Accounting for the Drone Debate by Hamzah Saif

Hamzah Saif: But as historian Manan Ahmed noted, if we are debating percentages and legality to adjudicate the success of the drone program, “we have already lost the conversation.” The numbers obscure more than they elucidate. If there is any clarity they furnish, it is insight into an imperial imagination that animates this numero-centric conversation. The colonial treatment—epistemic and administrative—of FATA inhabitants by Pakistan, the United States, and former imperial powers, is no novel proposition. The representation of individuals as numbers—of lives and existence as statistics—too, has a colonial vintage. In the drone debate, statistics have become a technology for imperial rule.

Numbers [always] helped resolve a chief anxiety of colonial administration: the fear of administrative impotency: do we (the British) understand the colony? Can we govern it? The unwieldy detail of prose opened more questions than it answered. It made policy prescriptions difficult. Numbers, on the other hand, reduced a complex reality to precise arithmetic. They made the complications of daily life and local knowledge pliable to comprehension, making policy-planning easier. Numbers helped allay the colonizers’ fears that they could not administer—or rule—properly. Distinct from whether numerical representation actually provided accurate insight, it “created a sense of controlled ingenious reality,” argues Appadurai. Numbers could be debated, discussed and decided upon, far away from the intractable realities of the colonized. With numbers, the empire could sweep troublesome detail under the rug and feel in control.

The American state needs numbers in order to ignore grappling with its own actions in the past and their intense, negative fallout today. Numbers also facilitate America’s imperial fantasy of administrative control. Statistics crowd out descriptions of the historical realities of FATA that would expose the arbitrary underpinnings of the categories of “militant” and “innocent” that exist divorced from American violence. In truth, the dynamics of violence are inextricably linked to American militarism in the region. A thorough and engaged understanding of the racial, class and political aspects of violence is necessary for a broader discussion on drones. We need to understand that, for the most part, no clear distinctions exist between “terrorist” and “civilian,” that these are categories that are created by and are intrinsic to American violence. The world that numbers provide, in which “militants” and “innocents” are neatly disaggregated, doesn’t quite exist on the ground. But, such truths certainly make imperial rule more complicated. So, the U.S. scuttles historical and political detail by focusing on statistics and debating the correct calibration of its killing policy. More here.