Drone strikes in Pakistan are in the spotlight after that country’s Prime Minister visited the U.S., and a new report detailed hundreds of civilian casualties from American attacks. But how do people in Pakistan view drones? Host Michel Martin speaks to freelance journalists Aisha Sarwari and Madiha Tahir to find out.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I’m Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Barbershop guys will be here and we plan to ask them about reports that the U.S. was spying on European allies. That’s later in the program. But first, we’re going to hear about another ally with whom the U.S. has an often sticky relationship. We’re talking about Pakistan. The prime minister of that country, Nawaz Sharif, was in Washington this week. He said that the American drone attacks in his country have deeply disturbed the people and that they need to stop. Here’s a clip.
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PRIME MINISTER NAWAZ SHARIF: Recently, our political parties in a national conference had declared that use of drones is not only a continued violation of our territorial integrity, but also detrimental to our resolve and efforts at eliminating terrorism from our country.
MARTIN: The consequences of the drone attacks were also given a human face this week after a report by Amnesty International documented hundreds of civilian casualties and gave details of the death of a 68-year-old grandmother. But despite all the vocal public opposition to drone attacks, there are new reports that top officials in Pakistan’s government have actually endorsed the program for years. But what we wanted to talk about today is the opinions of the citizens of Pakistan that are actually more varied and nuanced than it may appear. We wanted to talk more about that so we’ve called upon two freelance journalists. Madiha Tahir and Aisha Sarwari. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
AISHA SARWARI: Thank you for having us.
MADIHA TAHIR: Yes. Thank you for having us.
MARTIN: So, Aisha, I will start with you ’cause you live in Islamabad. Do you feel that your own life has been affected by drones?
SARWARI: Affected in a sense that, obviously, it’s very sad to hear about stories that come out, you know, with the claim that the drone attacks have caused civilian deaths. At the same time, however, I also hear about the drone attacks attacking the extremists and I also hear about top al-Qaida officials or, you know, top Taliban officials being assassinated by the drone attacks. So I’m affected in a way that because terrorism affects my life personally, I have my kids growing up here. I am very vulnerable to terrorist attacks every time I go out in the city or do anything.
Whenever I hear about an attack on the top al-Qaida or the top Taliban groups, it’s something that I feel like something’s happening to counter this new kind of war, you know, that we’re facing, which is not a war where we face armies, but we’re facing a war – you know, this more pervasive kind of enemy that hides in caves and comes out and attacks our shops and public places.
MARTIN: You’re saying that most people who see themselves as liberal in Islamabad, for whatever that means, that the sense is you should denounce them. But you don’t necessarily see it that way? Talk a little bit more about that if you would.
SARWARI: We have to ask the right questions. When we say, are we against drones or for it, it doesn’t simply mean that are you for the deaths that are happening because of the drone attacks, or are you against them. You know, the civilian casualties is what I’m talking about. It’s not as simple as that. I see it in a way that drones are something – it is a weaponry that is a precision weapon, that is something going to probably stay in the future. So I don’t think we have to ask about what we can do to eliminate the drone program, the real question is how we can make governments more accountable and transparent about how they’re running the drone program. So I want, you know, our governments to sit down together and come clean about these drone programs and be accurate about the figures that are coming out of these programs.
MARTIN: OK, Madiha, let’s turn to you. You’ve made a film called the “Wounds of Waziristan,” in which you feature people who live there and have been directly affected by the bombing. Could you just tell us what are some of the stories that you were told? And, of course, you know I want to know whether their experiences have informed your own views of things as well.
TAHIR: I have met many people. One of them, a teenager, who’s now passed away, lost both of his legs – had to be amputated – after he was in a drone attack in September 2009. He survived for a few years and ultimately succumbed to his injuries. He told me about the nightmares that he constantly has, the absolute fear that he lives in because the drones hover overhead and they create a loud buzzing sound. In fact, they’re known in that area by the buzzing sound.
They’re known as bangana or zangana (ph), which is the sound of the buzzing of a bee. He talked to me about the nightmares that he suffers from, the fact that he’s not able to play cricket anymore, the fact that he is not able to go to school anymore. He actually wouldn’t go around to the side of the house, which had been attacked, out of fear that he might be attacked again. I mean, he lived his life in sort of a perpetual trauma in the wake of that attack. There are lots of stories like this. Many of these people that I talk to feel like they’re being attacked simply for appearing Muslim.
MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, we’re finding out more about what Pakistanis think of drone strikes. We’re speaking with a freelance journalist Madiha Tahir, that’s who was speaking just now, and Aisha Sarwari. I’m wondering if the reports that we are now hearing of the cooperation between the U.S. government and some officials in Pakistan, as well as the gruesome nature of some of these attacks when civilians are killed, Aisha, I mean, is this actually new news to people there?
SARWARI: You know, because I’ve been a student of media and I’m very curious and cautious about the agenda setting that media – including independent media – have in the narrative that because, you know, we have drones, we are being attacked as Muslims. You know, I think that the momentum of that narrative pulls forward the news, which, you know, I’m sure true in some aspects, but manufactured to an extent that how can we tell when an attack is a drone and how can you tell when an attack is, you know, something that’s carried out by Pakistan army? So this is news in the sense that, you know – at least I’m very cautious about accepting things that – because, like I said, there’s a momentum and there’s a buzz and everybody kind of wants to jump on the bandwagon of, we’re being attacked because we are Muslims and the U.S. is doing it.
MARTIN: But to the point, though, Madiha, ’cause one of the points that you were making is that there’s – that people in the area that you were doing your reporting in, there are three issues that they’re facing. They are facing insurgents. They’re facing the army, which is also engaging in military actions there. And they’re also facing drones. Is it news to people that these things are occurring there? Is it news in Pakistan that these things are occurring there?
TAHIR: I think, certainly, Pakistanis know, in general, that the drone attacks have been happening and that there’s insurgent violence in this area and that the army has been attacking people in this area. But having said that, the tribal areas, particularly Waziristan in the last decade or so, have not actually – you don’t see these images very much in the Pakistani media. Quite often, what you see are sort of more graphic images.
And by graphic I mean video-graphic images that are constructed to show a drone strike happening instead of using the actual footage. And this area, even prior to 9/11, is an area that is still, even to this day, under British era regulations. It is not actually governed under the Pakistani Constitution. These people did not even have the right to vote till about I think 1996. They didn’t even get the right to have political parties till this last election. So this area has been governed cruelly by the Pakistani state for a very long time. The reason it has been that way is because the Pakistani military has been using this area as a staging ground for all kinds of things.
MARTIN: So if not drones, then what?
TAHIR: That depends on what the problem is and how one defines the problem. The problem, to my mind, in that area is a political vacuum. How can you resolve a political vacuum by bombing people? That makes absolutely no sense.
MARTIN: Aisha, the – I was asking – I was interested in whether Madiha’s thinking about this issue has been informed by her reporting. I was wondering, what has most informed your point of view on this?
SARWARI: I look at it from a perspective of – obviously, the political parties are really rallying up the drone issue. The main – you know, one of the third chairs in the political ecosystem here is the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf, and the drone issue is like paramount for them. And they think that if – somehow linked it as if, you know, if we end the drones, somehow the terrorism will end as well. But these two are not linked issues. The fact of the matter is that the top extremist groups out there – and there are many fragments of it – are much more sophisticated than we give them credit for. They’re out to get us. And I’m, frankly, really glad that there is some weaponry out there that matches, or at least tries to match, their strategy.
MARTIN: If you were to hazard a guess about how most of your fellow citizens feel about this, what do you think they would say?
SARWARI: I think their opinions are manufactured by, you know, mostly televangelists who sit on TV and keep condemning U.S. I think that we have to pay a little close attention to the drone program. And as a Pakistani, my interest is that my country actually – you know, there’s a legality of that. There’s a joint program so that our country can own that drone program, and that it’s conducted with a unified mission.
MARTIN: Madiha, final thought from you?
TAHIR: I think the people that are actually under attack are not the people in Islamabad and are not the liberal class. The first line of people that are actually under attack are the people in the tribal areas. And there the issue again gets very, very complicated and I think it’s – it’s not critical thinking to think that because political parties are using this issue that it is therefore a sham issue. I mean, it’s true, various political parties have used this issue for their own political ends, but that doesn’t negate the fact that actually people are being killed.
Teenagers are being killed. Children are being killed in these attacks. And I think we have to take seriously the lives of these people instead of just dismissing them as an us-versus-them kind of a formulation. There’s not really an us in the larger sense. It’s a very complex issue. And people, you know, fall on all sides of it.
MARTIN: OK. Madiha Tahir is an independent journalist and filmmaker. “Wounds of Waziristan” is being released today at VICE online. Madiha joined us from our bureau in New York. Aisha Sarwari is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She joined us from there via Skype. Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.
SARWARI: Thank you for having me.
TAHIR: Thank you for having us.