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Drones in Pakistan

Lead Image
Front view of a predator drone

Case Overview

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

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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

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