LONDON — In the telling of some US officials, the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan has been a triumph with few downsides: In more than 300 missile attacks there since 2008, dozens of Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed, and the pace of the strikes, which officials frequently describe as “surgical” and “contained,” has dropped sharply.
But viewed from Miram Shah, a frontier town that has become a virtual laboratory for drone warfare, the campaign has not been such an antiseptic salve. In interviews in the past year, residents paint a portrait of extended terror and strain within a tribal society caught between vicious militants and the drones hunting them.
“The drones are like the angels of death,” said Nazeer Gul, a shopkeeper in Miram Shah. “Only they know when and where they will strike.”
Residents’ claims of distress are now being backed by a new Amnesty International investigation that found, among other points, that at least 19 civilians in the surrounding area of North Waziristan had been killed in just two of the drone attacks since January 2012 — a time when the Obama administration has held that strikes have been increasingly accurate and mistake-free.
The study, which is to be officially released Tuesday along with a separate Human Rights Watch report on US drone strikes in Yemen, comes as the issue is again surfacing on other fronts. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a vocal critic of the drone campaign, is set to meet with President Obama in the White House.
But nowhere has the issue played out more directly than in Miram Shah, in northwestern Pakistan. It has become a paranoid town, dealt at least 13 drone strikes since 2008, with another 25 in adjoining districts — more than any other urban settlement in the world.
Even on days the missiles do not rain down, buzzing drones hover day and night, scanning the alleys and markets with roving high-resolution cameras.
That is because their potential quarry are everywhere in Miram Shah — Islamist fighters sporting long hair, basketball shoes, and AK-47 rifles who roam the streets, fraternize in restaurants, and, in some cases, even direct traffic in the town’s busy central bazaar. The men come from an array of militant groups that take shelter in Waziristan and nearby.
The militants’ commanders are more elusive. Some turn up at the town’s phone exchange, to place ransom calls with the families of kidnap victims who have been snatched from across Pakistan. Others stay completely out of sight.
Unusually for the overall US drone campaign, the strikes in the area mostly occur in densely populated neighborhoods. The drones have hit a bakery, an unused girls school, and a money-changers’ market, residents say.