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Drones in Pakistan

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.

Decision Point

NSC Meeting

The United States’ most wanted terrorist leader is Ayman al-Zawahiri, who became the head of al-Qaeda in June 2011, one month after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri is considered the ideological leader of the group and the brains behind al-Qaeda’s deadliest terror attacks, including 9/11 and the 1998 simultaneous attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

National Security Agency (NSA) analysts have recently intercepted communications indicating that an al-Qaeda attack on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters and the U.S. Capitol, among other high-profile targets in the United States, is highly likely.

Last week, the CIA suddenly came upon highly credible evidence of Zawahiri’s location—inside a large compound on the outskirts of a populous city in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The compound also houses an estimated one dozen women and children. A trusted source from within Pakistan, who has provided credible information in the past, told his CIA contact that Zawahiri will be meeting several high-level al-Qaeda operatives at his compound at 2:00 a.m. tomorrow. Among those believed to be attending is a U.S. citizen who is also a senior al-Qaeda operative. The president needs to decide quickly whether to authorize action to kill or capture Zawahiri.

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