As drone strikes have increased, so have assassinations, Pakistanis say

By Karin Brulliard and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 24, 2010; 12:00 AM

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN - As drone-fired missiles drop with furious frequency in the tribal area of North Waziristan, so do the bodies.

As often as seven times a week, tribesmen there say, corpses appear in fields and on roadsides with dark warnings pinned to their tunics: All American spies will meet the same fate.

Espionage has long been viewed as an egregious offense in the lawless borderland, but residents say the current pace of assassinations is unprecedented. The escalation parallels a massive surge in CIA drone attacks on North Waziristan, home to a nest of insurgents that includes al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, an Afghan militia considered the most lethal foe of U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

CIA drones have fired 112 missiles on Pakistan's tribal areas this year, 88 percent of which hit North Waziristan, in a campaign whose effectiveness is hotly debated. But tribesmen say the U.S. campaign has had far-reaching consequences for the way of life in North Waziristan and provoked cycles of violence that, once in motion, are difficult to predict and impossible to control.

In interviews, several Pakistani officials, tribesmen, and one militant said the torrent of strikes has forced residents to stay indoors and deny friends shelter, fearing allegations of spying. The attacks have forced militants to ditch truck convoys and cellphones, and, in the case of the Pakistani Taliban, shutter an office in the town of Mir Ali.

Above all, residents said, the stepped-up strikes have perpetuated an entrenched culture of clan rivalry and retribution. With scant proof, militants are purging suspected moles, and their willingness to do so has made the accusation a valuable tool for people seeking revenge for land disputes or other personal enmities.

"They are just spreading terror by killing anyone," said Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, who commands all Pakistani troops in the northwest, including the semiautonomous tribal areas.

Informants targeted

The escalated drone campaign, which Pakistan secretly allows, followed U.S. pressure on Pakistan to launch a military offensive in North Waziristan. The Pakistani army rejected those appeals, saying it is overstretched in other combat zones and needs time to plan an operation. American officials say those reasons are valid, but many also believe Pakistan is unwilling to jeopardize its longtime links to the Haqqani network.

As the missile strikes have accelerated, so has tension over the tactic, which many Pakistanis believe violates national sovereignty and kills innocent civilians.

Earlier this month, in the first event of its kind, hundreds of tribal area residents protested the attacks in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. Several pledged to join a lawsuit pursued by one North Waziristan resident, who is seeking compensation from the U.S. government and criminal charges against the CIA's top spy in Pakistan for the alleged deaths of his son and brother in a drone strike. The CIA pulled that spy, its station chief, from the country last week after his name was exposed in connection with the legal action.

North Waziristan, like all of the tribal areas, is a no-go zone for foreigners and many Pakistanis, making it difficult to ascertain an accurate picture of the effects of the drone campaign. In recent interviews, Pakistani security officials said the strikes are increasingly efficient in hitting militant targets, though one intelligence official derided the CIA as "trigger-happy." That assessment was echoed by several tribesmen.

The intelligence official said 70 informants for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which provides intelligence to the CIA for drone strikes, have been assassinated in North Waziristan since 2004, making the area nearly a "black hole" for spies today.

"They are out to kill us," the intelligence official said. "That puts the fear of God into people who may want to work for us."

In interviews, North Waziristan tribesmen said that fear - and those killings - now extend to the general population. According to residents' accounts, at least 30 corpses have turned up during the past three months outside towns in the area.

Among them was Khateebullah Khan Mosokai, 25, a grocer from a village near Mir Ali. His body, showing signs of torture, was found on a roadside on Nov. 2 with gunshots through both eyes.

Mosokai had been kidnapped two weeks before from a bazaar by a gang of masked men, according to his uncle. His family later learned the perpetrator was a militant commander working for Hafiz Gul Bahadar, a Pakistani Taliban leader in North Waziristan.

Mosokai's name had featured on a list of spies recited by another abducted tribesman in a video confession later distributed in local markets, the uncle said. That tribesman told of a network of 300 U.S. spies in the area - and then he was killed himself.

The family is certain Mosokai was not a spy, and they have vowed reprisal against the militant commander.

"My nephew was neither a spy nor involved in any such activities," Mosokai's uncle said. "If they had the proof . . . then we would have killed Khateebullah publicly."

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in August and September, the Taliban offered an amnesty to spies, residents said. The few who confessed "did not survive," one tribal elder recalled.

Dread of 'traitor' label

Pakistani officials said the assassinations could be viewed as a sign that the Taliban and other insurgents feel threatened by drones. Militant attacks inside Pakistan have slowed this year.

Militants who once freely roamed markets and helped settle disputes, tribesmen said, have now receded to compounds. Fighters shun funerals and trackable technology. They rely on motorbikes or their feet to move, pro-Taliban tribesmen said. Insurgent leaders, the highest-value drone targets, move "three times in a night," said Malik, the Pakistan army commander.

But North Waziristan residents said the dread of being labeled a traitor exceeds that of being struck by a drone. A relative of one man killed by the Taliban, Hidayatullah Khan, said his mistake was to feed Pakistani soldiers who were stationed on his land. That land was coveted by enemies of Khan, who, the relative said, reported him to the insurgents.

"The reason is a land dispute, not the spy issue," the relative said.

On Oct. 29, traders in Mir Ali boldly expressed their frustration in a strike and demonstration against abductions and assassinations.

Still, the killings continue. Last month, the body of a longtime Miranshah bookseller lay rotting on a roadside for three days. He had no nearby relatives to claim his body, and no one else was brave enough to touch him.

"The militants are desperate," said a Miranshah teacher, 38, adding that residents pray that drones hit their targets, not just to kill militants, but also to save others from retaliation. "If the drone misses the target, then this will be unfortunate for us."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company