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Drones and Revenge: How a Pashtun Man Pursues Justice

During the CODEPINK delegation to Pakistan, the delegates had a chance to meet with many of the drone victims and family members from Waziristan. One man they met was Karim Khan, from the tiny village of Machikhel in North Waziristan. Khan, a large man in his late fifties with striking features, including a long beard, and wearing traditional tribal garb, surprised the group when he revealed that he spoke English and has worked as a journalist for outlets such as Al Jazeera.Karim Khan holds pictures of his son and brother who were killed in a US drone attack on their village in 2009. (Photo: Reprieve)

Khan told his story about how on December 31, 2009, a drone strike leveled his home, killing his 18 year-old son and his brother. The third man that died the night of that strike was a stonemason who had traveled to the town to work on the village mosque.

The news reports alleged that the target of the drone had been a Taliban commander, Haji Omar, but Khan insisted that Haji Omar had been nowhere near the village that night. He also said that the Taliban commander was reported dead several times by the media and Khan wondered aloud, how many times could this man be killed?

Khan said his son had just graduated from high school, and his brother was a teacher at the local school. Both were government employees. Khan’s brother tried to teach his students that education was far more powerful than weapons. The drone strike that killed him sent them a very different message.

While recounting his story, Khan became visibly upset as he showed the photos of his dead son and brother, and recalled picking up their body parts to prepare them for the Muslim burial.

A CODEPINK delegate asked Khan how the US government could make amends. Would he accept an apology and compensation? He scowled at the idea of compensation. “How can money ever replace the loss of my beloved son?” As for apologies, he ridiculed the idea. “You can say sorry, you can say sorry twice, you can say sorry three times, but I will never accept it.” He went on to explain that revenge is a key part of Pashtun culture. “I will never, never, forget or forgive what the Americans did, and if I had the chance to kill an American soldier, I would do it.”

This seemed inconsistent coming from an educated man, a journalist, who until then had maintained a warm demeanor. He seemed very far from someone who would pick up a gun. Some people in the delegation were clearly jarred by this blunt response, thinking he seemed like someone an who would pursue a more nonviolent approach, but then he reminded us that US culture is not that different. “After 9/11,” he asked, “would the Americans have accepted an apology from Al Qaeda? Never.” True enough. The torrent of violence the US has unleashed in exacting revenge post-9/11 has by far surpassed the number of people killed in the 9/11 attack.

Leah Bolger, president of the antiwar group Veterans for Peace, tried to convince Khan that it wouldn’t be right to exact revenge upon US soldiers because they’re not the ones responsible for the policy, but Khan would have none of it. “I hold the American soldiers directly responsible for the death of our loved ones,” he said. “They should not even be in this region.” Khan insisted that there would never be peace until the Americans leave Afghanistan.

After the meeting broke up, Toby Blome, a delegate from San Francisco who has spent many days and nights vigiling outside of the Creech Air Force Base where the drones are remotely piloted, wanted to clarify what Khan meant when he expressed a desire to seek revenge. She asked what he would do with drones if he had access to the technology. He said he would use the drones to attack other drones. When asked if he would fly a drone over the United States and drop missiles, he looked astonished at the mere suggestion. “Of course I wouldn’t do that,” he said, “because I might kill innocent people.”

Blome, recalling the exchange, was moved by Khan’s insistence that innocents not be caught up in his desire for revenge, unlike the American response to 9/11, which has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan. “How ironic that through the eyes of Americans, said Blome, “that it is Khan who would be considered the terrorist.”

Despite Khan’s strong desire for revenge, he’s actually pursing justice in a non-violent way. He was the first family member of a drone victim to take the issue into the Pakistani courts. With the help of human rights lawyer Shahzad Akbar, he sent a legal notice to the American embassy in Islamabad, detailing the wrongful deaths of his brother and son, and accusing the CIA of grossly violating the universal declaration of human rights.

A year after his family was killed, Karim Khan spoke outside a police station after he had lodged a complaint, asking that Jonathan Banks, the CIA station chief in Islamabad, be forbidden from leaving Pakistan until he answered to the charges against him. (While CIA agents’ identities are secret, Banks’ name had been revealed in the local press.) “We appealed to the authorities to not let Jonathan Banks escape from Pakistan,” Khan said.

While the accusation against CIA agent Jonathan Banks made headlines in Pakistan, Banks was allowed to flee the country. But in the ensuing months, Khan organized other families of victims and jointly they have been pressing their cases in several lawsuits now pending in Pakistani courts.

As Robert Naiman, a delegate and policy analyst with Just Foreign Policy, pointed out, “While Karim Khan talks about revenge, he lives his life in an exemplary fashion, using nonviolent means to pursue justice.” The US government would do well to follow his example.

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