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Drones in Pakistan

The United States has the opportunity to eliminate or capture high-level al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Pakistan.


Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has pursued a vigorous campaign against terrorist groups, including in Pakistan. When information emerges about the location of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Pakistan, the United States must decide whether to try to capture or kill him—and if so, how. Grappling with the challenges of both counterterrorism and U.S.-Pakistan ties, this case demands the consideration of drone strikes and other imperfect options in the context of a complex and sometimes dysfunctional relationship.

Lead Image
Front view of a predator drone

The Situation

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has pursued a vigorous campaign against terrorist groups, including in Pakistan. A country of nearly 200 million people facing chronic challenges of instability and underdevelopment, Pakistan remains the home of several al-Qaeda leaders and operational planners. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has credible evidence that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda and the United States’ most wanted terrorist leader, is meeting soon with other operatives, including a U.S. citizen, at a compound in a densely populated Pakistani city. The United States must decide whether to try to kill or capture Zawahiri—and if so, how. Each policy option—including a drone strike, a raid by special operations forces, a request that Pakistan act, and inaction—has costs and benefits for U.S. security and the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Drones, in particular, have become a core element of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy, but their use is controversial. Grappling with the challenges of both counterterrorism and U.S.-Pakistan ties, this case demands the consideration of drone strikes and other imperfect options in the context of a complex and sometimes dysfunctional relationship.





  • Costs and benefits of U.S. counterterrorism tools
  • Debates surrounding the U.S. use of drones
  • Trust and mistrust between the United States and Pakistan
  • Threat posed by al-Qaeda
  • Pakistan’s own strategic concerns
Guide Sections
An Introduction to the National Security Council
National Security Council meeting

“The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security...”

– Title I of the National Security Act of 1947

1.1 Overview

The United States plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining international order in an increasingly globalized world. The range of foreign policy issues that require its attention or involvement is vast: from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to tensions with North Korea and Iran; from long-standing alliances with European and Asian powers to complex, evolving relationships with Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa; from the stability of global finance to the promotion of economic opportunity in low-income countries; and from climate to health to nuclear proliferation to terrorism. There is little around the world in which the United States does not have a vested interest. Further, issues such as immigration, trade, and cybersecurity underscore the fading distinction between domestic and international matters.

U.S. leaders use a range of tools to pursue a foreign policy that they believe will safeguard national security and achieve U.S. goals:

  • diplomatic, such as bilateral or multilateral consultations and negotiations, treaties, defense and security agreements, resolutions at global and regional bodies such as the United Nations, and public diplomacy to promote U.S. views and culture
  • economic, such as trade and investment agreements, tariffs, sanctions, embargoes and boycotts, development assistance, loans for the purchase of U.S.-manufactured products, and sales of arms, equipment, and technology
  • military, such as missile strikes, nuclear deterrence, ground force deployments, ship and submarine patrols, blockades, unilateral or partnered military exercises, foreign military training, and special operations forces
  • unconventional actions, sometimes secret, undertaken by the U.S. government and its proxies, such as training and assisting foreign intelligence services, supporting armed nonstate actors, private security contracting, and cyberwarfare

Effective policymaking requires a deft combination of these tools. To accomplish this, policymakers need to clearly define U.S. interests and gauge the interests, resources, and motivations of foreign governments and nonstate actors. The U.S. intelligence community helps policymakers in their work by collecting and analyzing a vast range of information, including satellite images, communications records, documents, data, and personal observations.

Foreign policy successes and failures are often associated with presidential decisions. Less explored is the decision-making system that helps the president make those critical choices and coordinate their implementation. This guide will help you understand the system through which the United States creates and implements its foreign policy.

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National Security Council meeting
CIA Director George Bush discusses the evacuation of Americans from Beirut

“....I envisioned a special role for the national security advisor, who is the manager of the National Security Council. I needed an honest broker who would objectively present to the president the views of the various cabinet officers across the spectrum.”

— George H.W. Bush, “A World Transformed,” p. 18

1.2 The Interagency Process

Whether it aims to respond to an immediate crisis or to advance a long-term objective, a successful foreign policy–making process starts with a clear articulation of interests and goals. Policymakers and their advisors then formulate policy options to meet those goals and consider each option’s strengths and weaknesses. This process is challenging in the best of times. Information may be unreliable or incomplete, an adversary’s intentions may be unclear, and a decision’s consequences may be unknowable. Leaders often have to choose from a list on which every option is imperfect. Adding to this uncertainty is the complexity of the U.S. government’s foreign policy machinery: numerous agencies—each with its own interests and biases—seek to influence how policy is decided and carried out. In these circumstances, it takes considerable effort to run a process capable of producing sound policy decisions.

The National Security Council (NSC) plays a critical role in this effort. Its mission is to help the president effectively use a variety of instruments—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—to forge policies that advance U.S. national security goals.

The NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which defined it as an interagency body intended to “advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” Following World War II, in an age of expanded American interests and responsibilities, the NSC was expected to provide a place where the heads of federal departments and agencies could cooperate to develop and recommend to the president policies that would advance U.S. aims. The NSC and its staff were also meant to manage the policymaking process so that the president would receive a full range of advice and opinion from the departments and agencies involved in national security.

The NSC has evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the preferences of successive presidents and the challenges they faced. Variables such as NSC meeting attendees, the frequency of meetings, the amount and format of information passed to the president, the importance of consensus, and the relative dominance of the NSC over other government institutions have changed over the decades.

During this time, the NSC has evolved to comprise various interagency committees and a large staff to prepare analysis and coordinate policymaking and implementation. The NSC is at the center of the interagency process, one through which relevant government agencies address foreign policy issues and help the president make and execute policy choices.

I. National Security Advisor

The national security advisor (formally assistant to the president for national security affairs), a senior advisor to the president, is at the heart of the NSC structure. Ideally, the national security advisor’s role is twofold: to offer advice to the president and to coordinate and manage policymaking. Because they have direct access to the president and do not represent a cabinet department such as the State Department or Defense Department, national security advisors are in a unique position to drive foreign policy decisions, manage the actors involved, and mitigate conflict throughout the decision-making process.

II. National Security Council Staff

The NSC staff consists of individuals from a collection of agencies that support the president, the vice president, and the administration. NSC staff members are generally organized into directorates that focus on regions or issues. The size and organization of the staff vary with each administration.

The NSC staff provides expertise for the variety of national security policy matters considered by the committees and the president. It manages numerous responsibilities, including preparing speeches, memos, and discussion papers and handling inquiries from Congress on foreign policy issues. Staff members analyze both immediate and long-term issues and help prioritize these issues on the interagency agenda.

III. Committee Structure

Committees are at the core of policy deliberation and policymaking in the NSC. They fall into four categories:

  • The highest-level is the National Security Council itself. Formal NSC meetings are chaired by the president and include individuals named by the National Security Act of 1947 as well as other senior aides the president invites.
  • The principals committee (PC) comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state and defense. The national security advisor traditionally chairs the principals committee.
  • The deputies committee (DC) includes the deputy leaders of the government departments represented on the principals committee and is chaired by the deputy national security advisor.
  • Policy coordination committees (PCCs) cover a range of regional areas and issues. Each committee includes officials who specialize in the relevant area or issue at one of the departments or agencies in the interagency system. PCCs are generally chaired by senior directors on the NSC staff. Much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement foreign policy across the U.S. government happens at the PCC level.

