Since August, the United States has intensified an aerial offensive using unmanned drones in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions. Formally known as Predators, the drones — usually armed with Hellfire missiles — are targeting al-Qaida and the Taliban in western Pakistan, partly 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 much wider conflict in Pakistan.
On Jan. 23, 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.
"The fact that these drone attacks occurred in the first week of President Obama's administration was seen as a surprise," says Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council and author of the book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within.
Nawaz says Pakistan protested the drone attacks, which "seemed to indicate a new resolve on the part of the U.S. administration and the military to use this weapon. They don't want to give up that option, it seems."
There have been more than 35 suspected U.S. missile strikes against Islamist militant sites inside Pakistan since August. At least 130 civilians have been killed so far — and that's a conservative estimate.
The majority of those killed are believed to be militants, says Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution's Foreign Policy Studies program. Cohen says with good intelligence, the drones are accurate.
"What they do is allow any country that possesses them to pinpoint a target without much collateral damage to specific sites," he says.
While the drones conjure up images of a mechanical monster, they are in fact "far more effective and more humane than dropping tons of bombs on an area," Cohen says.
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 Col. Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international affairs at Boston University, says the U.S. needs to admit it's opened another front and another war.
"This is a war that is mostly conducted by remote control, unmanned aerial vehicles launching missiles at targets on the ground," Bacevich says. "But it is a war ... that deserves very critical scrutiny by the new administration."
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 UN. For the most part, the aerial attacks on Pakistan's soil are still seen as an appendage to the Afghan conflict, rather than an independent issue.
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 primarily because it also wants to put down the militancy.
"Most of these attacks have been done with cooperation from Pakistani authorities in the national security establishment, — the military, especially the army, as well as the intelligence service," Jones says.
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 Sept. 11 attacks.
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 Pakistan government is incapable of exercising sovereignty over the tribal region.
"It's open territory. And under international law, ungoverned territories ... can be subject to attack," he says.
Some analysts say 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 in Pakistan.
Nawaz, with the Atlantic Council, says militants have already started moving from the remote border region into more built-up areas of Pakistan.
"What would 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?" Nawaz asks.
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. "But in the long run, they need to be supplemented by much broader, longer-term activities to clear hold and build in these areas," he says.
Analysts say there are a couple of high-level reviews about a Pakistan strategy underway. Until they're completed, they say it's likely the drone attacks will continue apace.