May 09, 2022

Relying on ‘over-the-horizon’ counterterrorism increases risk to civilians

Originally published in The Hill

Congressional Democrats recently announced two bills aimed at improving how the Pentagon investigates and prevents civilian harm. The tragic drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed 10 civilians — seven of them children — on Aug. 29, 2021, spurred lawmakers into action. Their effort has been a long time coming, as calls for investigations and transparency into the civilian toll of U.S. drone strikes have ramped up in recent years and field reports document civilian casualties left uncounted by the U.S. military. 

More congressional oversight is direly needed, even given improvements from U.S. combatant commands and the Pentagon itself. But Congress also should turn its attention to risks to civilians perpetuated in an “over-the-horizon” posture.

Armed drones emerged to fill a counterterrorism requirement. As a tactical weapons system, they delivered a capability to strike targets with seemingly little risk — drone strikes meant the U.S. could hunt down the bad guys without inserting special forces teams into dangerous situations. Few would pass on that option, and every U.S. president has embraced the use of armed drones since 2001.

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