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Pakistan's deadly robots in the sky Add to ...

"They're very precise."

It's not known how the CIA decides to hit targets, but a retired Pakistani military officer said the agency sometimes watches a person for months before pressing the button, often waiting until the subject is a safe distance from civilians. This is not a purely humanitarian gesture; it's widely assumed that each drone attack has a cost-benefit calculation, with the cost measured in the amount of outrage generated - and thus, the number of fresh recruits for the extremists.

Some academics have tried to turn this arithmetic on its head, arguing that the drones don't just represent the least unpopular way of fighting militants - but that they're actually popular. These analysts usually base their argument on a single survey, conducted by a small group of researchers known as the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy.

The survey got started in 2008, when a professor at a university supported by the Pakistani Navy asked his students for help with collecting opinions about the drones. For four months, 25 students visited urban centres in the tribal areas and asked questions, often informally. They claimed to find 550 respondents, of whom 45 per cent felt that drone strikes brought "fear and terror" to the population, and 58 per cent said the strikes did not fuel anti-Americanism.

"I thought everybody would be against the drone attacks, but to my surprise the majority of people in the tribal areas feels like hostages of the militants," said Khadim Hussain, who organized the survey.

A clean-shaven professional who wears crisp dress shirts, Mr. Hussain grew a long beard and put on local clothes to visit the tribal areas.

One evening in December of 2008, he said, one of his friends noticed two militants standing at a roadside shop in South Wazirstan.

"My friend stopped his car to buy something, and his companion got nervous - he said, 'Maybe let's go away. It's dangerous to stand too close to these men,' " Mr. Hussain said. "But my friend said, 'No, don't worry. We know how the drones operate. They won't hit us in a busy place.' [His companion]was right, the militants got into their car and it exploded as it moved away."

Such anecdotes serve a political purpose for Mr. Hussain; he now works as managing director of the Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation, a charity affiliated with the Awami National Party. The ANP is a Pashtun nationalist group that favours strong action against the militants.

Besides those with an ideological bent, some others appreciate the drones because they hit the militants who forced them out of their homes in the tribal areas.

Nasir Dawar, a television reporter for Dunya News, says he favours the strikes even though one of them nearly killed him in November of 2005. He was asleep when the first explosion blew out his windows and doors.

"I grabbed my Kalashnikov, because I thought somebody fired a rocket at my house," Mr. Dawar said. The second explosion opened cracks in his ceiling, and the blasts kept coming - seven in total, destroying his neighbour's house. He went to investigate the smouldering ruins, drawn by the sounds of a child weeping.

"There was nothing left but body parts, and a kid lying under some bricks," he said.

These stories point in conflicting directions, but the pattern was neatly summarized by a university student named Noor Habib, 21, whose family lives in North Waziristan. The drones killed one of his classmates, along with women and children near his village. Still, as somebody who moved away to attend school in Peshawar, he says, he instinctively favours any measure that fights extremism. Educated people like the drones, he said, and uneducated people hate them - although, he acknowledges, the vast majority of people in the tribal areas are uneducated. Pakistan is a country at war with itself; both sides of the debate are driven by fear.

"More and more people become terrorists every day," Mr. Habib said.

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