Jemima Khan – Daily Mail April 21, 2012
The attentive, unassuming young man sitting near me in the pictures on the right is Tariq Aziz.
He was 16 when we met last October, just a year older than my own teenage son, although with his neatly trimmed beard and traditional shalwar kameez he looked more like the grown men alongside him.
Tariq had travelled many hours to the relative safety of Islamabad from his home in Waziristan, a rugged Pakistani tribal area on the border with Afghanistan.
He was there to join a protest about the plague of American ‘drones’ – the remote-controlled aircraft that have left a bloody trail of death and fury among the innocent villagers who struggle to earn a living in the unforgiving mountainous region.
I was there to distribute digital cameras so that the people from Waziristan could record the damage and death caused by the drones, as part of a campaign to prove that innocent civilians are dying.
Tariq, a keen amateur photographer, was given one of the cameras before he left to return home.
Three days later he was dead. Like his cousin, who had died in April 2010 and whose identity card he clutched when we met, he was blown to pieces by a drone strike. The appalling irony of how his young life ended will stay with me for ever.
Tariq’s homeland is remote, tribal, fiercely traditional – and proud that it never succumbed to British rule. The last time I went there was in 1997, accompanied by my then husband Imran Khan, shortly after our wedding, and by my father, James Goldsmith.
The tribal elder who was hosting our visit greeted my father with the words: ‘Welcome. The last Englishman that came to these parts was 100 years ago, and my great-grandfather shot him.’
Few people other than locals ever travel into the rugged interior. Frequent checkpoints keep journalists and foreigners out. Mobile phones have stopped working since the mobile network was switched off. There is no industry and little farm land.
Most supplies are driven in by colourfully painted trucks, one of the few jobs available. People live as they have for centuries, following old traditions and tribal codes. Blood feuds are common and every man is armed.
Today, though, a weapon more fearsome than the automatic rifle threatens life in Waziristan – the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, operated by the US, supposedly an ally. The drones are remotely controlled from the Nevada Desert thousands of miles away.
They started flying, infrequently at first, over the northern mountains almost eight years ago. Initially they circled in the skies streaming video back to their operators – agents working for the US Central Intelligence Agency. They were gathering information about alleged Al Qaeda members hiding in the cut-off lands.
Now these unmanned planes, launched from secret bases in Pakistan, have become a deadly presence in the Tribal Areas, striking on average once every four days.
They circle over villages and roads for hours, before firing Hellfire missiles. As many as 3,000 people have been killed, though little more than a few lines ever appear in the Western press
This is a war fought largely out of sight of the global media, away from the connected world. This is what had brought Tariq and his companions to the exclusive Margala Hotel, in an enclave of Islamabad, last October.
Like my son, Tariq was a fanatical footballer, though, like everyone in Pakistan, from rickshaw drivers to chai-sipping begums, more politicised. He had travelled for eight hours by bus from Waziristan to attend a conference to discuss the covert use of drones by the CIA, bringing with him his cousin’s ID card, retrieved from rubble after he was killed by a Hellfire missile fired by a drone near his home.
Tariq was one of the youngest in the group of men, some blind, others missing limbs, who had descended on the capital from Waziristan, armed with gruesome photographs of women and children blown to pieces among debris and Hellfire missile parts stamped with serial numbers and the US flag.
Tribal elders, a riot of beige, with impressive beards, touched palms, placing hand over chest in a traditional gesture of greeting.
‘What is happening is a crime, an injustice,’ shouted Khan Marjan, an angry tribal leader in a large white turban. ‘Can bombs be dropped on people like this? What would happen if this was Islamabad? Are we not human beings too?’
A 16-year-old boy called Saadullah hobbled into the conference hall on prosthetic limbs – he had lost his legs and his sight two years earlier. ‘I used to dream of being a doctor,’ he told us. ‘Now I can’t even go to school. I’m not even human.’
Another teenager recounted how he lost an eye and both legs, and an older man told how he also lost an eye after being hit by shrapnel from one of many blasts.
This ‘Jirga’ – a traditional tribal meeting – in Islamabad was an attempt to draw attention to the events in this remote and inaccessible land.
The American authorities continue to insist that it is only the guilty, Al Qaeda terrorists, who are killed or maimed in this remote-controlled battleground. I have seen photos and heard personal stories of dead women, children and infants.
It was three days later that I received the news of Tariq’s death, in an email entitled ‘Recent victim of drone folly’ from one of the conference organisers. Tariq had been killed, it informed me, alongside another of his cousins, 12-year-old Waheed, as they drove near their home. Tariq’s new camera was destroyed in the blast.
Clive Stafford Smith, from the Reprieve organisation at the forefront of the campaign against drone warfare, believes it is no coincidence that he should attend the conference and die such a short time later. It is probable, he says, that a tracking device was put on his car by a CIA informant at the conference in Islamabad.