This committee structure tackles both immediate crises such as an outbreak of conflict and enduring issues such as climate change. In the normal course of events, PCCs conduct analysis on an issue, gather views on it and its importance from various departments, formulate and evaluate policy options, and determine what resources and steps would be required to carry out those options. The deputies committee, meanwhile, manages the interagency process up and down. It decides what PCCs to establish and gives them specific assignments. It also considers information submitted by the PCCs, ensuring that it is relevant, complete, and clear, before relaying it to the principals committee or the full NSC.

The principals committee is the highest-level setting, aside from the NSC itself, for debating national security issues. It consists of the heads of the NSC’s component agencies—essentially all the members of the NSC except the president and vice president. Formal NSC meetings, which the president chairs, occur whenever the president sees fit. They consider issues that require the president’s personal attention and a direct presidential decision.

The goal of this committee structure is to foster consensus on policy options or highlight where and why consensus cannot be reached. If officials at one level agree on an issue, it may not need to go to senior officials for a decision. This practice reserves the president’s time, and that of the principals, for the most complicated and sensitive debates.

When a crisis erupts, however, issues may not follow the usual path up from the PCCs. In these cases, NSC staff members and officials in government departments and agencies generally draft papers drawing on their expertise, available intelligence, and any existing contingency plans. Policy options are then debated and decided at the appropriate level, depending on the nature and severity of the crisis. The policymaking process may also deviate from this model based on the preferences of each president.

For the purposes of Model Diplomacy’s NSC simulation, you will role-play the NSC meeting with the assumption that the committees described have already done their jobs and passed critical information to the highest-level decision-makers.

Presidential Decisions

When the president makes a policy decision, it may take the form of a verbal instruction recorded in a NSC staff document and shared with relevant departments and agencies. The president may also issue formal decisions in documents that lay out the administration’s policy and explain its rationale and goals. These documents have gone by different names under different presidents. President Donald J. Trump issues national security presidential memoranda, which replace the presidential policy directives and presidential study directives that President Barack Obama issued.

The president may also issue an executive order. In the past, presidents have issued executive orders for such purposes as facilitating sanctions against foreign individuals and establishing new offices in government departments to achieve foreign policy aims. For federal agencies, both national security directives and executive orders carry the full force and effect of law, though the president’s authority to issue these kinds of documents is sometimes questioned.

National Security Council meeting
President Bush leads a meeting of the National Security Council.

“These complex times have made clear the power and centrality of America’s indispensable leadership in the world.”

— Obama 2015 National Security Strategy

1.3 Departments and Agencies

Although many executive branch departments and agencies are involved in foreign policy and, depending on the issue, play a role in the NSC process, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community form the core of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice often play crucial roles as well.

Department of State

The Department of State conducts the United States’ relations with other countries and international organizations. It maintains U.S. diplomatic presence abroad, issues visas for foreigners to enter the country, aids U.S. citizens overseas, and manages cultural exchanges and other programs to promote American interests. As head of the department, the secretary of state is the president’s principal foreign affairs advisor and has a keen understanding of the United States’ international relations, the relationships between foreign countries, and the behavior and interests of their governments.

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense carries out U.S. defense policy and maintains U.S. military forces. It includes the U.S. ArmyNavyMarine Corps, and Air Force, as well as an array of agencies with missions ranging from advanced technological research to defense cooperation with friendly countries. The department employs more than two million military and civilian personnel and operates military bases across the United States and abroad. The secretary of defense, the head of the department and the president’s principal defense policy advisor, stays up-to-date on the security situation in foreign countries and the possibilities and implications of U.S. military involvement. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces and the president’s top military advisor.

Intelligence Community

The U.S. intelligence community consists of seventeen agencies and organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which gather and analyze intelligence to help policymakers formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Each of these agencies has its own mission; for example, the NSA focuses on signals intelligence (information gathered from communications and other electronic signals) and the Defense Intelligence Agency on military information. The director of national intelligence, the president’s principal advisor on intelligence issues, oversees this network of agencies with the aim of ensuring that they work together and deliver the best possible information to U.S. policymakers.

Department of the Treasury

The Department of the Treasury carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The secretary of the treasury, as head of this department, serves as one of the president’s chief economic advisors and is responsible for addressing a range of economic concerns, including growth, trade and investment, and the position of the U.S. dollar. The Treasury’s ten bureaus, which include the U.S. Mint and the Internal Revenue Service, do much of the department’s work, which ranges from collecting tax to printing currency and executing economic sanctions.

Department of Homeland Security

Created soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security works to counter and respond to risks to American security. It focuses on issues such as terrorism prevention, border security and immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity. Familiar agencies within the department include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which checks travelers and goods coming into the United States; the U.S. Secret Service, which protects the president and investigates financial crimes; and the Transportation Security Administration, which ensures security at airports. The secretary of homeland security oversees the department and advises the president on relevant issues.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice investigates and prosecutes possible violations of federal law, represents the U.S. government in legal matters, oversees federal prisons, and works more broadly to prevent and respond to crime. Agencies such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are part of the department, as are divisions focusing on particular areas of law, such as national security and civil rights. Leading the department is the attorney general, who offers legal advice to the president and the heads of other departments, including on matters under discussion in the NSC.

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Guide Glossary


alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
attorney general:head of the Department of Justice and chief lawyer of the U.S. government. Among other duties, he or she offers advice on the legal aspects of proposed policies to the president and other department heads.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.
blockade:an act of war wherein a foreign military cuts off access to a specific location, usually a port, to impede deliveries of supplies. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba—calling it a “quarantine” to avoid the implication of declaring war—in response to Soviet missile activity on the island.


