This weekend, Pakistan ordered the closure of the US drone base after a US attack killed 26 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border. This news will be welcomed by the people of Waziristan, where communities have borne the brunt of the “collateral damage” of the US covert drone war. But for many, this decision comes too little too late. For too long, authorities ignored the deaths of innocent civilians being “bugsplat” by drones. After a recent trip to Pakistan to investigate the human consequences of the US drone attacks, I had no idea how close I was to come to understanding the horror of it.
In Islamabad I took part in a jirga - the traditional Pashtun forum for public discussion and dispute settlement - where tribal elders and villagers from the Pakistan tribal areas (FATA) came to meet with us to explain their personal experiences of US drone attacks. Sitting just two rows behind me was a 16-year-old boy named Tariq Aziz. Listening to story upon story of the extrajudicial murder of innocent civilians and children, the heartache for loved ones lost and the constant terror instilled by the now familiar roar of drones overhead, I could not have imagined that Tariq and his family would soon suffer the same fate.
Three days later Tariq was killed along with his 12-year-old cousin Waheed when their car was targeted by a Hellfire missile as they headed home to Norak, a village in Waziristan near the Afghan border.
Drones are described not only as the future of warfare, but as risk-free war. But Tariq’s death - and the hundreds of other civilian deaths recorded in a recent Bureau of Investigative Journalism study - demonstrate that this PlayStation warfare is only risk-free for operators of these remote-controlled killers. From the safety of an office building in Langley, Virginia, CIA operatives play games with Pakistanis’ lives.
As I landed at Heathrow, thousands of miles away from the dirt road where Tariq and Waheed now lay dead, a CIA operative in northern Virginia will have reported “bugsplat”. Bugsplat is the official term used by US authorities when humans are killed by drone missiles. The existence of children’s computer games of the same name may lead one to think that the PlayStation analogy with drone warfare is taken too far. But it is deliberately employed as a psychological tactic to dehumanise targets so operatives overcome their inhibition to kill; and so the public remains apathetic and unmoved to act. Indeed, the phrase has far more sinister origins and historical use: In dehumanising their Pakistani targets, the US resorts to Nazi semantics. Their targets are not just computer game-like targets, but pesky or harmful bugs that must be killed.
It was Hitler who coined this phraseology in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. In Mein Kampf, Hitler refers to Jews as vermin (volksungeziefer) or parasites (volksschädling). In the infamous Nazi film, Der ewige Jude, Jews were portrayed as harmful pests that deserve to die. Similarly, in the Rwandan genocide, the Tutsis were described as “cockroaches”. This is not to infer genocidal intent in US drone warfare, but rather to emphasise the dehumanising effect of this terminology in Nazi Germany and that the very same terms are used by the US in respect of their Pakistani targets. The US asserts that targeted killings are justified as a necessary counter-terrorism measure: Terrorists and militants are the pesky bugs that must be swatted.
The term “bugsplat” dehumanises their targets - often innocent civilians - with families, friends, hopes and aspirations. I will never forget the pensive, yet curious look Tariq gave us as we joined the jirga, a look so reminiscent of my brothers at that same age. He had his whole life ahead of him. But two days later, “bugsplat”, and Tariq and Waheed brought the known total of children killed by drones in Pakistan to 175.