An expert's point of view on a current event.

My Drone War

American drones have changed everything for al Qaeda and its local allies in Pakistan, becoming a fact of life in a secret war that is far from over.

Deb Smith/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images
Deb Smith/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images
Deb Smith/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images

"We don't even sit together to chat anymore," the Taliban fighter told me, his voice hoarse as he combed his beard with his fingers. We were talking in a safe house in Peshawar as the fighter and one of his comrades sketched a picture of life on the run in the borderlands of Waziristan. The deadly American drones buzzing overhead, the two men said, had changed everything for al Qaeda and its local allies.

“We don’t even sit together to chat anymore,” the Taliban fighter told me, his voice hoarse as he combed his beard with his fingers. We were talking in a safe house in Peshawar as the fighter and one of his comrades sketched a picture of life on the run in the borderlands of Waziristan. The deadly American drones buzzing overhead, the two men said, had changed everything for al Qaeda and its local allies.

The whitewashed two-story villa bristled with activity. Down the hall from my Taliban sources sat an aggrieved tribal elder and his son in one room and two officers from Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate in another. I had gathered them all there to make sense of what had become the signature incident of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan: an American drone strike, one of the first ordered on the watch of the new U.S. president, Barack Obama. The early 2009 strike had killed a local elder, along with his son, two nephews, and a guest in the South Waziristan town of Wana. Several sources had told me the family was innocent, with no connections to the Taliban or al Qaeda. But traveling to Waziristan had become too dangerous even for me, a reporter who had grown up there. So instead I had brought Waziristan to Peshawar, renting rooms for my sources in the guesthouse. I had just one night to try to figure out what had happened.

I spent the night running from room to room, assembling the story in pieces. On the first floor sat the dead elder’s brother and nephew, who told me what little they knew of the incident. On the second floor, the ISI officers, over whiskey and lamb tikka, described their work helping U.S. intelligence agents sort out targets from among the images relayed back from the drones. Then there were the two Taliban fighters, whom I had first met in Waziristan in 2007. One had been a fixer for the Haqqani network, skilled at smuggling men and materiel from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The other drew a government salary as an employee of Pakistan’s agriculture department but worked across the border as an explosives expert; he had lost a finger fighting the allied forces in Afghanistan. None of the men in the house knew the others were there.

The two fighters described how the militants were adapting to this new kind of warfare. The Taliban and al Qaeda had stopped using electronic devices, they told me. They would no longer gather in huge numbers, even in mosques to pray, and spent their nights outside for safety, a life that was wearing thin. “We can’t sleep in the jungle the whole of our lives,” one told me. Gradually, a picture of a rare incident came into focus: a deadly strike that had mistakenly taken out a man with no connection to al Qaeda or the Taliban.

This is how it has gone with the drone war, a beat I have covered for six years, first for Newsday and then the New York Times. By the time I left Pakistan in the summer of 2010, the job had become nearly impossible, though it had always been a dauntingly difficult story to tell. The drone campaign is one of the U.S. government’s most secret programs. Although the most authoritative study on the subject, by the New America Foundation last year, calculated that 283 drone strikes had occurred in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region since 2004, Obama never even publicly acknowledged them until this past January. Making matters still more difficult, the targets are in one of the world’s most inaccessible areas, one that has traditionally been out of bounds for outsiders and where the state of Pakistan has nominal or no governing authority. It is an environment in which accurate reporting is an often unattainable goal, where confusion, controversies, and myths proliferate.

Although the drone campaign has become the linchpin of the bama administration’s counterterrorism strategy in Central Asia — and one it is increasingly exporting to places such as Yemen and the Horn of Africa — we know virtually nothing about it. I spent more than half a decade tracking this most secret of wars across northern Pakistan, taking late-night calls from intelligence agents, sorting through missile fragments at attack sites, counting bodies and graves, interviewing militants and victims. I dodged bullets and, once, an improvised explosive device. At various times I found myself imprisoned by the Taliban and detained by the Pakistani military. Yet even I can say very little for certain about what has happened.

THE EVENING OF JUNE 18, 2004, was a sweltering one in South Waziristan, and the 27-year-old local Taliban leader, Nek Muhammad Wazir, had decided to eat dinner in the courtyard of his house in the village of Kari Kot, along with his two brothers and two bodyguards. Muhammad’s satellite phone rang, and he picked it up. Moments later, a missile streaked through the compound and exploded, killing all five men.

At the time, no one in the Pakistani public or media knew that it was a drone. The government would say nothing, and everyone else attributed Muhammad’s killing either to a Pakistani military operation — after all, soldiers had gone looking for him without success on six occasions — or to the work of U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan. A Taliban fighter who was within earshot of the explosion told me later that the militants were totally taken by surprise. “There was a noise in the air before, and then we heard the explosion,” he recalled. The villagers, however, supplied the explanation: They collected the fragments of the missile, on which was printed in black, “Made in USA.”

