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Analysis: US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas create backlash

American approach to deadly attacks proves overly blunt, says journalist and Waziristan native Pir Shah.

The distant sound of a rotor propelling an armed drone at about 10,000 feet is there day and night in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the border of Afghanistan.

On March 17, 2011 in the North Waziristan village of Datta Khel, a US Predator drone could not be seen and the terrifying, dull hum of an unmanned aerial vehicle was likely to have been drowned out by the normal morning bustle of the shops and street vendors in the town center as residents went about their normal daily lives.

A group of men in traditional robes and turbans gathered near the bus depot for a jirga, a traditional local forum for dispute resolution in the FATA. They were a majority of maliks, or tribal leaders, some khassadars, or government employees, and reportedly at least four were local Taliban leaders. They sat in two separate circles, as is customary in a jirga, to resolve a dispute between two parties over the rights to a nearby chromite mine. It was 10:35 A.M.

And then without warning, the distinct hiss of a missile followed by a deafening explosion landed squarely at the center of the gathering. Another missile followed moments later. Over forty men were killed instantly, according to local residents interviewed by GlobalPost.  

More from GlobalPost: Drone death lawsuit in Pakistan challenges legality of American strikes

“We don’t sell our dead.”
~Anwar Khan

Among the dead were four fighters, including a local commander affiliated with the Haqqani network, recently designated by the Obama administration as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, according to a Pakistani Intelligence official interviewed at the time of the attack. Twenty nine of those killed were local elders and tribesmen who were there to take part in the jirga proceeding.

I was born and raised in Waziristan. I know the people who live under the unique horror of the daily hum of drones and the killing they cause. In fact, I was one of them. As a journalist who has worked in this area for many years, I know the geographical and human terrain where this strike occurred and I have witnessed a vast range of reactions to these attacks by fellow Pakistanis, from tribal relatives to politicians and activists. A GlobalPost analysis of the March 17 drone attack, a so-called “signature strike” or “crowd kill” which the Obama administration has stepped up dramatically in the last three and a half years, offers a profound set of lessons on the effects of indiscriminate predatory drone strikes in this region. 

“It’s not only the relatives of those killed who have suffered, but the whole village. Every family lost someone to the strike. We lost our elders, our entire leadership”, said Noor Khan, 29, whose father, Daud, by many accounts a beloved and respected tribal leader, was killed.

Daud Khan’s death left behind a tribe of thousands, a large immediate family of children and grandchildren and the bitter inheritance of animosity toward America that is simmering in towns and villages like this across Waziristan precisely because of indiscriminate drone strikes like this one.

“Nearly two hundred people attended the funeral and they all were very angry.” added Anwar Khan, the relative of another victim of the drone attack.

Over the three and a half years of Barack Obama’s presidency, “signature strikes,” which are CIA-authorized attacks based on general targeting of groups rather than specific targeting of individuals, have dramatically increased. At Obama’s direction, the CIA has carried out 292 such secret attacks in the first three and a half years of his presidency. That is five times more than the Bush administration carried out, according to a newly published report on drone attacks by the Stanford Law School and NYU School of Law.

There is little if any transparency on the decision making process that goes into these, and many international human rights law experts believe they result in extrajudicial murder. These “signature strikes,” also sometimes more bluntly referred to in national security circles as “crowd kills,” are often where the US is making its worst mistakes in killing civilians, military analysts and human rights workers say.

The hallmark of the Obama administration’s use of drones has been an expansion of these “signature strikes.” What distinguishes these strikes from other drone attacks is that they are not based on