U.S. Drone Warfare and Civilian Casualties
May 9th, 2022
US Drone Warfare and Civilian Casualties: A Comparison of the Obama, Trump, and Biden Administrations
In the wake of the tragic attacks on September 11th, the United States began a campaign to find and punish those responsible for the terrorist attacks. America’s War on Terror required a wide variety of strategies to combat international terrorism. One of the responses used was, and still is, drone warfare. First envisioned as early as the 19th century, when Austrians used hot air balloons to bomb Venice, it was not until 2000 that the CIA was able to successfully fit a missile onto a drone. Drones have been utilized for many goals. During the Kosovo conflict in the 1990s, NATO used drones for intelligence-gathering and surveillance over the Balkans. In October 2021, a US-led drone strike in Syria killed senior al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid al-Matar.
While drones have been extolled by elected officials for their alleged precision and accuracy, there are questions regarding the civilian impact of drones. Ever since the US engaged in regime change in both Afghanistan and Iraq, local reporting in the region has documented various instances of civilian casualties due to drone strikes. It is estimated that civilian casualties due to drone strikes are in the low thousands. Beginning in the early 2000s, the number of civilian casualties by drone strikes continued to climb. Only under the Biden administration have we seen a reduction in drone strikes’ harm to civilians.
This paper looks at the civilian death toll resulting from drone strikes across the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations. These specific administrations had high levels of military involvement in the Middle East, including the common use of drone strikes. After analyzing each administration’s history and policy on drone strikes, I will recommend solutions that could minimize civilian casualties in the future.
It is important to note that the Bush administration is absent from this article. Under the Bush administration, drones were not commonly utilized until 2008. In part, this was due to technological constraints of the time. Looking at the case study of Pakistan specifically, the drone usage by Bush pales in comparison to his successor. Bush only authorized 51 drone strikes from 2004-2009. By contrast, Obama authorized more than 400 drone strikes between 2009-2013, making drones “the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.” There just is not enough data on the Bush administration’s use of drones to justify a thorough examination and evaluation of policy.
Justifying the Drone
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the US’s subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003, drones became an essential way to gather intelligence on al-Qaeda operations and determine further troop engagement. According to former national security reporter Scott Shane, two major claims were made to justify the use of drones. One claim was that drones were accurate and had “pinpoint precision.” A second claim made by drone advocates was that the operators knew exactly who they were shooting at when looking at the camera screen, thereby minimizing civilian casualties. These claims were echoed by US Presidents as well as intelligence officials. In a 2013 speech, former President Obama argued that because of drone strikes carried out under his administration thus far, hundreds of al-Qaeda members were killed, and dozens of terrorist attacks directly targeting the United States were prevented. These views from politicians are corroborated by military officials, who argue that drones are necessary to wage effective combat against transnational terrorist organizations. In a paper published on behalf of the United States Air Force, Second Lieutenant Alexander Farrow states that drones, when used properly, “suffocate” terrorist organizations by minimizing casualties for the operator and providing precise strikes on intended targets. A paper published in Military Review echoes similar claims, where the US Army states that drones are vital for operational success on the battlefield writ large.
Obama and Subsequent Drone Embracement, Civilian Casualties
When the War on Terror was in its initial stages, drone spending accounted for a small portion of the total defense budget. Spending on drones only topped $4 billion in 2001, according to a report published by the Secretary of Defense. The report predicted that drone spending would increase to more than $10 billion by 2010. While data on how much the US spends on drones alone is sparse, data compiled by the website Statista states that the US spent more than $17 billion between FY2017 and FY2021 on drones, seemingly confirming the estimations made by the Secretary of Defense years earlier.
When Barack Obama took office in 2009, drones had not yet become commonplace in US actions overseas. Soon after taking office, however, the drone became essential to Obama’s foreign policy strategy. According to various sources, Obama carried out ten times more drone strikes than his predecessor, allegedly telling his advisors that he was “surprisingly good at killing people.” During his presidency, Obama and his aides sought to create a legal and ethical framework for carrying out drone strikes, which was then used by future administrations. Using the Use of Force Authorization given to the Presidency after 9/11, Obama argued that he had a legal right to develop what was commonly called a “kill list” for potential al-Qaeda targets and carry out these targeted killings via drone strikes. Until around 2013, Obama carried out hundreds of drone strikes across the Middle East. In the runup to the 2016 election, Obama substantially cut down on the use of drones due to mounting public pressure.
