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.