Dec. 30, 2011 — -- In late October, on a rutted road in the mountains of northwest Pakistan, 16-year-old Tariq Khan drove the family car to pick up his aunt. His 12-year-old cousin Waheed sat in the passenger seat next to him. Just a few hundred yards before they reached their destination, a small missile fired from thousands of feet overhead pierced the thin metal roof of their vehicle. An explosion ripped through the car, burning it and everyone inside. Tariq and Waheed were killed instantly.
Just three days before his death, Tariq had made a difficult, eight-hour trip from his village to Islamabad to meet human rights activists and join their push to document the thousands of Pakistanis killed by the CIA drone campaign, the agency's largest covert operation in three decades. According to his family, Tariq was an innocent victim killed by the very drone program he planned to monitor.
The U.S., however, has a different version of events, one in which Tariq was not so innocent. A U.S. official acknowledged to ABC News that the car was targeted by the CIA, but said the two people inside it were militants, and that neither occupant was a 12-year-old.
Was Tariq Khan an earnest teenage activist -- or a budding jihadi? Whichever description is closer to the truth, his death and the outrage that followed helped expose one of the key sources of tension between the U.S. and Pakistan. The U.S. believes that its drone campaign is a surgical success that does not kill anyone except al Qaeda and Taliban militants. Much of the Pakistani public believes just the opposite -- that hundreds of innocent civilians have paid with their lives for U.S. arrogance.
That perception has helped make America more unpopular than ever in Pakistan, and the U.S. government finally seems to get it. The drone campaign is in the midst of a hiatus that has lasted more than a month, the second extended interruption in 2011 and the longest break since Obama took office in 2009 and picked up the pace of drone strikes.
Tariq Khan Saw '10 or 15 Drones a Day'
Tariq Khan was a normal kid, say family members, a typical North Waziristan teen who loved soccer, enjoyed using a computer, and had just learned how to use a camera. His father worked abroad in order to support Tariq and his six siblings.
In late October, he accompanied a group of tribal elders when they traveled down to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad for the anti-drone conference. There, he sat with dozens of foreign lawyers and journalists and displayed no signs of hatred or animosity at them or the government, according to the people who spoke with him. According to family and associates, he said he wanted to refute Washington's claim that the drone program had killed zero civilians in the last few years.
"At just 16 years old, Tariq had already become a real enthusiast for helping out his North Waziristan community is whatever way he could," the attorney for Tariq's family, Islamabad-based Mirza Shahzad Akbar, later wrote in a letter threatening to sue the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan.
At the conference, Tariq carried in his pocket the identification card of a cousin, Asmar Ullah, a high school student who he said was killed by a drone last April as he rode his motorcycle near a small village named Norak.
"The first thing I noticed about him when I was talking to him was that he seemed to be very introverted. He just looked petrified," says Neil Williams, a British investigator with Reprieve, the charity that sponsored the conference and is spearheading the investigation into drone victims. "I asked him, 'Have you seen a drone,' and I expected him to say, 'Yes, I see one a week.' But he said they saw 10 or 15 every day. And he was saying at nighttime, it was making him crazy, because he couldn't sleep. All he was thinking about at home was whether everyone was ok. I could see it in his face. He looked absolutely terrified."
Tariq returned to his village after the conference. Like so many kids in rural communities worldwide, he had begun driving before he had a license -- not that any police in North Waziristan would ever check. With his father abroad, his mother sometimes needed him to drive the family car to run errands. On Oct. 31, she asked him to pick up his aunt. Tariq and his cousin Waheed Khan, according to Tariq's family, left their village with a friend, dropped him off, and then set off again to get the aunt.
A drone had tracked the vehicle as its passengers got in and began driving. The Hellfire missile that killed them, the type fired so often from Predator and Reaper drones in Pakistan's tribal areas, is designed to kill only its target and limit collateral damage, according to analysts who have studied the drone program.
Akbar called Tariq's death a "homicide," and said it "removed from this world one more witness who could have shed light on the shameful practices of the U.S. in its War on Terror."