According to Airwars, a UK-based NGO that tracks civilian casualties from US airstrikes, thousands of civilians have died due to US drone strikes overseas in the Middle East. According to the US intelligence community, these casualties are often the result of poor information or human error. To US Armed Forces members, civilian casualties are unavoidable and a tragic inevitability of war. However, these civilian casualties prove that drones are a gross example of too much executive authority with little oversight. According to Veterans for Peace, drone strikes offer “no accountability to the public for how many civilians were killed.”
Obama: Increased Executive Control
In the eight years that President Obama was in office, the United States conducted more than 500 drone strikes throughout the Middle East. While Obama mainly focused on nations such as Afghanistan and Yemen, other nations such as Somalia were the target of multiple drone strikes as well. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Obama’s drone strikes killed 400-800 civilians. In a single year, Obama carried out more drone strikes than President Bush did during his entire presidency.
Along with ramping up the drone program, the Obama administration also increased the executive authority to use drone strikes to take out suspected al-Qaeda targets, for both the President as well as military commanders. Obama gave US military commanders the authority to launch drone strikes, independent of executive sign-off. In 2011, American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was assassinated in Yemen via a Predator drone. Al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico, was radicalized by al-Qaeda and by 2011 was the leading English propagandist for the terrorist network. One of the main justifications for the strike was that, even though al-Awlaki was an American citizen, his right to due process was nonexistent due to the “imminent threat” he posed and how it was “infeasible” to capture him. Around this time, it was made public that Obama had developed his “kill list” in which suspected terrorists were designated as “kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.” This kill list gave him near-total control over who could be killed in drone strikes. In terms of legislative or judicial oversight, it was more or less nonexistent. In practice, extreme deference is given to the executive branch regarding national security, meaning that the President often has the final say in the foreign policy making decision process. For instance, in Ziglar v. Abbasi, the Supreme Court ruled that former Guantanamo Bay detainees could not sue for constitutional violations, arguing that “special factors” such as “sensitive issues of national security” made it highly unlikely that such a case would ever rule in their favor. With regard to drone strike policy, this meant that Obama had unilateral authority to order drone strikes, irrespective of long-term consequences and undeterred by other branches of government.
When looking specifically at the civilian casualties that resulted from Obama’s drone war program, much of it can be attributed to the sheer number of strikes that occurred during his presidency. Under the Obama administration, the president was given unilateral authority to conduct strikes via the Use of Force Authorization enacted post-9/11. With respect to the powers given to the Executive branch, this unilateral authority made it possible for the President to overstep certain policies concerning rules of engagement. For instance, in many cases where a so-called “high value target” (HVT) was located, certain concerns for civilian casualties would be overshadowed by the importance of taking out the HVT in question. In other words, the need for a wide latitudinal approach to combating terrorism oftentimes neglected the civilian concerns of a particular situation.
However, between 2013 and 2016, due to mounting public pressure, Obama and the DNI agreed to keep track of the number of civilians killed in drone strikes. They also agreed to bolster the requirements to launch a drone strike. However, even today, the criteria still uses vague terms such as “infeasibility of capture” or “imminent threat,” which is problematic in the sense that strikes could still be justified under vague pretenses. As noted previously, the idea of “kill or capture” was largely theoretical in practice. There are arguments to be made that because a strike on a high-value target was of the utmost importance when combating terrorist groups, the process of determing whether the strike in question would lead to civilian casualties was rushed. An example of this occured in Yemen in 2009, where the US military launched cruise missiles into a supposed al-Qaeda encampment hastily. They did this because, according to military intelligence, al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen were planning to storm the capital Sana’a and bomb it. However, in the aftermath of the strike, it was determined that the cruise missiles instead hit an encampment of civilians, killing more than 40 individuals. If anything, this grievous failure of intelligence should demonstrate the hastiness that policymakers, the military, and the Executive branch had with regard to the use of drones. These groups are very quick to use drones without thinking of the civilian consequences of their actions.