Then, in late 2005, a similarly mysterious explosion killed Abu Hamza Rabia, a high-ranking Egyptian member of al Qaeda, outside North Waziristan’s capital city, Miram Shah. President Pervez Musharraf refused to explain what had happened, saying only that he was “200 percent” sure Rabia was dead. But a local reporter named Hayatullah Khan, who lived in the next village over from where Rabia was killed, had gone to the site to sift through the rubble. Amid the debris were pieces of a Hellfire missile. He took pictures, which swiftly appeared in newspapers around the world.

The photographs directly contradicted the statements of Musharraf’s government, which had variously claimed that Pakistani forces killed Rabia or that the militants blew themselves up by accident. The following month, Khan was abducted by gunmen. His body was found six months later near the Afghan border with handcuffs on his wrists; he had been shot in the back, apparently while trying to escape. When I visited his family in North Waziristan a year later, Khan’s brother told me he blamed the ISI.

In January 2006, shortly after Khan’s disappearance, I got an early-morning phone call at my home in Islamabad from a colleague at Newsday, where I was then working as a fixer and bureau manager. There had been another drone strike in the Bajaur tribal area, he told me; could I go investigate? I picked up a friend who worked for the BBC and drove north to Bajaur to see my first drone strike. It would be the first newspaper story to appear under my own byline — and my first experience covering the drone war.

As we drove into Damadola, a farming village sprawled across a wide valley, I spotted the bodies of a cow and a calf, splayed out underneath a tree with their eyes wide open. Nearby were the fresh ruins of three houses.

The drone’s presumed target had been Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had been rumored to be in the area. I arrived on the scene ahead of most other reporters, and the families of the victims took me to see their newly dug graves. “All those killed, including women and children, are from this village,” a villager told me as he showed me the burial site. “There were no foreigners here.” Then I noticed something odd: Although I counted 13 graves, the locals would only tell me the names of seven women and children who had been killed. When it came to the men, they were silent. Later, a Pakistani official told me foreigners had indeed been present, including Zawahiri, though he had left some time before the missile hit. Drones were not yet common, but the fugitive al Qaeda No. 2 had long since become accustomed to moving quickly from place to place.

IT WAS IN SEPTEMBER 2006 that I heard a drone for the first time, flying over the mud-walled village of Ali Khel, a couple of miles west of Miram Shah. It was a hot summer night, too hot in the house of the building-contractor friend with whom I was staying, so I had gone out to sleep in the open along with several laborers who worked for him. The men were telling me about their travels in Afghanistan, how they would cross the border to fight for the Taliban and then return after a week or two to North Waziristan to work and make some money. Then I heard the buzzing, far above our heads — like a bee, but heavier and unceasing, drifting in and out of earshot. The laborers said nothing.

On the other side of the Tochi River, in the village of Khatai, lived a famous Taliban commander whom the Pakistani military had once tried to kill. The operation had been a debacle; the military lost at least two senior officers, and hundreds of soldiers found themselves besieged not only by Taliban fighters but by the local villagers. But the small, lethal machine flying far overhead had accomplished what the Pakistani soldiers could not. “Nowadays he doesn’t live here all the time,” my host that night said as he pointed toward the commander’s nearby compound. “There are drones in the air now.”

Taliban fighters speaking a Waziri dialect of Pashto call the drones bhungana –– “the one that produces a bee-like sound.” Their local adversaries call them ababeel — the name of a bird mentioned in the Quran, sent by God to defend the holy city of Mecca from an invading army by hurling small stones from its mouth. Over the several days I spent in Ali Khel I became accustomed to their sound. It was there all the time. During the day it was mostly absorbed into the hum of daily life, but in the calm of the night the buzzing was all you heard.

This kind of reporting trip, risky as it was, had become increasingly necessary, given the cagey and outright confusing response by the Pakistani government to the escalating air war over its territory. When news of the early attacks got out, officials were evasive, suggesting that the militants had been killed while making explosives in their compounds. Then, after a drone strike took out a madrasa in the Bajaur tribal area in October 2006, killing more than 80 people, the government claimed that Pakistani bombers had done the job. Militants responded that November with a suicide bombing of a military barracks in the Dargai area of Malakand district, killing 42 soldiers and wounding dozens more.

The government learned its lesson, retreating back into ambiguity. From that moment on, only the residents of the areas targeted by the drones would have a clear understanding of what was happening — but those areas were mostly beyond the reach of the media.

