ISLAMABAD - Escalated drone attacks in northwest Pakistan, where a suspected al Qaeda plot to attack European targets may have originated, could hurt the U.S. war on militancy by alienating residents and hardline army officers.
The number of U.S. drone strikes in the region near the Afghan border hit a record monthly high of 21 in September, generating speculation that intelligence pointed to senior militants or the attacks were aimed at disrupting a plan to hit Western countries.
Such strikes in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) could jeopardize U.S. strategic interests in what is considered to be a global hub for militants.
"It seems Americans want short-term gains and are not interested in long-term ways through which militants can be sidelined by turning the public against them," said Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Pakistani expert on militancy.
Reports of eight German militants killed in a suspected U.S. drone attack in North Waziristan this week deepened concern that foreigners, some with Western passports, had traveled to Pakistan and planned attacks on Europe from the remote mountains.
A rare public opinion poll conducted in Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun tribal areas in July by the New America Foundation showed U.S. drone strikes were deeply unpopular among the population, now likely to have stronger objections after wider strikes.
That's good news for al Qaeda.
"The intensity of opposition to the American military is high. While only one in ten of FATA residents think suicide attacks are often or sometimes justified against the Pakistani military and police, almost six in ten believe these attacks are justified against the U.S. military," the poll showed.
More than 75 percent of FATA residents oppose drone attacks which have risen sharply under the Obama administration.
"Indeed, only 16 percent think these strikes accurately target militants; 48 percent think they largely kill civilians and another 33 percent feel they kill both civilians and militants," said the study.
Drones have killed senior al Qaeda and Taliban figures.
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Pakistan worries they undermine efforts to deal with militancy because civilian casualties inflame public anger and bolster support for the militants. But killing high-profile targets requires Pakistani intelligence, analysts say.
Pakistan may not be so cooperative if often stormy relations are strained - as they are now over NATO cross-border incursions.
Although army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is believed to have good ties with the United States, other senior officers may grow tired of U.S. doubts over Islamabad's commitment to fighting militancy.
Imtiaz Gul, author of The Most Dangerous Place, a book about Pakistan's lawless tribal areas, said wider drone attacks would probably create many ripples in the military.
Hardline elements in the army could argue Pakistan had lost thousands of soldiers supporting the U.S. war on militancy and is getting little in return except pressure to do more.
"At some stage they could prevail or would at least be able to influence policy. You cannot totally disregard them," said Gul.
The survey's face-to-face interviews with 1,000 residents age 18 or older showed opposition to the drones was not based on general anti-U.S. feelings. They just don't like the U.S. military.
That does not mean people backed al Qaeda or Taliban insurgents, according to the survey.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Chris Allbritton