Trump: Enlargement and Ease of Use
When Donald Trump took power in January 2017, his foreign policy rhetoric was isolationist in terms of the American economy. Actions such as withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and criticizing international organizations like the UN were in lockstep with more general calls for an “America-first” policy. However, Trump pursued a very hawkish and interventionist foreign policy in terms of military engagement. In January 2020, Trump ordered a preemptive drone strike in Baghdad which killed Iranian commander Qasem Suleimani. Trump argued that the strike was necessary in order to prevent an attack on American soldiers overseas. This type of foreign policy led to many changes that increased the opportunity to use drone strikes. In 2017, Trump expanded the “areas of operation” as a counterterrorism strategy. For context, drone strikes can only occur legally in designated areas of operation. Under Obama, these included Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Trump expanded these areas to include Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Libya. According to data from the Long War Journal, strikes in Yemen increased threefold to 125 strikes launched once the Trump administration designated it as an area of operations. Strikes in Somalia increased substantially due to the growing threat of al-Shabab at the time. Additionally, since the US designated these areas as active engagement, military commanders were given the Obama-era unilateral authority to conduct drone strikes without Presidential authorization so that a potentially short window to capture an HVT was used effectively.
In terms of civilian casualties, there is no statistic provided by the Department of Defense. However, when aggregating the findings from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for strike data from 2016-2018 in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, it can be determined that, at a minimum, around 150 civilians were killed. However, two things are important to note. First, this is based on incomplete data, with a lot of the data points only going until 2018 and not taking into account the latter half of the Trump presidency. Second, these estimates are a minimum, meaning that it is quite possible that many more civilians were killed as a result of drone strikes. Nevertheless, this data does present a broad picture of civilian casualties under the Trump administration.
Biden: The End of the Drone?
Joe Biden, in many ways, has experienced “both sides” of the drone war. As Vice President to Obama, Biden was second in command when it came to Obama’s use of drones and actions such as implementing the “kill list.” As President, Biden’s foreign policy thus far is based on non-interventionist principles. The withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 signified a turned point in American foreign policy. Concerning drone strikes, the Biden administration has substantially cut down on their use. Even though Biden is less than two years into his presidency, he has promised to more or less end the drone program. Biden has launched very few drone strikes during his time in office.
In addition, his administration seems to be the most transparent of the three when it comes to acknowledging the failure of the drone program. After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US launched a drone strike against suspected ISIS members, killing an American aid worker and seven children. An investigation conducted by The New York Times found that the US government was at fault for the strike. Because of this investigation, the US military was forced to publicly admit wrongdoing for the strike. In many ways, this investigation was the first of its kind. Very rarely has the US military publicly admitted wrongdoing for a drone strike that has killed civilians. This is an immediate improvement from the Obama and Trump administrations regarding accountability and public transparency. Additionally, according to the Bureau, Biden has killed around 20 civilians thus far, with the higher end being close to 70. While it can be argued that even a single civilian casualty is bad, within the totality across these three administrations, these civilian casualty numbers are very low and a great improvement over previous presidencies. However, there are always improvements to be made.
Given the large problem of civilian casualties as a result of US drone strikes, the US government and policymakers must work to combat the issue. There are a variety of solutions that can be implemented. Two broad strategies are explained below, along with a variety of other more general solutions.
One major solution that could lower the number of civilian casualties is the adoption of a “near-certainty” standard both in declared and undeclared areas of operation. This means that before a strike is conducted, there must be a “near-certainty” that no civilians would be harmed. The Obama administration adopted this strategy in undeclared areas of operation. In declared areas of operation, however, there is no “near-certainty” standard that is adopted. According to a study conducted by Brookings, civilian casualties were reduced greatly in areas where a “near-certainty” standard was adopted compared to areas where it was not adopted. The Biden administration can easily adopt this strategy in both declared and undeclared areas of operation.