Cabinet:the group comprising the vice president of the United States and the heads of all fifteen federal executive departments, such as the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, labor, and education. Other officials may also have cabinet rank, depending on the administration.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS):the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces. The CJCS does not exercise command authority over U.S. troops, but instead works with the leaders of the U.S. military services to fulfill his function as the top military advisor to the president and other senior officials.
chief of staff to the president:a close advisor to the president who is responsible for coordinating the implementation of presidential policy and managing the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which includes the national security staff among many other entities.
cyberwarfare:defensive and offensive actions taken by a government or nonstate actor in the realm of information network systems and digital infrastructure. Specific actions include planting computer viruses, mounting denial-of-service attacks to disrupt internet and network activity, and conducting electronic surveillance.


deputies committee (DC):the intermediate-level setting, below the principals committee, for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system. Chaired by the deputy national security advisor, it comprises the second- and third-ranking leaders of the departments and agencies represented on the National Security Council. It manages the interagency process up and down, answering to the principals committee and assigning and reviewing the work of interagency policy committees.
director of national intelligence:the president’s principal advisor for intelligence-related matters and the head of the intelligence community, a network of seventeen agencies and organizations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), that collect and analyze information to assist policymaking.


executive order (EO):a decision issued by the president that carries the full force and effect of law. An executive order usually instructs government departments and agencies to implement or modify particular policies or procedures.


foreign policy:a country’s attitudes and actions in the international arena. Foreign policy includes two principal elements: goals or interests as the country defines them, such as peace with one’s neighbors, and the means pursued to advance these interests, such as diplomatic negotiations, trade agreements, and military alliances. A country carries out its foreign policy through its dealings with other countries, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and nonstate actors such as corporations and advocacy groups.


interagency:involving two or more agencies. The National Security Council (NSC), for example, is an interagency forum, not a forum internal to any one agency.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


National Security Act:a law signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1947 to reorganize the agencies and processes related to intelligence, foreign policy, and the military. Among its reforms, the act established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
national security advisor (NSA):the so-called honest broker of the national security policy process and the president’s principal advisor on national security issues. The NSA manages the National Security Council (NSC) staff, chairs the principals committee, and coordinates and manages policymaking with the goal of ensuring effective policy development and implementation.
National Security Council (NSC):an interagency body that serves as the forum for the president to discuss and take action on the most critical national security issues facing the United States. Its membership has varied since its creation in 1947, and now includes the president, vice president, national security advisor, secretaries of state and defense, and a variety of other senior officials.
National Security Council (NSC) staff:the president’s national security and foreign policy personnel. The NSC staff receives direction from the president via the national security advisor, provides expertise on issues and regions, and collaborates frequently with employees from other government departments and agencies to carry out the interagency policymaking process.
national security presidential memorandum:a type of presidential directive, or official order from the president, on matters related to national security. Called different names by different administrations, these documents may initiate a review of current policy, reorganize the structure of the national security policy apparatus, or lay out new strategies.
nonstate actors:individuals or groups that do not belong to or act on behalf of a state. This may refer to nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International, media outlets such as the New York Times, or terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.


policy coordination committees (PCCs):the lowest-level setting for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system and the home of much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Often chaired by a senior director on the NSC staff, PCCs develop, coordinate, and carry out policy options in distinct regional and functional areas.
principals committee (PC):the highest-level setting, aside from the National Security Council (NSC) itself, for debating issues in the NSC system. Generally chaired by the national security advisor, it comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, and other senior officials.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secretary of defense:the principal defense policy advisor to the president and head of the Department of Defense, which oversees the formulation and execution of defense policy and manages U.S. military forces.
secretary of energy:the head of the Department of Energy, which executes U.S. policy on energy, environmental, and nuclear issues and oversees seventeen national scientific research laboratories.
secretary of homeland security:the head of the Department of Homeland Security since its creation after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This department works to protect U.S. security by implementing federal policy concerning terrorism prevention, border security, immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity.
secretary of state:the president’s chief foreign affairs advisor, the country’s chief diplomat, and the head of the Department of State, which conducts the United States’ relationships with foreign countries and international organizations.
secretary of the treasury:one of the president’s chief economic advisors and head of the department of the treasury, which carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The department is home to the U.S. Mint and Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies.


tariff:a tax on goods arriving from a foreign country, generally used as a tool of trade and foreign policy to penalize adversaries or favor allies or domestic producers.


U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (UN):the ambassador-level official who advances U.S. foreign policy interests in the bodies and forums of the UN system.
unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.


vice president:the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. government and first in line to assume the presidency if the president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to serve. Though given only one responsibility in the Constitution—to serve as president of the U.S. Senate, with the power to break ties—the vice presidency has become a visible part of the modern White House. Today’s vice presidents undertake a variety of functions, from serving as an all-purpose presidential advisor to carrying out diplomatic trips abroad. The personality of the individual who occupies this post and his or her relationship with the president define the scope of the role.
Case Notes Sections
Drone on runway
Front view of a predator drone

“This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans…”

— President Barack Obama, January 30, 2012

2.1 The Issue

Pakistan has featured centrally in the U.S. counterterrorism efforts undertaken since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Despite successes in capturing, killing, or displacing some members of terrorist groups, several leaders and operational planners of these groups remain active in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), providing strategic guidance, recruiting new members, and plotting terrorist attacks. U.S. efforts to combat terrorism in the region are complicated by Washington’s strained relationship with Islamabad, which has proved unable or unwilling to effectively combat terrorists operating in its territory.


Drone strikes are one of the most controversial tools the United States has used to pursue terrorist and militant groups in Pakistan. Drones, officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are aircraft that can be armed with deadly missiles to conduct precision strikes. Because they are unmanned—in other words, they do not have a pilot on board—drones do not put American pilots’ lives at risk, and can carry out extremely precise attacks against specific targets, making them an attractive tool for a variety of military operations. But critics argue that drones can also unintentionally kill civilians alongside targets, and their use raises the potentially murky legal issue of targeting U.S. citizens. In addition, the use of drones has become a point of tension between the United States and Pakistan, which has criticized drone strikes within its borders as a violation of its sovereignty—that is, its supreme power over its own territory.

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Front view of a predator drone
Pakistani girl holds drawing of a drone

“Now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear. Children don’t play so often now, and have stopped going to school.” 

— Zubair Rehman, resident of Tappi, North Waziristan, Pakistan, October 29, 2013

2.2 Background

Pakistan has a population of 205 million, which is predominantly Muslim and ethnically diverse. The country faces the challenges of a rampant domestic insurgency, underdevelopment, and slow economic growth due in part to low foreign investment and unstable borders. Although the economy has begun to stabilize since the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, it has not yet recovered; poverty and unemployment remain widespread.

Terrorist groups have long had a presence in Pakistan. Most of these groups are focused on attacking the country’s security services and discrediting or toppling its government, or on attacking its historical adversary, India. Some groups, however, have used their haven in the relatively ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to plan attacks on U.S. personnel in Afghanistan and U.S. interests more broadly. Pakistan has attempted to both negotiate with and fight these groups on its soil, but overall its counterterrorism operations have largely failed, often facing strong resistance from local tribesmen, causing significant destruction, and letting targets get away. Moreover, many analysts claim that Pakistani intelligence and military forces have supported certain militant and terrorist groups, including the Taliban; these claims have fueled accusations that Pakistan is attempting to “play both sides” in the fight against terrorism.

The 9/11 attacks marked a major point in both U.S.-Pakistan relations and the use of drones for U.S. military operations. Following the attacks, the United States led a military offensive that toppled the ruling Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which harbored al-Qaeda. In search of a new haven, al-Qaeda leaders and militants fled to the FATA, leading President George W. Bush to authorize drone strikes in the area in June 2004. Although Pakistan became a U.S. ally in the war on terror and provided logistical support to U.S. operations in Afghanistan, mistrust characterized the relationship between the two countries. The Bush administration claimed that counterterrorism operations such as drone strikes within Pakistan were needed because of Pakistan’s reluctance to counter terrorist threats. This unwillingness, which continues to complicate U.S.-Pakistan relations, was likely a result—at least in part— of links between terrorist groups and some elements of the Pakistani state.

