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As drone war ramps up, so does criticism of it

An ex-Marine says drone strategy is "shortsighted."
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Pakistanis shout slogans during a demonstration in Quetta, on July 19, 2011, to protest against U.S. drone attacks. (Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

What does Clark County, Nev. have in common with North Waziristan?

Both are key sites in the U.S. drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Unmanned aerial vehicles are robotically controlled by operators in Nevada, who steer them toward their targets thousands of miles away in the tribal regions of Pakistan.

Battlefield drones are quickly changing the face of contemporary warfare and have support among U.S. policymakers for their cost effectiveness and potential to mitigate danger to pilots and infantry soldiers on the ground.

But as the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama increasingly relies on drones in its war against terrorism, criticism of the strategy is also increasing. Civilian deaths remain a point of major contention, as is what some say are the structural shortcomings of the program itself.

A former Marine officer now working as a consultant for the military, business and technology community said the drone program was deeply flawed because of its reliance on a disparate group of people that includes everyone from policymakers in Washington, to the "eccentric engineer" at a research lab in Boston, to "the kid with the joystick outside of Las Vegas launching a missile toward the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier."


Photos: The Gun Team

Soldiers carry brutal, but necessary, loads on patrol in Zabul's mountains.

Combat Outpost Baylough sits at about 7,400 feet, and to walk anywhere means climbing the surrounding mountains. The terrain is difficult, and there is very little air to breathe up there.

Yet soldiers from B Co., 1-24 Infantry, conduct daily patrols from Baylough, often carrying heavy loads up the rocky slopes. And no one carries a heavier load than the gun team.

Pfc. Noah Nowell carries the 30-pound gun and Pfc. Gary McClintock carries the ammunition, which is even heavier. The two must stay close together, since one is far less effective without the other.

Nowell only has about 100 rounds in his M240B machine gun, which might only last 10 seconds in the frantic initial moments of a firefight. McClintock carries about 1,000 rounds of ammunition and a spare barrel in case Nowell's overheats


Photos: The mail, a morale booster, finally arrives at remote Afghanistan outpost

After nearly a month without any mail, soldiers at Combat Outpost Baylough in Afghanistan finally got a small reprieve.

After nearly a month without any mail, soldiers at Combat Outpost Baylough finally got a small reprieve, which swooped in hanging from the underside of a huge Chinook helicopter on July 26.

Along with needed repair parts, combat equipment and dozens of new mattresses, a crate of letters and care packages arrived as well. Despite receiving some very fancy, very classified, and very expensive equipment that will help them fight the Taliban, the mail was the most visibly appreciated.

Baylough is in mountainous Zabul Province. Because the Taliban can mine the roads unobserved, the base is accessible only by air, though helicopters are few and far between.

When soldiers ask me how long I am staying at Baylough, it is impossible to give a specific answer, since that all depends on the helicopters. It's not inconceivable to wait two weeks for a flight out.

A CH-47 Chinook arrives at Combat Outpost Baylough with a trailer full of supplies for the remote base.


US officials write final chapter on Al Qaeda and bin Laden

Everything we know about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden is coming from anonymous US officials.
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President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. (Pete Souza, The White House/Getty Images)

Almost everything we learn about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden these days is coming from anonymous U.S. officials.

Today, for instance, U.S. officials told us via The Washington Post that Al Qaeda was on the verge of being totally wiped out. The comments echoed earlier ones from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the former C.I.A. director, who earlier said that only a couple dozen more Al Qaeda militants needed to be killed before the war was over.

More from GlobalPost: How many drones it take to kill a terrorist?

Last week the officials were talking to the Wall Street Journal. They told the paper that Al Qaeda would likely be shifting the focus of its attacks to Western targets outside of the United States. They said this was because it had become too difficult for them to strike inside the United States.

The Wall Street Journal said the U.S. officials had come to this conclusion based on evidence gleaned from flash drives found in the compound where bin Laden was killed. Much of the information we are learning about bin Laden and Al Qaeda, in fact, is said (by U.S. officials) to be coming from those flash disks, as well as a computer.

It was from the computer, for instance, that U.S. officials learned that bin Laden liked porn. Everyone ran with that story. It was great story. Not only was it sure to drive traffic, combining two of the most searched items on the internet these days (porn and bin Laden), but it also tweaks the legacy of a man who claimed that a strict adherence to Islam is what guided him in his global campaign of terror.

