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And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Since August, the U.S. has stepped up an aerial offensive in Pakistan's western tribal regions. The unmanned drones, formerly known as Predators, are usually armed with Hellfire missiles. They're targeting al-Qaida and the Taliban to stem cross-border attacks against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. But there is increasing concern that the U.S. could be dragged into a wider conflict in Pakistan. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: On January 23rd, a few short days after President Obama took office, three missiles hit the village of Zharki in north Waziristan, a mountainous region in Pakistan's tribal belt. Within hours, another missile strike was reported in South Waziristan.

According to Pakistani officials, at least 18 people were killed in the attacks. Among them: half a dozen foreign militants and their families. It's widely believed the missiles were fired from U.S. drones circling high above western Pakistan.

Shuja Nawaz is with the Atlantic Council, and is the author of the book "Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the War Within." He says Pakistan protested the drone attacks.

Mr. SHUJA NAWAZ (South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council): The fact that these drone attacks occurred in the first week of President Obama's administration was seen as a surprise. It also seemed to indicate a new resolve on the part of the U.S. administration to use this weapon. And they don't want to give up that option, it seems.

NORTHAM: There have been more than 35 suspected U.S. missile strikes against Islamist militant sites inside Pakistan since August. Conservatively, at least 130 people have been killed. The majority of those killed are believed to be militants, says Stephen Cohen with the foreign policy studies program at the Brookings Institution. Cohen says with good intelligence, the drones are accurate.

Mr. STEPHEN COHEN (Brookings Institute): What they do is allow any country that possesses them to pinpoint on targets without much collateral damage. The drone, in a sense, while it conjures up images of a mechanical monster, in fact is far more effective and more humane than dropping, you know, tons of bombs on an area.

NORTHAM: The drones have been used occasionally in other countries, including Yemen and Somalia. But the use of the drones in Pakistan is sustained, and shows no sign of letting up. The attacks violate Pakistan's sovereignty.

Retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international affairs at Boston University, says the U.S. needs to admit it's opened another front, another war.

Professor ANDREW BACEVICH (Boston University): This is a war that is mostly conducted by remote control, unmanned aerial vehicles launching missiles at targets on the ground. But it is a war, and it's a war that deserves, I think, very critical scrutiny by the new administration.

NORTHAM: Bacevich says there's been very little debate or dialogue about the growing U.S. military offensive in Pakistan, whether in Congress, in the public realm, or the U.N. For the most part, the aerial attacks on Pakistan's soil are seen as an appendage to the Afghan conflict, rather than an independent issue.

And Seth Jones, a South Asia expert at the Rand Corporation, says while the Pakistan government may publicly protest the attacks, it has given its tacit blessing because it also wants to put down the militancy.

Mr. SETH JONES (Rand Corporation): Most of these attacks, frankly, have been done with cooperation from Pakistan authorities in the national security establishment - the military, especially the Army, as well as the intelligence service.

NORTHAM: When Congress passed the Use of Military Force Resolution in September 2001, it authorized the U.S. to go into any area to attack the nations or people involved in the 9/11 attacks. And the Brookings Institution's Cohen says the U.S. isn't attacking Pakistan per se; it's attacking militant bases in a lawless area. Cohen says the Pakistani government is incapable of exercising sovereignty over the tribal region.

Mr. COHEN: It's open territory. And under international law, ungoverned territories, you know, are subject - can be subject to attack.

NORTHAM: The problem is, the longer the U.S. continues its military action in Pakistan using Predators, the greater the chances of becoming embroiled in a much broader conflict there. The Atlantic Council's Shuja Nawaz says militants have already started moving from the remote border region into more built-up areas of Pakistan.

Mr. NAWAZ: What could happen when the next drone attack occurs on a city, or a town, or a village inside the Northwest Frontier Province, or inside central or southern Punjab? What then?

NORTHAM: Drone attacks in the more densely populated areas of Pakistan could result in a greater civilian death toll, which, in turn, could produce a backlash and undermine the nuclear-armed nation's fledgling government. The Rand Corporation's Jones says the drones may be helpful in a short-term, tactical sense.

Mr. JONES: But over the long run, they need to be supplemented by much broader, longer-term activities to clear, hold and build in these areas.

NORTHAM: Analysts say there are a couple of high-level reviews about a Pakistan strategy under way. Until they're completed, analysts say it's likely the drone attacks will continue apace.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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