There are competing narratives about the US’s drone war in the Waziristan area, a bastion of militants. These narratives have so far failed to gain traction in the public, inside Pakistan and elsewhere.
The Pakistani narrative goes like this: the drone attacks are a violation of our national sovereignty. They kill innocent people, including women and children, as collateral damage and hence incite suicide attacks across the country in a cycle of reprisal and retaliation, thus killing more Pakistanis, which again include women and children.
In short, suicide attacks on public places like markets — and even mosques and shrines — are provoked by drone attacks. If there are no drone attacks, there will be no suicide attacks in cities and towns.
The US has yet to publicly acknowledge that the CIA is remotely conducting, with joysticks, a deadly war in North Waziristan, Afghanistan and Yemen. But still, the dominant narrative in the US is that drones are a ‘surgically precise and effective tool’ that ‘take out’ only terrorists with ‘minimal collateral impact’, and thus make the US safer.
The diction of this narrative is tempting: deadly weapons are sanitized by clothing them in non-lethal, curative medical terms. As if all this happens in a hospital’s operation theatre while treating a patient to save his life.
The drone war itself and the narrative of the US are challenged by another narrative, which is spearheaded by international organisations like Reprieve, a UK-based advocacy group, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent journalist organization in the UK, and a recent study conducted jointly by Stanford Law School and NYU School of Law.
They argue that the US does not acknowledge civilian deaths and injuries caused by drone strikes; they harm the daily lives of ordinary people beyond death and physical injury and that this secret war may set dangerous precedents for others to flout the rule of law and international legal protections.
However, the reality of this war, like any other war, lies somewhere beyond these narratives. Missiles and bombs are not surgical tools and humans — terrorists included — are not tumors that are taken out. Terrorists cannot be de-humanized.
Militants terrorize both the ‘enemy’ and those they seek to win over; those who seek to win the hearts and minds of people need to occupy the moral high ground.
The US and its allies can gain that by adhering to the Geneva Conventions and other international laws that govern the rules of war. No war is different from any other. Terrorists are criminals who need to be brought to justice, which is delivered in courts of law, not through deadly missile strikes.
By showing a blithe defiance of the Geneva Conventions, the US and its allies are fighting this war on the terms of the terrorists, which is their (the terrorists’) victory.
Similarly, sovereignty comes with responsibility and only the state, and not any non-state actor, has a monopoly on violence, that is, the use of force to defend its borders and maintain order. Pakistan has outsourced, if not lost, its sovereignty in the Waziristan region to extremists like the Taliban who have repeatedly avowed their allegiance to Al Qaeda.
Pakistan’s ‘running with the hare and hunting with the hounds’ policy has brought the country face to face with an existential threat. There are no good and bad Taliban, just like there is no good and bad terrorist. This is the reason why civil society in Pakistan seems confused about this war, while political parties desist from owning it. This confusion has provided a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, which get a new layer with every new terrorist attack or bomb blast in the country.
Influential Lebanese scholar Fawaz Gerges emphasizes that jihadists are conspiratorial by nature and ascribe all actions that are at odds with their conventional wisdom to Zionist and American plots (include India in the case of Pakistan). The deliberate confusion at the institutional level has percolated through society as a whole.
As a result of this double game the writ of the state is now non-existent in North Waziristan, which has become an information black hole. Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain the exact identity and number of those who are targeted by drones. It is equally difficult to know the opinion of the people, if it ever counts in the legality or otherwise of a war, especially the so-called war on terror.
Be that as it may, the fact is that the drone war is an illegal war because it is being fought in secret; it is being fought secretly, because it cannot be justified or defended on legal grounds. Public approval cannot justify an illegal war, just like public support for Al Qaeda cannot justify terrorism.
However, the existing narratives have confounded the situation so much that the people who are caught in the crosshairs of the war have lost their voice and their story to tell. Therefore, we need to have a new story that is legitimate and can create solutions for the tough problems that we face.
Who will create this new story and how? Strategic communication expert Amy Zalman posits that since political power intervenes, inevitably, in making the narratives we share by suppressing some voices and elevating others, it is important that we have a responsible political leadership.
We need it to help us forge a new narrative that has exactly three things: it rings true, it has a sense of reality, and it is participatory. Unfortunately, the narratives of the US and its allies and of the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine do not ring true, have no sense of reality, and are not participatory.
Published first here, then here.
The author teaches journalism at the University of Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan. Currently, he is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Communication. His dissertation research is focused on the discourse of militant organizations in Pakistan. Tweets @faizjan