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Drone Strikes Tracked Near Afghan-Pakistan Border


In the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, nearly 300 drone strikes have occurred since 2004. A recent investigation by the Associated Press looking at 10 of the deadliest attacks in the past 18 months suggests that around 70 percent of the people killed were militants. And this contradicts popular perception in Pakistan that civilians are the main victims.

In the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine, journalist Pir Zubair Shah gives a first-person account of his reporting on the drone wars over the past half a decade. And Shah spoke about that with Steve Inskeep.

PIR ZUBAIR SHAH: My first-ever report was on a drone strike in 2006 in the Bajaur tribal area which borders Afghanistan. So at that time I could go there, I could interview the family members of those who had been killed. I could go to the graves and just count how many people have been killed. Over the years, the militants, the Taliban and other groups, they would just cordon off the site of the drone strike and they would take away the dead bodies, so at the end it was basically meaningless to go there. So usually I would rely on my sources.


But you recount one incredible instance in which you decided to try to bring all the sources to you in one place in the city of Peshawar, which is on the edge of the tribal areas and at least a little bit more secure than being out in the mountains.

SHAH: Yeah. That was my way to do things at the end.

INSKEEP: And not just tribal elders and members of the Taliban, but also members of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI? You put them all up in the same guest house?

SHAH: Yup.

INSKEEP: How did your questioning work? Excuse me for a moment, sir, I need to go the bathroom, and you'd slip into the, slip into somebody else's room?

SHAH: I mean it's - in our culture it's easy to understand, and I can imagine that here it's very difficult for people to imagine. But we had the whole night. So what I would do is after talking to the family, I would ask them to get relaxed and they would start drinking tea, I would excuse myself and go to the other room and then talk to the other group, and then so on.

INSKEEP: So did you think that in that particular incident you got to the bottom of who was struck and why they were struck?

SHAH: I'm pretty sure they confirmed that the people who were killed were innocent civilians and they had nothing to do with al-Qaida or the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Now, how common has that been, out of the hundreds of drone strikes over the last several years, that someone who is clearly not a militant is killed?

SHAH: This was the first incident in which I was very sure that all of them were civilians. And there has been, for example, one instance in which there was a guy who ended up suing the CIA in Islamabad, but along with his son and his brother was killed a very important al-Qaida commander. So it's very difficult in those areas to separate the combatant from a civilian.

INSKEEP: One final thing, what kind of effect have constant drone strikes had on the local culture along the border with Afghanistan?

SHAH: Drones have become now part of their daily life. If they don't hear a drone in a day or two, they start asking questions that what's going wrong, why are there no drones in the air. This is one change and then on vehicles they paint that.

INSKEEP: Little poems on the sides of people's trucks or whatever.

SHAH: Exactly.

INSKEEP: What do some of those little poems say on the sides of vehicles?

SHAH: The smile of my love is like a drone attack, and it strikes my heart like Miranshah. Miranshah is the capital of North Waziristan.

INSKEEP: And if you get mad at somebody now, I gather you don't say I'm going to beat you up, I'm going to pound you, I'm going to hit you? You say...

SHAH: I'm going to drone you.

INSKEEP: Pir Zubair Shah, reporter over the years for Newsday, The Washington Times and The New York Times. He's now a Nieman fellow at Harvard University. Thanks very much.

SHAH: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: And his article is called "My Drone War." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.