having drones in Pakistan is that we don’t want to violate Pakistan sovereignty. In the context of Yemen, I think there was an incident where I think us naval ships at some point like pointed or bombed in Yemen and there were all these reports like, oh, now the US is getting involved in Yemen. Meanwhile, you know the US has been bombing Yemen with drones for about as long as they’ve been bombing Pakistan, so it just, it’s very strange the way that the drone can violate sovereignty and yet not violate it.

Emily:                                        21:11

Hmm. I mean there’s another kind of technology in a sense, right? It’s not just the technology that enables it to fly unmanned, but also that technology that enables it to traverse these borders. Yeah, and I’m wondering if you think that there’s something about that body of the drone that everyone is so obsessed with that allows it to be an object that doesn’t violate sovereignty.

Madiha:                                   21:35

Yeah, I mean it’s interesting because here this is where the, it’s unmannedness of the body of the drone matters, right? Because this is where the manned airplane cannot go even though you have actually a lot more bodies operating the drone, because it’s not in the body of the drone. It’s seen as not a violation of sovereignty. I think when there is a human body, then there is a question of intentionality. Whereas if it’s a drone, it’s just sort of the final end of a scientific process. I mean this is kind of the ideological divisions that happen with it and it creates the killing as a precise one, and a possibly accurate one. I mean, I heard one story where this family, their home had been bombed and some of the family members had died, and this man, he told me, he said, well, I wouldn’t go over there because I thought, oh, then like they must, they must have been involved with the Taliban or something. In any case, he ended up getting married into the family. But he was talking, talking about the sort of initial doubt he had that because the bombing had happened by drone that it was probably thought about. And this is a problem that a lot of survivors of the drone attacks face both Pakistan and abroad, but definitely in Pakistan, which is that there is a kind of suspicion of, you know, who they actually are, or what their actual intention, the motivations are.

Emily:                                        23:17

Hmm, like a social death even, if they’re surviving.

Vasiliki:                                    23:21

It’s also very interesting to think through the implications of seeing the drone strike as the logical culmination of a scientific process. And I’m wondering if you could just say a little bit about how you think that shapes or shifts the debates on the ethics of drones and the ethics of war in this particular moment?

Madiha:                                   23:45

Well, I mean, I think that the idea that it’s the end point of a scientific process is part of the longer history of the production of awe that I think Brian Larkin has talked about in terms of in his case large infrastructure projects, but you have the same kind of sense of awe attached to this thing, particularly for Pakistanis who don’t necessarily live it everyday, because it is confined to a small area. And so there is a sense of awe, like, look what the Americans have made, this thing that flies without pilot and you know, what are they capable of? So people overestimate the drone and its capabilities.

Vasiliki:                                    24:36

Thank you so much for joining us and for this really fascinating conversation

Emily:                                        24:41

And thank you to everyone tuning into this episode of the military presence podcast, hosted by Anthropological Airwaves. In our next episode, we are joined by scholar and filmmaker Wazhmah Osman, to talk about the dropping of the largest non-nuclear bomb last year and about the longer history of war in Afghanistan.

Vasiliki:                                    24:57

Like Madiha, Wazhmah takes us to the ground and offers a different perspective on the military presence in Afghanistan. It’s a great conversation and we hope you’ll join us again.