Saudi-born alleged terror mastermind Osama bin Laden is seen in this video footage recorded at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan aired by the Qatar-based satelite TV station al-Jazeera 07 October 2001. (Al-Jazeeera/AFP/Getty Images)

Most jihadist propaganda videos out of Afghanistan and Pakistan have similar tropes — the blessings to Allah, prayerful music followed by shaky video and a long-distance explosion on what is claimed to be a U.S. convoy that kills many "infidels."

These videos have recently become more and more more sophisticated, complete with higher quality production values. In short, they appear, well, more "real."


Photo: Afghans on patrol

Afghan National Army soldiers patrol in Kandahar City.
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An Afghan soldier patrols through the Hutal bazaar, the largest outdoor market west of Kandahar City. (Ben Brody/GlobalPost)

An Afghan soldier patrols through the Hutal bazaar, the largest outdoor market west of Kandahar City.


US tries to make friends in Pakistan

Aid groups say they are being put at risk by US campaign to promote its presence in Pakistan.
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A Pakistani earthquake survivor walks past a temporary home built by USAID on Oct. 4, 2006 near Shogran, Pakistan. (John Moore/AFP/Getty Images)

In opinion polls conducted in Pakistan, the United States fairs only slightly better than Al Qaeda, something it is hoping to change by advertising the amount of civilian aid it provides to the country's most-troubled regions.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan found that just 12 percent of Pakistanis have a postive view of the United States. Al Qaeda and the Taliban, by comparison, received similar approval ratings.

Many Pakistanis say that the United States does not have their best interests in mind and point to the increasing number of unmanned drone attacks on their country as evidence. Those strikes, which the United States says target suspected militants, have killed hundreds, by some estimates thousands, of civilians since 2004 when they began.

(GlobalPost in North Waziristan: Obama's Hidden War)

Although the United States suspended upwards of $800 million in military aid to Pakistan last month, they still have earmarked $7.5 billion in civilian aid over the next five years. That money goes primarily to local aid groups working to provide basic necessities to communities living in Pakistan's volatile tribal regions along the border of Afghanistan — the same regions regularly bombed by U.S. Predator and Reaper drones.


Pakistanis sue US over drone attacks

With no other option, Pakistanis turn to the courts
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Activists of the Pakistani fundamentalist Islamic party Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) shout slogans beside a burning effigy of CIA contractor Raymond Davis during a protest in Peshawar on March 18, 2011. Thousands of people took to the streets across Pakistan on March 18 to protest a US drone strike that killed 35 people. (A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)

With little other recourse available, Pakistanis who have lost family members to the drone attacks in North and South Waziristan are attempting to sue the U.S. government.

They have held mass protests, but to no avail. They have appealed to their own government to stop the attacks, which as in ally of the United States it could presumably do, but that hasn't worked either. The Pakistani government, which has repeatedly denounced the drone strikes publicly, has continued to give them the green light privately. It's enough, they say, to make them throw up their hands and join the militants. But that, of course, wouldn't help either.

So with no one to turn to who might have their best interests in mind, it's to the courts they go.

(GlobalPost in North Waziristan: Obama's Hidden War)


Photos: Signs of the times

A look at some of the hilarious, and serious, signs found on U.S. military bases.
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A Yemeni anti-government protester attends a parade marking the anniversary of Yemen's reunification on the sidelines of a daily demonstration calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on May 22, 2011. (Ben Brody/GlobalPost)

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — On military installations in Afghanistan, in every direction you look there are printed words: on banners tacked to buildings, spray painted on equipment, written on the walls of porta-johns and carved into concrete.

Some of the signs are meant to be serious but come across as jokes, some are meant to be jokes but contain useful information, and most are a mix of the two. And sometimes you find a pamphlet about finding God in the PTSD battle under a belt of machine gun ammo on a picnic table.


Photos: Children caught in the crossfire

Photos of the day from the front lines of the Afghanistan War.
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Soldiers ready a Shadow drone for takeoff at Forward operating Base Pasab. The unarmed drones are equipped with high-tech surveillance equipment. (Ben Brody/GlobalPost)

After a firefight against several Taliban fighters at Combat Outpost Sangsar, a man brought his injured daughter to the base. She was hit by a piece of shrapnel in the crossfire and treated by U.S. medics.