After the research team leaves, after the town meeting, after the news cameras have gone away, all we are left with is the damage. – Eve Tuck
It was odd, I thought, how a few miles could turn bombs into lullabies – Jamil Jan Kochai
Over half a million people have been murdered in the global war on terror. In Afghanistan, the war on terror has made itself so much at home, it is now peripheral to analysis on the challenges facing the country. Certainly, that the twenty-year war has been fashioned and widely accepted as the “good war” (as compared to the Iraq War) has allowed the War in Afghanistan to continue unabated, with little to no accountability. Our aim here is to unsettle modes of colonial knowledge production on Afghanistan that not only persist but are extolled, and while doing so, center the forever war.
In December 2020, the University of New South Wales and the Media Futures Lab hosted a three-day event titled “Drone Cultures: An Interdisciplinary Symposium.” Shortly thereafter, Simon Fraser University and the University of Auckland jointly held a similar event titled “Australian War Crimes in Afghanistan: Race, Gender and Responsibility.” Both events illustrate the problematic way research on Afghanistan has often been conducted as well as the problematic depictions of Afghans that ensue as a result. Afghans are either perpetrators, and thus killable, or damaged, and thus save-able, though rarely engaged as intellectual interlocutors. While we direct attention to these two virtual events, we regard the events as paradigmatic of a distressing pattern that persists with regards to military drone scholarship, and more broadly, on Afghanistan. Relatedly, while we center Afghans, and offer intellectual labor with Afghans, we also use Afghans as representational of a subaltern humanity—the surveilled, droned, and documented—that includes Somalis, Yemenis, Iraqis, Pashtuns, Afghans, Libyans, and Syrians.
The “Drone Cultures Symposium” stated it sought to “explore drone cultures from multiple perspectives and practices with the aim of generating dialogue across disciplinary boundaries to better understand the diversity of drones and drone cultures.” Yet the perspectives it offered were that of nearly all-white artists, white scholars, and white practitioners, who studied the effects of drones both within military and non-military contexts. The symposium started with land acknowledgments, signaling, at least minimally, a gesture toward recognizing settler colonialism’s histories of violence. "Diversity" is part of these rituals of recognition, which aim to complicate issues in order to reflect the complexities in the world, yet much like the current trend of “decolonizing” the university, efforts to "diversify" have become a curious commodity in the world of academia, reproducing the very power dynamics that it claims to undo. Diversity talk in drone scholarship is an “epistemic murk” that muddies the brutal realities western technological inventions have brought to other parts of the world by calculating and surveilling spaces of progress and regression, freedom and unfreedom, life and death. These brutal realities became one of many diverse experiences, rendering those who live with its violence—in this case, Afghans—as objects to be recuperated in a progressive agenda by western scholars to speak of the harms, benefits, and artistic potential that drones can offer.
The "Soldier" Turned "Scholar"
Tom Sears’ social media profiles describe him as having “a long association” with the international Special Operations network, “including a current collaboration with Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), USSOCOM (United States Special Operations Command), MacDill.” Elsewhere, he is described as having “strong ties to USSOCOM/JSOU.” At the symposium, Sears was introduced as having had affiliations with multiple military outfits. Yet what was not announced so clearly was that he is a so-called security expert for states that have surveilled, bombed, and killed Afghans (including Germany, the United States, and Australia), and perhaps others.
I re-coiled at the maddening way Sears smugly announced himself as the “bad guy” and at the nonchalant laughter he received in response. Immediately, I sent a private message to the symposium organizers, stating my objection to his presence, asking if they were aware of the ethical stakes of having someone participate who has active affiliations with kill teams. The organizer acted swiftly, approaching the self-proclaimed “bad guy.” Sears volunteered to promptly leave the symposium, stating that he did not want his presence to make me uncomfortable. He further noted, before leaving, that he had willingly offered his affiliations upfront in order to leave room for such objections. The Afghans (Somalis, Yemenis, Iraqis, Pashtuns, Libyans, or Syrians—all victims of US drones) should certainly not have to feel uncomfortable or triggered by his presence. His presence was thus as fleeting as the drones themselves. He was set to drop his “knowledge” and then vanish. His exit from the symposium, however, was made so to not “make anyone feel uncomfortable.” The occurrence was therefore construed as an inter-personal issue, instead of a departure rooted in any ethical or political impasse, given that he was actively and intimately involved in orchestrating the violence that he was now given room to “theorize.”
