KHALIS FAMILY VILLAGE, Afghanistan: Barely able to walk even with a cane, Ghulam Rasool says he padlocked his front door, handed over the keys and his three cows to a neighbour and fled his mountain home in the middle of the night to escape relentless airstrikes from US drones targeting militants in this remote corner of Afghanistan.
Rasool and other Afghan villagers have their own name for Predator drones. They call them benghai, which in the Pashto language means the ''buzzing of flies.'' When they explain the noise, they scrunch their faces and try to make a sound that resembles an army of flies. ''They are evil things that fly so high you don't see them but all the time you hear them,'' said Rasool, whose body is stooped and shrunken with age and his voice barely louder than a whisper. ''Night and day we hear this sound and then the bombardment starts.''
The US military is increasingly relying on drone strikes inside Afghanistan, where the number of weapons fired from unmanned aerial aircraft soared from 294 in 2011 to 506 last year. With international combat forces set to withdraw by the end of next year, such attacks are now used more for targeted killings and less for supporting ground troops.
It's unclear whether Predator drone strikes will continue after 2014 in Afghanistan, where the government has complained bitterly about civilian casualties. The strikes sometimes accidentally kill civilians while forcing others to abandon their hometowns in fear, feeding widespread anti-American sentiment. The Associated Press - in a rare on-the-ground look unaccompanied by military or security - visited two Afghan villages in Nangarhar province near the border with Pakistan to talk to residents who reported that they had been affected by drone strikes.
In one village, Afghans disputed Nato's contention that five men killed in a particular drone strike were militants. In the other, a school that was levelled in a night time air strike targeting Taliban fighters hiding inside has yet to be rebuilt.
''These foreigners started the problem,'' Rasool said of international troops. ''They have their own country. They should leave.''
From the US perspective, the overall drone program has been a success. While the Pentagon operates the drones in Afghanistan, the CIA for nearly a decade has used drones to target militants, including Afghans, in Pakistan's border regions. CIA drones have killed al Qaeda number two, Abu Yahya al-Libi and other leading extremists.
Still, criticism of the use of drones for targeted killings around the world has been mounting in recent months. The UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights has launched an investigation into their effect on civilians. Rasool said his decision to leave his home in Hisarak district came nearly a month ago after a particularly blistering air assault killed five people in the neighbouring village of Meya Saheeb.
In one village, Afghans disputed Nato's contention that five men killed in a particular drone strike were militants. In the other, a school that was levelled in a night time air strike targeting Taliban fighters hiding inside has yet to be rebuilt.The US-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, confirmed an air strike on February 24 at Meya Saheeb, but as a matter of policy would neither confirm nor deny that drones were used. Rasool said that he, his son, half a dozen grandchildren, and two other families crammed into the back of a cart pulled by a tractor. They drove throughout the day until they found a house in Khalis Family Village, named after anti-communist rebel leader Maulvi Yunus Khalis, who had close ties to al Qaeda.
The village is not far from the Tora Bora mountain range where in 2001 the US-led coalition mounted its largest operation of the war to flush out al Qaeda and Taliban warriors. ''Nobody ever comes here. It's a little dangerous sometimes because of the Taliban,'' said Zarullah Khan, a neighbour of Rasool's. But the historic significance of his newfound refuge was lost on Rasool. ''Who's Khalis? We stopped when we found a house for rent,'' he said, grumbling at the monthly $200 bill shared among the three families packed into the high-walled compound where he spoke with the AP.
Standing nearby, Rasool's 12-year-old grandson, Ahmed Shah, recalled the attack in Meya Saheeb. The earth shook for what seemed like hours and the next morning his friends told him there were bodies in the nearby village. A little afraid, but more curious, he walked the short distance to Meya Saheed.
''I wanted to see the dead bodies,'' he said. And he did – three bodies, all middle-aged men. ISAF reported five militants were killed, but Rasool claimed they were businessmen. One of the dead had a carpet shop in the village, he said.
Disputes over the identities of those killed have been a hallmark of the 12-year war. In Pakistan, an AP investigation last year found that drone strikes were killing fewer civilians than many in that country were led to believe, and that many of the dead were combatants.