Spencer Ackerman / The Guardian – 2017-01-10 01:37:44
Victim of Obama’s First Drone Strike:
‘I am the living example of what drones are’
Spencer Ackerman / The Guardian
Faheem Qureshi was 14 when a drone attack on his home left him with horrific injuries, several family members dead and his dreams for the future in tatters.
NEW YORK (January 23, 2016) — Faheem Qureshi’s uncles sat with their neighbors, chatting, cracking jokes and sipping tea, in their family’s lounge for male guests. Qureshi, almost 14, stood nearby, bored and restless, thinking about when he could go to the nearby playground where he and the other Ziraki village kids played badminton and cricket.
It had been a long day — Friday prayers, a food shopping errand at his mother’s behest, hosting — but also a happy occasion, as people stopped by to welcome an uncle home to North Waziristan, in tribal Pakistan, from a work excursion to the United Arab Emirates. Then he heard a sound like a plane taking off.
About two seconds later, the missile punched a hole through the lounge. Qureshi remembers feeling like his body was on fire. He ran outside, wanting to throw water on his face, but his priority was escape. The boy could not see.
This was the hidden civilian damage from the first drone strike Barack Obama ever ordered, on 23 January 2009, the inauguration of a counter-terrorism tactic likely to define Obama’s presidency in much of the Muslim world. It was the third day of his presidency.
Reportedly, the strikes did not hit the Taliban target Obama and the Central Intelligence Agency sought. Instead, they changed Qureshi’s life irrevocably.
It took nearly 40 days for Qureshi to emerge from a series of hospitals, all of which he spent in darkness. Shrapnel had punctured his stomach. Lacerations covered much of his upper body. Doctors operated on the entire left side of his body, which had sustained burns, and used laser surgery to repair his right eye. They could not save his left.
His family kept the worst from him while he recuperated. Two of Qureshi’s uncles, Mohammed Khalil and Mansoor Rehman, were dead. So was his 21-year-old cousin Aizazur Rehman Qureshi, who was preparing to leave the family’s North Waziristan home for work, also in the UAE. Fourteen of Qureshi’s cousins were left fatherless.
Barely a teenager, Qureshi was suddenly an elder male within his family, tasked with providing for his mother, brothers and sisters. Once a promising student who wanted a career in chemistry, his priority would become scrounging a living. The family never had the money to repair the guest lounge.
Obama, now in the twilight of his presidency, wants to be remembered as a peacemaker. In his own telling, as in his final state of the union address earlier this month, he is the man who denuclearized Iran peacefully, who opened Cuba and ended the last vestige of the cold war, who replaced the “dumb wars” he campaigned against with the prudent, precise counter-terrorism of drone strikes.
All Qureshi knows about Obama, he told the Guardian from Islamabad, “is what he has done to me and the people in Waziristan, and that is an act of tyranny. If there is a list of tyrants in the world, to me, Obama will be put on that list by his drone program.”
Seven years to the day after the strike, Qureshi has never received so much as an admission from the US that it happened. The CIA declined comment for this article, deferring to the White House. Although Obama expressed “profound regret” for a 2015 drone strike on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that killed two western hostages, the White House would not comment on “specific cases”, said a National Security Council spokesman, Ned Price.
“The US government takes seriously all credible reports of non-combatant deaths and injuries. In those rare instances in which it appears non-combatants may have been killed or injured, after-action reviews have been conducted to determine why, and to ensure that we are taking the most effective steps to minimize such risk to non-combatants in the future.
“Although we will not comment on specific cases, were non-combatants killed or injured in a US strike, condolence or other ex gratia payments, such as solatia, may be available for those injured and the families of those killed,” Price told the Guardian.
“Are we not the same human beings as these two westerners who were killed?” Qureshi asked in his first interview with an American journalist, conducted through translation. The interview was facilitated by the human rights group Reprieve.
Qureshi is now approximately 21 years old — his official ID card says he’s younger, but where he’s from, birthdates are often listed inaccurately. Over a Skype connection, he appears slender, with his hair falling down on to his forehead and wire-rimmed glasses framing a false eye. He is now a displaced person, having stayed in Ziraki until the Pakistani army invaded North Waziristan 18 months ago. He strokes his beard as he recalls the moment that defines his life.