There are 800,000 people living in the north-western region of Waziristan – the odds of hitting one of the 80 delegates, Stafford Smith points out, was therefore one in 10,000.
According to Tariq’s family, at about noon on the day he died he had been driving with his younger cousin Waheed to pick up an aunt after her wedding.
Earlier that day, he had noticed and ignored drones that had been patrolling the skies for hours over his village. They had become a familiar sight in the area and usually struck at night.
A few hundred yards from his aunt’s house, one homed in and struck Tariq’s car. Both boys were dead, their bodies badly burned, when people arrived from the village. The rescue party had held back at first, as drones frequently strike again at those who come to rescue the injured, in what have become known as ‘Samaritan attacks’.
Tariq’s family are adamant he was not a terrorist. His uncle, who lives with the family, explained that he spent most of his time at home, playing on the computer – which his father, who worked in the United Arab Emirates as a driver, had bought him.
Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer, is so convinced of Tariq and Waheed’s innocence that he is preparing to bring a lawsuit against the US ambassador to Pakistan.
In response to the death of Tariq, an anonymous US official was quoted in a piece carried on ABC News saying that the car was targeted by the CIA because ‘the two people inside it were militants’. Washington refuses to comment further.
The US’s drone war remains a classified CIA program. There is no reliable information and the US administration rarely acknowledges the existence of the drones in the Pakistani skies. Officially it ‘neither confirms nor denies the existence or non-existence of the program’.
President Obama has argued that the use of drone technology is the best way of targeting militants while minimising civilian casualties. Under his administration, the use of drones has increased tenfold. It seems it is easier to eliminate suspected terrorist suspects than to detain them at Guantanamo.
The high-tech weapons have indeed killed many alleged high-ranking Al Qaeda terrorists. Last year alone, drones reportedly killed senior Al Qaeda officials including Atiyah abd al-Rahman, the alleged second in command, Abu Zaid al-Iraqi, the alleged finance chief, and Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior commander. Drones were also used to track Osama Bin Laden’s movements before the raid in which he was killed.
Data suggests that at least two-thirds of those killed are reported to be militants, although only a few are ever named.
Despite an official US statement claiming that there have been no ‘non-combatant deaths’ as a result of drone strikes, there is a growing sentiment, especially in Pakistan, that too many civilians are also being killed.
Independent research suggests that some victims, like Tariq, are under 18. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been compiling a database and has found credible reports of between 464 and 815 civilian fatalities in the strikes, 175 of them children.
In mid-August last year a strike in Miranshah, North Waziristan, hit a housing compound and a vehicle in the vicinity of a girls’ school. A local intelligence official was later reported as saying that two or three women and a child were among the dead.
A year earlier, in the early hours of August 23, 2010, Hellfire missiles hit a compound in Dande Darpa Khel, North Waziristan, allegedly killing ten militants.
Among the dead were Bismullah Khan – said to be an innocent tribesman – his wife and two young children aged eight and ten. They left behind three young orphans, who survived the blast.
Relations between the US and Pakistan deteriorated to a new low in December after an American air strike killed 24 on the Afghanistan border. This time it was not remote tribespeople who died, but Pakistani soldiers, manning the border.
Although the soldiers were killed by a piloted plane, the anger against the CIA drone campaign heightened markedly. The drones, which had been launched from an air base in Pakistan, were temporarily expelled and for 55 days the campaign came to a halt. On January 10 this year, the drones struck again.
In Islamabad, I had watched as angry demonstrators burned effigies of drones, brandishing placards demanding that the Pakistani government expel Americans from the country.
American officials have reiterated that the US has no intention of putting an end to drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal region.
But Pakistan’s parliament last week responded to public pressure by unanimously voting to forbid the US from conducting drone strikes inside Pakistani territory. The next drone attack will set up a showdown between the two countries.
The popular resentment in Pakistan has led many studying the conflict to feel that the use of drones could ultimately be counter-productive.
A recent poll by Pew (a non-partisan public opinion research organisation based in Washington) found that 97 per cent of Pakistanis viewed drones negatively and 69 per cent view the US as their greatest enemy.
Increasingly, concerns are being raised that even if the use of drones is effective in a narrow military sense – as is claimed by the US – it is not worth the resentment it causes among Pakistanis, and particularly Pashtuns, nor the recruitment opportunities it affords the extremists.
Obama, who has overseen more than 85 per cent of all reported drone strikes on Pakistan, joked at the White House Correspondents’ Ball in May 2010 that he had two words of warning for boys with designs on his daughters: ‘… Predator drones. You will never see it coming.’
We’ll never know if Tariq or Waheed saw it coming, but few Pakistanis appreciated the joke