Tue Jan 17, 2012 9:59pm GMT

(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist. Any opinions expressed are his own.)

By David Rohde

Jan 17 (Reuters) - They kill without warning, are comparatively cheap, risk no American lives, and produce triumphant headlines. Over the last three years, drone strikes have quietly become the Obama administration's weapon of choice against terrorists.

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has unleashed five times as many drone strikes as George W. Bush authorized in his second term in the White House. He has transformed drone attacks from a rarely used tactic that killed dozens each year to a twice-weekly onslaught that killed more than 1,000 people in Pakistan in 2010. Last year, American drone strikes spread to Somalia and Libya as well.

In the wake of the troubled, trillion-dollar American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes are a talisman in Washington. To cash-strapped officials, drones eliminate the United States' enemies at little human, political, or financial cost.

The sweeping use of drone strikes in Pakistan, though, has created unprecedented anti-American sentiment in that country. While U.S. intelligence officials claim that only a handful of civilians have died in drone attacks, the vast majority of Pakistanis believe thousands have perished. Last year, the Pakistani government apparently blocked American drone strikes after tensions escalated between the two governments.

After a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in January and American commandos killed Osama bin Laden in March, there were no drone strikes there for weeks at a time. In November, drone strikes stopped again after an American airstrike killed 26 Pakistani soldiers near the border with Afghanistan. As of late December, there had been no strikes in Pakistan for six weeks, the longest pause since 2008, and a glaring example of the limitations of drone warfare.

My perspective on drones is an unusual one. In November 2008, the Afghan Taliban kidnapped two Afghan colleagues and me outside Kabul and ferried us to the tribal areas of Pakistan. For the next seven months, we were held captive in North and South Waziristan, the focus of the vast majority of American drone strikes during that period. In June 2009, we escaped. Several months later, I wrote about the experience in a series of articles for the New York Times, my employer at the time.

Throughout our captivity, American drones were a frequent presence in the skies above North and South Waziristan. Unmanned, propeller-driven aircraft, they sounded like a small plane - a Piper Cub or Cessna-circling overhead. Dark specks in a blue sky, they could be spotted and tracked with the naked eye. Our guards studied their flight patterns for indications of when they might strike. When two drones appeared overhead they thought an attack was imminent. Sometimes it was, sometimes it was not.   Continued...

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