The participation of military representatives is a common occurrence in drone seminars and symposia, where military experts appear often in full uniform. My intervention—an Afghan expressing discomfort with a soldier-turned-scholar— introduced an immediate tension to the symposium, a tension that should be expected given the stakes of asymmetrical warfare. Yet Somalis, Yemenis, Iraqis, Pashtuns, Afghans, Libyans, and Syrians are not a normalized presence at these conferences. Rather, their presence is an intrusion, a materialized reminder of what becomes theoretical abstraction. Throughout the rest of that session, and the symposium as a whole, multiple participants lamented Sears’ absence, commenting on what a shame it was to not be able to gain from his obviously valuable perspective. While there were a few participants who supported my objection to Sears’ presence, there was little to no space held in the symposium for reflection or consideration of the reality that everyone does not have the same neutral privilege in relation to drones. Again, drone-like. Sears was absent yet spectrally present.
The curious repetition of his absence for the rest of the day despite ethical concerns raised has motivated us to examine military drone scholarship—what are its aims? Who are its knowledge producers? And why is the knowledge being produced?
The Subaltern Must Not Speak
In raising these questions grounded in the link between epistemology, lived experience, and power, we join a growing concern from racialized scholars and activists about who gets to speak (and write) and why. In 2015, Somali scholars campaigned under the hashtag #Cadaanstudies (white studies) against the launch of a journal titled Somaliland Journal of African Studies, which did not include a single Somali scholar or student on its editorial board. Similarly, we intervene not with the intention of entirely dismissing white scholars who hail from the centers of Western metropoles—that is, to argue in favor of hermetically sealing off identity and knowledge of others. We are aware of the pitfalls of “identity politics”—the effort to highlight difference over a homogenizing sameness—that can sometimes lead to tending too much to one’s wounded identity at the expense of transformative politics.
In fact, we want to build on imaginaries of coalitional politics, towards formations of political affinities that welcome, rather than discourage, allyship. Yet before we get there, we re-emphasize what perhaps is overlooked or disavowed in the debate on what has been labeled identity politics: rather than argue for the inclusion of Afghan scholars, we ask a different question: what does the absence of Afghan scholars in drone scholarship reveal about knowledge production on drones?
Afghan voices appear as stand-alone personal accounts of suffering, what we refer to as drone narratives. Analyses and recommendations by Afghans are edited out while a white interlocutor intervenes, comforts, and “objectively” evaluates. Our intervention questions the preponderance of white scholars in the field of drone scholarship as symptomatic of not simply a “crisis of representation” but a deeper political stake about the interpretation of what is to be known about the lives of others, how they should be made intelligible, and what the effects are of this intelligibility.
The Limits of Damage Studies
Indigenous scholar Eve Tuck pushes back against research on dispossessed and marginalized communities that “reinforces and reinscribes a one-dimensional notion of people as depleted, ruined, and hopeless.” In an open letter to “educational researchers and practitioners concerned with fostering and maintaining ethical relationships with disenfranchised and dispossessed communities and all of those troubled by the possible hidden costs of a research strategy that frames entire communities as depleted,” Tuck cautions well-intentioned researchers of the potential harms of an approach that is invested in brokenness and depletion. Yet before we can begin to consider Tuck’s cautionary note as specifically relevant to research on Afghanistan, it cannot be assumed that anyone who has conducted research on Afghanistan has been concerned “with fostering and maintaining ethical [emphasis, ours] relationships.”
Tuck raises unsettling questions about the purpose of “damage-centered” research. The area of study claims to be embedded in a theory of change—if we document the damage, there will be greater pressure to address the damage. Does documenting damage lead to any transformative process? Certainly, the documentation of damage will not end the drone war or, more consequentially, the forever war in Afghanistan. The documentation of life in Afghanistan centers on damage, with Afghans as vanishing mediators who only speak of their pain for white interlocutors to assess the broader ethical and moral valence of these experiences for dissemination. Drone scholarship is also damaging in how the context of the war on terror is submerged by what is increasingly emphasized as the psychological state of involved parties and by the efforts to present drones as not just a military technology but an opportunity for other causes. In one instance, Afghans are presented as “damaged,” subjects of pity and spoken of. In another instance, the conditions under which those damages occur—the forever war of the war on terror and the surveillance of the globe to secure western sovereignty—are erased in an attempt to find new social and political life for the existence of drones. Omitted in these discussions is the acceleration of technological advances of some against others, what Carl Schmitt warned of as creating conditions of unequal sides that turns conflict into policing and punishment.
