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Drones Spread Fear In Remote Afghan Mountains

File photo of a drone armed with a missile setting off from its hangar at Bagram air base in Afghanistan.
File photo of a drone armed with a missile setting off from its hangar at Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

ASADABAD, Afghanistan -- After living through insurgent attacks, government crackdowns, night raids, and airstrikes for generations, residents of a remote mountainous region in Afghanistan have a new gadget to fear: drones.

The unmanned aircraft hover constantly in the skies above the forested Hindu Kush Mountains of Kunar. This eastern Afghan province is considered a major theater for hardline local Salafi militants, Afghan Taliban, and their foreign allies.

Kalimullah is one of the latest victims of a drone strike in Kunar. He and two friends were injured in an alleged drone attack last week in a remote valley of Kunar's Ghaziabad district.

"We were going back to our houses after offering our evening prayers, and suddenly something struck us," he told Radio Free Afghanistan about the attack in Ghaziabad's Helgal village. "We were not carrying any weapons and were not accompanied by anyone bearing arms."

His friend Imtiaz, who was also injured in the attack, says the attack was sudden. "Something hit us from above, and I don't remember anything after that," he said. (Like many Afghans, Imtiaz and Kalimullah go by one name only).

In the days before the attack, Helgal residents heard and occasionally spotted drones in the air.

Zakirullah Saqib, a cleric who runs a madrasah, or Islamic religious school, in Helgal, says Kalimullah and Imtiaz were his students.

He says the fear of drone strikes in Helgal and similar remote villages is forcing parents to keep their children at home.

Saqib says the number of students at both the madrasahs and state-run schools is plummeting.

"The drone strikes have escalated, and this has affected children and their parents," he said. "We demand that the drone strikes should end immediately or else there will be no education [in Kunar]."

Lawmaker Jamaluddin Sayar is the deputy head of Kunar's provincial council. He says drone strikes are forcing villagers in remote areas, particularly those that border Pakistan, to abandon farming and working in the forests -- two major sources of livelihood in rural Kunar.

"The drone strikes have a major psychological impact. It is like fear is being injected straight into your brain," he said. "Even lightening is often mistaken for an airstrike."

Abdul Habib Saidkhel, Kunar's police chief, however, rejects reports of civilian casualties in drone attacks. He says drone strikes in the region have only targeted militants.

"These attacks have greatly pressured our enemies and have caused great harm to them," he said. "Civilians are never deliberately targeted and might have suffered injuries because of being close to the militants."

Saidkhel said civilians should not carry weapons. "They should also resist sheltering militants, particularly in their homes and villages."

The Afghan air force is widely seen as being too weak to conduct sophisticated aerial warfare. But Western aerial might was instrumental in forcing the Taliban regime to collapse in 2001. During the past 13 years, airstrikes have been an integral part of NATO operations against insurgents in remote parts of Afghanistan.

After the end of NATO combat operations in Afghanistan, drone strikes appears to continue under the U.S.-led counterterrorism operations under the rubric of Operation Freedom's Sentinel.

In the latest attacks, at least 25 militants were killed in two drone strikes in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, which borders Kunar. Afghan and international officials said the strikes targeted fighters loyal to the Islamic State.

After the demise of the regime in late 2001, the forested mountains of Kunar and neighboring Nuristan Province have been the scene of some of the toughest fighting between Afghan and international forces and an array of Taliban allied militant groups.

During the Afghan mujahedin's guerrilla war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the region was a major battlefield. In the late 1980s, it was one of the first regions to fall into the hands of mujahedin factions. Some Kunar and Nuristan guerillas subscribed to the hardline Salafi Muslim sect and attempted to form establish "Islamic" administration in the regions they controlled.

Abubakar Siddique wrote the story based on Rohullah Anwari reporting from Kunar, Afghanistan.