Another major strategy that the Biden administration can implement is transferring control of the drone program over to the military from the CIA. As it stands right now, there are two separate but very similar programs led by both the CIA and the military. This can lead to communication problems and general ineffectiveness. A report issued by the Stimson Center recommended that the drone program be carried out via a military “fusion center” which ensures that the military can have access to real-time intelligence in the field. This would streamline the process of intelligence-gathering and strengthen it as well, which could work well in preventing civilian casualties.
There are other general solutions that Biden could implement, such as increasing the level of transparency with regard to drone strikes. Biden has already done so to a certain extent, as seen with the Pentagon’s response to the strike that killed an American aid worker in August 2021. Additionally, the Biden administration could do what the Obama administration promised and provide the public with information on the civilian death toll. This way, journalists can be more informed on these problems and publish accurate reporting. Overall, it seems like these solutions can be easily implemented by Biden, seeing as he already more or less ended the US drone war.
Drones are not going away anytime soon. If anything, technological advancements are poised to make drones more necessary than ever. For instance, Ukrainian fighters are using drones to take out Russian military convoys in the ongoing conflict Russia – Ukraine conflict started in early 2022. To reiterate, drones can be very useful tools for the US military. Like any tool, however, it needs to be used correctly. While drones are vital for intelligence-gathering and other non-lethal actions, restraint should be exercised when using drones for lethal purposes. The intelligence justifying the strike should be accurate, so as to not put the US in a similar situation as it did in Sana’a in 2009. A “near-certainty” principle should be adopted, in order to protect civilians from harm to the fullest extent possible. This paper is not a condemnation of drones writ large. I personally believe that drones are vital to our security interests both domestically and overseas. However, the high civilian death toll is unacceptable and the United States must adopt policies that significantly reduce the civilian death toll of drones immediately.
Abizaid, John P., Rosa Brooks, and Rachel Stohl. “Recommendations and Report of the Task Force on US Drone Policy.” The Stimson Center. last modified April 2015. https://www.stimson.org/wp-content/files/file-attachments/recommendations_and_report_of_the_task_force_on_us_drone_policy_second_edition.pdf.
Ackerman, Spencer. “Fewer Deaths from Drone Strikes in 2013 after Obama Policy Change.” The Guardian. December 31, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/31/deaths-drone-strikes-obama-policy-change.
Ackerman, Spencer. “Obama Claims US Drone Strikes Have Killed up to 116 Civilians.” The Guardian. July 1, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/01/obama-drones-strikes-civilian-deaths.
Airwars. Accessed on February 21, 2022. https://airwars.org/.
Askew, Chalin. Interview with Scott Shane. “The Delve – Drones and Civilian Casualties: Can Anything Be Done?” March 18, 2022. podcast audio. https://anchor.fm/thedelve.
Becker, Jo and Scott Shane. “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will.” The New York Times. May 29, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/world/obamas-leadership-in-war-on-al-qaeda.html.
Borger, Julian. “The Drone Operators Who Halted Russian Convoy Headed for Kyiv.” The Guardian. March 28, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/28/the-drone-operators-who-halted-the-russian-armoured-vehicles-heading-for-kyiv.
Byman, Daniel. “Why Drones Work: The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice.” Foreign Affairs 92, no. 4 (July/August 2013): accessed May 1, 2022. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23526906?seq=1.
Davis, Lynn E., Michael McNerney, and Michael D. Greenberg, “Clarifying the Rules for Targeted Killing,” Rand Corporation, 2016, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1600/RR1610/RAND_RR1610.pdf.
“Drone Warfare,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Accessed on March 16, 2022, https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/projects/drone-war.
“Estimated drone spending by select country worldwide, between FY2017 to FY2021,” Statista, October 2016, https://www.statista.com/statistics/757608/global-drone-spending/.
Farrow, Alexander. “Drone Warfare as a Military Instrument of Counterterrorism Strategy.” Air and Space Power Journal. accessed February 21, 2022. https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/ASPJ_Spanish/Journals/Volume-28_Issue-4/2016_4_02_farrow_s_eng.pdf.