Yes, Qureshi wants acknowledgement, apology and compensation from the US. “It’s not about me. It’s about every civilian who has been killed in Waziristan.”
It may never be known how many of them the US has killed in drone strikes. Though Obama and the CIA have gestured in the last two years toward lifting the veil of official secrecy, the main act of transparency has been presidential acknowledgment that the drone strikes occur.
Since Obama took office, 371 drone strikes in tribal Pakistan have killed between 256 and 633 civilians, according to a media-derived tally kept by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. All non-governmental attempts at tracking the strikes acknowledge their limitations. Open-source reporting on each classified strike comes through official leaks, which incentivize presuming those killed are militants until proven otherwise.
Active warzones prevent and deter consistent, independent investigations, from the press and non-governmental organizations, into each drone strike. Little, accordingly, exists to decisively refute the official stance that drones kill “single digits” worth of civilians each year.
The congressional committees meant to oversee the CIA have helped it block the transparency Obama promised, even as they have fought with the CIA on other issues. In 2014, the Senate intelligence panel chairwoman stripped a requirement for public disclosure of drone casualties from an intelligence operations bill.
Qureshi remembered thinking to himself in his hospital bed during the anxiety of his month-long blindness: “What did I do for which I was punished so badly? What did my family do? Why did it happen to me?”
The available evidence suggests the strike was an error. Reporter Daniel Klaidman’s book about Obama’s drone strikes, Kill or Capture, claims that the first January 2009 strike had gone “terribly wrong”, with the targeted Taliban member never having been on the premises.
A leaked Pakistani government document records “9 civilians” being killed in a drone strike on 23 January 2009, an apparent reference to the one on Qureshi’s home; an unredacted version seen by the Guardian names his village and his dead uncle.
“There are so many people like me in Waziristan that I know of who were targeted and killed who had nothing to do with militancy or the Taliban,” Qureshi said, “so many women who have been killed, children who have been killed, but there is still no answer to this. Forget about the answers, there is not even acknowledgement that we were killed.”
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s tally, Obama’s drone strikes in tribal Pakistan alone have killed between 66 and 78 children.
“I do not say drones have only killed civilians. They would have or might have killed some militants. But overall, they have killed mostly civilians who have nothing to do with what America is trying to do in Pakistan or Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world,” Qureshi said.
Over the years, Qureshi and his attorney have sought recompense through various official channels, via the Pakistani tribal liaison, the US embassy and the United Nations Human Rights Council. All have been fruitless.
Qureshi acknowledges he will never be a chemist. His best hope, he said, is to open a small business once he is allowed to return to Waziristan. All his academic hopes will transfer to sponsoring his two brothers’ educational ambitions. He hopes he can afford it: “I don’t know how they can study if I can’t provide for them.”
He rejects Obama’s framework that the US response to terrorism must choose between drone strikes and ground invasions, urging negotiations with a persistent Taliban that has survived over 14 years of US war. Qureshi warns that America, once known for helping liberate Afghanistan from the Soviet Union, is “hated” in Waziristan like never before.
“What we know of the US is this is what they do to people like me. They uproot us, they kill us, they target us, without any reason. They turn our lives upside down. Of course the US is hated in that part of the world, and it’s hated more because of what they’ve done to people like me,” Qureshi said.
Last week, the US defense secretary, Ashton Carter, said the US in 2016 will target the Islamic State outside Iraq and Syria in its north African and south Asian strongholds, with drone strikes likely to take the lead.
The latest drone strike in Yemen, on 20 January, demonstrated that the strikes can occur despite the chaos of the US-allied Saudi Arabian war on the ruling Houthi faction. Africa is dotted with US launchpads for drones, from Djibouti to Niger to Cameroon. Foreign countries from the UK to Pakistan, following America’s lead, now conduct their own drone strikes. The drone strikes will outlast the president most associated with normalizing them.
Qureshi said he does not believe ordinary Americans are “evil or unjust”, and urges them not to believe what their government tells them about drone strikes and Pakistan.
“I am the living example of what drones are,” Qureshi said.
“They have affected Waziristan as they have affected my personal life. I had all the hopes and potential and now I am doing nothing and don’t know what there is for me in the future.”
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