Asked for documentation of Tariq and Waheed's deaths, Akbar did not provide pictures of the missile strike scene. Virtually none exist, since drones often target people who show up at the scene of an attack. A month after the strike, however, Akbar delivered high-quality video of a dual funeral. Pakistanis are seen performing traditional rites of mourning, with two families lined up along two straight lines of chalk drawn on the ground. Two caskets sit on a table with Tariq's and Waheed's photos on top of them. At one point, a family member lifts the shroud on one of the bodies to reveal a badly burned torso. The faces of the shrouded bodies are never shown.
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Brennan: 'Not a Single Collateral Death' From Drones
The CIA's drone program began in 2004 but picked up substantially in 2009 after President Obama took office. According to an ABC News tally, there have been more than 230 strikes inside Pakistan in the past three years. By many accounts, the campaign has helped gut al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan. U.S. and even some Pakistani government officials say that drones have eliminated more than a dozen senior militant leaders -- deaths often confirmed by al Qaeda itself.
But the drones have also killed thousands of other people. Different U.S. observers have offered wildly varying estimates of the precision of the drone attacks, with the New America Foundation stating that 80 percent of those killed are militants, while the Brookings Institution said in 2009 that ten civilians die for every militant killed.
The technology and the accuracy of the strikes improved drastically after 2008. But the CIA has never provided any evidence that its targets have all been militants, despite a remarkable claim by John Brennan, President Obama's chief counterterror advisor, back in June. In the past year, Brennan said, "There hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop."
The drone campaign has fed the mounting unpopularity of the U.S. among the Pakistani population, and U.S. officials admit it puts extra pressure on a Pakistani government that is weak and a Pakistani military that is upset because the U.S. has begun to run the once-joint campaign almost unilaterally. But this year, the CIA seems to have bowed to Pakistani interests when it stopped drone strikes twice: once, after a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in Lahore, and after NATO helicopters killed 24 Pakistani troops on Nov. 25.
One U.S. official suggested that the human rights activists who are trying to document the drone strikes are sponsored by Pakistani intelligence agencies. The activists deny the accusation and say that Tariq's story is not extraordinary.
"America genuinely thinks it's killing terrorists, and doesn't understand what it's doing is making so many people so angry," said the founder of Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith, during a recent visit in Pakistan, where he helped organize the anti-drone events.
The activists accuse the CIA of killing dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians in the last few years, even as they admit that the campaign has also killed militants.
But the issue is not as simple as what Pakistanis and activists say versus what the United States says. Speaking privately, many senior Pakistani government officials and people from North and South Waziristan say the drone strikes are better than the alternative: Pakistani military offensives. Artillery and bombs dropped by Pakistani F-16s, these defenders say, are much less precise than missiles launched by drones. And since the U.S. is not allowed to send ground troops into Pakistan, the drones are "the only game in town," as former CIA Director Leon Panetta once put it.
Still, this year, the U.S. has been willing to engage Pakistan over how it uses drones -- something it was unwilling to do at the beginning of the Obama administration, according to Pakistani officials. The guidelines under which the drones operate were established under then President Pervez Musharraf, who did not insist on a written agreement, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials. So when the U.S. began the campaign by giving Pakistani intelligence officials prior notice -- and then took that notice away -- there was little Pakistan could do.
In the last few months, according to a senior U.S. official, the U.S. has agreed to provide more notice on strikes that target groups of fighters, though not on strikes that target individual people. As part of the tension since the NATO attack that killed Pakistani soldiers, the Pakistani military has said it will demand even more concessions on drone strikes.
"Everything should be formalized, and everything should act within the parameters we set," a senior Pakistani military official said, drawing a virtual box with his fingers.
For their part, the human rights campaigners want a reckoning of the deaths, and they are planning on suing on behalf of victims' families in Pakistani courts.
Akbar, who is representing the family of Tariq Khan, says Khan's case will be taken up after the new year. He says his motivation is to end the strikes permanently and to get compensation for the victims. The head of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a Pakistani human rights group, Akbar hopes to increase public pressure in Pakistan by raising awareness of who the drones kill.
Activists also hope the deaths are noticed beyond Pakistan, particularly inside the country that is launching the drones. They want Americans to question their government about who is being killed.
"We have to persuade the American people that a young lad like Tariq is like my son Wilfred," said Smith of Reprieve. "Until we get the people of the United States and the West to see the dead children of Pakistan the same way we'd see our own dead children, we're not going to win this battle."