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Briefing: Aerial drones as weapons of war

They have been used to attack militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But are their benefits outweighed by backlash on the ground?

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The drones are credited with killing high-value targets in Pakistan's tribal areas, an effective no-go area for the US military. In January, for example, a drone killed Osama al-Kini, thought to be the architect of a 2007 attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad that killed 54 people.

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In a sign of growing US support for drones, all branches of the military – as well as the CIA – are adopting the technology. The military spent $880 million buying such planes in 2007 and is now spending $2 billion a year on them.

In a speech at the Air War College in Alabama last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said there had been a 48 percent increase in UAV patrols in combat zones in the past year, to 34 a day. Since last August, the US has carried out about 40 unmanned airstrikes in Pakistan.

Are there strategic costs?

Some analysts worry that, despite the drones' tactical benefits, their heavy use could damage America's strategic goals. David Kilcullen, one of the most influential advisers in US counterinsurgency strategy in the past few years, thinks drone strikes in Pakistan do more harm than good because of the backlash they create, especially when civilians are killed.

"Unilateral strikes against targets inside Pakistan, whatever other purpose they might serve, have an unarguably and entirely negative effect on Pakistani stability," he wrote in the Small Wars Journal earlier this year.

"They increase the number and radicalism of Pakistanis who support extremism, and thus undermine the key strategic program of building a willing and capable partner in Pakistan," he continued.

The drone attacks appear to have galvanized the Taliban in Pakistan: In April their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, threatened as many as two terrorist attacks a week as long as the airstrikes continued.

Singer also points out that, while the US may hope that technological superiority will inspire fear or at least respect from enemies, to many tribal Afghans and Pakistanis the use of such weapons is seen as dishonorable because the soldiers deploying them aren't taking any risks themselves.

Is Pakistan going to stand for this?

The drone attacks are a clear source of public anger inside Pakistan. Leaders in Islamabad have repeatedly, even angrily, demanded that the US halt drone attacks in their country. But US officials privately say they cooperate closely in choosing targets for strikes with the Pakistani military, and that the US has tacit approval for most of its drone operations inside Pakistan's tribal areas.

Still, the airstrikes undermine the Pakistani government by setting it against the populace, which largely opposes the attacks on fellow Pakistanis.