Despite strained relations and public demands from Pakistani leaders to limit drone operations, Washington has continued to conduct them. U.S. officials determined over time that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—the national security intelligence branch of the Pakistani government—would tip off targeted individuals if notified of strikes in advance. Consequently, the CIA began to conduct operations without notifying Pakistani military officials and expanded its geographical areas of operation. All of this led to further tensions between the two countries.

Drones have not been the only instrument of U.S. counterterrorism operations in Pakistan. In 2011, a Navy SEAL raid killed Osama bin Laden and four others after it was determined that bin Laden was likely living in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Pakistan condemned the operation as a breach of its sovereignty, but the United States countered that Pakistani army officials had known of bin Laden’s whereabouts and hidden it from the United States.

The United States has also tried to counter security threats in Pakistan by providing financial and logistical support to Pakistan’s government, especially its military. In 2004, Bush named Pakistan a major non-NATO ally, expanding the country’s eligibility for foreign aid and defense cooperation. Meanwhile, the United States radically expanded humanitarian and military aid, from $236 million in fiscal year 2001, before the 9/11 attacks, to $1.1 billion the next year and $3 billion by fiscal year 2010. This assistance then began to taper, falling to around $778 million by fiscal year 2016.

In January 2018, the Donald J. Trump administration upended U.S.-Pakistan relations by freezing all security assistance to Islamabad—reportedly more than $1 billion. The move came on the heels of a tweet by Trump in which he said Pakistan had “given us nothing but lies & deceit” in exchange for U.S. assistance. Trump administration officials made clear that the aid was being suspended, not cut. Pakistan could still receive the money, according to a State Department spokeswoman, if it “takes decisive action against” terrorist groups. Still, the action infuriated Pakistani leaders and intensified long-standing questions about Pakistan’s role as a counterterrorism partner. However, in an effort to improve bilateral cooperation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Pakistan and met the newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan in September 2018. Although the meeting yielded no immediate changes in either country’s policy, both leaders expressed hope for a reset in relations.

Simultaneously, the Trump administration loosened restrictions on the use of drones, allowing for a more lenient vetting process for potential strikes and the ability to target low-level soldiers in addition to senior militant leaders. Drone strikes have correspondingly increased. Although the most significant increases have been in Yemen and Somalia, the use of drones in Pakistan has continued and increasingly targets Afghan and Pakistani militants alongside suspected terrorists.

Front view of a predator drone
Airborne Drone

“Our number-one shared priority remains pursuing our joint counterterrorism objectives to ensure the security of American and Pakistani citizens alike. We face a common threat from a common enemy, and we must confront terrorism and extremism together.”

— Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, September 21, 2012

2.3 Role of the United States

U.S. involvement in this case stems from not only 9/11 but also a long history of attacks by al-Qaeda against U.S. service members, civilians, and interests. Especially since 9/11, U.S. military forces, diplomats, and intelligence personnel have operated both unilaterally and in cooperation with local security forces in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to detect and disrupt terrorist plots. A primary tactic has been killing select al-Qaeda leaders and a vastly greater number of anonymous militants through drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations.

The principal options available in this case are as follows:

Conducting drone strikes on the compound believed to be inhabited by Zawahiri

Drone strikes are relatively low-risk (in military tactical terms) operations that provide a strong possibility of eliminating Zawahiri if he is present at the targeted site. A strike would put no American personnel in harm’s way. Additionally, a unique advantage of drones is their ability to loiter and monitor a target for up to twenty-four hours. Further, drone-fired missiles can be diverted by the operator at the last moment if noncombatants enter the blast radius. Drones are also capable of knocking down doors and killing targeted individuals but leaving those nearby unharmed. Although the missile’s impact is precise, drones do pose the risk of killing or injuring any civilians in the immediate area of the strike, and precision matters only if the intelligence is accurate. Finally, it is difficult to predict the Pakistani government’s response given its past statements about shooting down unauthorized aircraft. A drone strike could therefore further damage the already tumultuous U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Given the full set of options, the question is whether a strike remains the best choice despite rising criticism of U.S. drone strikes.

Conducting a U.S. special operations forces raid on the compound

Raids by special operations forces, such as the 2011 operation that killed Osama bin Laden, offer certain advantages over drone strikes. These can avoid some of the uncertainty of a drone strike, as troops can identify individual targets and take caution to protect civilians. Troops can also collect computers and documents that provide intelligence about terrorist organizations and plots. However, a raid comes with extreme risks, both to those involved and to U.S. foreign policy generally. Raids are seen as significant violations of sovereignty. If Pakistan detected the raid while it was under way, it could respond with military action at the time or harsh diplomatic measures afterward. Moreover, a raid would put American lives at risk. During an attempt to rescue U.S. hostage Luke Somers in Yemen in 2014, U.S. Navy SEALs were detected by al-Qaeda militants guarding the targeted compound. The militants then shot Somers and another hostage before they could be rescued; both died soon thereafter. Although no U.S. troops were lost, the raid—which the Yemeni government had authorized—also resulted in Yemeni civilian casualties. Additionally, given Pakistan’s response to the raid on the bin Laden compound, the country would likely perceive a second high-profile American incursion as an intolerable violation of its sovereignty. A raid could end what little bilateral cooperation remains. However, given Zawahiri’s importance and the downsides of other options, the current situation could call for a raid as an exceptional measure.


Asking the Pakistani government to capture or kill Zawahiri

The United States could encourage the Pakistani government to take action with a combination of financial assistance and diplomatic pressure. This option is highly appealing in principle because it puts no American lives at risk and would not inflame tensions with Pakistan. Pakistan has previously aided U.S. counterterrorism operations, as with its December 2014 killing of a major al-Qaeda leader, Adnan el-Shukrijumah, and its assistance in freeing an American-Canadian hostage family in 2017. More often, however, large counterterrorism sweeps by ground forces displace innocents, spur hostility, and leave terrorist groups relatively unharmed. Pakistan’s general failure to conduct an effective counterterrorism policy makes the usefulness of this option uncertain.


Doing nothing

Given the drawbacks of the other available options, the president could choose to delay action and continue to monitor Zawahiri. Such a step could negate the advantage of timely intelligence. Furthermore, allowing the al-Qaeda leader to continue terrorist operations unhindered could lead to an attack on the United States that his death could have prevented. Moreover, similar issues to those considered here will likely arise the next time intelligence on his location emerges. Then again, given the particular circumstances of this case—including the possible presence of civilians and a U.S. citizen at the targeted site—the president could decide to pass on this opportunity to pursue Zawahiri. It is possible, though by no means certain, that Zawahiri’s whereabouts and U.S.-Pakistan relations will be more favorable in the future.

