How the Drone War Plays Out in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas

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Almost every single known U.S. drone strike targeting Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan has taken place in the country’s isolated, hard to access and underdeveloped tribal areas along its border with Afghanistan.

Off limits to most journalists, evidence of America’s covert operations here is scant, but today WIRED published 13 rare and arresting photos of what appears to be the aftermath of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Warning: The images are graphic and some of them show dead children.

North Waziristan resident Noor Behram, who shot the photos, says he has spent the last three years rushing to the scenes of drone strikes — at great personal risk — to document their impacts on the ground. His aim, he says, is to “show taxpayers in the Western world what their tax money is doing to people in another part of the world: killing civilians, innocent victims, children.”

WIRED issued a disclaimer, acknowledging Behram’s agenda and warning that it could not confirm the photos’ authenticity, but said it chose to publish them on account of  “the inherent journalistic value in depicting a largely unseen battlefield.”

The images depict families preparing the bodies of loved ones for burial; the charred debris of homes razed by the strikes; and pieces of Hellfire missiles. The photos have been making the rounds internationally in the past few months — an exhibition of Behram’s work premiered at London’s Beaconsfield Gallery earlier last summer – but this is the first time they have been published in the U.S.

“For every 10 to 15 people killed, maybe they get one militant,” Behram told The Guardian in July. “I don’t go to count how many Taliban are killed. I go to count how many children, women, innocent people, are killed.”

Proponents of the drone program argue it is based on intelligence that ensures accuracy and precision. Anonymous officials told The New York Times that the drone program had only killed 50 non-combatants since 2001, a figure reporter Scott Shane described as “a stunningly low collateral death rate by the standards of traditional airstrikes.”

This discrepancy underscores just how difficult it is to get credible reporting from the tribal areas, as The New York Times noted in August:

Reporters in North Waziristan, where most strikes occur, operate in a dangerous and politically charged environment. Many informants have their own agendas: militants use civilian deaths as a recruiting tool, and Pakistani officials rally public opinion against the drones as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

Behram has been working with Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar, and Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the London-based rights organization, Reprieve, to bring more information about the strikes to the public. Their latest efforts have included giving residents of the tribal areas cameras to document their impacts.

As part of that project, Smith said he met in Islamabad in September with 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, a resident of the tribal areas who came to learn basic photography in order to document the strikes. Just 72 hours later, Smith says, he was killed in a drone strike, along with his 12-year-old cousin.

The CIA’s covert drone program is closed to the public, but FRONTLINE has rare footage of Air Force pilots at the Creech Air Force base in Nevada who are behind the U.S. military’s drone strikes in Afghanistan. The video below illustrates the sorts of questions pilots confront in using the advanced weaponry:

Drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas have been a key part of American strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has dramatically expanded their use.

But in recent months, high-profile former U.S. officials have raised questions about the drones’ effectiveness, and have called for the program to be made transparent.

In August, Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair argued that drone strikes “are no longer the most effective strategy for eliminating Al Qaeda’s ability to attack us.” His argument echoed what Robert Grenier, the former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, told FRONTLINE in an interview for Kill/Capture. Grenier questioned whether the drone program has become counterproductive, posing the question: “By launching those attacks, are we creating more militants than in fact we are killing?”

Bonus:

“A Journalist in the Tribal Areas” – Learn about Pakistani investigative journalist and FRONTLINE fixer Hayat Ullah Khan, who was one of the first Pakistani journalists to uncover evidence of the covert U.S drone campaign in Pakistan. Four days after taking photos of U.S. Hellfire missiles in the rubble of an attack that killed a man believed to be a senior Al Qaeda operative, he was abducted by unknown assailants and later killed.

“Inside the Tribal Areas” — Also watch this rare video Khan shot inside Pakistan’s tribal areas for FRONTLINE producers Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria when they were making their 2002 film In Search of Al Qaeda.

Update:

Dec. 20, 2011 — Today The Washington Post reported an unnamed senior U.S. official saying there are “major problems with the charges from Reprieve.” The official denied that Aziz’s 12-year-old cousin had been killed in the strike, telling the paper, “It’s absolutely possible to tell the difference between an adult male and a 12-year-old child in these sorts of actions.” Referring to the strike on Oct. 31st, the official said, “On that day no child was killed; in fact, the adult males were supporting al-Qaeda’s facilitation network and their vehicle was following a pattern of activity used by al-Qaeda facilitators.”

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