Here's why one former Taliban captive is calling for a halt to US 'signature' drone strikes

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re with The World. We’re a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH here in Boston. If you are unlucky enough to be kidnapped, one of the worst places in the world to find yourself is in Pakistan’s tribal areas. It’s a remote region near the border with Afghanistan, and it’s a Taliban ministate. Ask Reuters reporter David Rohde. In 2008, he was captured by the Taliban and spent seven months as their captive in the tribal areas. Rohde was lucky, too, he managed to escape. Since then, he’s reached out to the families of other kidnapped Americans. That includes relatives of former aid worker Warren Weinstein, who was held by al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal regions for three years. That is until Weinstein and an Italian captive, Giovanni Lo Porto, were accidentally killed in a US drone strike, as we learned last week. The tragedy reminded Rohde of something that happened during his captivity, when a US drone struck a car near the home where he was being held.

 

David Rohde: It infuriated my guards, and that attack and that day was one of the most dangerous of the captivity because they vowed to kill me and my two Afghan colleagues that they were holding prisoner--they vowed to kill all of us. We don’t know what happened, senior commanders, may have had them back off. But the guards hated the drones, in part because they were effective.

 

Werman: Right. So, where does the US stand now in terms of its use of drones in that part of the world?

 

Rohde: Well, the problem is something called a signature strike, and that’s a strike that’s based on simply the movements of military-age men on the ground below. There’s a more accurate type of strike, called a personality strike, and that’s where there’s some sort of intelligence, maybe a telephone intercept, that says there’s a specific senior commander in the target. Warren Weinstein and the Italian aid worker were killed in a signature strike. The US did not know they were there. They just, based on the movements of the men below, thought they were militants. There were allegations that dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians have died in these signature strikes. It seems like a very low standard. I think that strikes are effective--my guards complained about how they were taking out senior commanders--but the signature strike, it’s a very low bar, as far as I can tell.

 

Werman: You’re now calling for a halt to signature drone strikes, but the American government does not have a lot of sources on the ground in places like Pakistan’s tribal areas, so what are we supposed to do?

 

Rohde: You have to weigh the broad and incredibly deep anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and across the region. Most people in Pakistan and across the region think they’re only or primarily killing civilians. So, we now have accidentally killed an American captive in a signature strike. There has to be a pause and a reevaluation, I think, in their use.

 

Werman: Are you saying that drones are really too easy an answer for a leader to avoid sending men and women into an actual battle?

 

Rohde: Oh, yeah. I mean, they’re a magic sort of technological silver bullet, it seems. But we’ve been using them for years in the tribal area and they simply have fought the Taliban to a standstill. The only thing that can eliminate the safe haven the Taliban have in Pakistan, and safe havens frankly in Syria, Yemen now, Libya, is control of those areas by local ground forces.

 

Werman: What other the details of that January attack that killed Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto are now emerging? What have you heard?

 

Rohde: There are apparently heat sensors on the most advanced drones, and they had surveyed the house for hundreds of hours, according to President Obama and other officials. They thought there were four militants in the house and the heat sensors only showed four militants. After the strike occurred, they watched the house and I got CIA operators were stunned to see them pull out six bodies.

 

Werman: As opposed to four bodies.

 

Rohde: Exactly. And the theory is the two captives may have been held underground in a basement or in some kind of tunnel.

 

Werman: I gather US officials tried to find you using drones--not striking, obviously. Have you been wondering “there, but for the grace of God, go I”?

 

Rohde: The Taliban actually believe that the US was hunting for me and trying to kill me with drone strikes, and they probably believe that the US intentionally killed Warren Weinstein. That’s not true.

 

Werman: Why would they think that?

 

Rohde: It’s part of the delusional reality they live in, and in the end--there’s a very sort of eloquent and beautiful statement that Warren Weinstein’s family put out. The primary and ultimate responsibility for his death lies with the kidnappers. Warren Weinstein was a 70-year-old aid worker. He was held for three and a half years, he had severe health problems. It was a cowardly thing, I think, to kidnap him and hold him for so long. So, absolutely, it’s the kidnappers you need to blame. But we also need to look closely at this tactic that really is breeding anti-American sentiment.

 

Werman: If the aim, though, is to reduce American casualties in war, aren’t drone strikes working in that respect?

 

Rohde: They are. But are we countering the broader movement of Islamic extremism, given the rise of ISIS? I wouldn’t have said this two years ago. But I’m alarmed by the number of recruits they’re getting, I’m alarmed by how widely believed the stories are that the US is carrying out indiscriminate drone strikes that kill civilians, and there has to be a reassessment, I think, of the broader strategy.

 

Werman: David Rohde, an investigative reporter with Reuters. In 2008, he was kidnapped by the Taliban and spent seven months in captivity before he escaped. David, always great to speak with you. Thank you.

 

Rohde: Thank you.