Drones have transformed combat against Islamic militants in Pakistan's tribal areas, the rugged belt of villages and badlands hugging the border with Afghanistan. Since 2004, analysts say, Predator and Reaper drones operated by the CIA have killed at least 15 senior Al Qaeda commanders, as well as several top Pakistani Taliban leaders and hundreds of fighters.
The small unmanned planes can hover for hours while gathering infrared camera footage. Onboard lasers pinpoint targets for supersonic Hellfire missiles or 500-pound bombs. The attacks cost no American lives.
But civilians who had nothing to do with the Taliban or Al Qaeda also die in these strikes. Calculations of how many vary widely, from fewer than 30 since 2008 to more than 700 just last year. The Pakistani government restricts access to the tribal areas and has only nominal control there. Militants seal off attack sites, and victims are buried quickly, according to Islamic tradition.
Still, the deaths inflame anti-American suspicions, particularly among middle- and upper-class Pakistanis outside the tribal areas, many of whom are convinced that Washington wants to colonize their country or wrest control of its nuclear arsenal.
Inside the poor, isolated and politically powerless tribal areas, the reaction is more nuanced. Some say bluntly that they would avenge the killing of their relatives, if they could only reach those remotely piloting the drones buzzing thousands of feet over their heads. Others say they understand the need for the program, and even support it if it helps drive out the militants. They loathe the constraints the Taliban places on everyday life.
But many don't understand why a technology that pinpoints its targets with lasers and infrared cameras can also kill innocents. And they would prefer that Pakistanis, rather than Americans, were flying the drones.
The CIA's covert Predator and Reaper drone missions over Pakistan are separate from the U.S. military's unmanned flights in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. military officials say.
Pakistanis are in some ways partners in the effort. U.S. conventional forces are banned from the tribal areas, but Pakistan tacitly acquiesces to Washington's reliance on drones to strike militant camps and hide-outs. The U.S. also relies heavily on the Pakistani military and intelligence services for on-the-ground information. If the intelligence is faulty, or if civilians are near militant targets, civilian casualties are almost inevitable.
Warfare continues to become more professional and dehumanized every day.
The purpose of Extraordinary Edition is being revisited for winter, headed into 2013. U.S. foreign policy, Central Asia and the Middle East remain key focal points. Economics and culture on your front doorstep are coming into focus here.