Case Notes Glossary


al-Qaeda:an international terrorist network established around 1988 by Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda, which means “the Base,” was responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks, among many others. In recent years, its core leadership has operated out of Pakistan, though it has affiliate terrorist groups in many countries. The network adheres to a fundamentalist Islamic ideology that aims to eliminate Western influence on Islamic countries and replace those countries’ governments with regimes based on Islamic law.
Anwar al-Awlaki:an American-born radical cleric killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. He was the first U.S. citizen to be intentionally targeted by such a strike. A senior al-Qaeda operative, Awlaki was involved in recruitment for the organization and had ties to the September 11, 2001, hijackers as well as other terrorists. His death raised questions about due process (he was never indicted) and whether the U.S. government can lawfully target its own citizens with lethal force.
Ayman al-Zawahiri:a cofounder of al-Qaeda and the head of the organization since Osama bin Laden’s death. An eye surgeon by training, Zawahiri is considered the main ideological force behind al-Qaeda’s deadliest attacks and has been, in absentia, indicted in the United States and sentenced to death in Egypt.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.


Central Intelligence Agency (CIA):the primary U.S. federal agency involved in the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence. The CIA also runs the United States’ drone operations, though some, including President Barack Obama, favor transferring this responsibility to the Department of Defense.
counterterrorism:the set of policies and actions—including intelligence collection and analysis, military action, and homeland security measures—designed to combat terrorism.


drone:an unmanned, remotely piloted vehicle generally used for reconnaissance and combat. Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones have become a major instrument in the U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.


extrajudicial:outside the bounds of customary legal proceedings and unauthorized by a court of law. Extrajudicial killings, for example, stand apart from death sentences pronounced by a court.


Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA):a remote, quasi-autonomous, and loosely governed Pakistani region on the border with Afghanistan. Inhabited by about five million people, primarily Pashtuns, the region is home to many militants, including senior al-Qaeda and Taliban figures. Militants in the FATA became a primary target of U.S. drone strikes after the Taliban, which harbored al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, was toppled.


insurgency:a rebellion, the primary goal of which is to overthrow or delegitimize a government. Insurgents are irregular forces that have varying levels of organizational sophistication and use political violence and guerilla action to achieve their goals. An example of an insurgency is the ongoing Taliban campaign against the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan.
intelligence:information collected and analyzed by specialists for use by decision-makers. This includes data, photographs, and communications, among other materials, and is collected, often secretly, by individuals and technological methods.
Inter-services Intelligence (ISI):the Pakistani government’s national security intelligence branch.


major non-NATO ally (MNNA):a U.S. government designation that confers military and financial privileges on a country that is considered friendly to the United States but is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


National Security Agency (NSA):the U.S. federal intelligence agency responsible for collecting and analyzing cryptographic and signals intelligence, which is information gathered from communications and other electronic signals.
non-battlefield zones:an area outside of a war zone. Pakistan is considered a non-battlefield zone in the context of U.S. policy because the United States is not fighting a war there.
noncombatants:civilians or others not engaged in battle, such as civil servants or off-duty members of armed forces.


Osama bin Laden:the Saudi-born cofounder and longtime leader of al-Qaeda, killed in Pakistan in 2011 during a raid by U.S. Navy Sea, Air, and Land Teams (SEALs). Active in resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and deeply opposed to the cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States, bin Laden was the driving force behind the USS Cole bombing and the September 11, 2001, attacks, among others.


precision strike:an attack that uses guided munitions to accurately strike a specific target, such as an individual, vehicle, or bunker, while inflicting as little collateral damage as possible.


September 11, 2001, attacks:terrorist attacks devised and executed by al-Qaeda, whose operatives hijacked passenger airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City; the Pentagon outside of Washington, DC; and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. A total of 2,977 people were killed.
sovereignty:supreme or absolute authority over a territory.
special operations forces:elite U.S. military units, such as Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams and Army Special Forces, grouped under U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). They conduct specialized and often sensitive missions that include guerrilla warfare, counterterrorism raids, counterproliferation, and advanced reconnaissance.
surveillance:a type of intelligence collection that involves the systematic, and often concealed, observation of people, places, and things by visual, aural, electronic, photographic, or other methods. It is a technique used by civilian and military intelligence entities. Examples include drones with video capability, wire taps on communications lines, and malicious spyware.


Taliban:an Islamic fundamentalist militant organization formed by Afghan fighters in the early 1990s. The group ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S. invasion in 2001 and harbored al-Qaeda during that time. Many Taliban leaders then relocated to Pakistan, though the Taliban continues to mount an insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan. Its membership is primarily Pashtun.
targeted killing:the use of lethal force against a specific individual conducted in a non-battlefield zone. Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has used targeted killings, usually carried out by drones, as a central component of its counterterrorism operations.
terrorist:a word used to describe an individual, organization, or act that employs violence to incite fear and achieve an objective, usually a political one.


U.S. Capitol:the building in Washington, DC, that houses the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.
U.S. Navy Sea, Air, and Land Teams (SEALs):U.S. Navy special operations forces. Navy SEALs are responsible for a variety of missions, including reconnaissance and capturing and killing high-profile terrorist targets. They conducted the 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.
unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.
United Nations Human Rights Council:a United Nations (UN) body established in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights. It is dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.
Role Play Sections
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.1 Role

Welcome to your role as a participant in the National Security Council (NSC)! You should have received an email with your role assignment, but if you did not, you can view your assignment by clicking on the “My Simulations” tab on your account page. At this point, you should have reviewed essential background information about the NSC, read the case, watched the accompanying videos, and perused some of the additional reading. Whether you have been assigned a specific role as an individual or part of a group, or as a general advisor to the president, we suggest you read the case once again to identify material that is particularly relevant to your role or that requires further investigation. After that, you will conduct independent research as you write your position memo and prepare for the role-play.

There are four subsections that follow. Research and Preparation (3.2) will aid your research for the position memo and provide additional reading to guide your research; the Guide to the Memoranda (3.3) provides information about position memos and an example; and the Guide to the Role-Play (3.4) provides more information on the in-class role-play.

You can learn about your role by reading the information provided on your role sheet, which can be found in the Guide to the Role-Play section (3.4).  Review this information thoroughly and often, as your objectives and strategy in the position memo and role-play will be shaped by the institutional perspective of the role you have been assigned (unless you are playing a general advisor). After you finish the role-play and subsequent debrief, you will have an opportunity to share your personal thoughts and recommendations on this case in a policy review memo (Section Four, Wrap-up).

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.2 Research and Preparation

Your role sheet contains three parts: a description of your role, issues for consideration, and research leads. The role description details the position you will portray in the role-play. The issues for consideration will guide your thinking and assist you in approaching the case from the perspective of your assigned role. Most relevant, however, are the research leads. Going beyond the reports and articles linked to throughout the case and in the reading list, these research leads provide suggested materials and topics for further research specifically relevant to your assigned role. Below are some tips to review as you prepare for the role-play exercise.