IF THE CONDUCT OF THE DRONE war is mysterious, the terrain over which it is fought is not, at least to me — I have known it all my life. I was born in South Waziristan, to parents from two different Pashtun tribes, in a town that had been famous in the British colonial era for its gun and knife factories. My ancestors had come from Afghanistan as preachers, and I had taken my first steps as a child in the Afghan city of Khost, just across the border, where my maternal grandfather lived.

After graduating from university in Islamabad in 2001, I had returned to the tribal regions to prepare for my civil service exam. As unthinkable as it seems now, it was then the most peaceful, tranquil place I knew, and I spent my evenings in Bajaur studying with a college professor in preparation for a career in Pakistan’s foreign service. During the days I would travel with my uncle, a government irrigation engineer, to villages in the area, meeting the residents and elders.

As the media poured into Afghanistan and Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks, someone with my background and English-language skills was suddenly very much in demand, and I got my first job in Newsday‘s Islamabad bureau. On my trips back to Waziristan, I saw the landscape of my childhood transforming into a war zone. By 2004, people I had known there in my youth were on all sides of the region’s worsening conflict, in the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

As the Pakistani military operations started to expand from one tribal area to the next, reporting on the ground went from difficult to impossible. I found myself working more and more over the phone, canvassing the contacts I had made during my travels in the region. When it came to the drone attacks, some of my sources would have access to the site of the strike and would tell me what really happened. I soon learned that the official version of the story was usually the least reliable. The military often had the same access problem I did and was itself relying on secondary sources.

The Taliban started adapting, too. The militants had come to realize that the increasingly effective drone strikes made them look weak, and they began getting rid of the evidence as fast as they could. After every attack they would cordon off the area and remove the bodies of the dead, making it difficult to verify who and how many people had been killed. Going to the site of a drone attack became a futile exercise; only a very few local reporters known for their deference to the Taliban were given any meaningful access.

I made my last visit to Waziristan in June 2007. By then, people there knew I worked for an American newspaper; fearing for my safety, my family discouraged me from going. The military was turning away representatives of foreign news organizations, and the Taliban had grown increasingly paranoid — a fact I learned the hard way a year later.

It was a hot, sunny day in July 2008, and I had set out from Peshawar with a photographer to report on the Taliban in the Mohmand tribal area, where the group had taken over a series of marble quarries. After meeting up with a local guide, we arrived in the village of Ziarat and headed toward the local Taliban checkpoint. We had dressed in the traditional salwar kameez and had worn hats in an effort to blend in. My photographer was from Karachi, though, and I worried that his presence would mark us as outsiders. I asked him to stay near the car while I ventured out to the checkpoint, where I interviewed a contractor working in the mines. As I was about to finish my interview, I saw my photographer approaching, so I wrapped up the conversation and hustled him back to the car. But it was too late. A bearded man shouted at us — he had seen the photographer’s camera bag.

We were escorted away from the main road in our car, a Talib riding alongside us with a rifle. The Taliban held us in a prison in the base of a mountain, guarded by young volunteers from a nearby village. When we arrived, all our belongings, including our cell phones and money, were confiscated. But we were treated well — better, at any rate, than the prisoners we saw chained up in the neighboring rooms.

In the evening two Taliban came to our room. “Who is the Waziristani?” one of them asked. I said it was me, and I followed them into a half-destroyed room elsewhere in the compound. “Tell us who really you are,” one of them said. They looked through the contacts in my cell phone, demanding to know why they included the commander of the Frontier Corps, the regional U.S.-trained paramilitary force the Taliban were fighting. The questioning went on for three days. I told them I was a reporter. My Waziristan connections were of some help, but they posed a risk too: I knew the local Taliban had recently attacked my family’s village in the nearby district of Tank, killing more than a dozen of my relatives. I didn’t want them to know that I knew.

Finally, Abdul Wali, the local Taliban leader, arrived and, satisfied that we were who we said we were, ordered our release. They had to be vigilant, he told us. “People come here under the guise of journalists and photographers, and they either take pictures of our locations and pass them on to the authorities or drop a SIM [card] to facilitate a drone strike,” he said. “You never know who is a reporter and who is a spy.”

AMONG WAZIRISTAN’S RESIDENTS, “I will drone you” has by now entered the vocabulary of day-to-day conversation as a morbid joke. The mysterious machines buzzing far overhead have become part of the local folklore. “I am looking for you like a drone, my love,” goes a romantic Pashto verse I’ve often heard the locals recite. “You have become Osama; no one knows your whereabouts.”

But it was only when WikiLeaks released its cache of U.S. State Department cables beginning in late 2010 that Pakistanis learned just how complicit their government has been in the drone campaign. A February 2008 cable from the embassy in Islamabad reported that Pakistan’s Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, met with the U.S. Centcom commander, Adm. William Fallon, and asked the U.S. military for “continuous Predator coverage of the conflict area” in South Waziristan, where the Pakistani Army was fighting the militants at the time. “Kayani knows full well that the strikes have been precise (creating few civilian casualties) and targeted primarily at foreign fighters” in Waziristan, asserted a February 2009 cable signed by Anne Patterson, then the U.S. ambassador.

