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Transcript: September 14, 2012

SCOTT SIMON:  Welcome to Need to Know. And thanks for joining us. You have to listen awfully carefully to find areas of agreement between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. But the two candidates and two parties do seem united on at least one important aspect of U.S. foreign policy … The use of unmanned aircraft armed with missiles – drones — to target and kill al Qaeda leaders around the world. Just this week, al Qaeda’s second-in- command in Yemen reportedly was killed during a drone strike. That’s the kind of story that generates plenty of headlines. But because of the CIA’s involvement, many details surrounding the drone program are secret. And little is known about civilian deaths that occur. This week, we focus on that aspect of the story. With the help of the International Center for Journalists and the Ford Foundation, Need to Know’s Hannah Yi recently traveled to Pakistan. There she met a psychiatrist who has treated hundreds of civilians, and some of them were already traumatized by the conflict. Now, they say they are being terrorized by the U.S. led war on terror.

SOT: US officials confirm today a drone strike killed the number 2 leader of Al Qaeda.

SOT: The White House says his death is a serious blow…

HANNAH Yi [narration]: In early June, it was the top news of the day.

SOT: Pakistani officials report the Libyan born Abu Yahya al-Libi was in the North Waziristan house that was hit by two drone missiles.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Abu Yahya al-Libi – Al Qaeda’s second in command – was killed in an early morning US drone strike in a village in northwest Pakistan near the afghanistan border.

Al-Libi – who had a one million dollar bounty on his head – was the 50th major terror leader killed during the 8 year drone war.

Two days after Al-Libi’s death – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the attacks would continue.

LEON PANETTA: We had made it clear to the Pakistanis that United States of America is going to defend ourselves against those that would attack us.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: But what got much less coverage in America that day were the reported deaths of at least 15 others killed during the attack – a fact highlighted in Pakistani newspapers.

According to a senior administration official, the number of civilian deaths from drone attacks in Pakistan since 2009 is in the “single digits”.  But the nonpartisan public policy institute – the New America Foundation – says an estimated four hundred and sixty unidentified individuals and civilians have been killed from drone strikes in the past eight years. And the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London puts the civilian death toll at nearly eight hundred and eighty.

Mohammad Assad says his cousin – a farmer and father of two – was one of those innocent civilians who died in a drone attack – apparently… the one that killed Al-Libi.

MOHAMMAD ASSAD [subtitles]: That attack makes me angry and sad. I cry because we are weak when they attack us.  I am angry about the killing of innocent people.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Though he didn’t witness the attack that killed his cousin, the 25 year old who we met in a hospital PSYCHIATRIC ward, says he’s seen half a dozen drone attacks. And because of that – for a year now, Assad says he gets severe headaches and sometimes he says, he can’t even move his body…that he’s Afraid to go outside…that he hasn’t been able to go to work at the local store. And getting a good night’s rest, he says, is impossible.

MOHAMMAD ASSAD [subtitles]: I feel scared when I’m sleeping. I see blood in my dreams and I wake up many times a night.  My dreams are full of terror, fear and drones.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Even the appearance of drones in the sky causes panic, he says, for himself and others in the tribal territories.  In the local Pashtu language they call it “bhungana” – which is the word for the buzzing noise a bee makes.

MOHAMMAD ASSAD [subtitles]: I have nervous breakdowns because of these attacks.  It took the charm out of my life, and it makes me very sad.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Assad says life became so unbearable that he did what hundreds of other Pakistanis in the tribal areas are doing each month – taking a journey across Pakistan to the capital city of Islamabad.

HANNAH YI: We’re on our way right now to meet with a doctor who’s based in Islamabad who treats a lot of patients with psychological trauma.  It’ll only take us 15 minutes to get there but for the many patients coming from the tribal areas in northwest Pakistan, this trip could take days.

DR. RIZWAN TAJ: Most of them who come to us are number 1 severely mentally ill, number 2 they suffer from a range of problems which includes acute psychosis, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Dr. Rizwan Taj – who trained as a psychiatrist in London – is the head of psychiatry at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences. In the past two years, he says he’s seen an increase in the number of patients from Waziristan — an area with few hospitals AND THE SCENE OF repeated clashes between militants and the Pakistani military.

DR. RIZWAN TAJ: It a bit like icing on the cake –a bad situation has been made worse by the drone attacks and made the population even insecure and generally increased the stressed levels.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Dr. Taj says the ongoing conflict in the region has traumatized people, and so some extremely poor citizens ARE MAKING huge sacrifices to get the psychological treatment they need.

DR. RIZWAN TAJ: It’s very very difficult for them. They would borrow money from their relatives or where ever. Others would sell their heard of goats or whatever maybe a piece of land. We see this all the time. The problem is that every patient that comes to us has two or three attendants with them because the person cannot take care of himself. So those two people are the earning members of the families and by the time they reach us they have to stay here a few days and some of them have to stay months or maybe two months.   I mean it’s a question of necessity. They would not just come here to have a little chat with me. They would come here if they have a serious problem, mental health issue that needs to be addressed urgently. Otherwise the patient would not survive.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: And so patients like Assad spend weeks at the hospital as in-patients receiving counseling and antipsychotic medication. But there’s no other assistance for relatives of civilians killed during drone strikes.

SHAHZAD AKBAR: The unfortunate thing about drones in north Waziristan is that there’s no recourse, no legal justification, no compensation given to these people.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Shahzad Akbar is a lawyer who represents 60 families who say they have lost loved ones to drone attacks.

SHAHZAD AKBAR: People who are affected, they have nowhere to complain to. The political administration simply says that this is something US is doing to you so we have nothing to do with it so we cannot compensate.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: So Akbar has taken his clients’ complaints to the United Nations Human Rights Council. He’s also filed a local complaint against a CIA official said to have “conspired” in the “murder and grievous injuries” of Pakistani civilians killed in drone attacks.

Shahzad claims the innocent die during drone attacks because houses are often built close together, and many people without air conditioning sleep outside to cope with stifling summer heat.BUT US officials say militants intentionally surround themselves with women and children.

HANNAH YI:  So how is all of this, the impact of the drones on these areas affected the way Pakistani’s view America?

SHAHZAD AKBAR: People who are on the boarding area with Afghanistan, especially in north and South Waziristan – let me say it very clearly, people simply hate America.  And the simple reason for that is drones, NATO strikes and the war next doors. This is what Pakistani government even says now, it’s the official version as well that drone strikes are counterproductive.

HANNAH YI: As drones continue to impact the daily life of Pakistani’s on the ground – there’s a larger tangled geo-political discussion happening every day. A few months ago Pakistani lawmakers in the parliament behind me unanimously passed a resolution demanding the stop to all US drone strikes.

SHUJA NAWAZ: It’s not clear what authority the United States has based on law which would allow it to cross the border and use drones for striking combatants or civilians or anyone in Pakistan.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Shuja Nawaz – a native Pakistani – is the South Asia director at the atlantic council in washington — nonpartisan foreign policy institute. He says in years past, the Pakistani government approved the American drone strikes with a wink and a nod.

But the US relationship with Pakistan deteriorated last year when it was discovered that Osama Bin Laden had been hiding out in a home just 100 yards from a Pakistani military academy – suggesting that Pakistani authorities had harbored the world’s most wanted terrorist.

A few months later, the Pakistanis were angered by a US led NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

And amidst all this acrimony – the Pakistani government, at least publicly, has now taken a more vocal position against drone attacks within its borders.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Sovereignty is now the key issue. It’s a matter of honor and respect.

PETER SINGER: The Pakistani government took the public position how dare you violate our sovereignty except key critical detail they don’t talk about. They were actually flying from a Pakistani air force base. It’s kind of hard to violate your sovereignty if it’s actually flying from a base within your own country.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Peter Singer is with the Brookings Institution – a nonpartisan public policy group. He writes about the transformation of war technology. . . and says this unmanned aircraft like drones has enabled the US to fight the war on terror without sacrificing more American lives.

PETER SINGER: It’s a game changer in the history of war and technology. To me it’s a lot like where the computer was around 1980, where the airplane was around 1916. It’s a new technology that allows the operators, the users to do things they couldn’t imagine doing just a generation earlier.

HANNAH YI: So in the past 8 years there’s been an estimated 43 al Qaeda leaders who’ve been specifically targeted and killed by drones. Would that have been possible in that 8 year time frame if it hadn’t been for the drones that the US was using in Pakistan?

PETER SINGER: It’s very unlikely we would have gotten that number of leaders frankly because you would have either had to put boots on the ground in a way that the president and the people around him and congress and American public would have been comfortable with – I don’t think they would have authorized that level of intervention in Pakistan. And in turn the Pakistani government – for all its public decrying of drone strikes – allowed them, allowed them to happen in a way they wouldn’t have allowed boots on the ground or even manned bombers.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Even so, many more civilians may have been killed by drone attacks than the US acknowledges officially.  Keep in mind – according to the New York Times, the Obama administration considers males in the targeted areas who are 17 and older as combatants – regardless of what they’re doing at the time of the attack.

HANNAH YI: So the very thing that’s most hateful about what happened on 911 was that fact the 3000 innocent civilians were killed – given that shouldn’t the US be more concerned about protecting the innocent civilians that are being killed in Pakistan?

PETER SINGER: You’re talking about war. In war there is no such thing as a silver bullet solution, no matter how precise the technology how amazing the tech, war is a place where bad things happen both to bad people and to good people.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Remember the estimated number of civilians killed from drone attacks ranges from single figures to many hundred.

SHAHZAD AKBAR: You’ve only killed a few dozens of Taliban or Al-Qaeda leadership. Plus all these random people. They are your direct enemies. They have now something against US.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: One possible example: in 2010, Faisal Shahzad – a Pakistani American who had trained at a terrorist training camp in Pakistan – tried unsuccessfully to set off a car bomb in Times Square. He later called it a revenge attack for the American drone strikes in Pakistan.

HANNAH YI: The Pakistani government has clearly been ineffective in defeating al Qaeda and the militants in its country. Given that doesn’t it make sense for the US to use whatever it takes to root out these terrorists to prevent another 911 and to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians?

