Buzzing robots sail through the sky, and nobody sleeps. Poor villagers spend their meagre savings on pills; at night they swallow sedatives and in the morning they take anti-depressants. They sweep their rooms and courtyards every couple of hours, trying to purge their homes of microchips. Nobody has seen the tiny chips - some say they're invisible to the naked eye, others say the electric filaments are fine enough to be woven into cloth. Every garment is suspect, every speck of dust.
This is how people live in the tribal areas of Pakistan, far below the unblinking eyes of U.S. Predator drones that hunt this region for terrorists. Locals call them bangana, a word for thunder, referring not to the distant whine of their engines, but to the thunderclap that comes from their Hellfire missiles. The missiles sometimes kill leaders of al-Qaeda and other militant groups, and sometimes hit civilians. The statistics aren't clear. The United States maintains official secrecy about its drones, even as swarms of them join the war. They attacked 22 times in September, more than any previous month, and killed at least 100 people - but everybody who collects those numbers admits they are guesses.
The only thing well understood about the drones is that they're multiplying. President Barack Obama broke his silence about them at the United Nations on Sept. 23: "From South Asia to the Horn of Africa, we are moving toward a more targeted approach - one that strengthens our partners and dismantles terrorist networks without deploying large American armies," he said. The same President who pulled combat troops from Iraq, and promises to start reducing forces in Afghanistan next year, appears to view Hellfire missiles as the best alternative to soldiers. Drone strikes have quadrupled during his term, and the military plans to double production of drones next year.
A financially weakened United States, chastened by its military misadventures, will likely increase its reliance on unmanned aircraft.
Their flights in Pakistan are usually restricted to the mountains of Waziristan, but U.S. officials have considered unleashing them on militant hideouts in Balochistan - or further away, in Somalia and Yemen. Drones could also fill the void as troops pull back from Afghanistan.
If drones are the future, Pakistan's tribal areas offer a look ahead at the dystopia that emerges when mechanical hunters drift overhead.
It's a dark and confusing picture, making it hard to say whether the missile strikes reduce, or increase, the number of terrorists.
Most observers agree on the short-term gains: Al-Qaeda publicly celebrates its slain commanders as martyrs, so there's broad consensus that two dozen senior followers of Osama bin Laden have been killed by drones in recent years. September's flurry of strikes reportedly killed another top al-Qaeda leader, as part of a U.S. effort to disrupt plans for co-ordinated terror attacks in Europe. Important leaders of Taliban factions have also been targeted, often with a degree of accuracy that unsettles them and prompts internal feuds as the militants hunt for spies.
But there's no agreement among experts on the long-term implications of the drones. It's difficult for researchers to climb into the mountains of Waziristan and systematically assess whether the villagers welcome operations that loosen the extremists' grip, or whether the drones are breeding a new generation of men who want to kill Westerners.
That means anybody who wants clues about the success or failure of Mr. Obama's strategy must rely on anecdotes, stories told by people who live or travel in Waziristan. Those who straggle into the nearby city of Peshawar are often reluctant to talk, however, and especially wary of speaking about the drones; an opinion in favour could anger the Taliban, and those against get unwanted scrutiny from intelligence agencies.
Sitting on a plastic chair at a restaurant in a ramshackle neighbourhood teeming with people who fled Waziristan, a young man with dirty, tousled hair looks suspiciously at a foreign journalist: "Don't ask questions about terrorists," he says. "They are Muslims, not terrorists."
When people do talk, their stories often seem tinged with paranoia.
Villagers whisper about the drone strikes leaving behind poisonous dust that causes a variety of ailments, from diarrhea to skin disease.
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