THE EVENING OF JUNE 18, 2004, was a sweltering one in South Waziristan, and the 27-year-old local Taliban leader, Nek Muhammad Wazir, had decided to eat dinner in the courtyard of his house in the village of Kari Kot, along with his two brothers and two bodyguards. Muhammad's satellite phone rang, and he picked it up. Moments later, a missile streaked through the compound and exploded, killing all five men.
At the time, no one in the Pakistani public or media knew that it was a drone. The government would say nothing, and everyone else attributed Muhammad's killing either to a Pakistani military operation -- after all, soldiers had gone looking for him without success on six occasions -- or to the work of U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan. A Taliban fighter who was within earshot of the explosion told me later that the militants were totally taken by surprise. "There was a noise in the air before, and then we heard the explosion," he recalled. The villagers, however, supplied the explanation: They collected the fragments of the missile, on which was printed in black, "Made in USA."
Then, in late 2005, a similarly mysterious explosion killed Abu Hamza Rabia, a high-ranking Egyptian member of al Qaeda, outside North Waziristan's capital city, Miram Shah. President Pervez Musharraf refused to explain what had happened, saying only that he was "200 percent" sure Rabia was dead. But a local reporter named Hayatullah Khan, who lived in the next village over from where Rabia was killed, had gone to the site to sift through the rubble. Amid the debris were pieces of a Hellfire missile. He took pictures, which swiftly appeared in newspapers around the world.
The photographs directly contradicted the statements of Musharraf's government, which had variously claimed that Pakistani forces killed Rabia or that the militants blew themselves up by accident. The following month, Khan was abducted by gunmen. His body was found six months later near the Afghan border with handcuffs on his wrists; he had been shot in the back, apparently while trying to escape. When I visited his family in North Waziristan a year later, Khan's brother told me he blamed the ISI.
In January 2006, shortly after Khan's disappearance, I got an early-morning phone call at my home in Islamabad from a colleague at Newsday, where I was then working as a fixer and bureau manager. There had been another drone strike in the Bajaur tribal area, he told me; could I go investigate? I picked up a friend who worked for the BBC and drove north to Bajaur to see my first drone strike. It would be the first newspaper story to appear under my own byline -- and my first experience covering the drone war.
As we drove into Damadola, a farming village sprawled across a wide valley, I spotted the bodies of a cow and a calf, splayed out underneath a tree with their eyes wide open. Nearby were the fresh ruins of three houses.
The drone's presumed target had been Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had been rumored to be in the area. I arrived on the scene ahead of most other reporters, and the families of the victims took me to see their newly dug graves. "All those killed, including women and children, are from this village," a villager told me as he showed me the burial site. "There were no foreigners here." Then I noticed something odd: Although I counted 13 graves, the locals would only tell me the names of seven women and children who had been killed. When it came to the men, they were silent. Later, a Pakistani official told me foreigners had indeed been present, including Zawahiri, though he had left some time before the missile hit. Drones were not yet common, but the fugitive al Qaeda No. 2 had long since become accustomed to moving quickly from place to place.
IT WAS IN SEPTEMBER 2006 that I heard a drone for the first time, flying over the mud-walled village of Ali Khel, a couple of miles west of Miram Shah. It was a hot summer night, too hot in the house of the building-contractor friend with whom I was staying, so I had gone out to sleep in the open along with several laborers who worked for him. The men were telling me about their travels in Afghanistan, how they would cross the border to fight for the Taliban and then return after a week or two to North Waziristan to work and make some money. Then I heard the buzzing, far above our heads -- like a bee, but heavier and unceasing, drifting in and out of earshot. The laborers said nothing.
On the other side of the Tochi River, in the village of Khatai, lived a famous Taliban commander whom the Pakistani military had once tried to kill. The operation had been a debacle; the military lost at least two senior officers, and hundreds of soldiers found themselves besieged not only by Taliban fighters but by the local villagers. But the small, lethal machine flying far overhead had accomplished what the Pakistani soldiers could not. "Nowadays he doesn't live here all the time," my host that night said as he pointed toward the commander's nearby compound. "There are drones in the air now."