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Article, The Other View

Hijacked Drones (II) – walking/mapping the unknown space

In the previous post on the drone war I have pointed out an excellent paper (in German) looking at the concept of ‘ungoverned space’. Apart from a number of other approaches, I think understanding the space the public debate is referring to when talking of ‘the lawless regions of Pakistan’, ‘the tribal belt’ or ‘the Northwest of Pakistan’ is a fundamental prerequisite to discuss the drone war and then taken further the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In German writing media, ‘the North West of Pakistan’ is still considered a sufficient description for lethal attacks of all kinds – it is even considered possible to euqate it with the ‘badlands’ of the country. That was of course derived from the former name of now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, North Western Frontier Province (which dates back to Imperial Times) and noone really ever bothered where this ‘North West’ really is delineated – note, that Peshawar is 4 degrees East of Karachi. And it became of course a bit confusing when suddenly TTP surfaced in places like Punjab which hardly could be considered West whichever way you looked at it. Also ‘the North’, being quite well known in the German speaking countries for it’s mountaineering history was always considered ‘safe’. So when killings in Gilgit somehow make it into an AP press feed, it is immediately stated ‘the area used to be considered as peaceful’. What to do when the ‘Karachi-Islamabad-the dangerous North West – the peace loving beautiful North’ map doesn’t fit this country anymore?

Via darpadreaming, I found another paper from the political geography side which looks at how the actual space is shaped into what it is finally conceived to be. Derek Gregory looks at how the US Army, through press briefings and Petraeus’ famous PowerPoints visually (re)configured Baghdad between 2003 and 2007 (Seeing Red: Baghdad and the eventful city. Political Geography, 29, 266-279. 2010). Apart from very insightful and interesting observations, Gregory has a very enjoyable style of writing. I think his concepts, although here applied to an urban setting involved in continuous heavy fighting with, can be understood applicable for the drone war as well (and he is currently moving into this geographical direction as well, see the presentation linked there).

There are three points that sprang out I can see valid for how Pakistan is mapped as well.

 their wars

This rhetorical effect is enhanced by the way in which those same militaries render the actions of their (non-state or para-state) enemies as indiscriminate, insensitive and illegitimate. Militias, gangs and terrorist groups are engaged in an altogether different set of ‘new wars’ to those in Der Derian’s sights. Their violence is viscerally corporeal and even diabolical. In this field of vision death stalks the battle space, saturated in blood and bodies by ethno-sectarian violence and an exorbitant cruelty directed overwhelmingly at civilians, and insurgency becomes the proving ground for a disenchantment of war e which is to say, of ‘their’ wars.

Their wars in Baghdad are often conflicts that are reported as Shia-Sunni rivalries (and I guess he goes into more detail in his War and peace. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35, 154 – 186., and The biopolitics of Baghdad: counter-insurgency and the counter-city. Human Geography, 1, 8 – 23. which I am only reading now). For Pakistan, that applies especially for reporting on Gilgit-Baltistan and Quetta. Where the Shia-Sunni divide is somehow involved (and it sure is a driver for violence), these standoffs are quickly reduced to savage conflicts with no relation whatsoever to the greater war or perhaps underlying political/land reasons.

walking and mapping

Just as the ‘badlands’ in Pakistan are rhetorically clearly delineated in space (‘North’ and ‘South’ Waziristan, the turbulent ‘North West’, the Durand ‘line’; Schetter is addressing these topologies) to try to box a problem into confined space, while the actors who are ought to stay in that box are migrating in and out and are interlinked to the ‘outside’ world through migration and them being part of the globalized world just like, or even more so than a US Soldier, Gregory points at the mapping of ground truth in Baghdad.

The connection between top sight and ground truth was established most frequently through the metaphor of ‘walking’ reporters through the maps, a trope that became so commonplace that the distinction between the battle space and its representations was virtually erased. Soon after the start of Operation Together Forward, when a curfew had been imposed and checkpoints, patrols and targeted raids increased, Caldwell told reporters he would ‘like to walk you through the statistics of the last 30 days’ and showed them a map of attacks in Baghdad district by district. ‘As you walk through this,’ he continued, ‘you’ll see that all except two beladiyas [districts] were able to experience a slight decline’. […] He noted that ‘this is the only area that’s been specifically cleared’ coded green on the map but he predicted that ‘you’ll see those colors expanding out through the city of Baghdad eventually’. In one, magical sentence, the colors bleed from the map to the city. […] What ‘it’ looked like: at once the map and the city.

The ‘walking’ trope is interesting in another aspect, that may be a bit detached from what Gregory lays out in his work – I am actually not sure whether it makes sense to bring this up here at all, but to jot it down for possible future reference. Manan Ahmed from ChapatiMystery looked at the ‘walking experts’ issue (also in his class at FU Berlin), especially Rory Stewart and I would add Younghusband, Harrer, Newby. How does walking a place make us know more about space in the complexity of conflict? And how is that ‘knowledge’ overrated, misinterpreted and misused?

medical scans of the body politic

The proponents of drones argue that it is possible to accurately take out identified villains from above – a surgical intervention to take out the ill. Gregory links this rhetoric to the geographical localization and containment that has been undertaken beforehand.

It is surely no accident that these military plots of deaths resemble medical scans of the body politic, where ethno-sectarian violence is visualized as a series of tumors. In his testimony to Congress in April 2008 Petraeus called ethnosectarian violence ‘a cancer that continues to spread if left unchecked.’ Here the visual and the verbal work in synch, and the maps become so many visual performances of an intrinsically biopolitical field.


Thus we are assured that intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance now provide such an accurate and detailed view of the battle space that precision-strike capacity can be directed (‘surgically’) against infrastructure power stations, communications systems, bridges e and invited to
draw a duplicitous distinction between targeting ‘the means of life’ and targeting the lives of those who depend on them. This mode of cartographic reason continues to yoke objectivity to what I call ‘object-ness’: ‘Ground truth vanishes in the ultimate “God-trick”, whose terrible vengeance depends on making its objects visible and its subjects invisible’.

While such a medical mapping may not be directly taking place in Pakistan of course, since the war involvement of foreign forces looks very different here, the coverage of the country is, through different narratives, well underway in pinning it to a map that is believed to represent the country.

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.


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April 2012


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