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The unspoken problem of the unmanned drone, from a Stanford humanities perspective

As the ongoing use of unmanned drones in the Middle East prompts protests in Pakistan, Stanford scholars urge politicians and citizens to reconsider the detrimental impact of these eyes in the sky.

Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson/ U.S. Air Force A MQ-9 Reaper drone prepares to land after a mission in Afghanistan.

A MQ-9 Reaper drone prepares to land after a mission in Afghanistan. Stanford scholar Priya Satia says the United States' use of drones in the Middle East undermines the authority and the legitimacy of local governments.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East are being watched.  With armed unmanned drones making regular surveillance rounds, civilians in these regions are perpetually reminded that their lives are not private.

In October, Pakistanis took to the streets to protest nearly 10 years of the controversial American drone campaign. And yet, despite the fact that the drones are breeding contempt on the ground, their numbers are only expected to increase.

But Stanford humanities scholars argue that what's been left out of the national dialogue on drones is an understanding of the historical, cultural and religious perspectives of the very people the United States is watching and bombing.

Introducing those perspectives is one goal of Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands, a new book edited by Associate Professor of History Robert Crews and Religious Studies Professor Shahzad Bashir.

Citing the merits of remote surveillance and precise targeting, which lessen the need for troops on the ground, the U.S. military has no plans to abate the program. Even presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, whose views diverge on nearly every other topic, agree that the United States should maintain the use of unmanned drones to monitor and kill terrorists in the Middle East.

"There wasn't even an acknowledgment during the final presidential debate that there is any controversy surrounding the tactic," Stanford historian Priya Satia pointed out. "Romney's agreement with Obama about continuing with the unmanned drone program made it a non-issue."

Crews and Bashir say they feel that Americans lack knowledge of the rich social and cultural worlds that are invisible to the drone cameras. They say media coverage of the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan is framed by military and political concerns, painting a de-humanized picture of a simplistic country filled either with terrorists or with those who need to be saved from terrorists.

To combat this unilateral view, they have brought together some of the nation's most prominent experts on the various aspects of this region's people and culture to "really help us come to a perspective that isn't defined just by America's security interests," said Crews.

By assembling entries from journalists, economists, anthropologists and others in one book, Crews and Bashir hope to shed light on the misunderstood, yet pivotal, border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  

"The way that the drones are presented as being the better war because it is cleaner ... on the ground, this is not true at all," Bashir said. 

A forgotten history

Satia, an associate professor whose research centers on modern British history, observed that many Americans are not aware of how a very similar surveillance approach undertaken by the British after World War I failed, saying, "American conversations about the Middle East are weirdly amnesiac."

Just as the British wanted to gain support for the use of air control in Iraq in the 1920s after WWI, the American military is telling the public that drones will enable the military to withdraw troops and replace them with air power. 

While the British may have employed air surveillance because of its perceived efficiency, Satia said that, as in today's situation, the British military failed to fully assess how a surveillance program would affect the minds of the civilians on the ground.

According to Satia, just as the British presence in the area was seen as a provocation in the 1920s, causing the tactic's failure, today, America's presence in this region is seen as a form of unwelcome colonial control.

The American presence also "makes people very suspicious of their own government for allowing this to go on," said Satia.  "It really undermines the authority and the legitimacy of the local government."

Cultural connections

Political scientist Gilles Dorronsoro says the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border has more in common with American borders then most people realize.

Lutz Rzehak, a scholar of central Asian studies, emphasizes the universal struggle with the politics of ethnicity through an examination of negotiations between Middle Eastern "Baloch" ethnic groups.

Thomas Ruttig, co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, responds to overly simplified cultural and ethnic affiliations that have been placed on the region by journalists and policy analysts.

These are just three of the 13 diverse views presented in Crews' and Bashir's book. Published in 2012 by Harvard University Press, Crews said Under the Drones aims "to demystify some of our understanding of the region, to bring a humanistic perspective, to bring expertise and to suggest alternative ways of thinking about the region."

From misunderstandings of the Islamic religion to the treatment of women, the contributing scholars aim to subvert existing stereotypes.

 "Our perspective is that there is this expertise available, but it is completely excluded from the larger discussion of the security or of technology," said Bashir. "The idea was very much to have a collective volume that disrupts this seamless picture.

"Our hope is that by actually presenting human stories about the people who live in this area we can try to reframe the question of the drones from the bottom up."

Together, the diverse perspectives "make the region look more familiar in a way, not to 'exoticize' it, but to understand that there are some features of these societies that we have in common," said Crews. 

"We have a shared past, we have shared ideas about nation and, in some cases, religion, and looking forward, if one wants a different political outcome, then we'll have to look more closely at the similarities."

Kelsey Geiser is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu