Monday, March 12, 2012

Pir Zubair Shah: My Drone War

Caption: An ML-1Q Predator unmanned aerial vehicle that now appears in the Smithsonian Museum. This was one of the first UAVs to carry armament.

Image credit cliff1066

As a report for Newsday and The New York Times, Pir Zubair Shah has covered the secret war America has waged against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the region of Pakistan near the Afghanistan border. His article this month in Foreign Policy is well worth a read, not only for what it tells us about that war, but about its effect on its targets. As Shah has said, the area is an isolated one, and both the U.S. and Pakistani governments divulge little about the war.

Here he discusses his first look at the results of a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strike in Waziristan:
n January 2006, ... 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.

My Drone War
Those few paragraphs say a lot about the situation. Any information has to be pieced together from multiple sources, because no one - the governments, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the people caught in between, are likely to tell everything they know. Waziristan is mountain country. It sounds like a Middle Eastern version of Appalachia - populated by people who mistrust any outsiders, particularly if they're representatives of a remote central authority. The governments and the people they are targeting have their own reasons for keeping mum. It's the perfect place to carry on a war without anyone being able to come to an informed judgment on whether that war is worth fighting or not.

I've mentioned before the idea that for a government that can do it, using UAVs as a means of attacking suspected terrorists is one that holds few dangers. Unfortunately, for the people who are near the intended targets, that is seldom the case.

I had not heard of Pir Zubair Shah, but if winning the Pulitzer Prize means anything anymore, he's done some good reporting on this phenomenon. His Foreign Policy article is a good overview of his experience in covering this strange new kind of war.

No comments: