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Yet civilians in those areas know whose missiles are exploding in their villages and occasionally killing their children. That's where things get complicated. Drones may be a cheap and convenient military tool. But they risk dangerous blowback if they alienate and radicalize local populations. Recent reporting from Yemen by the Washington Post and PBS suggests that civilian casualties of U.S. drone strikes there may be engendering support for al-Qaeda, which is turning the unstable nation into perhaps its most important base of operations. (Yemen has been the source of several attempted terrorist strikes on the U.S. in the past few years.) U.S. drone strikes are also wildly unpopular in Pakistan, where anti-Americanism confounds our larger foreign policy goals, like ensuring the security of that country's nuclear weapons and ending its government's support of some Taliban factions. The danger can blow across our own borders. Faisal Shahzad, the failed 2010 Times Square bomber, says he sought revenge for innocent victims of U.S. drones in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan.
There's little question that drones have ravaged al-Qaeda. The concern is that there's always a No. 3 man ready to fill the role of the last No. 2 to have been "martyred." But many national-security pros, including Obama's first Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, now warn that we're growing addicted to the simplicity of drones without carefully considering their side effects.
The alternatives--like cajoling and training foreign militaries to do more terrorist hunting for us--carry their own challenges and risks. But the risk of drone blowback is real enough that the presidential candidates ought to address it. When it comes to candidly debating the new face of American warfare, they both earn an F.