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Drone Dilemma
The Risks of Washington’s Favorite Counterterrorism Tool Often Outweigh the Rewards
Anouk S. Rigterink

June 4, 2021
Sanaa, Yemen, November 2014
Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
The United States’ use of airstrikes carried out by drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, to kill suspected terrorists abroad began during the George W. Bush administration but picked up speed during the Obama era. These strikes target high-value terrorist leaders as well as rank-and-file terrorists and terrorist infrastructure. Since 2004, the United States has reportedly launched over 14,000 such strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen alone.
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden ordered a review of this practice and announced that until the review is completed, all U.S. drone strikes outside active war zones must be authorized by the White House. The review will likely assess what conditions justify the authorization of a drone strike. How much certainty should the United States have that a drone strike will not cause civilian casualties? Are the military and the CIA obliged to report the number of casualties to the public? What level of threat must the target pose to justify a strike? But the review may not ask the most important question: Do drone strikes further the United States’ military and counterterrorism goals?
Evidence from the record of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan indicates that such attacks—particularly
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ANOUK S. RIGTERINK is Assistant Professor in Quantitative Comparative Politics at the Durham University School of Government and International Affairs. This essay draws on her article “Wane of Command: Evidence on Drone Strikes and Control Within Terrorist Organizations,” which appeared in the February 2021 issue of American Political Science Review.
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