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Pakistan's deadly robots in the sky Add to ...

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.

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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.

They correctly assume that most drones in Pakistan are controlled by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, but they also believe the CIA secretly funds the so-called Pakistani Taliban - militants at war with Islamabad - and they reject reports that dozens of strikes hit Pakistani Taliban targets. Many people even refuse to believe that drones are responsible for the killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in August of 2009.

One man who regularly travels into Waziristan, and did not want to be identified, claimed that paranoia about the drones affects even the farm animals.

"The buffalo get skittish," he said. "They look at the sky and make noises like they're weeping."

He described a strike last year that destroyed a house near Wana, a town in South Waziristan. The missiles hit around midday, killing several people inside but only causing minor damage to nearby shops - a familiar pattern, as many witnesses say the blasts usually have a small radius, to minimize civilian deaths. Children scavenged for scrap metal in the ruins, while the adults were sombre: "Nobody cried. Everybody was silent. I think they were wondering how long this will continue."

People who sleep under the buzzing of the drones say it's hard to settle down for the night, listening to the sound of armed machines nearby.

Muhammad Amad, executive director of Idea, an aid group that works in the tribal areas, was telling a visitor that the drones are counterproductive because they stir up local anger, when he was interrupted by one of his local staffers from Waziristan, interjecting in broken English: "Mental torture," said the bearded man, with sun-weathered skin. He repeated himself, struggling to enunciate: "Mental torture."

"Yes, it's mental torture," Mr. Amad said. "When we lie down under the noise of the drones, nobody sleeps."

Several people from the tribal areas said the same thing. Sleeping pills and anti-depressants have become a regular part of the diet, they said, even in poor villages where few people can afford meat.

Some travel by bus to Peshawar for a consultation with Muhammad Shafique, who founded the city's most prominent psychiatric clinic almost four decades ago. The doctor's name has become part of local expressions, as people will tell somebody who is talking nonsense: "You should see Dr. Shafique."

Ijaz Hussain (right, standing), a pharmacist in Peshawar, says he sells more psychiatric medication every day. Demand is fueled by the rising violence in Pakistan's tribal areas, he says, and shortages have pushed up the price of some antidepressants almost six times above usual rates. Psychiatrists say patients arrive from the tribal areas asking for sleeping pills to help them cope with the buzzing of U.S. Predator drones overhead.

On a recent day, the doctor's waiting room was packed with men in traditional clothes, staring at a television broadcast of women's basketball in a way that suggested they were more accustomed to seeing women in burkas. "They come here with headaches, insomnia, anxiety," Dr. Shafique said. "They lie down at night and they don't know if they will get up again. Especially at night, they are seized with anxiety."

The doctor paused as a Pakistani fighter jet thundered past, so loud that it set off car alarms in the street. Drones are not the only thing that can kill you in the tribal areas, but Dr. Shafique said their omnipresence gets under your skin.

"I understand the U.S. has a job to do, but this 24-hour buzzing in the sky gives people a fear that's worse than dying," he said.

The doctor takes sleeping pills himself these days and writes a lot of prescriptions. Many people don't bother getting a doctor's note, buying their medicine in the markets. Sadiq Hussain, a pharmacist, said rising demand has driven up the price of some anti-depressants to almost six times their usual prices, but the pills remain cheap: they're generic copies, manufactured in India. Of all the many boxes that line the shelves of his small storefront, Mr. Hussain estimated that sleeping pills alone account for a fifth of his business. One of his competitors in a neighbouring shop estimated that sales of the sedatives have increased 30 to 40 per cent in the past year.

Not everybody worries about the drones. Asad Munir, former station chief in Peshawar for Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's leading spy agency, is among many observers who argue that precision strikes cause vastly less damage than the alternative of sending ground forces into Waziristan. Soldiers kill civilians with stray artillery or bombs, he said, whereas the drones only make mistakes when they're given the wrong intelligence. "They don't make more enemies," he said.

"They're very precise."

It's not known how the CIA decides to hit targets, but a retired Pakistani military officer said the agency sometimes watches a person for months before pressing the button, often waiting until the subject is a safe distance from civilians. This is not a purely humanitarian gesture; it's widely assumed that each drone attack has a cost-benefit calculation, with the cost measured in the amount of outrage generated - and thus, the number of fresh recruits for the extremists.

Some academics have tried to turn this arithmetic on its head, arguing that the drones don't just represent the least unpopular way of fighting militants - but that they're actually popular. These analysts usually base their argument on a single survey, conducted by a small group of researchers known as the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy.

The survey got started in 2008, when a professor at a university supported by the Pakistani Navy asked his students for help with collecting opinions about the drones. For four months, 25 students visited urban centres in the tribal areas and asked questions, often informally. They claimed to find 550 respondents, of whom 45 per cent felt that drone strikes brought "fear and terror" to the population, and 58 per cent said the strikes did not fuel anti-Americanism.

"I thought everybody would be against the drone attacks, but to my surprise the majority of people in the tribal areas feels like hostages of the militants," said Khadim Hussain, who organized the survey.

A clean-shaven professional who wears crisp dress shirts, Mr. Hussain grew a long beard and put on local clothes to visit the tribal areas.

One evening in December of 2008, he said, one of his friends noticed two militants standing at a roadside shop in South Wazirstan.

"My friend stopped his car to buy something, and his companion got nervous - he said, 'Maybe let's go away. It's dangerous to stand too close to these men,' " Mr. Hussain said. "But my friend said, 'No, don't worry. We know how the drones operate. They won't hit us in a busy place.' [His companion]was right, the militants got into their car and it exploded as it moved away."

Such anecdotes serve a political purpose for Mr. Hussain; he now works as managing director of the Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation, a charity affiliated with the Awami National Party. The ANP is a Pashtun nationalist group that favours strong action against the militants.

Besides those with an ideological bent, some others appreciate the drones because they hit the militants who forced them out of their homes in the tribal areas.

Nasir Dawar, a television reporter for Dunya News, says he favours the strikes even though one of them nearly killed him in November of 2005. He was asleep when the first explosion blew out his windows and doors.

"I grabbed my Kalashnikov, because I thought somebody fired a rocket at my house," Mr. Dawar said. The second explosion opened cracks in his ceiling, and the blasts kept coming - seven in total, destroying his neighbour's house. He went to investigate the smouldering ruins, drawn by the sounds of a child weeping.

"There was nothing left but body parts, and a kid lying under some bricks," he said.

These stories point in conflicting directions, but the pattern was neatly summarized by a university student named Noor Habib, 21, whose family lives in North Waziristan. The drones killed one of his classmates, along with women and children near his village. Still, as somebody who moved away to attend school in Peshawar, he says, he instinctively favours any measure that fights extremism. Educated people like the drones, he said, and uneducated people hate them - although, he acknowledges, the vast majority of people in the tribal areas are uneducated. Pakistan is a country at war with itself; both sides of the debate are driven by fear.

"More and more people become terrorists every day," Mr. Habib said.

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