Khalid still remembers the first time he heard about drones. He was 10 years old, sitting in his school classroom in Khogyani, a district near the Durand Line in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. A group of his friends animatedly discussed the recent death of a local man.
“Then the drone came,” one of them said, imitating the whistling noise of an unmanned aircraft, “and he was dead.”
Khalid didn’t understand what they were saying. It was as if he was the only one left out of a secret. He finally decided to ask his teacher. What did the other boys mean? What was a drone?
The teacher’s response was both ominous and prescient. “It’s something that, once you come to its attention, you will not be left to live,” he told Khalid.
That was in 2007. Khalid is 22 now, a young man. American military involvement in Afghanistan—sparked by Al Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001—was already six years deep by the time he learned about drones, but the strikes go back nearly as far.
The first instance of a drone killing civilians in Afghanistan was in 2002, when a man by the name of Daraz Khan was killed by a Hellfire missile dropped by a Predator drone in the eastern province of Khost. The US suspected that he was Osama bin Laden; residents maintain that Khan was merely out searching for scrap metal.
Since then, Khalid’s province of Nangarhar has become a hub for armed groups—first the Taliban, and later forces claiming allegiance to ISIS—and a bustling drug trade. It has also become one of the most drone-bombed provinces in the most drone-bombed country in the world.
The American public, though, has largely forgotten this. The war in Afghanistan has been running for 18 years, making it the longest conflict in American history (it passed the previous milestone, set by the Vietnam War, in February 2019). Over the years, press coverage has fallen dramatically. According to the Pew Research Center for Journalism and the Media, Afghanistan accounted for 1% of all media coverage in the US in 2007 and just under 4% in 2010, when the Pentagon deployed 100,000 troops and dropped 5,101 bombs on the country.