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Akbar Ahmed | The New York Times

WHEN people in Washington talk about shrinking the drone program, as President Obama promised to do last week, they are mostly concerned with placating Pakistan, where members of the newly elected government have vowed to end violations of the country’s sovereignty. But the drone war is alive and well in the remote corners of Pakistan where the strikes have caused the greatest and most lasting damage.

Drone strikes like Wednesday’s, in Waziristan, are destroying already weak tribal structures and throwing communities into disarray throughout Pakistan’s tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan. The chaos and rage they produce endangers the Pakistani government and fuels anti-Americanism. And the damage isn’t limited to Pakistan. Similar destruction is occurring in other traditional tribal societies like Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. The tribes on the periphery of these nations have long struggled for more autonomy from the central government, first under colonial rule and later against the modern state. The global war on terror has intensified that conflict.

These tribal societies are organized into clans defined by common descent; they maintain stability through similar structures of authority; and they have defined codes of honor revolving around hospitality to guests and revenge against enemies.

In recent decades, these societies have undergone huge disruptions as the traditional leadership has come under attack by violent groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia’s Al Shabab, not to mention full-scale military invasions. America has deployed drones into these power vacuums, causing ferocious backlashes against central governments while destroying any positive image of the United States that may have once existed.

American precision-guided missiles launched into Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal areas aim to eliminate what are called, with marvelous imprecision, the “bad guys.” Several decades ago I, too, faced the problem of catching a notorious “bad guy” in Waziristan. Read More

When Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, was taken into American custody at an airport stopover in Jordan last month, he joined one of the most select groups of the Obama era: high-level terrorist suspects who have been located by the American counterterrorism juggernaut, and who have not been killed.

Mr. Abu Ghaith’s case — he awaits a federal criminal trial in New York — is a rare illustration of what Obama administration officials have often said is their strong preference for capturing terrorists rather than killing them.

“I have heard it suggested that the Obama administration somehow prefers killing Al Qaeda members rather than capturing them,” said John O. Brennan, in a speech last year when he was the president’s counterterrorism adviser; he is now theC.I.A. director. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In fact, he said, “Our unqualified preference is to only undertake lethal force when we believe that capturing the individual is not feasible.”

Despite Mr. Brennan’s protestations, an overwhelming reliance on killing terrorism suspects, which began in the administration of George W. Bush, has defined the Obama years. Since Mr. Obama took office, the C.I.A. and military have killed about 3,000 people in counterterrorist strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, mostly using drones. Only a handful have been caught and brought to this country; an unknown number have been imprisoned by other countries with intelligence and other support from the United States. Read more

Nek Muhammad, center, was a Pashtun militant who was killed in 2004, in the first C.I.A. drone strike in Pakistan.

Nek Muhammad, center, was a Pashtun militant who was killed in 2004, in the first C.I.A. drone strike in Pakistan.

Nek Muhammad knew he was being followed.

On a hot day in June 2004, the Pashtun tribesman was lounging inside a mud compound in South Waziristan, speaking by satellite phone to one of the many reporters who regularly interviewed him on how he had fought and humbled Pakistan’s army in the country’s western mountains. He asked one of his followers about the strange, metallic bird hovering above him.

Less than 24 hours later, a missile tore through the compound, severing Mr. Muhammad’s left leg and killing him and several others, including two boys, ages 10 and 16. A Pakistani military spokesman was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, saying that Pakistani forces had fired at the compound.

That was a lie. Read More

Charlie Savage | The New York Times

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court held Friday that the Central Intelligence Agency must disclose, at least to a judge, a description of its records on drone strikes in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The 19-page opinion by Judge Merrick B. Garland rejected an effort by the Obama administration to keep secret any aspect of the C.I.A.’s interest in the use of drone strikes to kill terrorism suspects abroad.

It does not necessarily mean the contents of any of those records will ever be made public, and it stopped short of ordering the government to acknowledge publicly that the C.I.A. actually uses drones to carry out “targeted killings” against specific terrorism suspects or groups of unknown people who appear to be militants in places like tribal Pakistan. The Obama administration continues to treat that fact as a classified secret, though it has been widely reported.

But the ruling was a chink in that stone wall. Judge Garland, citing the C.I.A. role in analyzing intelligence, as well as public remarks by a former director and other top officials about what they asserted was the precision and minimal civilian casualties caused by drone strikes, said it was a step too far to ask the judicial branch to give its “imprimatur to a fiction of deniability that no reasonable person would regard as plausible.” Read More

The wreckage of a car in Shabwa Province, Yemen, stood as testament to the destructive abilities of American drone strikes.

The wreckage of a car in Shabwa Province, Yemen, stood as testament to the destructive abilities of American drone strikes.

WASHINGTON — One morning in late September 2011, a group of American drones took off from an airstrip the C.I.A. had built in the remote southern expanse of Saudi Arabia. The drones crossed the border into Yemen, and were soon hovering over a group of trucks clustered in a desert patch of Jawf Province, a region of the impoverished country once renowned for breeding Arabian horses.

A group of men who had just finished breakfast scrambled to get to their trucks. One was Anwar al-Awlaki, the firebrand preacher, born in New Mexico, who had evolved from a peddler of Internet hatred to a senior operative in Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. Another was Samir Khan, another American citizen who had moved to Yemen from North Carolina and was the creative force behind Inspire, the militant group’s English-language Internet magazine.

Two of the Predator drones pointed lasers on the trucks to pinpoint the targets, while the larger Reapers took aim. The Reaper pilots, operating their planes from thousands of miles away, readied for the missile shots, and fired.

It was the culmination of years of painstaking intelligence work, intense deliberation by lawyers working for President Obama and turf fights between the Pentagon and the C.I.A., whose parallel drone wars converged on the killing grounds of Yemen. For what was apparently the first time since the Civil War, the United States government had carried out the deliberate killing of an American citizen as a wartime enemy and without a trial. Read More

Eric Schmitt and Scott Sayare | The New York Times

A Malian soldier discovered the body of an Islamist in Gao on Friday, where fighting has flared in recent days.

A Malian soldier discovered the body of an Islamist in Gao on Friday, where fighting has flared in recent days.

WASHINGTON — Opening a new front in the drone wars against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, President Obama announced on Friday that about 100 American troops had been sent to Niger in West Africa to help set up a new base from which unarmed Predator aircraft would conduct surveillance in the region.

The new drone base, located for now in the capital, Niamey, is an indication of the priority Africa has become in American antiterrorism efforts. The United States military has a limited presence in Africa, with only one permanent base, in Djibouti, more than 3,000 miles from Mali, where insurgents had taken over half the country until repelled by a French-led force.

In a letter to Congress, Mr. Obama said about 40 United States military service members arrived in Niger on Wednesday, bringing the total number of those deployed in the country to about 100 people. A military official said the troops were largely Air Force logistics specialists, intelligence analysts and security officers.

Mr. Obama said the troops, who are armed for self-protection, would support the French-led operation that last month drove the Qaeda and affiliated fighters out of a desert refuge the size of Texas in neighboring Mali.

Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, signed a status-of-forces agreement last month with the United States that has cleared the way for greater American military involvement in the country and has provided legal protection to American troops there. Read More

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