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By Phil Stewart and Robert Birsel
WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Under President Barack Obama, the pace of strikes by pilotless "drone" aircraft on insurgents in Pakistan is rising and could pick up further after a White House review of regional war strategy.
There have been 39 drone strikes in Pakistan since Obama took office not quite nine months ago, according to a Reuters tally of reports from Pakistani security officials, local government officials and residents.
That compares with 33 strikes in the 12 months before Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20.
The air strikes, many using "Hellfire missiles," are credited most notably with killing Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in August, a much-lauded success that has stoked renewed interest in the potential of robotic warfare.
But as the White House reviews high-tech counter-terrorism options in Pakistan and Afghanistan, critics of drone technology question the effectiveness of targeted killings and the usefulness of a campaign fanning anti-American sentiment.
Henry Crumpton, a former senior official at the CIA and the State Department, called the Pakistan strikes "one of the most widely known secrets that the CIA has."
The CIA and the Pentagon refuse to discuss the program, which despite successes remains highly unpopular in Pakistan. The air strikes are seen as a violation of national sovereignty and are blamed for killing scores of civilians there.
"The feeling is that the less that is said and written about drones the better, because it just puts more pressure on Pakistan," said another former U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be named.
So, even as the United States ramps up training of controllers for the pilotless drones and acquisitions of so-called "unmanned aerial systems," it is doing so quietly, as it relates to Pakistan.
MORE DRONES, MORE STRIKES
Pilotless aircraft are far cheaper than manned fighter jets and can track and target insurgents in places where U.S. troops on the ground cannot. Their missions also pose no risk to U.S. pilots, who can control them remotely from the safety and comfort of offices thousands of miles away.
The technology is attractive for the same reason in Afghanistan, as U.S. commanders look to keep casualties low.
"It's safe to say that DOD's inventory of these aircraft is going to continue to grow, and continue to grow pretty robustly over the next five years," said Dyke Weatherington, a Defense Department deputy director overseeing acquisitions of unmanned aircraft systems.
He was referring to such aircraft generally and cautioned the majority of the more than 2,000 systems deployed in support of combat operations abroad are designed to gather intelligence, not fire missiles.
Among the "combat-ready" drones are about 100 Predator aircraft and some 15 bigger, faster Reapers that are deployed in support of combat operations, Weatherington said.
Both the Predator and Reaper are manufactured by the privately held General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
Crumpton, a proponent of the technology, said it gives the United States added speed, stealth and "great precision."
"The warhead on that (laser-guided) Hellfire missile can put it through a window so you have very little collateral damage. It's just a very precise weapon," he said.
The Reaper can carry bigger weapons than the Hellfire but those raise the risk of civilian casualties, which Washington is trying to minimize.
The Website www.longwarjournal.com estimates that 447 people were killed in Pakistan in air strikes from Jan-Sept 2009. Less than 10 percent of them were civilians, the Website said, a claim contradicted by others who argue the toll may be much higher.
Analysts agree the air strikes fan anti-American sentiment. But some experts challenge the assumption that the strikes are helping the Taliban recruit in insurgent-controlled areas.
"The people living under the rule of the Taliban are mostly of the view that some targeted action should be taken against the militant organizations," said Khadim Hussain of the Pakistan-based Aryana Institute think-tank.
VICTORY BY DRONES?
CIA Director Leon Panetta signaled after taking his post that the strikes, first ramped up under the Bush administration last September, had been successful and would continue.
Vice President Joe Biden is advocating increased use of drones against al Qaeda targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the White House review of war strategy, sources say.
Proponents say the drones are working. One in three air strikes in Pakistan killed so-called high value targets in Jan-Sept 2009, according to www.longwarjournal.com.
But even supporters acknowledge that the drone strikes cannot dismantle al Qaeda by themselves and have not netted top al Qaeda leaders near the stature of Osama bin Laden or his No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri. That would require better intelligence.
Then there is the question of their impact. Just months after Mesud's death, Pakistan's Taliban had already replaced him and last weekend staged one of their most brazen attacks, storming Pakistan's army headquarters and taking hostages.
Brookings Institution's Peter Singer asked whether the U.S. wasn't rooting out some insurgents just to see others pop up elsewhere -- like in the children's game "Whack-a-Mole."
"The question is: are we just playing whack-a-mole? Are we creating new moles?," asked Singer, author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century."
"This technology can be very seductive."
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