Not Quite the Right Story

There is no justification for what the Taliban did to Malala. Her standing up to them is admirable, her fame well deserved and her activism for education and women's rights worth all the support it can get. But Malala's story represents only a part of the region's long tale of woe.

A few weeks ago another young girl from Pakistan went to the United States. Like Malala, she too had a terrible story to tell. But she was not heard. When nine-year old Nabila Rehman told US Congress how she had to watch her grandmother being killed by a CIA drone, only 5 of 430 Congressmen turned up. Nabila was not invited to address the United Nations, she was not on the front cover of major Western news outlets, Jon Stewart does not want to adopt her and she is nowhere near being nominated for the Nobel peace prize. In fact, she was forgotten within a newscycle. Unlike Malala, her story was not quite right for a US audience.

There is no justification for what the Taliban did to Malala. Her standing up to them is admirable, her fame well deserved and her activism for education and women's rights worth all the support it can get. But Malala's story represents only a part of the region's long tale of woe. One that arouses the apparently rather selective sympathy of the American public. By championing Malala's fight for women's education, the United States can claim the moral high ground against the backward attitudes towards women in the region (although it is worth noting that Pakistan has a higher percentage of female parliamentarians than the US and that its first female prime minister was elected as early as 1988).

But there are other sides of the tale. For instance the story of how American wars have killed and mutilated considerably more children and civilians in the region than the Taliban. Or the story of how the US helped establish the same Taliban whose actions it now condemns. And there is the ongoing story of Obama's drone war that terrorizes entire regions in Pakistan.

Nabila Rehman survived a drone strike. She saw her grandmother die in front of her eyes. The same strike left several children wounded. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, since 2004 up to 948 civilians in Pakistan have been killed by US drone strikes, of which up to 200 were children. The omnipresent buzzing of American drones hovering in the sky terrorizes people like Nabila and her family who are living in the Waziristan region. The awareness that drones could drop their deadly payloads anytime and the knowledge that being a child or a grandmother will not save you has traumatized an entire generation.

Reportedly, many drone pilots who have killed at the touch of a button experience traumas as well. But while they have access to treatment, getting psychological help in Waziristan is a bit of a challenge. Getting access to anti-American hate preachers is considerably easier. So if some of the victims start chanting "Death to America" and burning the stars and stripes at some point - can we really blame them? And if some of them blow themselves up - should that really surprise us?

When US politicians react to actual or attempted suicide bombings they label them as "despicable and cowardly acts". In the context of drone strikes controlled by pilots in offices on US territory killing children in Waziristan, these terms are used considerably less frequently. No apology, let alone any kind of compensation is offered to those who have lost their dearest and often their livelihood. 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 denied a visa.

But the tragedy of the "global war on terror", whether with boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan or through drones in the skies of Pakistan goes beyond its lack of moral justification. It also has been and remains counterproductive when it comes to its declared goal - ridding the world from terrorism.

Afghanistan was invaded to find Osama bin Laden, who was later located and killed in allied Pakistan. In Iraq more than 100,000 civilians died in a war that was fought under the pretext of finding weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein - who was not exactly known for his piety - allegedly was about to pass on to religious extremists. The weapons turned out to be nonexistent. Neither Afghanistan, nor Iraq or the world have become a safer place as a result of the wars. Rather than overcoming terrorism, the US eventually resorted to terrorism itself. No other term describes better a tactic that kills so suddenly, so arbitrarily and so indifferently as drones do. And that creates an omnipresent fear of death for the 800,000 civilians living in Waziristan who are exposed to their buzzing in the sky on a regular basis.

The wars and the ongoing drone strikes are creating a generation filled with hatred and misery - ingredients that make people susceptible to extremism. Pictures of Muslim children murdered by the United States are a highly effective tool for terrorist recruiters. The drone programme might manage to take out some prominent terrorist figures, but as a report by the Universities of Stanford and New York concluded, overall it is more likely to create terrorism than to reduce it.

Thus even from a pragmatic point of view, drone warfare is a bad idea. From a moral standpoint, it compromises all the values the US claims to stand for and likes to impose on other parts of the world. Nobel peace prize winner Obama should have taken the time to listen to Nabila. But he was busy. His diary shows a meeting with several senior businessmen on the day of her visit. Including the CEOs of drone manufacturers Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin, some of the few actors that actually do profit from the "global war on terror".


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