Taliban fighters speaking a Waziri dialect of Pashto call the drones bhungana -- "the one that produces a bee-like sound." Their local adversaries call them ababeel -- the name of a bird mentioned in the Quran, sent by God to defend the holy city of Mecca from an invading army by hurling small stones from its mouth. Over the several days I spent in Ali Khel I became accustomed to their sound. It was there all the time. During the day it was mostly absorbed into the hum of daily life, but in the calm of the night the buzzing was all you heard.
This kind of reporting trip, risky as it was, had become increasingly necessary, given the cagey and outright confusing response by the Pakistani government to the escalating air war over its territory. When news of the early attacks got out, officials were evasive, suggesting that the militants had been killed while making explosives in their compounds. Then, after a drone strike took out a madrasa in the Bajaur tribal area in October 2006, killing more than 80 people, the government claimed that Pakistani bombers had done the job. Militants responded that November with a suicide bombing of a military barracks in the Dargai area of Malakand district, killing 42 soldiers and wounding dozens more.
The government learned its lesson, retreating back into ambiguity. From that moment on, only the residents of the areas targeted by the drones would have a clear understanding of what was happening -- but those areas were mostly beyond the reach of the media.
IF THE CONDUCT OF THE DRONE war is mysterious, the terrain over which it is fought is not, at least to me -- I have known it all my life. I was born in South Waziristan, to parents from two different Pashtun tribes, in a town that had been famous in the British colonial era for its gun and knife factories. My ancestors had come from Afghanistan as preachers, and I had taken my first steps as a child in the Afghan city of Khost, just across the border, where my maternal grandfather lived.
After graduating from university in Islamabad in 2001, I had returned to the tribal regions to prepare for my civil service exam. As unthinkable as it seems now, it was then the most peaceful, tranquil place I knew, and I spent my evenings in Bajaur studying with a college professor in preparation for a career in Pakistan's foreign service. During the days I would travel with my uncle, a government irrigation engineer, to villages in the area, meeting the residents and elders.
As the media poured into Afghanistan and Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks, someone with my background and English-language skills was suddenly very much in demand, and I got my first job in Newsday's Islamabad bureau. On my trips back to Waziristan, I saw the landscape of my childhood transforming into a war zone. By 2004, people I had known there in my youth were on all sides of the region's worsening conflict, in the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as the Pakistani military and intelligence services.
As the Pakistani military operations started to expand from one tribal area to the next, reporting on the ground went from difficult to impossible. I found myself working more and more over the phone, canvassing the contacts I had made during my travels in the region. When it came to the drone attacks, some of my sources would have access to the site of the strike and would tell me what really happened. I soon learned that the official version of the story was usually the least reliable. The military often had the same access problem I did and was itself relying on secondary sources.
The Taliban started adapting, too. The militants had come to realize that the increasingly effective drone strikes made them look weak, and they began getting rid of the evidence as fast as they could. After every attack they would cordon off the area and remove the bodies of the dead, making it difficult to verify who and how many people had been killed. Going to the site of a drone attack became a futile exercise; only a very few local reporters known for their deference to the Taliban were given any meaningful access.