Sadaullah Wazir says he was relaxing in his front yard when the missile struck, hurling him against the wall and mangling his legs so badly that they had to be amputated. Three of his relatives died. Now the 17-year-old and his family want justice from America, which they say was behind the attack.
Detailed accounts by casualties such as Wazir rarely make it outside the tribal regions. He and other tribesmen recently travelled to Islamabad, the capital, to meet with lawyers who are planning to sue the CIA for damages, possibly adding a new layer of scrutiny to the agency’s covert war inside Pakistan.
American officials do not acknowledge that war or discuss who is being killed in drone-fired missile attacks on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets, which have surged this year to average about two a week. But they have said privately that the strikes are highly precise and harm very few innocents. Some locals agree about their accuracy, especially when compared to bombing runs by Pakistani jets.
But some international law experts are questioning their legality. In June, Philip Alston, the independent U.N. investigator on extrajudicial killings, urged the U.S. to lay out rules and safeguards, publish figures on civilian casualties and prove they have tried other ways to capture or incapacitate suspects without killing them.
U.S. officials say the strikes are key to weakening al-Qaeda and other militants who mount attacks in Afghanistan, just across the border.
“The CIA’s counterterrorism operations are precise, lawful, and effective,” said CIA spokesman George Little, responding to questions about threatened lawsuits.
The drone war is shadowy and rife with ambiguities.
U.S. forces cannot operate in Pakistan the way they do in Afghanistan, so the pilotless aircraft introduced in 2004 are among the few weapons available. Pakistan formally protests the strikes but is widely believed to allow the attacks, and even to provide intelligence for some of them.
The U.S. has never publicly acknowledged killing or wounding a non-combatant, or paid any compensation, and it isn’t known whether the U.S. or Pakistan track or investigate civilian deaths.
The tribal regions are remote and off limits to foreigners, and journalists work there under severe constraints, so accounts of innocent victims cannot be independently verified. Still, their stories stoke Pakistani public outcry, and are used by militant groups to rally support.
Defining a Taliban collaborator can be tricky. Poor villagers are said to harbour militants for payment, and even without such blandishments, tribal custom obliges villagers to feed and shelter travellers. A recent study by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, an American advocacy group, quoted a villager as saying he was forced to give militants lunch, and the next day his home was hit by a missile that killed his only son.
In March, State Department legal adviser Harold Koh outlined for the first time America’s legal justification for the drone strikes. Without mentioning Pakistan, he said the U.S. was acting in self-defense after being attacked on September 11 and was operating within the laws of war that call for attacks to be limited to military targets and not to be carried out if there is excessive risk to civilians.
“Drone operations are essential,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, said in June. “The drones are part of a much broader effort to put pressure on al-Qaeda through the war in Afghanistan. They’re the cutting edge of the pressure, but they’re not the only pressure.”
The planned lawsuit may be bound up in a bigger behind-the-scenes drama. According to U.S. officials, the CIA station chief had to leave Pakistan last week partly as a result of being named by Mr. Wazir’s lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, as a defendant in another suit he is bringing, on behalf of a North Waziristan man who says he lost his son and brother in a drone strike.
The U.S. officials reportedly have said the case may be the Pakistani spy agency’s revenge for an American lawsuit against its chief over the 2008 terror attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai. The Pakistan agency has denied leaking the CIA man’s name.
There have been 109 drone attacks this year, about 90 percent of them in North Waziristan, where Mr. Wazir lives.
The strike on his village of Machi Khel happened in September 2009, according to Mr. Wazir and his grandfather. It hit a group of men chatting outdoors in the Wazir family compound as the day’s fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan came to an end.
A house some 100 yards (meters) away, where women and children were staying, was untouched. But Mr. Wazir, then a schoolboy, was standing close by the men when the missile hit.
Three of his relatives were killed, two cousins and an uncle. None had any links to militants, according to his grandfather and another cousin.
“I was bleeding but conscious. Someone screamed ‘He is alive!’ and then picked me up and put me in a vehicle,” said mr. Wazir. “I don’t remember what happened next.”
The next day, he was driven for five hours to the city of Peshawar, where surgeons at the International Committee of the Red Cross amputated his legs below the knee. He now hobbles on artificial limbs and crutches. He also lost an eye and has not finished school. He says his family paid up to $7,000 for his treatment.
After he returned home from Islamabad last week an Associated Press reporter visited him. The missile’s five-foot-deep crater had been filled in and planted over with grass, but the walls of the compound still showed shrapnel marks.
How many people died in the strike beside Mr. Wazir’s three relatives is not known, nor has anyone suggested a reason they might have been targeted. Mr. Wazir’s family insists they had no links to insurgents.
Shahzad Akbar is the lawyer seeking to represent Mr. Wazir in a civil suit against U.S. officials claiming wrongful death. He says he will use witness accounts to show the house was hit from a drone, which can be seen and heard in flight.
Mr. Akbar, who studied law in Britain, says he realizes there is no chance that any CIA official will show up in court or ever pay up if damages are awarded. But he hopes for a symbolic victory and some unwanted headlines for the CIA.
He vehemently denies being a pawn in rivalries between spy agencies.
“I believe in values such as freedom and the due process of the law,” he said.