Jonathan S. Landay, senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, said that when reporting in Pakistan, he has been forced to rely on the few Waziristan journalists and local officials who are reachable by cell phone for accounts of strikes. “There’s a network of tribal journalists who are very good, but one doesn’t know if you’re getting an exact count because you can’t eyeball it,” Landay said. “You can go in as an embed with the Pakistani military, but all that’s a dog-and-pony show.”
Pakistanis following news of the war get a completely different picture than those in the United States. For the past two years, there has been a drumbeat of death in the Pakistani media, with headlines like these on the website of Geo News, one of the biggest television networks in Pakistan: “U.S. Drone Kills 22 in North Waziristan”; “U.S. Missile Attack Kills 30”; “Death Toll in U.S. Drone Strikes Climbs to 19.” The victims are often impoverished teenagers who have gotten caught up in the Taliban, and are now dead, according to former CIA officials who had operated in the region. The picture that emerges through this war coverage—including in Pakistani newspapers like Dawn and The Daily Times—is one of incremental killing of bandits, drug dealers, and marginal characters by airborne missiles.
When the Western media do attempt to cover drone strikes that miss any high-value targets—and which, consequently, no US official is willing to discuss—their stories are thin. An example is a July 8, 2009, Associated Press report that ran in The Washington Post: U.S. DRONE ATTACK KILLS 12 IN NORTHWEST. Like dozens of other stories about the killings in Waziristan, the article tells readers nothing about those who were killed, why they were killed, or whether killing them had an impact on the terrorist groups that were targeted. Western reporters often learn of drone strikes from stories published in Pakistani media and, when they write their own stories, the reporters necessarily rely on local Pakistani stringers for details of the strikes beyond any scant Pakistani government information.
Pakistani citizens, not surprisingly, denounce the US drone attacks. In December, people took to the streets of Islamabad to protest the strikes and to show support for a Waziristan resident, Karim Khan, whose son and brother were killed in a 2009 strike and who has filed a lawsuit against the US, charging a CIA official for their deaths. In March, protests broke out in two more remote Pakistani towns. Student activists burned a US flag and an Obama effigy at one protest, saying the strikes were a violation of international human rights.
Pakistani journalists who have worked in Waziristan describe it as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a reporter. They have not forgotten what happened to Hayat Ullah Khan, a journalist who freelanced for PBS’s Frontline. Khan, thirty-two, reported for a Pakistani newspaper on the death of an al Qaeda leader, Abu Hamza Rabia, along with four others in December 2005. They had been killed by Hellfire missiles in a strike orchestrated by Americans, and not, as the Pakistani government had declared, by an accident in their illegal bomb-making lab. Khan took photos, proving it was a drone strike, and the story prompted protests over the infringement of Pakistani territory.
The day after his story appeared, Khan was kidnapped. His body was found months later. “He could have been killed by Pakistani security forces or the Taliban,” said Iqbal Khattak, Peshawar bureau chief of the Pakistani newspaper Daily Times, and one of the few reporters who has done stories about the drones in Waziristan. “We don’t know.”
Another reporter who has braved that danger is Pir Zubair Shah. Shah grew up in a roughshod region of South Waziristan, where his father sent him to school and also gave him a rifle, so that he would feel comfortable both among the educated and the tribal members of society. This allowed Shah to float between the world of intelligence agents and the one inhabited by Taliban fighters, and his reporting helped The New York Times win a 2009 Pulitzer for a package of stories depicting the deepening US military and political challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Shah’s first bylined article, which appeared in Newsday in January 2006, was about a drone strike in Bajaur, in North Waziristan. The CIA operatives who launched the strike had been trying to kill a man thought to be al Qaeda’s number-two leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, but he escaped. Eighteen people were killed, and Shah took pictures of jagged, metal pieces from the missile that had exploded, as well as the fresh graves.