When Asma Safi, a 24-year-old Afghan woman, died of heart failure in Kabul in 2011, her last wish was to be buried in her grandfather’s village in Chapa Dara, a district in eastern Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban.
Asma Safi was my friend and translator, and Chapa Dara was a dangerous place. Its steep cornfields and forests provided the Taliban fighters near total control on the bumpy dirt track that served as the only road into the mountains. The fighters blocked food, fuel and medicine from traveling along that road in order to menace its citizens.
To bury her in Chapa Dara, her father, Ihsanullah Safi, would have to brave the road and return to his home village of Morchal, where he was no longer welcome. He worked for Save the Children, an international NGO that the Taliban opposed. For Safi, taking his daughter home meant risking death at the hands of those fighting against his efforts to build a new and democratic Afghanistan.
Safi went anyway. Loading Asma’s body, wrapped in a white shroud, into a taxi, he set out for the mountains. For Safi, there was only one thing more frightening than being seized by the Taliban. The funeral, like any wedding or other event, might be spotted by an American piloting a drone seven thousand miles away at a military base in Syracuse, New York.
‘If the drone saw us by the grave, it might kill us,’ he told me later, twisting a white handkerchief in his lap as he spoke.
Taxiing past a hangar in the Jalalabad airport, I’ve seen the snubbed noses of America’s Predators in eastern Afghanistan. I’ve heard them at night while lying on a bed made of floor cushions. The growl of a Predator flying low is something between a lawn mower and an angry jet. Its menace is audible. The sound alone has driven people insane.
For those caught beneath its thrum, there’s no comfort that the drone, and whoever is at its helm in America, is only targeting the bad guys. President Obama’s drone strikes in Afghanistan have a history of targeting, by mistake, weddings and funerals. The Obama administration claims 116 civilians have died in these strikes; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts this figure higher, at 800.