Endless War Challenges Analysis of Drone Strike Effectiveness

AuthorDavid Sterman
PositionSenior Policy Analyst with New America's International Security program
Endless War Challenges Analysis of Drone
Strike Effectiveness
David Sterman*
A major question for U.S. policy is whether counterterrorism strikes are effec-
tive. Efforts to measure effectiveness are challenged by how the United States’
selection of expansive, unachievable objectives has given rise to endless war.
This article will apply the lens of endless warto illustrate the various chal-
lenges that the endless character of American counterterrorism warfare poses for
scholars and analysts assessing the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism strikes.
The United States has long sought to accomplish its unlimited objectives of
destroying or defeating al Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups. These objec-
tives appear to be beyond the United States’ ability to achieve. As the United
States also does not face the prospect of its own decisive defeat, the pursuit of
such unlimited objectives has given its counterterrorism wars an endless
The presence of unachievable objectives constrains analyses of the effective-
ness of counterterrorism warfare even when it comes to more limited objectives
because the apparent accomplishment of limited objectives does not result in an
end to the state of war. The number of strikes may decline or even pause in partic-
ular theaters, but the war and its claims of authority for violence never reach a tip-
ping point, where the war is declared over and authority withdrawn.
Brianna Rosen, Ending Perpetual War, JUST SECURITY (2022), https://perma.cc/EYT2-3QP8.
As a result,
claims that counterterrorism strikes have achieved objectives short of the unlim-
ited objective are essentially a debate over tactics. This focus on the tactical can
fuel what some strategists have identified as an addiction to killing terrorist lead-
ers,diverting focus from the failure to envision and implement achievable politi-
cal ends.
Moreover, the war’s endless character undermines many of the forms
of measurement and theories that underlie assessments of the effectiveness of
Recently, academic, policy analyst, and government stakeholders have sought
to square the circle by downplaying the unlimited objective of decisively defeat-
ing al Qaeda and instead focusing on the ability to achieve limited objectives.
However, unlimited and limited objectives do not easily co-exist. Confusion
reigns in the absence of a reckoning with the persistence of the unachievable,
unlimited objectives (of destroying various terrorist groups) and more substantial
* David Sterman is a Senior Policy Analyst with New America’s International Security program.
© 2023, David Sterman.

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