Drones, US Propaganda and Imperial Hubris


Pakistanis should be more supportive of having their national sovereignty violated by Americans, according to US-based political scientists who favor drone strikes in Pakistan. I am trying hard not make this sound like an Onion article, even though it does.

In a January 23 article for The Atlantic, professors Christine Fair, Karl Kaltenthaler and William J. Miller argue that Pakistani opposition to drone strikes is not as widespread as previously claimed, and that the US government should take steps to convert Pakistanis to the official US view on drone strikes:

[The US] must draw to its side the large swath of the population that doesn’t even know about the program. This may mean using radio, non-cable TV (including local Pakistani networks) or even hyper-local media such as SMS — and it means doing so in Urdu and perhaps other vernacular languages.

This is some of the most propagandistic writing in support of President Barack Obama’s targeted kill lists to date. It takes a serious level of arrogance to suggest inserting a US policy stance into the output of another country’s media. It apparently also requires misrepresenting data related to the numbers of Pakistanis who support drone strikes and using faulty methodology.

The truth is that the majority of Pakistanis do not support having the sovereignty of Pakistan violated. Even the Pakistani government objects. Maybe that is because, to borrow Obama’s words, “There’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” Without even once trying to explain why the use of drones in Pakistan is necessary, the Atlantic article basically claims that Pakistanis want drone attacks, but that not enough Pakistanis want them badly enough.

According to Fair et al, this is because not enough Pakistanis know that having their children, their houses and their funeral processions blown up by US drone strikes is actually a good thing for them. The reason they don’t know is because they don’t know English:

In a developing country like Pakistan, the greater the level of education, the more likely they would be able to read English and have the wealth and knowledge to access the Internet and other sources of electronic media…. The average Pakistani…only has access to Urdu-language media…. There is a pervasive anti-drone discourse in Pakistan’s boisterous Urdu-language media, which tends to be more jingoistic. More educated Pakistanis have access to more nuanced reporting about the drones and the terrorism issue in Pakistan. While the reporting on drones may still be relatively negative, there is some positive commentary in the English-language press in Pakistan. The more educated are also more likely to read stories in sources that address the terrorism problem arising from the tribal areas. Drones in those sources are presented not just as a reason many Pakistanis are killed, but also as one possible tool to fight a very serious security threat.

Note the slippage between “more educated,” “English-language press,” “access to the Internet” and “more nuanced reporting.” This passage implies that Pakistanis who rely on the Urdu-language press are dumb and getting dumber, but that people who read English are inherently more critical thinkers. Why? Because the English media in Pakistan at times includes positive commentary about drone strikes! Congratulations: You just won the critical thinker award in Pakistan, for being uncritical of US drone strike policy. 

Now, if only more Pakistanis could think like this. Maybe more of them will think this way, if Pakistanis get daily text messages to their phone, informing them that terrorism is a problem in their country. Oh, but make sure to do it in Urdu. Apparently, they didn’t get the memo. With a strange combination of naivete and hubris, Fair et al propose that the US must try to win the hearts and minds of Pakistanis. It is hard to see how this is possible, as Pakistan has been exempted from the new drone manual that sets the rules governing targeted killings. In any case, winning hearts and minds, for Fair et al, does not mean stop killing Pakistanis. It means convincing the Pakistanis to get on board with the killing, by getting the Urdu (and other regional) language media to propagate the official US view on drone strikes.

As it happens, having an English-language imperial power wanting to screw around with one’s language and (political) education is not really a new thing for South Asians. Fair et al are not all that creative in that way.

Just for fun, let’s go back 180 years to see what an influential Englishman had to say:

All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover, so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be effected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them. We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language, it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands preeminent even among the languages of the West.

That was T. B. Macaulay — who knew no “Oriental” languages to speak of — addressing British officials in a Minute on Indian Education (1833) about how Indians ought to be educated under their rule. In 1837, Persian was replaced by English as the language of governance in India. To secure a high-paying job, Indians had to know English. And to study English, an Indian had to be from those “classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies.” In the nineteenth century, Indians began to debate among themselves whether they wanted such an education for themselves or for their children, but that is another story.

Being the “culturally sensitive” rulers that they were, the British decided that they should be able speak to their Indian subordinates in their own language. So they came up with grammar books and dictionaries to teach themselves how to say “Get me my shoes” and “Hurry up!” to their Indian servants. These books made it possible for the British to standardize and index terminology for official use. Persian was also replaced at the lower levels of judicial and revenue administration, but here, it was replaced by Indian vernacular languages like Urdu.

Back then, Urdu was also called “Hindustani” (and a bunch of other things), but there, too, the British brought their own assumptions to bear on vernacular education policies for Indians. The Indians just did not know what was good for them, the British kept insisting.

Since the British saw Indians as groups of “Hindus” and “Muslims,” they also began to describe religion as a marker of linguistic difference, which is part of the reason why a shared north Indian language ended up getting divided into Hindi (for Hindus) and Urdu (for Muslims). Sometimes, when the British were in a bit of a Victorian mood, they tried to get Urdu poets to stop composing “obscene” poems about wine and women and write about sledding at Christmas instead. But I digress.

A class divide quickly emerged between vernacular-educated Indians and the English-speaking elites. An English-speaking Indian elite was desirable for officials like Macaulay, who needed “a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste and manners” as a buffer between themselves and the masses. A hundred years or so later, this stratagem backfired when new generations of this class of Indians began clamoring for their rights, and talking back to the English, in English. South Asians eventually won their independence from British rule — but only after paying a hefty price in the partition of India along religious lines for the first time in history, a division that cost millions of lives and would scar the region forever. Pakistan inherited the messy frontiers of the old imperial order.

What Fair et al are proposing is to educate Pakistanis about what the US thinks is good for them. For these political scientists, the right kind of Pakistani possesses the right kind of knowledge: Drone strikes are for his or her own good. It is with US intervention, through drones and propaganda, that Pakistanis can be saved from their backwardness, their tribalism, their Islamism, their nationalism — in short, themselves. But this kind of imperial experiment has been tried out before in South Asia. How about trying something new for a change?

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