The tension between Washington and Islamabad over the former's drone assaults on targets in Pakistan is rising. But a prospective geopolitical rivalry involving both countries has even wider ramifications.
The reported death of Abu Yahya al-Libi in a drone attack on 4 June 2012 is seen in Washington as a serious blow to what remains of the al-Qaida movement in north-west Pakistan. His status is open to question and may be less than Barack Obama's administration would want the public to believe. But the incidentis further proof of the central role of armed drones in United States operations in the region (see "Drone warfare: cost and challenge" [23 June 2011]; "The drone-war blowback" [29 September 2011]; and "America's new wars, and militarised diplomacy" [31 May 2012].
Drone attacks in Pakistan increased substantially after Obama became president in January 2009. There had been five in 2007 and thirty-five in 2008; the number ↑ went up to fifty-three in 2009 and 117 in 2010. There was a drop in 2011, partly due to public opposition in Pakistan, and a pause earlier in 2012 after the killingof twenty-four Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border attack in November 2011, but this was followed by another surge in activity.
Washington sees the useof drones as a successful policy, whereas for Islamabad it represents an infringement of its national sovereignty. The Pakistan government's criticismowes much to the strength of public opinion, which in turn is fuelled by direct experienceof the drones - not least the fact that they are frequently audible and visible, thus making their affront obvious.