Af / Pak — 13 October 2012
Malala Yousufzai and Noor-Syed – Who is responsible?

Dr. Reza Pankhurst

The neglect of the Pakistan government and military towards its own people allows groups like TTP to operate, yet the same military and government will cynically exploit their violent actions while American drones fly overhead.

Recently the tragic story of the shooting of the 14 year old Malala Yousufzai  by two armed men has dominated the media in Pakistan and elsewhere. Malala, who was well known as a campaigner for the education of young females, survived the shooting and is currently in hospital. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan called media from an undisclosed location to accept the responsibility of the attack, apparently due to Malala’s anti-Taliban activism and spreading of “secular” thoughts among her peers.

Noor-Syed is another young Pakistani girl who suffered an attack – though in her case she was killed by an American drone strike back in 2009. Her story was not covered by any of the media, and wider knowledge of her death only came to light as a result of the publication in 2011 of pictures by Noor Behram, a 39 year old photographer from the North Waziristan Agency (NWA) who has been documenting civilian victims of CIA drones since 2007.

Malala Yousufzai, injured, 14/ Noor-Syed, dead, 8

At first glance, the question of who is responsible for the deaths of Malala Yousufzai and Noor-Syed appears to be quite clear. In the case of Malala, there is a clear admission of responsibility by the TTP, and while American officials have a history of either denying or downplaying civilian casualties of their drone strikes, the evidence points clearly to their culpability for the death of Noor-Syed.

Some will no doubt claim that there is no equivalence between the two cases –Malala was deliberately targeted while Noor-Syed was what is euphemistically called “collateral damage”. Yet there is an equivalence, since two innocent human lives are the same. However, in the media and the government there is a clear “hierarchy of death”[1], where the value attributed to a life taken (or nearly taken) depends upon who the person is and by whom were they killed. Malala’s shooting by the TTP is a case that can easily be manipulated by politicians and military leaders to cynically court public opinion for further military incursions into areas such as Waziristan (at the behest of American demands), and in some cases even used to justify the illegal extra-judicial drone attacks, whereas attention upon Noor-syed’s death among the numerous other child casualties of drone strikes is minimised to avoid the political ramifications.

Similarly, the fact that Malala Yousufzai was directly targeted does not make it more obscene than killing by drone. According to conservative estimates, between 2004 and 2012 the American government has killed 176 children through drone strikes, a record of 22 a year, or more than one a month. The claim that they were the unintended victims of strikes aimed at high-level targets is an unconvincing defence – out of the conservative estimate of 2562 total victims of drone strikes, only 2% were high level targets. In other words, there have been 176 children killed, while only 51 high level targets were killed, a ratio of more than 3 to 1. Clearly whether the drones are targeting young children deliberately or not makes no difference –the American government clearly does not appear to care given that the high ratios involved have not led to any questioning of their drone strategy, and this is without taking into consideration the hundreds of other proven civilian causalities involved or taking into account that the American government has stated that any male victim of adult age would be considered to have been a terrorist and therefore valid target.

But the question of moral equivalence is aside from the question posed – who is responsible? Blaming the American government, or the TTP, fails to satisfy the obvious point that up until now there is one entity that has not been mentioned as having any part to play in either instance – the Pakistani government. It is among the foremost duties of any state to protect those under its responsibility – a duty that has long been neglected by successive Pakistani governments.

It would normally be inconceivable that a supposedly sovereign state would allow a foreign entity – in this case the United States – to run a covert targeting and assassination program in its territory for years causing havoc among its own population. From the humiliation of the unilateral Abbottabad raid, the running amok of CIA agent Raymond Davis and the continued use of drones which according to a recent American report “Living with drones” serves to terrorise the civilian population, it appears that the Pakistani government has decided to forego any pretence of looking after its own people. The nominal protests registered every now and again against these actions, such as the complaints against the use of drones, cannot be construed as anything other than lip-service for public consumption. It is not realistic that the drone program has carried on for so long, from within Pakistan, without tacit support from the Pakistani leadership elite – it is simply that this support cannot be openly voiced due to public opinion being so (understandably) vehemently opposed to the attacks. This is confirmed by regular leaks to the press indicating the level of complicity between the two sides, such as in the Daily Telegraph article “Pakistan ‘helps US drone attacks’”.

Taking this into account, it becomes plain why President Zardari and General Kayani have rushed to take advantage of the Malala shooting,  with Kayani stating that “we refuse to bow before terror, we will fight, regardless of the cost we will prevail”. Such statements alongside rolling media coverage appear geared to prepare public opinion to wage another internal war – somewhat akin to the outrage after the release of an apparent flogging in SWAT in 2009 which prepared public opinion for the military operations in SWAT soon after.

Given that the Pakistani government appears to have surrendered at least some of its sovereignty to the American government and intelligence services, it is no wonder that a group such as the TTP can also emerge in the FATA region and act with impunity in cases such as the Malala shooting. The group is a loose alliance between different militant groups who came together initially in 2007, with analysts suggesting American missile strikes in the FATA region prior to that as a catalyzing affect for the rise in militancy, including a strike in 2006 on a school in Bajaur Agency which killed 69 children* (or in other words – 69 Malala Yousufzai’s, but left largely unreported due to the “hierarchy of death” at play as mentioned previously). With the absence of any state protection from foreign actions, the anger on the ground in such areas would naturally lead to all manner of uncontrollable militant reactions, an expected consequence of the Pakistani government forfeiture of its role in the face of outside aggression against its own population.

The political and military elite – currently represented by the Zardari-Kayani axis – has repeatedly shown that it is willing to sacrifice own population for the sake of others interests and goals. The concern they show for Malala stands in stark contrast to the lack of any concern for Noor-Syed and other children killed in drone attacks.

It should be clear to any neutral observer that the Pakistani government has lost any legitimacy it may have had. This is due to allowing others to kill the people in Pakistan either though CIA operatives or drone attacks, or surrendering their own citizens to them for torture and ill-treatment. It is also responsible for creating the conditions for groups like TTP to emerge, who serve to feed the cycle of violence every so often by providing more justification for continued attacks in parts of the country the American military either cannot reach or is too afraid to go.


* Article has been updated with details of strike killing 69 children in FATA by a drone strike in 2006.

Dr. Reza Pankhurst is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements. He received his doctorate from the London School of Economics. He was a political prisoner of the previous Mubarak regime in Egypt, spending almost 4 years in jail between 2002 and 2006. His forthcoming book is entitled “The Inevitable Caliphate?” (Hurst/ Columbia University Press 2012/3) and is available at Amazon and other retailers. He can be contacted at [email protected]

[1] Based upon the idea of a “Hierarchy of life”, recently mentioned by Glenn Greenwald in his article “The tragic consulate killings in Libya and America’s hierarchy of human life”


Related Articles


About Author


(2) Readers Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Read previous post:
Modern Myths Explained – “Freedom of Speech”

Dr. Reza Pankhurst Freedom of Speech - a universal value? Freedom of speech is the concept that one should be...