On Dec. 31, 2009, Kareem Khan, a journalist in Islamabad, got a call from a cousin in his hometown in Pakistan’s tribal belt. He was told to come quickly. He reached his village a few hours later to find locals gathered around the rubble of his house, the target of an American drone strike.
The dead included Mr. Khan’s teenage son Zahinuallah, his brother, Asif Iqbal, and Khaliq Dad, a stonemason who spent the night in their hujra, an attached guestroom.
Zahinullah worked as a guard in a government school, and Asif Iqbal, taught in another school. “They had never even spoken to anyone from a militant group,” says Khan. “And our hujra was no [militant] compound or training center, and no one else was there.”
The strike also killed Haji Omar, a Taliban commander who once led the group in South Waziristan and was later identified as the target.
Since 2004, US drone strikes have killed thousands of militants in Pakistan’s border areas, including Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders like Haji Omar, as well as civilians with no such affiliations. The program is highly controversial in Pakistan, but enjoys tacit support from its political establishment, despite their public condemnations.
Pakistan also employs air power against militants in the tribal belt: Air force jets carried out bombing raids Wednesday night in North Waziristan, killing 15 suspected fighters and destroying an arms cache, according to news media.
What happened in Khan’s case is more unusual: he filed murder charges against John Rizzo, a senior CIA lawyer, and Jonathan Banks, the CIA’s station chief in Pakistan. In 2010, the CIA took the unusual step of pulling Mr. Banks out after Khan's complaint leaked his identity. A district court in Pakistan is set to hear the case later this year.
Khan has become an outspoken critic of the drones. His lawyers have identified scores of cases like his that merit legal investigation. His campaign has begun to make waves in Pakistan and drawn attention from European lawmakers, who recently invited Khan to discuss their countries' logistical support for the CIA-run drone program.
Abduction, then release
But Khan's activism has come at a cost. On Feb. 5, just days before he was due to travel to Europe, 20 suspected Pakistani intelligence agents, some in plainclothes, burst into his Rawalpindi home and took him away. “They kept asking me different questions about the drone strikes, who I knew, and what I was doing,” Khan says.
On Feb. 14, Khan was released without any explanation. He credits international pressure for his release. Lawmakers from Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands had written to Pakistani authorities on his behalf.
Khan's case against the CIA, the first of its kind, sparked speculation here that the US was behind his detention. Meghan Gregonis, a spokesperson for the American embassy in Islamabad, declined to comment on Khan's case, calling it an "internal matter.” In an email she said, "The US is concerned about missing persons in Pakistan,” referring to concerns raised in the State Department's annual human rights report.
According to the New America Foundation, US drone strikes in Pakistan are estimated to have killed between 2,080 and 3,428. The vast majority were identified as militants; civilian casualties ranged between 258 and 307. The number of strikes peaked in 2010 at 122; the scale has since dropped sharply.
Following the strike on Khan's home in Machikhel, which is in the Mir Ali district, local and foreign news outlets cited Pakistani and US intelligence officials as saying between two and six militants were killed in the strike, including Haji Omar, the Taliban commander. One report said Khan was among the dead. His home was described as a Taliban safe house.
Mustafa Qadri, a researcher at Amnesty International, says it's difficult to pin down casualties during any conflict, and that all sides, including the Taliban, try to spin the facts on the ground in Pakistan. But he says there is clear evidence that drone strikes sometimes unlawfully kill civilians.
In findings published last October, Amnesty researchers visited the scenes of nine strikes and interviewed more than 60 witnesses whose accounts often did not match those in news stories. In the case of a July 6, 2012 strike, for example, unnamed intelligence officials denied any civilians were killed, saying the missiles hit a militant compound in an area that was a known corridor for Afghan fighters.
A month later, an unnamed American official told Time magazine that a vehicle carrying explosives towards Afghanistan was targeted, saying “it was a clear shot.”
Based on interviews with eyewitnesses, Mr. Qadri found the strike had instead killed eight day laborers resting in a tent, and that a follow-up strike minutes later hit the rescuers, killing ten more civilians.
Qadri says each strike must be weighed and decided individually before it is launched. The US is also required to only use force proportional to the threat posed by a target – and to discriminate between military and civilian targets. “Even if a strike is lawful,” he adds, “every civilian death deserves an apology, compensation, and most of all, an investigation.”
Khan’s case isn’t the first to reach Pakistan’s judiciary. Last May, the Peshawar High Court ruled drone strikes were “held to be a war crime” and ordered Pakistan to put an end to them.
This lower-court ruling hasn’t halted the US drone program. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations says the White House's argument is that Pakistan's military “cannot or will not address the threat to US persons.” By this logic, "it does not matter if the Pakistani Parliament or courts weigh in,” he says.
The US Justice Department recently told American media that it was considering a targeted killing of an American identified as a militant living in Pakistan who was planning attacks on US targets overseas. Pakistan had refused to allow the US to take military action on its soil, the Associated Press reported.
In Khan’s case, his lawyers want the district court to issue an arrest warrant for the accused CIA officials so they can answer the charges. If so, this would echo proceedings in Italy: In 2009, a court in Milan convicted 26 Americans, including the CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady, for the rendition of an Italian-Egyptian cleric to Egypt. Last July, Lady was detained in Panama because of an outstanding warrant but was allowed to return to the US.
For his part, Khan is undeterred by his detention. On the day he was released, he flew to Germany to meet with lawmakers there. Reached by phone, Khan said he is sharing photos of people killed and wounded by the drones. “Everyone we meet is being affected by these photos,” he says, adding he plans to return to Pakistan. “I am not sure if the drones will stop, but we will keep doing what we can.”