I made my last visit to Waziristan in June 2007. By then, people there knew I worked for an American newspaper; fearing for my safety, my family discouraged me from going. The military was turning away representatives of foreign news organizations, and the Taliban had grown increasingly paranoid -- a fact I learned the hard way a year later.
It was a hot, sunny day in July 2008, and I had set out from Peshawar with a photographer to report on the Taliban in the Mohmand tribal area, where the group had taken over a series of marble quarries. After meeting up with a local guide, we arrived in the village of Ziarat and headed toward the local Taliban checkpoint. We had dressed in the traditional salwar kameez and had worn hats in an effort to blend in. My photographer was from Karachi, though, and I worried that his presence would mark us as outsiders. I asked him to stay near the car while I ventured out to the checkpoint, where I interviewed a contractor working in the mines. As I was about to finish my interview, I saw my photographer approaching, so I wrapped up the conversation and hustled him back to the car. But it was too late. A bearded man shouted at us -- he had seen the photographer's camera bag.
We were escorted away from the main road in our car, a Talib riding alongside us with a rifle. The Taliban held us in a prison in the base of a mountain, guarded by young volunteers from a nearby village. When we arrived, all our belongings, including our cell phones and money, were confiscated. But we were treated well -- better, at any rate, than the prisoners we saw chained up in the neighboring rooms.
In the evening two Taliban came to our room. "Who is the Waziristani?" one of them asked. I said it was me, and I followed them into a half-destroyed room elsewhere in the compound. "Tell us who really you are," one of them said. They looked through the contacts in my cell phone, demanding to know why they included the commander of the Frontier Corps, the regional U.S.-trained paramilitary force the Taliban were fighting. The questioning went on for three days. I told them I was a reporter. My Waziristan connections were of some help, but they posed a risk too: I knew the local Taliban had recently attacked my family's village in the nearby district of Tank, killing more than a dozen of my relatives. I didn't want them to know that I knew.
Finally, Abdul Wali, the local Taliban leader, arrived and, satisfied that we were who we said we were, ordered our release. They had to be vigilant, he told us. "People come here under the guise of journalists and photographers, and they either take pictures of our locations and pass them on to the authorities or drop a SIM [card] to facilitate a drone strike," he said. "You never know who is a reporter and who is a spy."
AMONG WAZIRISTAN'S RESIDENTS, "I will drone you" has by now entered the vocabulary of day-to-day conversation as a morbid joke. The mysterious machines buzzing far overhead have become part of the local folklore. "I am looking for you like a drone, my love," goes a romantic Pashto verse I've often heard the locals recite. "You have become Osama; no one knows your whereabouts."
But it was only when WikiLeaks released its cache of U.S. State Department cables beginning in late 2010 that Pakistanis learned just how complicit their government has been in the drone campaign. A February 2008 cable from the embassy in Islamabad reported that Pakistan's Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, met with the U.S. Centcom commander, Adm. William Fallon, and asked the U.S. military for "continuous Predator coverage of the conflict area" in South Waziristan, where the Pakistani Army was fighting the militants at the time. "Kayani knows full well that the strikes have been precise (creating few civilian casualties) and targeted primarily at foreign fighters" in Waziristan, asserted a February 2009 cable signed by Anne Patterson, then the U.S. ambassador.
In an August 2008 meeting with Patterson, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani -- the same man who, after Navy SEALs dropped into Pakistan to raid bin Laden's compound last year, warned that "Pakistan reserves the right to retaliate with full force" -- gave Patterson his go-ahead for a drone campaign in Pakistan's tribal regions. "I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people," he told her, according to a U.S. cable. "We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it."