Clive Stafford Smith

For Our Allies, Death From Above

on 03 November 2011


Last Friday, I took part in an unusual meeting in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

The meeting had been organized so that Pashtun tribal elders who lived along the Pakistani-Afghan frontier could meet with Westerners for the first time to offer their perspectives on the shadowy drone war being waged by the Central Intelligence Agency in their region. Twenty men came to air their views; some brought their young sons along to experience this rare interaction with Americans. In all, 60 villagers made the journey.

The meeting was organized as a traditional jirga. In Pashtun culture, a jirga acts as both a parliament and a courtroom: it is the time-honored way in which Pashtuns have tried to establish rules and settle differences amicably with those who they feel have wronged them.

On the night before the meeting, we had a dinner, to break the ice. During the meal, I met a boy named Tariq Aziz. He was 16. As we ate, the stern, bearded faces all around me slowly melted into smiles. Tariq smiled much sooner; he was too young to boast much facial hair, and too young to have learned to hate.

The next day, the jirga lasted several hours. I had a translator, but the gist of each man’s speech was clear. American drones would circle their homes all day before unleashing Hellfire missiles, often in the dark hours between midnight and dawn. Death lurked everywhere around them.

When it was my turn to speak, I mentioned the official American position: that these were precision strikes and no innocent civilian had been killed in 15 months. My comment was met with snorts of derision.

I told the elders that the only way to convince the American people of their suffering was to accumulate physical proof that civilians had been killed. Three of the men, at considerable personal risk, had collected the detritus of half a dozen missiles; they had taken 100 pictures of the carnage.

In one instance, they matched missile fragments with a photograph of a dead child, killed in August 2010 during the C.I.A.’s period of supposed infallibility. This made their grievances much more tangible.

Collecting evidence is a dangerous business. The drones are not the only enemy. The Pakistani military has sealed the area off from journalists, so the truth is hard to come by. One man investigating drone strikes that killed civilians was captured by the Taliban and held for 63 days on suspicion of spying for the United States.

At the end of the day, Tariq stepped forward. He volunteered to gather proof if it would help to protect his family from future harm. We told him to think about it some more before moving forward; if he carried a camera he might attract the hostility of the extremists.

But the militants never had the chance to harm him. On Monday, he was killed by a C.I.A. drone strike, along with his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan. The two of them had been dispatched, with Tariq driving, to pick up their aunt and bring her home to the village of Norak, when their short lives were ended by a Hellfire missile.

My mistake had been to see the drone war in Waziristan in terms of abstract legal theory — as a blatantly illegal invasion of Pakistan’s sovereignty, akin to President Richard M. Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia in 1970.

But now, the issue has suddenly become very real and personal. Tariq was a good kid, and courageous. My warm hand recently touched his in friendship; yet, within three days, his would be cold in death, the rigor mortis inflicted by my government.

And Tariq’s extended family, so recently hoping to be our allies for peace, has now been ripped apart by an American missile — most likely making any effort we make at reconciliation futile.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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