We see the way in which damage research can be ensnared in the racial politics that makes violence possible “over there.” The work of Alex Edney-Browne, who was spotlighted in both the “Drone Cultures Symposium” (as a plenary speaker) and the “War Crimes in Afghanistan” event, provides an example. Edney-Browne’s prominence in both events signals the premium placed on a particular kind of drone scholarship conducted by white scholars. Edney-Browne describes her project as examining “lived experiences of military drone violence, finding out about the lives of people who live(d) in areas of drone surveillance and bombardment in Afghanistan and veterans of the U.S. Air Force’s drone program.” It is certainly commendable that Edney-Browne aims to not only critique the use of drones in Afghanistan and elsewhere but also to advocate for the elimination of military drones. However, her work demonstrates the pervasiveness, durability, and inconceivable insistence on allegiance to the colonial feminist playbook (i.e., traveling to document the daily life of the “native” in an effort to “save” them from their destitution, and in order for the West to realize itself by appealing to Western humanitarian ethics). Decades of critical work by transnational feminist and postcolonial scholars (Mohanty 1988, Grewal 1996, Kaplan 1996, Spivak 1999, Abu Lughod 2013, Mahmood 2005) have deconstructed the practices and sentiments that make up Western humanitarian and feminist collusion in empire building, including the epistemic disruption that comes with documenting people’s lives from an imagined vantage point with the promise of emancipation. Nevertheless, white scholars continue to willfully inhabit that legacy. Colonial feminism’s voyeurism reappears here in the mode of documentation of “lived experience” that possesses the secrets of the native to be smuggled out for western consumption. Take, for example, Steve Curry’s photo “The Afghan Girl,” which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. Sharbat Gul, the now-famous muse, never saw the photo nor knew of her notoriety until many years later. Her eyes, angry at being photographed, were incorrectly translated for years as “haunted eyes [that] tell of a refugee’s fears.” Like the drone camera which zooms in on its inaudible yet visible Afghan as enemy, the camera lens similarly eliminates the Afghan as victim. As Ziauddin Sardar highlights, the real power of the Global North lies not in its massive economic development but rather, in its power to define, represent, and theorize the “Other.” Its capacity to eliminate by way of representation lies in its visual regime that turns technologies like drones into “the transport of terror.”
Not only epistemologically and methodically problematic given its reliance on the colonial playbook, this line of research is also analytically problematic. It exceptionalizes the violence of drones. When we can focus on one kind of violence committed with one kind of technology, such work sanctions the larger liberal war, as only the drones are singled out as immoral and unethical. Edney-Browne wants, for example, to “find out about the lives of people who live(d) in areas of drone surveillance and bombardment in Afghanistan.” It is hard to imagine that the Afghans Edney-Browne spoke to in Kabul and Greece only spoke about the horrors of the work of drones and not about the violence of the larger war and occupation, including serial refugee life. While Edney-Browne cites postcolonial and feminist literature, such citations appear largely ornamental and read uncomfortably in the context of a methodology that omits the subject position of the knowing scholar and the psychosocial assessment of the colonizer-colonized relationship.
Pushpa Iyer aptly describes the “almost default practice to reference work by non-western scholars” while failing to simultaneously reflect on the role we may be playing in sustaining colonization as “appealing to woke authority.” As postcolonial critics, Frantz Fanon and Edward Said (both of whom Edney-Browne cites) aim to understand the structural conditions as salient to understanding the effects of power on occupied peoples. These critics intervene not to isolate violence but refocus the analytical lens, for example, to the larger war economy and to the liberal, imperial, racist forever wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Furthermore, the methods employed in Edney-Browne’s encounters (through interpreters) with Afghans, whether in Kabul or in Greece, erase the labor of Afghans as interlocutors and translators. It then becomes important to ask: was it important for Edney-Browne, the ethics of putting the security of Afghans at even further risk aside, to go to Kabul or to speak to Afghans to “find out about their lives?” Should we not already have known enough about the lives of Afghans to know they were impacted, quite negatively, by drones and the rarely-mentioned forever war?
What’s more, neoliberal university models structurally sanction the problem of knowledge production on Afghanistan (and elsewhere). One of the authors of this piece had extensive language training (over three years of study) in both Dari and Pashto before they dare stepped foot in Afghanistan, not only as appreciation for the weight of the work they were undertaking but as a requirement of their doctoral program. Such requirements exist so that, at minimum, regardless of positionality, someone studying in another country would need to be proficient in their research language(s). Such requirements become impossible in three or four-year doctoral programs. Postcolonial critics like Thiongo’o have warned of the dangers of alienation from language, as it is the key to understanding the worldview, imagination, and sensibilities of a people.
What work then does “being there” perform for western scholars? What about for their research? Edney-Browne’s research on Afghans and drones can be classified as the “damage-centered” research that Tuck critiques and cautions against. The figure of the damaged, depleted Afghan is critical as testament and acknowledgment  of the destruction of serial war on Afghans, yet that is not how Edney-Browne positions the depleted, damaged Afghan in her drone damage narratives. Rather, the damage-centered research that results (in this case) is a tempered, yet characteristically white liberal enactment of a postcolonial, feminist-tinged critique of the inhumanity of drone war, while leaving unaddressed the daily more quotidian violence of the forever war in Afghanistan.
The Traumatized Mercenary
The “other side” lens, taken up in order to understand the other effects of drone violence, flattens the experiences of what it means to be living with drone violence by placing the drone operator on the same plane as the drone victim, who may be disfigured or have witnessed the disfigurement, mutilation, or murder of family and community. This lens implies we can only understand the violence of drones if we recognize its effects not only on those who the Global North has associated permanently with violence—the targets of the forever war—but its effects on drone operators (i.e., white settlers in the Global North).
The relatable, humanized soldier is a particularly problematic lens through which to understand global violence, especially if we consider it in the context of Australia’s four-year war crime inquiry. The report, which was released in November 2020, describes evidence of nineteen soldiers involved in the murder of thirty-nine Afghan prisoners and civilians. These murders took place within a culture of secrecy, cover-ups, and rituals of violence. The coverage of the inquiry in Australia was curiously followed by what Tuck calls the occupier’s “moves to innocence,” wherein psychiatrists and other experts expressed concern about the mental health of soldiers. Consequently, a mental health hotline was established for soldiers and military families who may have been experiencing distress over the findings of the inquiry. Meanwhile, as some Afghans in Australia observed, there was no acknowledgment of the impact this report had on the Australian Afghan community.
Though the investigation consulted Afghans as witnesses and translators, the inquiry and its coverage—like the symposium—also reveal the absence of Afghan scholars. It is the same scene of erasure. Afghans often speak from the margins, only to corroborate. Writing about the relationship between knowledge and power, Edward Said contends this relationship is not simply about representation but also about the West’s positional superiority, which allows it to have a relationship with others as objects, constituted through its regime of truth. Said references Benjamin Disraeli’s Tancred in his epigraph: “the East is a career,” a place “bright young Westerners would find to be an all-consuming passion” to fulfill fantasies of saving and discovery. Through this lens, Afghans are a non-sovereign people, through which soldiers can pursue boyhood ideals of adventure and Western scholars can fulfill their passion for mastery, building careers from the position of a detached observer.
The war crimes report is an unsettling account of the depravity of both America’s and Australia’s complicity in the violence that both propagates and sustains the war. The widespread concern over the mental health of soldiers also echoes a growing interest in trauma in the field of political conflict and humanitarianism. In 2001, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced trauma as the “greatest health problem facing the people.” Afghanistan is a country ravaged by four decades of war, with the vast majority of the population facing economic destitution. Trauma as a diagnostic becomes a surprising lens through which to understand the urgency of the problems facing Afghans, as it eclipses the material conditions created by forever war. A psychological lens continues to be used to diagnose civilians in war—and now also soldiers. Curiously, under this therapeutic label, the soldier and the civilian merge as “victim.”
Writing about Vietnam War veterans, Derek Summerfield observes how, in a climate of growing domestic criticism of the war wherein soldiers were perceived by the public as killers, diagnosing veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) became a way of securing disability pension and earning the “victimhood” status for soldiers who had a war imposed on them and were impacted by the violence. In the Australian public’s reception of the war crimes inquiry, we see that even when confronted with the intentional murders of civilians and prisoners, trauma became a dominant framework to enable white innocence. The soldier as criminal is eclipsed by the soldier as victim.
