U.S. Drone Strikes Plunge Under Biden

The mistaken U.S. strike on Afghanistan that resulted in 10 deaths in civilians in August was only a small reminder of the devastating collateral damage our war against terror has caused over two decades. However, new data has shown that the number of drone strikes on other countries plummeted during President Joe Biden’s presidency.

Since the Pentagon deliberately provides little data about drone strikes, it is difficult to find reliable information. Recall that it was a media investigation that uncovered the truth of August’s drone strike, after which military officials finally conceded that the strike had not—as they had initially said—killed a terrorist who was planning to attack Kabul’s airport.

Airwars is an independent non-profit that monitors strikes and casualties during conflict zones like Iraq and Syria. It also provides periodic assessments of civilian death. The latest data shows that strikes and civilian deaths plunged in Iraq (Syria), Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya in the first year of Biden’s presidency.

Even though the differences between Biden’s presidency and four years under President Donald Trump or eight years under President Barack Obama are not significant, they’re striking.

Airwars recorded more than 16,000 strikes by air and artillery in Syria and Iraq during Trump’s first four years as president. This was an increase of over 1,500 strikes compared with Obama’s second term. There were 39 total military attacks between the two countries during Biden’s first year.

Trump’s first term was 5600, but the number of civilians killed in Syria and Iraq has risen to 13,000 in Trump’s 4 years. Airwars has reported only 10 civilian deaths under the Biden presidency. Biden has not reported any civilian deaths in Somalia during his term. This compares to Trump’s 134 and Obama’s 42 over each of his terms. Although strikes in Yemen had been declining each year under Trump’s administration they have fallen to only four (Airwars were not responsible for civilian deaths in Yemen).

This is in response to reports earlier this year that Biden quietly placed restrictions on drone strikes outside active war zones. Trump lifted restrictions to allow the military to make decisions about when and where to strike. This is why there has been a dramatic rise in strikes and civilian death in Somalia since Trump took office. Biden now requires the White House approve and vet these strikes until new policies are established by the administration (about which very little is known, observers believe will need more procedures to make sure civilians don’t die).

However, there is one country that Airwars does not track: Afghanistan. The strikes in Afghanistan are not tracked by Airwars. According to data from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, there have been at least 71,000 deaths of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan between 2001 and now. Trump’s relaxation of airstrike rules likely resulted in an increase of civilian deaths. It is notable that the August drone attack that resulted in the deaths of a humanitarian worker and children by mistake was recognized even by Biden. Air Force Inspector General Sami D. Said that it was an accident, not criminal negligence and recommended no punishment.

Spencer Ackerman (autor of Reign of TerrorHe analyzed drone data, and wrote on “Forever Wars Substack” that drone strikes are declining, with the exception of Afghanistan. The pressure to keep the status quo in American military participation overseas in conflict-ridden nations is also real.

The Biden antiterrorism review could be a significant step towards ending the Forever Wars or it might just end up being banal. For all his reductions in drone strikes, Biden, particularly during the Afghanistan withdrawal, committed the typical liberal mistake of portraying drone strikes as a hedge against—that is, an alternative to—a wider war. The best way to get a more sustainable and agile counterterrorism approach is not by ending the War on Terror, but rather using drones as an “over-the-horizon” capability.

This reminder reminds us that although Biden has pulled troops out of Afghanistan, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Congress was passed after the attacks. Even though we have withdrawn troops from Afghanistan, technically, the Biden administration has the right to continue drone strikes against Afghanistan.