Fresh drone attacks in Pakistan reignite debate

Controversy over the suspected US airstrikes on the Taliban is undermining the Pakistani government's ability to maintain public support while battling the militants.

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A suspected US drone attack in the mountains of South Waziristan killed between 8 and 14 militant followers of Taliban leader Beitullah Mehsud before dawn on Wednesday, just hours before Pakistani airstrikes on a second camp nearby.

Pakistani officials condemned the use of unmanned drones, saying the pilotless warplanes kill civilians and alienate local tribes needed in the war effort. It's an argument with which many US critics agree. However, analysts say Pakistan is in fact involved in the drone attacks, making its denials only in the face of public outcry. The controversy underscores the fragility of the US-aligned government in Islamabad as it struggles to defeat a Taliban insurgency while maintaining the trust of its people.

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The airstrikes come as part of the government's offensive in South Waziristan, begun last month in an attempt to gain control of the Taliban stronghold and kill or capture Mr. Mehsud. (For more on the offensive and the importance of capturing Mehsud, click here.) The number of casualties from the Pakistani airstrikes is unknown, but the Associated Press reports between 12 and 14 militants killed in the US strike, while Agence France-Presse reports 8 dead. On Tuesday, a drone killed 16 militants at a third location.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Pakistani Army Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas denied government involvement in the missile attacks, saying: "It hurts the campaign rather than helps." But that does not mean Islamabad is not involved in the strikes:

Washington does not directly acknowledge being responsible for launching the missiles, which have killed civilians as well as militants and contributed to anti-US sentiment in Pakistan.
Any admission Islamabad works with the United States in attacks on its citizens likely would be damaging for the shaky civilian government. Most experts, however, believe the country's civilian and military leaders secretly endorse the strikes and likely provide the United States with intelligence on possible targets.

According to a tally by Agence France-Presse, at least 45 drone attacks have killed 450 people since August 2008. The Christian Science Monitor reported in a briefing on drone attacks that those high casualty rates "appear to have galvanized the Taliban in Pakistan."

In a May New York Times op-ed, military analysts David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum argue that drone attacks "[excite] visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion in Punjab and Sindh, the nation's two most populous provinces." They say the attacks kill far more civilians than militants, provoking a public outcry that could help destabilize the country.

Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent — hardly "precision." American officials vehemently dispute these figures, and it is likely that more militants and fewer civilians have been killed than is reported by the press in Pakistan. Nevertheless, every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.

But the attacks could be justified, argues Yale professor Stuart Gottlieb on the website of Foreign Policy magazine,if the US would acknowledge them and President Obama "candidly explains how targeted killings fit within his overall counterterrorism approach." They are a "dangerous contradiction" to Obama's promise of a more humane war on terror, says Mr. Gottlieb, but the US should make its case for their necessity. To succeed, he says the US must prove two things:

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