Research and Preparation

  • Draw on the case notes, additional case materials, and your own research to familiarize yourself with

    • the goals of the NSC in general and of this NSC meeting in particular;
    • the U.S. interests at stake in the case and their importance to national security;
    • your role and your department or agency, including its purpose and objectives in the government and on the NSC;
    • the aspects of the case most relevant to your role;
    • the elements that a comprehensive policy proposal on the case should contain; and
    • the major debates or conflicts likely to occur during the role-play. You need not resolve these yourself, of course, but you will want to anticipate them in order to articulate and defend your position in the NSC deliberation.
  • Set goals for your research. Know which questions you seek to answer and refer back to the case notes, additional readings, and research leads as needed.
  • Make a list of questions that you feel are not fully answered by the given materials. What do you need to research in greater depth? Can your classmates help you understand these subjects?
  • Using the case materials, additional readings, and discussions with your classmates, weigh the relative importance of the U.S. interests at stake in the case. Determine where trade-offs might be required and think through the potential consequences of several different policy options.
  • Conduct your research from the perspective of your assigned role, but be sure to consider the full range of U.S. interests at stake in the case, whether diplomatic, military, economic, environmental, moral, or otherwise. This will help you strengthen your policy position and anticipate and prepare for debates in the role-play.
  • Consider what questions or challenges the president or other NSC members might raise regarding the options you propose and have responses ready.



  • Consult a wide range of sources to gain a full perspective on the issues raised in the case and on policy options. Seek out sources that you may not normally use, such as publications from the region(s) under discussion, unclassified and declassified government documents, and specialized policy reports and journals.
  • Remember: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can be a reasonable starting point. The citations at the bottom of each entry often contain useful resources. 
  • Just as policymakers tackle issues that are controversial and subject to multiple interpretations, so will you in your preparation for the writing assignments and role-play. For this reason, evaluate your sources carefully. Always ask yourself:
    • When was the information produced? Is it still relevant and accurate?
    • Who is writing or speaking and why? Does the author or speaker have a particular motivation or affiliation that you should take into account?
    • Where is the information published? Determine the political leanings of journals, magazines, and newspapers by reading several articles published by each one.
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the author provide sufficient evidence for his or her analysis or opinion? Does the author cite reliable and impartial sources?
    • Does the information appear one-sided? Does it consider multiple points of view?
    • Is the language measured or inflammatory? Do any of the points appear exaggerated?
  • Take note of and cite your sources correctly. This is important not just for reasons of academic integrity, but so that you can revisit them as needed.
  • Ask your teacher which style he or she prefers you use when citing sources, such as Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style, or Associated Press (AP).

Reading List


2.1 The Issue

Jayshree Bajoria and Greg Bruno, “al-Qaeda (a.k.a. al-Qaida, al Qa’ida),” CFR.org Backgrounder, June 6, 2012, http://www.cfr.org/terrorist-organizations-and-networks/al-qaeda-k-al-qaida-al-qaida/p9126.

BBC.com, “Drones: What Are They and How Do They Work?” January 31, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-10713898.

Jonathan Masters, “Targeted Killings,” CFR.org Backgrounder, May 23, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/counterterrorism/targeted-killings/p9627.


2.2 Background

Micah Zenko, “U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, Versus Drone Strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia,” Council on Foreign Relations, November 10, 2016, https://www.cfr.org/blog/us-airstrikes-iraq-and-syria-versus-drone-strikes-pakistan-yemen-and-somalia.

Daniel J. Rosenthal and Loren Dejonge Schulman, “Trump’s Secret War on Terror,” Atlantic, August 10, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/trump-war-terror-drones/567218/

Adrian Brown, “Osama Bin Laden’s Death: How It Happened,” BBC, September 10, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-13257330.


2.3 Role of the United States

Max Fisher, “Does Killing Terrorist Leaders Make Any Difference? Scholars are Doubtful,” New York Times, August 30, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/31/world/middleeast/syria-killing-terrorist-leaders.html

Lawrence Wright, “The Double Game,” New Yorker, May 16, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/05/16/the-double-game.

Doyle McManus, “The Drone Warfare Drawbacks,” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-mcmanus-column-drones-20140706-column.html.


Further Reading

Jayshree Bajoria, “Pakistan’s Education System and Links to Extremism,” CFR.org Backgrounder, October 7, 2009, http://www.cfr.org/pakistan/pakistans-education-system-links-extremism/p20364.

Richard Barrett, Sajjan Gohel, Ronald E. Neumann, and Nigel Inkster, “The al-Qaeda-Taliban Nexus,” CFR.org Expert Roundup, November 25, 2009, http://www.cfr.org/pakistan/al-qaeda-taliban-nexus/p20838.

Allison Berland and Michael Kugelman, “Is There Any Hope for India-Pakistan Relations?” Foreign Policy, September 2, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/09/02/is-there-any-hope-for-india-pakistan-relations/.

Owen Bowcott, “Drone Strikes by US may violate international law, says UN,” Guardian, October 18, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/18/drone-strikes-us-violate-law-un.

Mark Bowden, “The Hunt for ‘Geronimo,’” Vanity Fair, November 2012, http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/2012/11/inside-osama-bin-laden-assassination-plot.

Adrian Brown, “Osama Bin Laden’s Death: How It Happened,” BBC, September 10, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-13257330.

Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “Obama 2014 Pakistan Drone Strikes,” June 11, 2014, http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2014/06/11/obama-2014-pakistan-drone-strikes/.

Center for Global Development, “Aid to Pakistan by the Numbers,” http://www.cgdev.org/page/aid-pakistan-numbers.

CFR.org, Global Conflict Tracker, “Islamist Militancy in Pakistan,” https://www.cfr.org/interactives/global-conflict-tracker#!/conflict/isl…

Steve Coll, “The Unblinking Stare,” New Yorker, November 24, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/24/unblinking-stare.

Judy Dempsey, “Europe Stays Quiet Despite Unease About Drones,” New York Times, June 11, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/12/world/europe/12iht-letter12.html.

Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller, “Obama: U.S. at ‘Crossroads’ in Fight Against Terrorism,” Washington Post, May 23, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-outlines-new-rules-for-drones/2013/05/23/1b5918e6-c3cb-11e2-914f-a7aba60512a7_story.html.

Anthony Dworkin, “Drones and Targeted Killing: Defining a European Position,” European Council on Foreign Relations, July 2013, http://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR84_DRONES_BRIEF.pdf.

Economist, “Drones and the Man,” July 30, 2011, http://www.economist.com/node/21524876.

International Crisis Group, “Drones: Myths and Reality in Pakistan,” May 21, 2013, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/pakistan/drones-myths-and-reality-pakistan .

Sarah Kreps and Miles McCain, “Congress keeps quiet on U.S. drone policy - and that’s a big problem,” The Washington Post, August 24, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/08/24/congress-keeps-quiet-on-u-s-drone-policy-and-thats-a-big-problem/?utm_term=.12882fce55c2.

Zachary Laub, “Pakistan’s New Generation of Terrorists,” CFR.org Backgrounder, November 18, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/pakistan/pakistans-new-generation-terrorists/p15422.

Myra MacDonald, “Enabling Pakistan,” War on the Rocks, June 3, 2014, http://warontherocks.com/2014/06/enabling-pakistan/.

