A crowd of about seventy listeners filled the seats of an MIT classroom last Monday evening for an event entitled “Stop the Drones.” Ranging from college students to grandmothers, they came to learn more about the ongoing U.S. drone strikes responsible for more than 3,300 deaths in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan. 884 of the dead were civilians, 176 children, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
“Stop the Drones” brought together two groups of speakers – activists and academic experts. First, two members of an activist peace delegation spoke about their travels in Pakistan in October. The delegation, organized by the “women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement” CodePink, consisted in 31 activists who were determined to represent citizens opposed to drone strikes and to apologize for America’s violence.
Lois Mastrangelo, a member of United for Justice with Peace and CodePink of Greater Boston, described the delegation’s central activity: riding in a “peace caravan” that was slated to travel 263 miles from Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad, to Waziristan, a region in the southern part of the FATA, devastated by drones.
The main organizer of the caravan was the Pakistani politician Imran Khan, Chairman of Pakistan’s fastest growing political party, “Movement for Justice.” Movement for Justice is explicitly opposed to the U.S.-lead “War on Terror,” and it represents the most formidable political opposition to drone attacks in Pakistan.
“The Pakistani people were so excited to see us,” Mastrangelo recalled. “The called us the ‘good Americans,’ and the ‘Americans of conscience.’”
The CodePink delegation joined the peace procession in vehicles plastered with outsize photographs of drone-strike victims, including children. As she spoke, Mastrangelo showed snapshots she had taken of the cheering villagers who lined the road along their journey. They were celebrating the message of peace and the call to end drone strikes.
Security threats ultimately led the CodePink delegation to stop their journey at the city of Tank. The larger caravan also halted short of their final destination, choosing not to confront the Pakistani military vehicles in their path. But their message was clear.
“We were front-page news in Pakistan,” said Joe Lombardo with a smile. Lombardo is Co-Coordinator of the United National Antiwar Coalition and was a member of the CodePink delegation. International journalists also covered the story. Lombardo mentioned CodePink activists and the peace caravan being featured on CNN and in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Lombardo recalled other aspects of their trip. The delegation met several times with U.S. acting ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Hoagland. At one of these meetings, “Hoagland claimed ‘No civilians have been killed by drones.’” When confronted with the scoffing disbelief of CodePink activists – who knew of plenty of civilian deaths and were prepared to provide documentation – Hoagland backtracked. “He said that any civilian deaths were just ‘anomalies,’” Lombardo said.
The evening continued with a seven-minute video based on the 2012 report “Living Under Drones,” prepared by researchers from Stanford and NYU. (The video appears below. For more coverage of “Living Under Drones,” see the Boston Occupier’s recent story. The full report is available here.)
Following the video, Waqas Mirza, a recent political science graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, spoke. He offered a detailed and sophisticated account of the “war on terror” in Pakistan since 2001.
Drone strikes, Mirza pointed out, were just one part of the larger conflict. U.S. subsidies and reimbursements to the Pakistan Armed Forces had dramatically multiplied military interventions, at vast cost to the Pakistani people. No one even knew the extent of secret CIA operations like “Operation Cannonball,” disclosed in 2008 because of its disastrous outcome. Mirza remarked with irony, “Drones are actually more transparent.”
The effects of the U.S.-lead “war on terror” have the potential to tear Pakistan apart. The various groups of the religious right, which once quarreled among themselves, are now joining forces and taking up an anti-state agenda. These groups are responding to “increasing pressure to declare war against the Pakistan military itself,” Mirza remarked.
In other words, the “war on terror” is actually consolidating the religious right and fueling its violence. While drones are reprehensible, Mirza concluded, “it is the broader war itself that is criminal, not just the way it is conducted.”
Osman Khan, a doctoral student just returned from six months in Pakistan, spoke last. He emphasized the country’s “highly unequal distribution of wealth, along feudal lines.” The consequences of this grotesque wealth inequality, moreover, are amplified by the Pakistan national budget. 44% of the budget goes toward payments on debts owed to foreign lenders; another 25% goes to the military. Little is left over for infrastructure or social services. “You can’t bomb schools into existence,” Khan said sadly.
During the question-and-answer session that concluded the evening, an audience member asked about the drone research being carried out on college campuses across the country, including MIT. As drone-related projects multiply, no vigorous anti-war movement is there to confront them.
Heads nodded in muted agreement. “There aren’t really any veterans,” Khan remarked. “Veterans were such an important part of the Vietnam anti-war movement. But it’s the CIA, not the army, carrying out these missions.”
“Did anyone else notice,” asked a man in the audience, “that the plaque outside says this classroom was sponsored by Lockheed Martin?”
Laughter burst out uneasily. The irony was a little too sharp: the manufacturer of the “hellfire missiles” exploding in Pakistan had helped to build the very university, the very room, where our anti-war conversation now took place.
The evening concluded with no sure way forward. It had been an effective opportunity to share knowledge about the catastrophic effects of drone warfare. But further plans and organization would be needed to start mobilizing the American people against drones. Meanwhile unmanned aircraft continue to buzz incessantly through the skies of western Pakistan, threatening and delivering death.