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U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan get mixed response

The aircraft target Al Qaeda and the Taliban and minimize civilian deaths, U.S. officials say. Many Pakistanis decry them as indiscriminate; others approve, even some who have lost relatives.

May 02, 2010|By Alex Rodriguez and David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

"Ishaq doesn't talk at all," Khan said. "He can't recognize his family, and he drinks only if someone helps him."

Three weeks after that strike, a house full of civilians in the same neighborhood was struck, instantly killing cousins Sher Maan, 20, and Azeem Ullah, 30, and Azeem's wife, Gul Anama, 25.

"It was a huge blast that shook the ground," said Amin Ullah, 20, a Shakai farmer.

"I believe that most of the victims of these drone attacks are innocent people," Ullah said. "Pakistan should be carrying out these attacks. Pakistan knows the terrain, knows its people and knows the militants."

Andrew Exum, a former Army officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, has declared the drone program counterproductive and called for an end to it. In an analysis published last year, Exum and David Kilcullen, a former counterinsurgency advisor to the head of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, dismissed drones as technology substituting for strategy.

"Every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement,'' they wrote.

Drones have proved invaluable in Afghanistan, where they focus on surveillance, intelligence-gathering and watching over coalition troops, Exum said in an interview. But in Pakistan, the U.S. and the government in Islamabad need to make the case that the attacks are part of a joint strategy supporting Pakistani policy, he said.

"I'm not saying drones can't be part of the solution, but right now I think they're part of the problem,'' Exum said.

Drone attacks have enraged men such as Momin Khan. On a September morning last year, Khan heard the thunderclap of a drone strike in Machis, his village in North Waziristan, and ran to see what had happened.

As he joined other villagers running down a dirt road, the 50-year-old unemployed teacher saw black smoke and flames curling out of a house about 60 yards away. The missile had killed two people there. As he ran closer, a second missile strike shook the ground.

Shrapnel from the blast cut into his shoulder and legs. He woke up in a hospital.

Four people were killed in the second strike, he said. Although Taliban militants have often used Machis as a haven, Khan said he was sure the house initially targeted had only civilians in it.

"These drones fly day and night, and we don't know where to hide because we don't know who they will target," he said. "If I could, I would take revenge on America."

Philip Alston, the United Nations special representative on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, said that without full disclosure of the CIA drone program, "the opportunities for abuse are immense."

"The CIA is running a program that is killing a significant number of people, and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international law,'' he said.

U.S. officials counter that the program is both legal and effective.

"U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war," State Department legal advisor Harold Koh said in a speech in March.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), chairwoman of the terrorism, unconventional threats and capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, said she is "in the comfort zone, considering who we've been able to take out" in drone strikes.

"We have a mandate to eliminate these people who are trying to hurt us," Sanchez said. Even if political conditions allowed for U.S. ground troops in Pakistan, she said, that would almost certainly increase both civilian and U.S. military casualties.

Continued use of drone strikes, however, risks losing people like Dil Faraz Khan, a tribal elder in his 40s who despised the Taliban.

Faraz Khan assembled meetings of tribal leaders to brainstorm ways to resist the militants.

Survivors say Faraz Khan, three of his sons and a farmer were sitting in the family compound's guest house one evening in February 2009 when a missile hit it.

Drones had been flying overhead all day. But Faraz Khan's brother, Bara Khan, said the family felt safe because they were not Taliban.

The strike tore the family apart. Faraz Khan and two adult sons who helped support the household are dead, as is a 14-year-old son who was going to school in hope of freeing himself from stifling poverty.

And yet, Bara Khan says he understands the need for drone strikes. He said he's convinced the attack was an aberration.

"Our thing happened because of a mistake," said Khan, a silver-bearded Pashtun, who like his brother is a tribal elder. "I know that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are very much in trouble because of these attacks. These drone attacks really strike fear in them."

David S. Cloud in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

One in a series of occasional articles about America's remote-controlled warfare.

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