When Mohammad Azam started his shift on May 21, it was just another sunny morning in Taftan, a small desert town in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province. Like taxi drivers around the world, he planned to spend this day waiting for customers, and navigating through traffic when he could find a fare. He had no idea it would be his last day alive.
By that evening, Mr. Azam’s body had been found burned to death, barely identifiable. He had the bad luck of picking up the target of an American drone strike: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, who was then leader of the Afghan Taliban. And so Mr. Azam was killed like so many other people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And unlike Mullah Mansour, Mr. Azam’s name hardly registered in the first wave of international coverage of the strike.
It was not even clear at first that Mullah Mansour had been killed. While the Americans and the Afghan government in Kabul were sure they had gotten their man, many others demanded proof. At times, media outlets and government officials have claimed that a militant leader has been eliminated by a carefully executed drone strike, only to have him appear alive again.
In the case of Mullah Mansour, his identity was finally confirmed when Pakistani authorities matched the victim’s DNA with one of the Taliban leader’s relatives. And then the case was closed. Days later, an even more ruthless and radical leader stepped in to fill Mullah Mansour’s shoes. The other victim of the strike, Mr. Azam, a taxi driver, was little more than an afterthought.
This didn’t sit well with Mohammad Qasim, Mr. Azam’s brother. “My brother was innocent,” Mr. Qasim insisted to me when I spoke to him this summer. “We all are sure that he didn’t know anything about his last passenger’s identity. Like many other drone victims, Azam wasn’t connected to any militant group.”
The United States Department of Defense, for its part, says that, according to its intelligence, it “has assessed Mullah Mansour’s driver to be a combatant,” but has offered little else by way of explanation. But, as The Times and others have reported, the United States frequently treats any military-age male killed in a strike as a combatant.
According to Mr. Qasim, on the day of his death, Mr. Azam was informed that a local businessman was waiting for a cab. Mullah Mansour routinely traveled with a fake passport under a different name. Posing as a businessman, he often crossed international borders. After the strike, it became clear that the Taliban leader had visited different Arab countries several times in recent years. Mullah Mansour’s last trip was reportedly to Iran, though Iranian authorities denied that he had entered the country at the time. Given all of the tricks and subterfuge Mullah Mansour used to conceal his identity, it is hard to imagine that a regular taxi driver could have discovered the terrifying truth about his passenger.
According to Mr. Qasim, his brother was the sole breadwinner for his wife and four young children. The month Mr. Azam was killed, Mr. Qasim filed what is known in Pakistan as a First Information Report at a local police station in Balochistan, initiating a criminal investigation into his murder. In the report, Mr. Qasim demanded justice and singled out the United States as the culprit in his brother’s death.
The family is also pressing for a lawsuit against the American government. Mr. Qasim said he wanted the Pakistani and American governments to recognize his brother’s innocence. He is also demanding financial compensation for his family, which now lacks a source of income.
Months later, Mr. Qasim and his family feel alone and powerless. “Nobody is interested in my brother’s death,” he told me. “Not a single politician expressed condolences.”
Earlier this month, the American government agreed to pay more than $1 million to the family of Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker who was killed by a drone strike while being held hostage by Al Qaeda in Pakistan in 2015. An American hostage, Warren Weinstein, was also killed in the strike, for which President Obama personally apologized.
Many, if not most, relatives of drone strike victims are simply too poor to generate the kind of political pressure that would lead to international recognition of their plight, and perhaps a chance at justice. Whether they are from Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan or Somalia, where the Obama administration’s assassination program has claimed hundreds of lives, there are countless families like Mr. Azam’s. They hail from remote areas, mostly totally unknown to people in the West, victims of a war they never started and invisible to the world as its casualties.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based organization that documents casualties in the United States-led drone war, in Pakistan alone, drone strikes from January 2009 to December 2015 have killed between 256 and 633 civilians. In Yemen, American drone strikes are believed to have killed more civilians in 2015 than Al Qaeda did. These realities are scarcely mentioned in Western media accounts of the United States’ assassination program.
While it will never be known if Mr. Azam knew his last passenger’s identity or not, there is copious evidence to suggest he was just a humble cabdriver doing his best to feed his family who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Drone strikes, especially in official noncombat zones like Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, are carried out in clear violation of international law and well-established human rights standards. But even if Mr. Azam knew Mullah Mansour, we should still ask ourselves if it was legitimate to kill him.
Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist based in Germany and the founder of Drone Memorial, a website that lists the victims of drone strikes.