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.
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.
Pakistani and U.S. intelligence sources said that when the drone struck Khan’s compound — in the village of Machikhel — militants had been hiding inside.
“There was no terrorist or militant hiding there. It was my house, not a hideout,” he said. “The CIA simply killed my son and brother and dubbed them as Taliban just to hide the crime.”
Amirullah, 15, a mechanic who used to work in Mir Ali, has — like many people here — a similar story.
Hailing from Bannu, a district adjacent to North Waziristan, Amirullah had been working at a mechanic’s shop, where he made $8 a week until four missiles fired by a drone hit a compound in a nearby village where he was sleeping at night.
“I am not able to do hard work because of a permanent fault in my leg and hearing loss. My father is already dead, and I am worried about bread and butter for my younger sisters and brother,” he said. “I don’t want to go back [to Mir Ali], there is nothing except fear.”
Amirullah said he had no plans to avenge the attack.
“It (revenge) will leave me nowhere. I have to take care of my sisters and brother. As far as revenge is concerned, I leave it up to Allah. He is the best judge,” he said.
Political analysts said that a surge in anti-U.S. sentiments was likely to increase, especially given that the victims themselves — not politicians or militants — were now beginning to speak out.
“When the victims of drone attacks protest or march on the roads of Islamabad or Karachi, one does not have to be a genius to figure out how provocative that would be,” said Abdul Khalique Ali, a Karachi-based political analyst.
In just a few short years, the conflict has destroyed nearly all facets of life in the North Waziristan.
Most Pakistanis interviewed here said that insecurity rules their life. Everyone here speaks softly or not all for fear of being branded a sympathizer by one side or the other.
Nowhere is safe, they said.
A drone attack in March of 2010 on a school in the town of Tappi, also considered a militant stronghold, reduced a local school building to rubble, leading many parents to take their kids out of school altogether.
“There have not been any further attacks on schools, but people are still panicked,” said Mohsin Dawar, a local tribal elder.
An exodus of qualified teachers, meanwhile, has left many of the region’s schools empty. And no professors from outside North Waziristan are willing to take the risks to teach here.
Entry to North Waziristan itself has become a hassle. Travelers have to wait in long lines and pass through multiple checkpoints before entering the region, forcing teachers and other essential school staff to resign or transfer to other regions.
“There hasn’t been a single class held in the college here in the last year. No one is ready to be posted here under these conditions,” Dawar said, referring to the local Mir Ali College. “We are very much worried about the education of our children because, if they don’t go to school or college, they could be an easy target for militants.”
According to tribal elders, school-age children make up 35 percent of the population of North Waziristan. Without school and other activities, they said, the children spend their time aimlessly in the streets or sit for long hours in cafes where they are susceptible to militant recruiters.
“If they (young people) do not have positive activities like education and sports, they can easily be coaxed or influenced by militants,” Mohsin said. “But, unfortunately, the government is not paying any attention to this serious issue, which is a matter of life and death for our next generations.”