Michele L. Malvesti and Frances Fragos Townsend, “Special Operations Forces and the Raid Against Bin Ladin: Policymaker Considerations in Combating Terrorism,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, May 2011, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/special-operations-forces-and-the-raid-against-bin-ladin-policymaker-considerations-in-combating-terrorism.

Dylan Matthews, “Everything You Need to Know About the Drone Debate, in One FAQ,” Washington Post, March 8, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/03/08/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-drone-debate-in-one-faq/.

PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, “The Ethics of Drones,” March 2, 2012, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2012/03/02/august-26-2011-the-ethics-of-drones/9350/. 

James A. Schear and Michael J. Mazarr, “Washington’s Weak-State Agenda,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2014, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141220/james-a-schear-michael-j-mazarr/washingtons-weak-state-agenda.

Scott Shane, “Targeted Killing Comes to Define War on Terror,” New York Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/world/targeted-killing-comes-to-define-war-on-terror.html?pagewanted=all.

Michael Spangler, “Pakistan’s Changing Counterterrorism Strategy: A Window of Opportunity?” Parameters 44, no. 1, Spring 2014, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/parameters/issues/Spring_2014/4_Spangler.pdf.

Rupert Stone, “Should We Be Scared of Trump's Drone Reforms?” USA | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 20 Mar. 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/03/scared-trump-drone-reforms-170319074243420.html.

Brajesh Upadhyay, “US and Pakistan: Will the Relationship Endure?” BBC Urdu, November 19, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-30105416.

The White House, “Fact Sheet: Presidential Memorandum – “Legal and Policy Transparency Concerning United States’ Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations” and Accompanying Report on Transparency in Legal and Policy Frameworks,” December 5, 2016, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/12/05/fact-sheet-presidential-memorandum-legal-and-policy-transparency

The White House, “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” June 2011, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/counterterrorism_strategy.pdf .

Micah Zenko, Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies, Council on Foreign Relations Press, January 2013,http://www.cfr.org/wars-and-warfare/reforming-us-drone-strike-policies/p29736.

Carin Zissis and Jayshree Bajoria, “Pakistan’s Tribal Areas,” Council on Foreign Relations, last updated October 26, 2007, http://cfr.org/pakistan/pakistans-tribal-areas/p11973.


Quotation Sources

Hillary Clinton, “Secretary Clinton Delivers Remarks With Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar,” U.S. Department of State, September 21, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOwArxRqV9c.

Carol E. Lee and Adam Entous, “Obama Defends Drone Use,” Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2012, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204652904577193673318589462.  

Karen McVeigh, “Drone Strikes: Tears in Congress as Pakistani Family Tells of Mother’s Death,” Guardian, October 29, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/29/pakistan-family-drone-victim-testimony-congress.



Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.3 Guide to the Memoranda

A major goal of the Model Diplomacy program is to strengthen your ability to write concise, articulate, and persuasive documents that busy colleagues can absorb quickly. In completing this section and Section Four, you will write two memoranda, or memos. These assignments will improve your writing skills and give you a taste of how U.S. foreign policy is conceived, coordinated, and executed.

What is a memorandum?

  • A memo is a formal, succinct written message from one person, department, or organization to another. It is an important form of formal, written communication in the workplace. A memo is generally short, to the point, and free of flowery language and extraneous information. A memo is typically informative or decision-oriented and is formatted in a way that helps readers quickly grasp the main points.
  • In the National Security Council (NSC), memos consider, coordinate, and articulate policy options. They help analyze, evaluate, advocate, and channel those policy options and decisions within the bureaucracy.
  • Memos also function as historical record. Many memos related to NSC discussions and presidential decisions are filed in government archives. Some are later declassified and released to help people understand how policy was devised at a given time in U.S. history. You can access historical examples of memos online. One such resource is maintained by the Federation of American Scientists and offers links to memoranda and directives that various U.S. presidents have issued.

Position Memo 


  • The first memo everyone (except the president) writes is called a position memo. It is written from the perspective of your assigned role. It presents a set of policy options for consideration by the NSC and recommends one of them to the president. The recommendation, or position, outlined in this memo is the one you will present during the role-play. (Keep in mind you may change your position as a result of the role-play discussion.)
  • The position memo will help your fellow NSC members consider the issue efficiently and facilitate decision-making by the president. Equally important, it will help you clarify your understanding of the case by forcing you to identify the essential facts and viable policy options.
  • If you have been assigned a specific role, remember that you are writing from the point of view of the department, agency, or office you represent. Using your institutional position as a lens, you will outline a set of options to address the crisis. Make sure you take into account the pros, cons, and ramifications of each option as it pertains to your role and as it is informed by your reading of the case materials and further research. Also, anticipate critiques of your proposed policy and incorporate your response into the memo. Doing so will help you prepare for the role-play.

Note: If you are assigned the role of president, you will not write a position memo. Instead, you will write a two-page presidential directive, or PD, at the conclusion of the role-play. You will address the PD, which will follow a memo format, to the NSC members and inform them of your final decision regarding the policy option or options to be implemented (see below).

If your teacher has chosen to assign everyone the role of general advisor to the president, you will not need to write the position memo from a particular institutional position. Instead, you will have the flexibility to approach the issue from your own perspective, incorporating a comprehensive assessment of the crisis into your argument.


Position Memo Guidelines

Total length: approximately one thousand words

  • Subject and background (two short paragraphs): Summarize in the first paragraph the significance of the issue in the context of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Identify in the second the central policy question or questions to be decided. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader understands your memo’s purpose and importance; do not attempt to discuss the case in any depth.
  • Objectives (bullet points): Succinctly state your department’s objectives in the current crisis. These can be general national security objectives (such as preventing war) or more specific goals tied to your department’s mission (such as protecting U.S. citizens). They should be important to U.S. national security, directly tied to the case, and feasible. These objectives should guide the policy analysis and recommendation that make up the rest of your memo.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph for each option): Present and analyze several options for U.S. policy. Discuss their costs, benefits, and resource needs where possible. To illuminate the trade-offs inherent in complex policy decisions, be sure to acknowledge the weaknesses or disadvantages of each proposed option. No option is likely to be perfect.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify your preferred policy option or options and describe how you think it or they could be carried out. Explain your reasoning, keeping in mind that you aim to convince the president to follow your recommendation. Addressing the weaknesses or disadvantages you identified in the options and analysis section can help strengthen your argument.

Click here to see a sample position memo.

Presidential Directive


The format of the presidential directive is simpler than that of a position memo. A directive contains a record of the policy option or options that the president has chosen as well as the accompanying orders to various parts of the government with details on how to carry out these decisions.

  • Start with a short paragraph describing the purpose of the memo. Everyone you are writing to was in the NSC meeting, so only brief context is needed.
  • Explain in numbered paragraphs the decisions you have made, why you have made them, and any details regarding how you want the decisions carried out.
  • Explain the communications strategy for the decision, considering both relevant foreign governments and the public. Also, consider that you may wish to keep certain elements of the decision secret from the public.
  • Include any additional details before you sign.
  • Be sure to include all the information necessary for NSC members to understand and carry out your intentions.

