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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now, look at another controversial use of military force. This week, two events framed the argument over the use of drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al-Qaida confirmed that one of its founding members, a man named Mustafa Abu al-Yazid´┐Żwas killed by a drone attack inside Pakistan. American officials called his death a major setback for al-Qaida.

INSKEEP: So that's one event, and here's the other: the U.S. military investigation into the death of 23 afghan civilians. The investigation found that a team operation a surveillance drone made a mistake. It identified a convoy of vehicles as full of insurgents, when instead there were women and children onboard.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston looks at whether drones hurt the U.S. war effort more than they help.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: At a practical level, the most basic question for U.S. policymakers is whether drone attacks work. The technology is seductive. Drones can watch a target without being detected and then strike without warning. The CIA and the U.S. military both use drones.

Professor SAM RASCOFF (New York University School of Law): On the one hand, they're powerfully effective at eradicating our enemies.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Sam Rascoff. He's an NYU law professor and a former NYPD intelligence chief. The problem, he notes, is that the killings can alienate the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Prof. RASCOFF: On the other hand, they might simultaneously be powerful tools at motivating our enemies. So from a counterterrorism standpoint, they're very effective. From a counterinsurgency standpoint, they raise lots of questions.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And the U.S. is trying to do both.

Prof. RASCOFF: And I think the drone points up in a very sharp-edged sort of way the conflict, the tension between those two strategic objectives.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's the argument counterinsurgency experts have been making for months. They say the drone attacks increase the number of Pakistanis who support extremism, and that for every enemy killed, more are created.

Again, Sam Rascoff.

Prof. RASCOFF: Well, we hear reports, including from homegrown terrorists, that drone attacks against villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of what's motivating them to engage in violence.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So that's the practical question. There's another debate over whether the drone attacks are legal and moral. These attacks are often called targeted killings - a suspected terrorist, for example. The official U.S. position is that the strikes are permitted. The U.S. is at war with al-Qaida and has a right to defend itself.

A new U.N. report questioned that legal logic. Others have raised questions, too. Here's Columbia law professor and former Pentagon official Matthew Waxman.

Professor MATTHEW WAXMAN (Columbia Law School): The next step in that argument - and where it becomes most controversial - is that not only are we in a war with al-Qaida, but this is a war that extends geographically across territorial bounds.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, if the drone strikes are permitted in Pakistan, why not anywhere else? The U.S. drones have already struck in Yemen. Where are the boundaries?

Another legal challenge: The U.N. report says that drones fired by the CIA are less acceptable than drones fired by the military, because it says the CIA is less accountable.

Consider this latest CIA drone attack that killed al-Qaida's number three man. He's thought to have been the mastermind of an attack that killed CIA agents in Khost, Afghanistan last year. The concern is that the CIA drone attack was motivated by revenge, rather than the legitimate right to self-defense.

So those are the legal concerns. There's one more worry: What to expect of the person who pulls the trigger? It makes a difference whether you're a drone operator thousands of miles away or a Marine on the ground.

Professor JOHN RADSAN (William Mitchell College of Law): The Marine who is on the ground in Afghanistan does not have time. As one Marine said in an email message to one of my research assistants: When in doubt, empty the magazine.

TEMPLE-RASTON: John Radsan is a law professor at William Mitchell College and former assistant general counsel at the CIA. He says that unlike the Marine, a drone pilot's life isn't in danger. He can have a drone follow a target for hours - gathering intelligence, making sure the right person is in the crosshairs.

Prof. RADSAN: Based on the different facts, there's going to be a different application of the laws of war. We hold the drone operator to a higher standard.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Critics want the American drone program held to a higher standard, too.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.

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