In an August 2008 meeting with Patterson, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani — the same man who, after Navy SEALs dropped into Pakistan to raid bin Laden’s compound last year, warned that “Pakistan reserves the right to retaliate with full force” — gave Patterson his go-ahead for a drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal regions. “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people,” he told her, according to a U.S. cable. “We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.”

Eventually, the disclosures prompted a response: In March of last year, Pakistani Maj. Gen. Ghayur Mehmood, the commander in North Waziristan, appeared before reporters in Miram Shah and told them, “Myths and rumors about U.S. Predator strikes and the casualty figures are many, but it’s a reality that many of those being killed in these strikes are hard-core elements, a sizable number of them foreigners. Yes, there are a few civilian casualties in such precision strikes, but a majority of those eliminated are terrorists, including foreign terrorist elements.” It was an unusually candid public statement on the drone strikes from a high-ranking Pakistani official. Mehmood also provided something else that had until then been missing: official numbers. According to the government’s figures, he said, 164 drone strikes had taken place since 2007, killing 964 terrorists: 793 locals and 171 foreigners. The dead included Arabs, Chechens, Filipinos, Moroccans, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. The figures also confirmed the dramatic escalation of the drone war. In 2007, the government said, a single drone strike had killed a single militant. In 2010, the strikes had killed 423.

Some such admission was probably inevitable; the revelations in the WikiLeaks cables and Pakistan’s obvious inability to stop the attacks put the government in a position where it had to say something. Arguing that the drones were killing real terrorists was the best option available (though a military spokesman still tried to distance the Army from Mehmood’s statements, saying they reflected only the general’s opinion).

But it was also an acknowledgment of defeat: The secret war has become a lot less secret. At first, the tribal areas of Pakistan had seemed to present the perfect testing ground for a remote-controlled military strategy; it is a land set apart from its own country and mostly inaccessible to the international media and human rights groups, a place where violations of international law and civilian casualties go mostly uninvestigated. It is, in short, a black hole. But even as the Obama administration was increasingly embracing the drones as an alternative to the boots-on-the-ground military actions it inherited from its predecessor, its secret war was becoming as much a political liability as a precision weapon.

As the strikes have continued, they have given rise to a narrative that explains away the country’s worsening radicalization and extremist violence as a product of the drones — a narrative that has served as a bargaining chip for Pakistani leaders in their dealings with the United States as they once again raise the price of Pakistan’s cooperation in the war. (After a November 2011 incident in Mohmand district in which NATO forces mistakenly killed Pakistani soldiers, the first thing Pakistan demanded was the evacuation of the Shamsi air base in Baluchistan province, which had been used by the Americans for launching drones over the tribal areas; pictures of the emptied base immediately flashed across the Pakistani media.) In reality, the country’s worsening anti-Americanism is driven more by the portrayal of the drones in the Pakistani media, which paints them as a scourge targeting innocent civilians, than by the drones themselves. Few Pakistanis have actually visited the tribal areas or even know much about them. Until the United States and Pakistan come clean about the program, though, it is an image that will persist, worsening the frictions within Pakistan’s already divided society and between the United States and Pakistan.

That’s too bad, because in reality Pakistanis are deeply torn about the drones. For every anti-American rant they inspire-the recent meteoric rise of Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician, owes a great deal to his strong opposition to the drone strikes — there is also a recognition that these strikes from the sky have their purpose. At times, they have outright benefited the Pakistani state, as in the summer of 2009, when a drone attack killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of a militant alliance in Waziristan who was suspected of masterminding former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s 2007 assassination — Pakistan’s Enemy No. 1, but a villain of less consequence to the United States.

Residents of the tribal areas are similarly conflicted. Many favor the drone strikes over the alternatives, such as military operations or less selective bombardments by Pakistani bombers and helicopter gunships. Better a few houses get vaporized than an entire village turned into refugees. Even the brother of the elder I brought to the Peshawar guesthouse said as much, allowing that “in our case, it might be faulty intelligence or mischief by someone” that had caused the strike that killed his brother. Regardless, he said, “I would always go for the drones.”

Either way, they are now a fact of life in a secret war that is far from over. Once I called a source — a Taliban commander in one of the tribal areas. His brother picked up the phone and told me that the commander was asleep. It was noon, and I remarked that it was an odd time for a nap. “There are drones in the sky,” the brother laughingly replied, “so he is not feeling well.”

<p> Pir Zubair Shah is a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. </p>

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