Jemima Khan visits Islamabad to hear about the terrible civilian death toll of US drone strikes.
Two weeks ago, in Pakistan, I met a boy called Tariq who, at 16, is a year older than my son. He was a fanatical footballer, like my boy, though more politicised, like everyone in Pakistan from rickshaw wallahs to university lecturers. Political apathy is the preserve of countries that are not on the brink.
Tariq and I were both in Islamabad for the same reason: to attend a conference, organised by Clive Stafford Smith of the legal aid charity Reprieve, on the covert use of drones by the CIA in Pakistan’s tribal area. Three days later Tariq was dead.
He died alongside his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed, both victims of one of the drones he was protesting about. Stafford Smith believes 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.
Barack 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 is easier to eliminate terrorist suspects than to detain them. Yet an official US statement claimed there have been no “non-combatant deaths” as a result.
The delegates, tribal elders, the families of victims of drone strikes and Tariq had come from Waziristan to dispute that. They descended on Islamabad – a riot of beige, with biblical beards – armed with gruesome photographs of women and children blown to pieces among debris and missile parts stamped with serial numbers and the US flag.
At the conference, Samiullah Jan, 17, just out of college, was represented only by his ID card, retrieved from the rubble of his home. Another teenager, a 16-year-old boy called Saadullah, hobbled in 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.”
The US’s drone war remains a classified CIA program. There is no reliable information. One reason for the jirga [meeting] was to appeal to people from the tribal area, which is closed to journalists, to collect evidence from drone strikes. We distributed digital cameras so that in the future they can document strikes.
This new “Nintendo warfare” is having a devastating effect on nuclear-armed Pakistan. A recent Pew poll found that 97 per cent of Pakistanis viewed drones negatively and 69 per cent view the US as their greatest enemy, which makes Obama’s joke at the White House Correspondents’ Ball all the more thoughtless. His message to boys with designs on his daughters: “I have two words for you . . . Predator drones. You will never see it coming.”
Another problem was highlighted at the jirga by a tribal elder, Mir Jan, who said: “We don’t know who to trust any more”. Pakistan has always pulsated with conspiracy theories but these days there are good reasons for paranoia. WikiLeaks exposed the fact that the Pakistan government has lied about giving permission to the US to strike Waziristan. Blackwater mercenaries operate all over Pakistan; while a Save the Children doctor, offering the polio vaccine in Osama Bin Laden’s hideout, Abbottabad, turned out to be a CIA informant. Then there was Raymond Davis, the “diplomat” who shot two Pakistanis and whose colleague then ran over a third, who was later revealed to be a CIA agent. It is increasingly unsafe for aid workers, diplomats and journalists to work in Pakistan.
On the subject of conspiracy theories, it was unfortunate that my trip to Pakistan coincided with a political rally in Lahore held by my ex-husband, Imran Khan. Local politicians, threatened by his recent surge in popularity, made incendiary public statements about my visit. These included “it is un-Islamic to have a good relationship with your ex” and “it was part of a Zionist conspiracy” (I thought we’d knocked that one on the head a decade ago – there can’t be many who receive both virulent anti-Semitic and Islamophobic abuse on Twitter).
The debate about my presence threatened to overshadow the far more important discussions about drones and even elicited a Facebook page: “We Pakistanis apologise to Jemima Khan for mudslugging [sic] by politicians.”
It made no difference. Imran’s rally was a game-changer: more than 100,000 people showed up on the streets of Lahore to show their support and, after 15 years of being ridiculed by Pakistan’s political and social elites, Imran is now a real contender.
There are costs, though. In the old days, Imran had one old, grizzled chowkidar guarding the gate of his house. “I trust Allah to protect me,” he would say to his more cautious friends. I note that these days he has reluctantly agreed to travel at all times with ten armed guards. There’s a saying of the Prophet’s, which is an old favourite of mine: “Have faith in Allah – but tether your camel.”
Jemima Khan is the associate editor of the New Statesman