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US bombing campaign in North Waziristan is sowing sympathy for Al Qaeda and other militants.
DATTA KHEL, Pakistan — This was once an oasis of calm, a peaceful town in a region famous worldwide for its lawlessness and violence. But in 2007, all that changed when Datta Khel became the primary target of unmanned U.S. drones armed with hellfire missiles.
Even with the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden outside of Islamabad on May 2, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials believe this town is the command and control center for members of Al Qaeda and its remaining senior leadership. It is also, they say, home to the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network, a Pakistan militant group that has launched continuous attacks on U.S. and NATO forces operating in Afghanistan.
Many of these militants have poured into Datta Khel, which borders northeastern Afghanistan, and the nearby town of Mir Ali in recent years as they have fled Pakistani military operations in South Waziristan and the Swat Valley.
Together, the two towns now make up what is thought to be the heartland of militancy, where the Haqqani Network, the Taliban and Al Qaeda all operate with relative impunity.
The unmanned bombing runs, which have increased in frequency since U.S. President Barack Obama assumed office in 2008, have killed a number of senior militants, according to both U.S. and Paksitani officials.
“We appear to be the ultimate loser in the war between the Taliban and America.”~Shahbaz Dawar, Pakistani shop owner
Most recently, on May 12, a U.S. drone fired two missiles at vehicles traveling through Datta Khel, killing seven people, all of whom were believed to be militants. On May 6, another drone attack in Datta Khel killed 15 people, also believed to be militants. In North Waziristan as a whole, there have been seven strikes since the death of bin Laden.
The drone attacks, however, have also killed large numbers of civilians — by some estimates between 50 and 80 percent of the casualties have been civilians — raising concerns that the attacks might ultimately alienate local communities and further bolster the ranks of militant groups.
The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, first used in Iraq and now being employed throughout Afghanistan, attempts to win over the hearts and minds of local populations in order to starve militant groups of recruits. But the persistent civilian casualties, especially among women and children, might be having an opposite effect.
Huge protests, in fact, have erupted throughout Pakistan calling for an end to the drone strikes and the Pakistani government, which tacitly approves the attacks, has been forced to publicly condemn them.
Meanwhile the inhabitants of North Waziristan, the vast majority of whom do not support the militants, said they increasingly feel abandoned by both their own government and the government of the United States.
“It’s like we are between the devil and the deep blue sea,” said Shahbaz Dawar, who owns a small pharmacy in Datta Khel’s bustling bazaar. “We don’t know who to support and who to oppose. We appear to be the ultimate loser in the war between the Taliban and America.”
Shahbaz, a graduate from nearby Miramshah College, said that the people here felt they no longer had any control over what was happening around them. He said the Pakistani government had virtually no presence in the volatile region and that the tribesmen, whom they once relied on, are no longer capable of countering the militants, who are armed.
Resident here said that, with a little help, they could have staged their own uprising against the militants but that — with every drone strike — the opportunity for that grows more and more distant.
“There are misconceptions and myths about North Waziristan and other tribal areas. The world wrongly believes that we all are militants and we support militancy here,” said Zubair Shah, a local contractor. “If you believe me, 98 percent of the North Waziristan population just wants peace.”
He said that there was no doubt that the increasingly frequent drone attacks, and the civilian casualties they have caused, have been used by the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network in a public relations campaign that has helped sway the public’s anger away from the militant groups and toward the United States.
“There could have been a public uprising against militants, especially the foreigners,” he said, referring to the many militants gathered here who come from outside the country. “But persistent drone attacks and killings of women and children have diverted the public anger toward America.”
Karim Khan, whose son and brother were killed in a U.S. drone attack in 2009, said he was tired of the impunity the United States enjoyed in Pakistan and has decided to seek justice. He decided, he said, to sue the U.S. government.
“This is high time for the victims of drone attacks to break the silence and join hands against this brutality,” Khan told GlobalPost. “If we sit idle, they [the United States and Pakistan] will completely destroy us and our land.”
Khan’s Hujra, a central meeting place that is an essential part of any house in Pakistan’s tribal areas, was hit by a missile fired by a U.S. drone on Dec. 31, 2009, killing his son Zainullah, 18, and his brother Iqbal, who was in his mid 30s.
Iqbal, who had earned a graduate degree in English literature and was teaching at a secondary school in the town of Mir Ali, was married and had a 2-year-old son.
Khan, who was in Islamabad at the time of the attack, sent a legal notice to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, CIA Director Leon Panetta and CIA station director in Pakistan, Jonathan Hanks, demanding $500 million in compensation.
He said he hoped the lawsuit would draw attention to the continuing air strikes and encourage other Pakistanis who have lost loved ones to speak up as well.