A sky full of drones

Western enthusiasm for Malala Yousafzai overshadows the fact that western policies deny children in Pakistan their most basic rights. The short-term memory of the media cycle, coupled with political self-interest and selective attention continue to marginalise the trauma of CIA drones.

Ragnar Weilandt
27 October 2014
Predator drone. David Smith/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Predator drone. David Smith/Flickr. Some rights reserved.In October 2012 a Taliban gunman boarded Malala Yousafzai’s school bus and shot three bullets into her. The severely injured girl was airlifted to a military hospital in Peshawar. An emergency operation was conducted before she was transported to another, better-equipped military hospital in Rawalpindi. Six days later amidst threats by the Taliban to “finish the job”, she was brought to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. By then, her story was all over the international news. Less than a year later, Malala captured global headlines when she delivered a speech at the United Nations in New York. Her tireless championing of the cause of female education was rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize in October 2014.

But in late 2013, another young Pakistani girl visited the United States to tell a different story of incredible human suffering. Nine-year-old Nabila Rehman survived a CIA drone strike that killed her grandmother and injured several other children. But when she and her thirteen-year-old brother Zubair testified before US Congress, only 5 of 430 Congressmen bothered to turn up. Unlike Malala, she was not invited to address the United Nations, she was not on the front cover of major Western news outlets, Jon Stewart did not want to adopt her and she was nowhere near winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Shahzad Akbar, a human rights lawyer and activist who represents innocent drone strike victims and who was supposed to accompany Nabila to the congressional hearing was not even granted a visa.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, up to 957 civilians in Pakistan have been killed by US drone strikes, of which 202 were children. In Yemen, up to 220 civilians including 43 children have fallen victim to drones or other covert operations. The omnipresent buzzing of US drones hovering in the sky and the awareness that they could drop their deadly payloads at any time has traumatized an entire generation. “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey” said Zubair Rehman, whose leg was hit by shrapnel during the drone strike. “When sky brightens, drones return and we live in fear.”

In June 2012, the young Yemini activist Ibrahim Mothana made a compelling case against the drone programme. In a letter to the US president that was published by the New York Times he wrote: “Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair.” The notion that the drone programme creates more terrorism in the long run is also supported by a study conducted by Stanford and New York University. But although Mothana was invited to attend a congressional hearing, the majority of the Western public has never heard of him, let alone his tragic death in 2013. Even John Oliver’s recent brilliant takedown of US drone policy or the fact that Malala herself speaks out against it cannot make up for the fact that media interest in children killed by CIA drones is still marginal.

These double standards in conjunction with the idolization of Malala undermine the credibility of her message where it needs to be heard most urgently. Almost immediately after the attack, she was accused by critics in Pakistan of being a spy and of being part of a CIA conspiracy. Considering the region’s troubled history with Western military and intelligence operations, the emergence of such crude ideas is hardly surprising. American wars, covert actions and drone attacks have killed and mutilated considerably more children and civilians than Islamic fundamentalists. 

There was no alternative to taking Malala abroad, both for her safety and to make sure she received the treatment she needs. But bringing Malala to the West did not increase her credibility in Pakistan and making her a poster girl further diminished it. While Western public support for Malala does not change anything in Pakistan, public support for Nabila and Zubair Rehman or Ibrahim Mothana could have made a difference. Overcoming the oppressive societal structures that disadvantage girls in Pakistan is not something that western public opinion can achieve. Freeing them from the constant fear of being killed by Predator drones, however, is something that western public pressure could accomplish.

Yet again, the western public can claim the moral high ground against the backward attitudes in the region. And in doing so, they ignore the inconvenient truth that Western policies deny children in Pakistan and Yemen a much more basic right: the right to security and freedom from fear.

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