Maryum Qasim '20 is an international student from Rawalpindi, Pakistan. She is an International Relations major on a pre-law track and is also a CISLA scholar. Maryum is the Student Government Association's Chair of Equity and Inclusion and is also an executive board member of the Muslim Student Association.
Little did I know that a research paper for my first-year law class taught by professor Peter Mitchell would eventually take me to the tribal areas of Waziristan, a military controlled drone warzone cut off from the rest of developed Pakistan. My primary research paper for the class explored the legality of the employment of drones. I felt so passionately about the subject that when I became a scholar with the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts (CISLA) I decided to conduct my senior project on it. My CISLA project, guided by former CISLA Director and Professor of History Marc R. Forster, aimed to explore the psychological impacts of drone strikes on young adults. This summer I was awarded the Stephen and Pamela Rearden '67 Travel Fellowship to conduct research in Pakistan on the psychological impacts of drones for my project. I arrived in Bannu, a city about 200 kilometers away from the military-controlled areas of Waziristan. These areas are highly secured with multiple military check posts monitoring any and all movements in and out. Due to security concerns, I decided to stay in Bannu to meet my point of contact Farooq Mehsud, a local journalist from North Waziristan. Mehsud coordinated interviews for me with other journalists and university/college students in Bannu.
The first interview I conducted was with a Pakistani-Afghan journalist residing in Waziristan (for personal security and protection of the participants' anonymity and confidentiality will be maintained). Commenting on the psychological impacts of drones, he stated, “It is not the drones but the economic downfall led by the anti-terrorism military operation Zarb-e-Azab that has mentally destroyed the families in Waziristan. Our markets were shut down, houses were destructed and we were internally displaced with minimal or no compensation by the state.” Another correspondent from the FATA Research Center in North Waziristan Agency referred to drones as the ‘Father of Taliban.’ He added, “The only thing that the Taliban fear after Allah is the drones.” While commenting on the psychological effects of drones he mentioned the ‘Jasoos Bazar’ which translates to Spy Market. He stated that when drone strikes hit Taliban strongholds or any Taliban commander, the Taliban would organize a Jasoos Bazaar on the Sunday following the strike. The Taliban would bring in locals to the Bazaar who they accused of spying and would slaughter them in public. The Taliban would then leave a note by the body stating that it must not be picked up for three days in order for it to become a sign of terror for others. This had traumatic effects on the people of Waziristan.
A recent Waziristani graduate of the master’s degree program at Government College University Lahore stated that not a single Taliban leader or commander has been killed by any state military operation. Rather it is the drones that have successfully taken down many Taliban commanders over the past few years. He further added that the drone strike that killed Pakistan’s most wanted militant, Mullah Fazlullah, successfully took down the Taliban commander while only destroying the bed on which he was sleeping. While commenting on collateral damage and civilian deaths, the correspondent from the FATA Research Center in North Waziristan Agency shared that the collateral damage caused by drones has substantially decreased with time and scientific advancements. He compared the collateral damage caused by drones to the collateral damage caused by military operations in Waziristan and argued that the latter is more fatal than the former. He further added, “Drone movement either for surveillance or for a strike is now a normal routine in Waziristan. Those not linked with the Taliban in any way have no fear that they will be hit or attacked by the drone. However, it is challenging to keep the Taliban at a distance, especially when you are using the same public transport as they are and when they are all around you most of the time.” Drones strikes seemed to have caused thousands of civilian casualties in my home country of Pakistan. I was always bothered by these numbers and conducting research on them was a sensitive topic, especially while studying abroad in the United States as a Pakistani citizen.
For my research, I read through multiple reports, United Nations’ declarations and international laws regarding the employment of drones. I collected enough evidence from international media reports and data to make a claim that civilian casualties caused by drone strikes led some tribesmen to militancy. Were the drone strikes destroying terrorists or creating them? To my surprise, the situation on ground challenges most of the international reports on the employment of drones. According to the local journalists and young students of Waziristan, there has been almost no research done on the ground to explore the real narrative of the locals. The legitimacy and accuracy of formal surveys carried out by foreign organizations has been questioned because of the fear of Taliban reprisal. The locals objected to the use of drones because the Taliban would threaten the families of those who showed formal support for drone strikes in surveys.
This trip was crucial as I further advance my research into the mainstream ideology associated with drones and the contrasting ideology of the residents of Waziristan. International organizations are still struggling to find ways to hold the states involved in employing drones accountable for the civilian casualties. I look forward to returning to Waziristan to continue my research before pursuing my formal CISLA internship next summer. On my initial trip to Waziristan, I did not have a chance to conduct interviews with the women from Waziristan who I believe are psychologically the most affected by the war against terrorism. I plan on going back, provided my research is supported through Connecticut College, to gather more inclusive data so that I am able to prepare a report highlighting the actual needs and narratives of the residents.