“Collectivized Torture”: Drone Warfare and the Dark Side of Counterinsurgency

The recent Stanford University report on drone strikes in Pakistan, Living Under Drones, raises the possibility that the US is intentionally using drones, not merely as hi-tech assassination devices, but also as weapons of state terror intended to subdue unruly regions and populations.  The appalling reality of drone warfare along the Afghanistan border closely resembles the scorched-earth counterinsurgency strategy described by the martyred Tamil journalist Taraki Sivaram as “collectivized torture.”

Based on extensive interviews with victims and witnesses, Living Under Drones1 decisively refutes US propaganda claims that drones are “precision weapons” capable of executing “surgical strikes” — i.e., targeted assassinations — while minimizing civilian casualties.  In this respect the report breaks little new ground, but it is an important addition to already overwhelming evidence that armed drones have caused many thousands of civilian deaths.2

What is groundbreaking is the report’s portrayal of the social devastation wrought by drone attacks.  The research shows that, in addition to the killing and maiming of individual civilians, drone warfare has destroyed the wellbeing of an entire people, causing widespread economic hardship, mental illness, political turmoil, and social dislocation.

The tribal regions of northwest Pakistan, bordering on Afghanistan and seen by US strategists as a haven for armed militants, have been reduced to a kind of hell on earth.  Drones hover 24 hours a day over inhabited areas, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning, the report says.

This nightmarish virtual Panopticon creates an atmosphere of ceaseless confusion, mistrust, and fear.  In the words of taxi driver Haroon Quddoos:

We are always thinking that it is either going to attack our homes or whatever we do.  It’s going to strike us; it’s going to attack us. . . .  No matter what we are doing, that fear is always inculcated in us.  Because whether we are driving a car, or we are working on a farm, or we are sitting home playing . . . cards — no matter what we are doing we are always thinking the drone will strike us.  So we are scared to do anything, no matter what.3

Traditional rituals and most other forms of social life, including education and childrearing, have been disrupted or dismantled.  Clans and families are sundered and traumatized.  Transactions requiring public gatherings, such as commerce and local government, are potentially fatal endeavors.  Medical personnel and families are unable to rescue survivors for fear of “double tap” strikes.

These facts cannot be unknown to US strategists.  With extensive intelligence resources on the ground as well as a troubled but enduring cooperative relationship with Pakistan’s ISI, the US military establishment has no need of independent academic research in order to understand that drone warfare has been catastrophic to the people of northwest Pakistan.

Why, then, does Washington persist in a policy so evidently cruel?  Liberal critics of US foreign policy, worried about “blowback” from angry tribesmen, have seen Living Under Drones as fresh evidence of American folly — as though war planners are reckless, stupid, or somehow ignorant of the real-world consequences of their actions.

A more credible explanation, perhaps, is that the US is consciously integrating the ruinous secondary effects of drone warfare into its overall counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy.  To be sure, this is not the prettified COIN publicly espoused by the Obama administration and set forth by General David Petraeus in the 2010 ISAF Counterinsurgency Guidance Document,4 which outlines an essentially fictitious policy of good works and political suasion aimed at securing the “human terrain.”

It is, rather, actual COIN as practiced in Malaya, Kenya, Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq, and everywhere else that post-WWII imperialism has waged dirty wars against guerilla resistance.  The aim of real-world COIN is to coerce the people into withdrawing support from the insurgents; this is typically accomplished through assassinations, torture, surveillance, mass expulsions, ruthless displays of military force, and policies intended to undermine the health and happiness of civilians.

Thus the reality of COIN, as memorably described by Taraki Sivaram, is “basically torture collectivized”:

When you are tortured . . . they beat and beat you until everything is pain.  Until there is so much pain that you give up thinking it will stop.  In fact you stop hoping it will stop. . . .  Then suddenly, one day, your cell opens and in comes a “nice” fellow who offers you a cigarette.  For him you will do everything, anything.

[A Sinhalese] General told me that counter-insurgency is just like that except that instead of giving pain to a person you give pain to a whole community until it too stops hoping it will stop and starts only hoping for the lesser pain.  Then you come in as the “nice fellow” and offer them a cigarette, or a constitution, and they will do anything for you.”5

What Sivaram described is strikingly reminiscent of the current situation in northwest Pakistan.  Drones may have proven unreliable as tools of precision warfare, but they have yielded unexpected dividends as vehicles of state terror.  Although the details of drone strategy remain secret, it appears that the US is consciously using “collectivized torture” as a means of coercing popular consent, not only in Pakistan but also in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, North Africa, and other flashpoints of resistance to US domination.

The appeal of drone-based COIN to Washington is readily apparent: It is a method of fighting a dirty war that spares the lives of American soldiers, mitigates domestic protest, and permits worldwide escalation without the formalities of Congressional or UN approval.  Additionally, it outflanks the political complications likely to arise from the use of proxies, as when popular reaction to Pakistan’s brutal US-sponsored assault on Swat Valley threatened to destabilize the government in 2009.

All this points towards a near future of worldwide “virtual occupations” in which US power is projected primarily by drone-based COIN, supplemented with relatively small teams of special forces.  Something of the sort is already happening in Yemen, and may be expected in Afghanistan after the bulk of occupying troops are withdrawn.

But it would be premature to conclude that Western imperialism has found its magic bullet.  An earlier US experiment with high-tech warfare, Donald Rumsfeld’s much-touted but ultimately disastrous “Revolution in Military Affairs,”6 was stymied by the ingenuity of the people of Iraq, who countered computer-aided weaponry with rough-and-ready IEDs and classic guerilla tactics.

Recent events suggest that drone-based COIN is similarly vulnerable.  Iran’s 2011 downing of a US Sentinel drone showed that even the most sophisticated weapons systems can be defeated by code-hacking and electronic countermeasures.7  Meanwhile, information-sharing among Iran, Venezuela, Hezbollah, and other anti-imperialist forces8 has broken the Western monopoly on unmanned weaponry, promising a “democratization” of drone and counter-drone technology.  Future victims of collectivized torture may well gain access to something that individual torture victims have always lacked: a means of fighting back.


1  <livingunderdrones.org/report/>.

2  See, e.g., The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Covert War on Terror <www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/projects/drones/>; Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions (2012).

3  Living Under Drones, <livingunderdrones.org/living-under-drones/>.

4 <images.defensetech.org/wp-content/uploads//2010/07/COMISAF_COIN_Guidance_Jul_2010.pdf>.

5  Mark P. Whitaker, Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka (2007), p. 101.

6  See generally Jacob Levich “A Counter-Revolution in Military Affairs? Notes on US High-Tech Warfare,” Aspects of India’s Economy No. 42 (Dec. 2006), <rupe-india.org/42/rma.html>.

7  “How Iran Hacked Super-secret CIA Stealth Drone,” Russia Today, Dec. 16, 2011.

8  “Venezuela Says Building Drones With Iran’s Help,” Reuters, June 14, 2012; “Iran Says Hezbollah Drone Sent into Israel Proves Its Capabilities,” Reuters, Oct. 14, 2012.

Jacob Levich, who lives in New York City, has written for MRZine on military issues and tweets as @cordeliers.

| Print