The popularity of trauma studies in this context also utilizes western tools of inquiry and diagnoses to create new subjectivities through disorders in order to manage risk and uncertainty, what Vanessa Pupavac describes as a “shift from ideology to emotionology.” This turn to innocence is a point Sherene Razack made in her contributions at the “War Crimes in Australia” event. “The nation’s responses in law, and inquiries,” she stated, “really echo the soldiers’ responses, that is to say that the violence gets transformed into a story of goodness which is quite a conjuring trick- the struggle to reclaim national innocence does not last very long- the nation becomes innocent within ten seconds of an inquiry. Everyone becomes persuaded that even though terrible things happened, there was terrible brutality, in the end, it was still ok. we were still good.”
A Contemporary Manifest Destiny
We conclude by revisiting the imagination that is required to travel to places afar in order to speak of others but never with others, or as we have explored here, the desire to always be speaking. It is the imagination of the West’s discovery of “new worlds,” from Palestine to New Zealand. Today, Afghan voices are “uncovered” by scholars, investigators, and NGOs, who arrive to document and assess the damages from war crimes and human rights violations. In the move to innocence required within this contemporary manifest destiny, we are not to ever ask why Afghan accounts were not enough. Two decades earlier, wary of this imagination, Caren Kaplan critically reflected on this: “Posing a question such as "Should we have stayed at home?" can be answered with a futile but emphatic "yes" if "we" are a particular cast of historical agents. In the aftermath of colonialism and in the midst of the advent of diverse neocolonialisms and totalitarianisms, simply destabilizing the notion of home (“wherever that may be”) can no longer answer the historical question of accountability.”
We are in agreement with Kaplan: the historical question of accountability for settler colonialism and imperialism can never have been or can never be resolved simply by destabilizing “home” or by diversifying the location of speaking and experience. This is even more the case if the one who is the agent of destabilization and diversification is also the agent of violence. Furthermore, this holds if the damage remains and has entered the second decade of a war with no accountability nor a horizon.
The act of collecting of drone narratives and documenting damage, as described above, entrench structural inequalities, the forever war, and white innocence using an imperial fantasy that sees white interlocutors—the soldier-turned-scholar, the embedded scholar, and the traumatized mercenary, who have been the actual agents of violence—as those who can realize the ethical stakes and then perform customary heroics of saving.
 Tuck, E. and Yang, K.W., 2012. Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society, 1(1).
 Taussig, Michael, “Culture of Terror--Space of Death. Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26, no. 4 (1984)
 USSOCOM is headquartered at the Air Force Base in Macdill, Florida.
 We are not saying Pakistanis here as it is really only Pashtuns in Pakistan who are targeted by drones. Also not making the political claim that Afghans are only Pashtuns or Afghans and Pashtuns are distinct, only to mark who in the geographical entity now named Pakistan dies by drone- Pashtuns.
 We are also asking this same question about the absence of Somali, Pashtun, Yemeni, Libyan, Syrian, and Iraqi scholars.
 Alcoff, Linda 1991, ‘The problem of speaking for others’, Cultural Critique, vol. 5. no. 32, pp. 5-32.
 Tuck, E., 2009. Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), pp.409-428.
 National Geographic, Vol. 167, No.6, June 1985.
 Sardar, Z., 1999. Orientalism. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
 Hussein, Nasser, 2013. "The sound of terror: phenomenology of a drone strike, Boston Review. http://bostonreview.net/world/hussain-drone-phenomenology
 Wa Thiong'o, N., 1986. Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. East African Publishers.
 For more on what constitutes “acknowledgement” in the context of the war in Afghanistan, please see: Daulatzai, Anila. "Acknowledging Afghanistan: Notes and queries on an occupation." Cultural Dynamics 18.3 (2006): 293-311.
 Bilal Sarwary, a respected Afghan journalist, was a critical presence at the War Crimes event. Our argument is certainly not meant to erase his presence and/or expertise, but to make a point about the absence of Afghan scholar(s).
 Arendt, Hannah, “The Imperialist Character,” The Review of Politics 12, no. 2 (1950)
 Summerfield, D., 2001. The invention of post-traumatic stress disorder and the social usefulness of a psychiatric category. Bmj, 322(7278), pp.95-98.
 Pupavac, V 2004, ‘War on the couch: The emotionology of the new international security paradigm’, European Journal of Social Theory, vol. 7, no.2, pp. 149–170.
 Kaplan, Caren, “Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement (Post-Contemporary Interventions), 1996.