Click here  to see a sample presidential directive.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.4 Guide to the Role-play

During the simulated NSC meeting, you will meet to debate and discuss U.S. policy options in response to the issues outlined in the case. Consistent with the NSC’s mission to advise the president, you should raise the issues that are most important for the president to consider. This will enable him or her to make the most informed decision on policy options. Though you may or may not agree with this decision, your responsibility as an NSC member is to provide the best possible analysis and advice from the perspective of your role.

Role-play Guidelines

  1. Stay in your role at all times.
  2. Follow the general protocol for speaking.
    1. Signaling to Speak

      1. The National Security Advisor (NSA) will administer the meeting and should decide on a speaking order. Wait to be called on by the NSA.
      2. If you would like to speak out of turn, signal to the NSA, perhaps by raising a hand or a placard, and wait until the NSA calls on you.
    2. Form of Speech
      1. Address the president as Mr. or Madam President and your fellow NSC members in the same fashion (for example, Madam Secretary).
      2. Do not exceed predetermined time limits. If you exceed these limits, the NSA will cut you off.
      3. Frame your comments with a purpose and stay on topic. Remember that you must advise the president so that he or she can reach a decision on a precise policy question.
    3. Listening
      1. Take notes while others are speaking.
      2. Refrain from whispering or conducting side conversations.
      3. Applause and booing are not appropriate. Your words will be the most effective tool to indicate agreement or disagreement.


Role-play Tips

  • There is no right or wrong way to participate in a role-play, but the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to advance a position effectively, and the more you and your classmates will get out of the experience.
  • Be patient during the role-play. Do not hold back from sharing your perspective, but be sure to give others a chance to do the same.
  • Where there are competing interests, make the judgment calls that you would make if you were a government official, as informed by your earlier consideration of potential trade-offs. Ensure that the consequences of various decisions are carefully weighed.
  • Where appropriate, find common ground with other members of the NSC during the role-play. With whom might you work in advocating your proposed policies? You may find that combining several policy ideas into a new proposal with broader support is an effective strategy if the debate is at an impasse.
  • Think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of your approach as the discussion continues. It is important to subject your own arguments to the same scrutiny that you apply to those of your fellow students. Rethink your arguments as appropriate to take into account the feedback and counterarguments that other NSC members present.
  • You cannot win or lose the role-play. Instead, you should aim to offer a well-reasoned articulation of your position while making concessions and adjustments where you believe they are warranted.
Line Item
2 to 3 minutes per participant
  1. Present initial positions to the president.
  2. Investigate the nuances of the positions through questioning.
  3. Clarify the central questions to be debated.
Procedural Notes

Each participant presents his or her position statement. If time permits, the president may ask questions to understand each NSC member’s position and bring out the essential questions he or she wishes to debate.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Clarify the obstacles, risks, opportunities, and threats.
  2. Evaluate the various positions on their merits.
Procedural Notes

This is the debate portion of the role-play, when participants can defend their recommendations against others’ and identify potential areas of compromise or agreement.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Narrow the options to a few comprehensive and well- focused strategies that the president prefers.
  2. Provide the president with clear recommendations (from NSC members), perhaps as a consensus or through a vote.
  3. Arrive at a final presidential decision 
Procedural Notes

This round should start with the president’s stating one to three preferred options to be fleshed out.

Wrap Up Sections
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.1 The Debrief

After the debate and deliberation close, the president will announce his or her decision, to be later finalized in the form of a written presidential directive (PD). If time permits, you will participate in a debrief following the president’s announcement.

Be active in this debrief. The role-play might seem to be the most challenging part of the experience, but the debrief is equally important. It will reinforce what you learned during the role-play exercise and refine your analytical skills. It will also force you to step out of your role and to view the case from a personal perspective. You will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges you encountered and how you felt about the final presidential decision. The debrief will close with a reflection on the complexities and challenges of crafting foreign policy. This should help clarify your understanding of what you learned and answer any lingering questions. This exercise will also assist you in completing your final assignment, the policy review memo.  

Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.2 Reflecting on the Experience

The following questions are proposed to guide the discussion in the in-class debrief. This is not an exhaustive list and may vary depending on how your role-play exercise unfolded.  If your class does not hold a debrief, these questions will nonetheless help you reflect on the role-play and write your policy review memo: 

  • Which issues received adequate attention during the role-play? Which, if any, received excessive attention or were left unresolved?
  • Did the group consider long-term strategic concerns, or was it able to focus only on the immediate issue and the short-term implications of policy options?
  • Which U.S. interests did the group or the president prioritize in the PD and why? Were you comfortable with this prioritization?
  • Did time constraints affect the discussion and influence the policymaking process?
  • What techniques did you use to convince others that your policy position was the best option? What were successful strategies employed by others?
  • What were the most significant challenges to your position? Did any make you rethink or adjust your position?
  • Did your points cause anyone else to change his or her arguments or position?
  • What political, economic, and other issues arose that you had not previously considered?
  • How did the simulation change your perspective on foreign policy decision-making?
  • If you could go back, what would you have done differently in presenting and advocating your point of view?
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.3 Policy Review Memo

The policy review memo is your final assignment in the Model Diplomacy simulation. In the debrief discussion after the role-play, you and your classmates went beyond the role you played and thought about the issue from a variety of perspectives. Now that the National Security Council discussion and debrief are behind you, you can consider whether you personally support your recommended policy given the full spectrum of arguments and considerations that arose. Shedding your institutional role and writing from a personal point of view, you will craft a policy review memo that outlines and reflects on the policy options discussed, incorporating and critiquing the president’s decision where appropriate.

If you played the role of president in the simulation, your memo should still reflect your personal opinion. You can comment on the course of action you ordered as president, further justify it, write more extensively on the options you dismissed, or suggest and support alternate options.

No matter which role you played originally, take into account all you have learned. Your instructor will want to see whether and how your understanding of the issue and of the policymaking process has evolved from that expressed in your position memo.

As for the position memo, a sample policy review memo is provided for your reference.

Policy Review Memo Guidelines 

  • Subject (one short paragraph): Offer a brief statement about the significance of the issue as it relates to U.S. foreign policy and national security. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader can understand the purpose and importance of your memo. Be sure to include an initial statement of whether you agree or disagree with the president’s decision.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph per option): Present and analyze the options discussed during the debate, deliberation, or debrief. Discuss their drawbacks, benefits, and resource needs. Be sure to acknowledge any weaknesses or disadvantages of the proposed options.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify and explain your preferred policy option or options in more detail. Here, you can explain why you personally favor one or more of the recommendations that you initially presented or the president chose, or different options entirely. If you choose to support the options you presented in your position memo, make sure to justify why you feel yours is still the best position.
  • Reflection (one to two paragraphs): Discuss how your position and the presidential directive are similar; if they are not, discuss how they are different. Use this section to give your thoughts on what the president should have included in his directive, or what you would have done differently. Remember, this is from your point of view; you are no longer advocating on behalf of a department or agency.

Click here to see a full example of a policy review memo.