When Drones Strike
In the spring of 2009, New York Times reporter David Rohde was being held captive by Taliban gunmen in a house in Waziristan, a mountainous region on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan. Aerial drones soared overhead, filling him and his kidnappers with a sense of dread, until one day, he later wrote, “Our nightmare had come to pass.” A drone fired missiles near their house, killing several militants on a road and terrifying people in the area. The house withstood the attack but, Rohde wrote, “the plastic sheeting covering the window hung in tatters.” He learned about the efficiency of the drones on that day and also saw the wrath they incurred: “My captors expressed more hatred for President Obama than for President Bush.”
Rohde is one of the only Americans to see the drones up close: not, it turned out, as a reporter, but as a prisoner. His first-hand perspective on the strike is rare, and the novelty of his reporting underscores the difficulties of covering this new kind of war, a remote-controlled campaign officially denied by the US government that is unfolding in a region where Pakistani officials have forbidden reporters to travel independently.
Journalists are struggling under these challenging circumstances. Even those reporting safely from afar have not succeeded in digging down to basic questions about drone attacks: How are targets chosen? Under what legal authority? How successful are drones in killing enemies and sparing civilians? Are the drones helping win the war against would-be terrorists?
War reporting is one of journalism’s highest callings, and for good reason: citizens need to know if battles are successful, and what the costs are in blood and money. But it is difficult to grasp the new war that Americans are fighting in Pakistan. As described by former US officials who participated, it is conducted not by military generals but by cia officers who are guiding drones from offices in Langley, Virginia, that kill people in a country with which the US is not at war.