Pakistan: Where 'The Land Is on Fire'

Damadola used to be about as quiet as any place on earth. Roughly 2,000 people, subsistence farmers mostly, live in this tree-shaded village of terraced wheat fields and mud-brick houses in Pakistan's northwestern tribal agency of Bajaur. But it's anything but peaceful now. The Afghan border is only two miles away, via a network of unpoliced mountain trails that link the insurgent strongholds of Kunar province (rumored to be the refuge of Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri) with Peshawar and other Pakistani towns.

The location helps explain why more than 100 people in and around Damadola have been killed by U.S. Predator strikes since 2006. While the dead have apparently included some who were committed enemies of America, locals claim others were no more than bystanders—children among them. U.S. operators take extraordinary care in picking targets for Predator strikes, which in the tribal areas are thought to be conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. (The U.S. government does not comment on alleged operations in Pakistan.) But in practice their definition of a legitimate target includes those who make it possible for militants to thrive. "If people in those communities are truly concerned about their welfare, they should not harbor terrorists, and they should oppose those who do," says one U.S. official, asking not to be named when discussing sensitive material. "These terrorists—especially the foreigners—are a menace to Pakistan and to the world at large."

In the United States, few would question that brutal calculus—one thing that both presidential candidates and the vast majority of citizens would agree upon is the legitimacy of going after the Qaeda network in Pakistan's tribal badlands. But Pakistan's new civilian leadership complains that the U.S. strikes—and the collateral damage they've caused—are making the job of pacifying the area harder. At ground level, in mountain hamlets like Damadola, things aren't always as clear as they may seem through the viewfinder of a deadly, high-flying drone.

Villagers in Damadola say it's hard to say no to men with guns, especially when many of those men are your neighbors and relatives. It's even tougher in Pakistan's tribal areas, where the Pashtuns' ancient ethical code requires that every visitor be treated hospitably. "Even if a bloodthirsty enemy comes to your door you have to welcome him," says a gray-bearded villager named Bakhti Gul. He can't help adding: "Especially those who are chased by the U.S." His nephew was among the victims of the most recent Predator attack, early on the morning of May 14. The young man had joined the militants, Bakhti Gul admits, but only after an earlier Predator strike on a nearby madrassa had killed more than 80 of his schoolmates.

That attack, in October 2006, illustrates the murkiness of the conflict in the tribal areas. Pakistani officials claimed at the time that the school was a militant training camp. Locals claim that many of the dead were youngsters, although at least a few may have been valid targets—one in particular was a close associate of Maulana Faqir Mohammad, deputy head of the Pakistan Taliban Movement, under the notorious suicide-bomb trainer Baitullah Mehsud.

Getting firm intelligence on targets from afar is nearly impossible. Shah Khan, 45, a weathered subsistence farmer, saw the first Predator strike on Damadola, before dawn on Jan. 13, 2006. He was tending a newborn calf when he heard a buzzing in the sky near his sister's house, about 100 yards up the hill. He saw a flash of light and what looked like a rain of fire—and then the house exploded. "It looked like Judgment Day," he says. The concussion knocked him down, but he staggered to his feet and ran up the hill. Three of his sister's children lay dead in the rubble. U.S. officials later said the target was Zawahiri himself, who was thought to be meeting with fellow jihadists. Local officials said the attack killed 18 people, but Zawahiri wasn't there. U.S. officials remain convinced that they barely missed him. Khan insists there were no Qaeda members or insurgents in the house.

Even good intelligence can go bad. The May 14 strike targeted a guesthouse belonging to a local preacher, Maulvi Obaidullah. Men had gathered at the house the evening before. They were a diverse group: Gul's nephew, the young militant, was there, but so were the village shopkeeper Haji Omar Shah and a local journalist named Akhondzada. Obaidullah's 14-year-old nephew sat down with the men, as did the preacher's armed militant son, Azizullah, and several local boys who were just hanging out.

The gathering was not atypical. Most men in the tribal areas are armed, and most civilians prefer the protection of the militants, who keep bandits at bay, to government forces, who almost never venture up the mountainsides. Just before dinner, a group of about a dozen Taliban insurgents knocked at the big wooden door and walked in, carrying AK-47s and laden with spare clips. Most of them, too, were local men. Everyone sat down on carpets and pillows on the floor or wooden beds against the walls and tucked into a meal of chicken, potatoes and flatbread. The conversation, the shopkeeper Shah remembers, was largely about Islamabad's messy politics, the high price of food and recent exploits by Taliban fighters.

Shah walked home about 9:30 p.m., he says. Obaidullah left, too, after hospitably prevailing on Akhondzada, the journalist, to stay the night. Shah says he's sure no foreigners or other strangers had been there, and other villagers say the same.

But late that night another band of armed men arrived at the guesthouse. An Afghan Taliban source tells NEWSWEEK that Obaidullah's son had called a meeting of local militants to welcome an important visitor: a senior Qaeda financial operative known as Sheik Suleiman al-Jazeeri. According to the Afghan source, who has proved very reliable in the past and who declines to be named for security reasons, the Algerian-born moneyman often traveled through the area, shuttling between his base in Kunar province and the financial facilities of Peshawar. Secrecy is a matter of basic survival for someone like al-Jazeeri; only one or two local militants may have been told that he was on his way. The arrivals of senior operatives like him generally seem to be scheduled after most villagers are sound asleep.

The Predator's commanders were awake, however, and watching. The blast from the Hellfire missile was so loud that Khan Mohammad says he thought it was the end of the world. The 30-year-old farmer peered outside and then raced to where his neighbor's guesthouse had been. The house where Obaidullah lives and the mosque where he preaches were untouched, but nothing of the guesthouse remained standing other than charred pieces of two walls. Mohammad and other neighbors clawed through heaps of broken bricks, dried mud and twisted steel reinforcing rods in search of survivors.

Villagers say they think 17 people died that night, including Obaidullah's 14-year-old nephew and the visiting journalist, a father of eight. They can't be sure al-Jazeeri was among the dead. Armed militants took control of the site by sunup, spiriting away several corpses to be buried in secret. Local journalists were kept from filming or photographing any of the dead. Pakistani security forces stayed studiously away until the militants left 12 hours later, having combed through the debris.

Could the villagers of Damadola save themselves by simply not "harboring terrorists," as the Americans say? Mohammed Abdul Mateen, a retired science teacher who left Damadola several years ago but visits frequently, agrees the militants are destroying the place, but says the Hellfire attacks only increase their strength. "Soon the last educated villagers will be gone, leaving an illiterate people in the hands of narrow-minded mullahs," he says. Kids in once quiet Damadola are now terrified by loud noises, which could signal an incoming U.S. spy plane. "The land under our feet is on fire," says shopkeeper Haji Omar Shah. "Where can we run?" Since mid-May, villagers say U.S. choppers and drones have been flying over Damadola regularly, swooping low to the ground. They're sure more trouble is coming.