Sunday, April 15, 2012

The HKs Over Pakistan

It was a hot summer night, too hot in the house of the building-contractor friend with whom I was staying, so I had gone out to sleep in the open along with several laborers who worked for him. The men were telling me about their travels in Afghanistan, how they would cross the border to fight for the Taliban and then return after a week or two to North Waziristan to work and make some money. Then I heard the buzzing, far above our heads -- like a bee, but heavier and unceasing, drifting in and out of earshot. The laborers said nothing.

On the other side of the Tochi River, in the village of Khatai, lived a famous Taliban commander whom the Pakistani military had once tried to kill. The operation had been a debacle; the military lost at least two senior officers, and hundreds of soldiers found themselves besieged not only by Taliban fighters but by the local villagers. But the small, lethal machine flying far overhead had accomplished what the Pakistani soldiers could not. "Nowadays he doesn't live here all the time," my host that night said as he pointed toward the commander's nearby compound. "There are drones in the air now."

Taliban fighters speaking a Waziri dialect of Pashto call the drones bhungana -- "the one that produces a bee-like sound." Their local adversaries call them ababeel -- the name of a bird mentioned in the Quran, sent by God to defend the holy city of Mecca from an invading army by hurling small stones from its mouth. Over the several days I spent in Ali Khel I became accustomed to their sound. It was there all the time. During the day it was mostly absorbed into the hum of daily life, but in the calm of the night the buzzing was all you heard.

Francis Fukuyama, himself a quadrotor hobbyist, asks how long we can expect before governments start making this technology illegal for individuals. More here.

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