“History of Drone Warfare.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Accessed on February 21, 2022. https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/explainers/history-of-drone-warfare#:~:text=Drones%20have%20been%20part%20of,air%20balloons%20to%20bomb%20Venice.&text=The%20term%20drone%20itself%20started,by%20radio%20from%20the%20ground.
Khan, Azmat. “Hidden Pentagon Records Reveal Patterns of Failure in Deadly Airstrikes.” The New York Times. December 18, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/12/18/us/airstrikes-pentagon-records-civilian-deaths.html?name=styln-civilian-casualties®ion=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=Article&variant=0_Control&is_new=false.
Kindervater, Katherine Hall. “The Emergence of Lethal Surveillance: Watching and Killing in the History of Drone Technology.” Security Dialogue 47, no. 3 (June 2016). Accessed on April 14, 2022, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26294130.
Kreps, Sarah, Paul Lushenko, and Shyam Raman. “Biden Can Reduce Civilian Casualties During US Drone Strikes. Here’s How.” Brookings. January 19, 2022. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/biden-can-reduce-civilian-casualties-during-us-drone-strikes-heres-how/.
Malone, Rebecca. “Trump’s First Year: Analyzing the Trump Administration’s Use of Drone Strikes as a Counterterrorism Strategy in 2017.” Georgetown Security Studies Review 6, no. 2 (August 2018). https://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/GSSR-Vol.-6-Iss.-2-Final-Online.pdf#page=6.
“No Drones Working Group.” Veterans for Peace. Accessed on March 31, 2022. https://www.veteransforpeace.org/our-work/working-groups/drones-robots-and-future-weapons-working-group.
Purkis, Jessica and Jack Serle. “Obama’s Covert Drone War in Numbers, Ten Times More Strikes Than Bush.” Bureau of Investigative Journalism. January 17, 2017. https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2017-01-17/obamas-covert-drone-war-in-numbers-ten-times-more-strikes-than-bush.
Savage, Charlie and Eric Schmitt. “Biden Secretly Limits Counterterrorism Drone Strikes Away From War Zones.” The New York Times. May 3, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/us/politics/biden-drones.html.
Savage, Charlie, Eric Schmitt, Azmat Khan, Evan Hill and Christoph Koettl. “Newly Declassified Video Shows U.S. Killing of 10 Civilians in Drone Strike.” The New York Times. January 19, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/19/us/politics/afghanistan-drone-strike-video.html.
Shane, Scott. “The Lessons of Anwar al-Awlaki.” The New York Times. August 27, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/magazine/the-lessons-of-anwar-al-awlaki.html.
Sinnar, Shirin “Courts Have Been Hiding Behind National Security for Too Long.” Brennan Center for Justice. August 11, 2021. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/courts-have-been-hiding-behind-national-security-too-long.
The Associated Press. “U.S. Military Says It Killed al-Qaeda Leader in Drone Strike.” NBC. October 23, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/us-military-says-killed-al-qaida-leader-drone-strike-rcna3653.
“The Bush Years: Pakistan Strikes 2004-2009,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, accessed April 25, 2022, https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/drone-war/data/the-bush-years-pakistan-strikes-2004-2009.
“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Roadmap 2002-2027.” Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2003). December 1, 2022. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/ADA414908.
“US Airstrikes in the Long War.” FDD’s Long War Journal. Accessed on April 1, 2022. https://www.longwarjournal.org/us-airstrikes-in-the-long-war.
Wall Street Journal. “President Obama Addresses Use of Drones.” YouTube video, 8:29. May 23, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1tz9XiqqMQ.
Zachary Morris, “U.S. Drones: Smaller, Less Capable Drones for the Near Future,” Military Review, May/June 2018, https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/May-June-2018/US-Drones-Smaller-Less-Capable-Drones-for-the-Near-Future/.
Ziglar v. Abbasi. No. 15-1358. June 19, 2017. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-1358_6khn.pdf.
Zraick, Karen. “What to Know About the Death of Iranian General Suleimani.” The New York Times July 9, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/03/world/middleeast/suleimani-dead.html.