SHUJA NAWAZ: We have to look at the reasons why the Pakistani government has had difficulty in eliminating the militants and terrorists from the border region in particular. One of course is the lack of preparedness of the Pakistani military and civilian administration to take on the militant groups. The other is the lack of equipment and the means that they needed.  There was a failure I think on the part of the US and the coalition to adequately equip the Pakistanis for this.

HANNAH Yi [narration]: Need to Know reached out to the Pakistani and US intelligence agencies – both declined to comment on the record about the drone program and the specific drone attack in early June that killed terror leader Abu Yahya Al-Libi.

But Pakistanis like shahzad akbar, believe americans need to know more about the US drone attacks in his country.

SHAHZAD AKBAR: We believe that American people are good people and their opinion do matter and if they get to know the right facts and what is being done to humanity on the other side of the world in their name I’m sure they’ll speak up and when they speak up they’ll matter.

SCOTT SIMON: And joining us now to discuss more on drones and the terrorists they target…is Pir Zubair Shah.  He’s a Pakistani journalist who grew up in the South Waziristan region that’s the hub of many drone strikes.  Currently he’s a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.



SCOTT SIMON: And now to American voices. Imagine for a moment that you’ve just returned to your hometown after years away.  If you live here in the united states, maybe that means a few of the stores on main street are now empty, maybe the big factory has left,  and some homes are in foreclosure. But if your hometown is Kabul, Afghanistan and you haven’t been there since you were a child, the change you would encounter could be classified as epic. Khaled Hosseini knows that first hand. He’s the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. He started a nonprofit to help Afghanistan’s most vulnerable.  He says returning there completely upended his world view.

KHALED HOSSEINI: I lived in Afghanistan all the years that I grew up there, and I left when I was about 11, I never heard a gunshot go off.  I never saw a tank move.  It was– you know, it live we lived in this era of just kind of peaceful anonymity, which most Afghans today think of as the golden era in recent Afghan history.

People living with a sort of Western sensibility, the fact that people did drink alcohol, the fact that women were active in society, that they were professors, they were doctors.  And it wasn’t always the way people perceive it today.

The reason we left Afghanistan was because my father was assigned to the  Afghan Embassy in Paris. And in October of 1976, my whole family and I moved for what we thought was just gonna be a three to four year assignment. I remember being home with my parents.  And we were having dinner, and the news broke out that the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Very quickly, Afghanistan was engaged in this– what turned out to be a decade-long war against the Soviet Union.  And at that point, my father began seriously considering that we would not go back to Afghanistan, and  applying for political asylum for our family here in the United States.

When we first arrived in the U.S. as Afghans in San Jose, there weren’t  that many other Afghans. And most of the other Afghans that my family were friends with, they were all professionals.  They were professors, they were lawyers, they were engineers.  And now, all of us were trying to orient ourselves and begin a new life in the United States.  My novel, The Kite Runner, painted a picture of an actual place with  actual people with actual lives that turned out to be not all that different from the lives that people lead maybe here in the U.S.

It came about because there was a news story about Afghanistan.  And back then, it was in the hands of the Taliban.  And there was a story about all the impositions that the Taliban had put on the Afghan population, on women– especially. But at some point along the story, it mentioned that they had also banned the sport of kite flying, which, of all the things that I heard in the story, was the one thing that struck a very personal note, because I grew up in Kabul, as a boy.  And one of the rites of passage when you grew up as a boy in Kabul is that you fly kites in the wintertime. I remember distinctly at one reading, this one lady walked up to me and she said that the thing that surprised her most about my novel was that there were trees in it.  Because she’d never seen pictures of trees in Afghanistan in all the news stories.  It’s always about some reporter in the desert, and that there’s dust behind him and there’s caves and he’s talking about the latest bombing.

I returned to Afghanistan in 2003 with my brother-in-law.  And I have to say the first two to three days was a real shock.I had this before/after picture everywhere I went.  I remembered, you know, the school that I went to, and now it no longer existed.  I remember entire neighborhoods where my father used to take me, and now it was just essentially erased to the ground. And the streets were crowded. People that bore visible scars of the war.  You know, people hopping on one leg, you know, so many widows of– you know, trailed by five, six children, something that was a very unusual sight when I grew up in Kabul.

I have the same hope as every Afghan does for Afghanistan, that Afghanistan will be a prosperous country, that it will be at peace with itself, with its neighbors, and that the Afghan people will finally have the chance to practice their legal, civil, economic, political, religious rights without fear of retribution.

SCOTT SIMON: That’s it for this edition of Need to Know.  For more on the US drone program, please visit to know – and don’t forget to take part in our weekly poll while you’re there. And for continuing election coverage from other PBS programs, please visit 2012. On next week’s program, a Need to Know election special hosted by Maria Hinojosa  that investigates America’s dramatically changing demographics.

MARIA HINOJOSA:  Should white America be afraid of becoming a minority?”

SCOTT SIMON: America by the numbers.  On the next Need to Know. I’m Scott Simon.  Thanks for watching.