On the day after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan, President Joe Biden assured the country that “we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.” Biden was describing what the U.S. has called “over the horizon” — a hazily defined strategy to strike targets without putting U.S. troops in harm’s way.
When it comes to fighting war without soldiers, the weaponized drone has been an essential tool — perhaps the most iconic weapon in the United States’ post-9/11 war on terrorism. Given Biden’s pledge that over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations would continue around the world, it would be reasonable to expect that drone use would have continued — or become even more common. In fact, the opposite has happened. The U.S. has stopped bombing Afghanistan entirely since the withdrawal, and strikes are down dramatically in other theaters as well. The long-standing practice of American drones regularly raining missiles on suspected terrorists and unfortunate civilians has ended — at least for now. One might suspect that this drop-off was the result of growing public criticism of the drone war and recent revelations about the civilian casualties it has caused. But the decline predates the revelations; it’s a trend that began several years ago.
What happened to the drone war? Why, in the new over-the-horizon era, are drones being used so rarely? And what are the implications of a world in which dozens of nations now have the deadly capability — and are using it more often, not less?
The United States’ first drone strike came on the first day of the U.S. war in Afghanistan — Oct. 7, 2001 — when a CIA Predator drone fired a Hellfire missile near Kandahar, narrowly missing Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The escalation that followed was swift and steep. In the two decades since, the U.S. has used weaponized drones thousands of times as part of air campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Since Biden took office, there have been just 39 declared U.S. strikes (including air, drone and ground operations) in Iraq and Syria. In Somalia, nine strikes have been carried out under Biden compared with 276 under Donald Trump. The Biden administration has ordered only two reported strikes in Yemen and none in Pakistan, once ground zero of the American drone war. (There were 122 strikes in 2010.)
Overall, U.S. airstrikes (including both drones and manned strikes) were down 42 percent in 2021 from the year before — falling from 1,459 to 852. That may still seem like a lot, but consider that there were nearly 13,000 strikes in 2016, when the war against ISIS was at its height.
To the extent this development has received any media coverage, observers have tended to credit the Biden administration. In fact, the decline began earlier. “The bulk of what’s being discussed is the result of trends began under the Trump administration, although I wouldn’t really frame it as the result of Trump’s specific policy decisions, as the way the wars are going,” David Sterman, a senior policy analyst at New America, told Grid.
According to the monitoring site Airwars, March 2019 was the last month when the U.S.-led coalition launched more than 100 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria. (There were 389.) Not coincidentally, this was the month that the last remnants of ISIS’s “caliphate” fell. After that, the tempo of strikes fell dramatically; in all of 2020, there were only 201. Similarly, in Yemen, the number of airstrikes peaked at 131 in 2017, according to New America. In 2020, there were only four. In Pakistan, the steep drop-off in drone strikes began even earlier, in the second half of the Obama presidency.
According to Sterman, “the one exception that I definitely would acknowledge and think is clearly something to do with Biden is Somalia, where there was a high pace of strikes under Trump. Biden just completely paused it.” The Biden administration did carry out at least four strikes against al-Shabaab militants in Somalia in the summer of 2021, but there’s been no sign of a return to the pace of strikes under Trump.
Bombing less — or less to bomb?
There are signs that while the drop-off predates his presidency, Biden is listening to the drone war’s critics.
Shortly after taking office, Biden quietly imposed limits on drone strikes and commando raids outside of declared war zones like Afghanistan and Syria. The CIA and military now must obtain White House permission for strikes in Yemen and Somalia, among other theaters of counterterror operations. (Under Trump, commanders had been allowed to make their own decisions on strikes in those countries.) Biden also ordered a review of U.S. targeting policy. Several analysts I spoke with suggested commanders may be reluctant to order strikes until the new guidelines are in place.
But the overall drop-off may be driven less by White House policy than by changes on the battlefield. In short, there may be fewer strikes because there are fewer targets.
The original al-Qaeda, the group that carried out the 9/11 attacks, is a shell of its former self and hasn’t been linked to an attack against the U.S. in years. ISIS at one point threatened to redraw the map of the Middle East, but since 2019, it has largely been driven underground. This isn’t to say that there still aren’t violent Islamist militant groups operating around the world — there are likely even more of them than there were in 2001 — but the vast majority are focused on local grievances and enemies rather than what Osama bin Laden once called the “far enemy”: the United States.
In the specific case of Afghanistan, Robert Grenier, former CIA head of counterterrorism and a Grid contributor, points out that drone strikes there and across the border in Pakistan were always less about counterterrorism per se than about preventing attacks against NATO and Afghan forces: “With the drawdown of U.S. and NATO troops, there was a commensurate drop in the number of attacks against them, and a similar drop in drone operations designed to protect them.”
Now that the U.S.-backed Afghan government has fallen to the Taliban, Grenier said “the current administration is focused on maintaining an over-the-horizon capability, rather than a pattern of actual over-the-horizon strikes. As of now, militants of various stripes in Afghanistan, to include those who are ISIS affiliated, do not appear to be much focused on Americans.”
As for Biden’s over-the-horizon pledge, it may have been a bit optimistic, especially when it comes to the effective and accurate deployment of drones. “Anybody who’s been involved in targeting will tell you that over-the-horizon is not easy,” Luke Hartig, former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, told Grid. “Afghanistan is kind of the worst of all worlds. You have no U.S. presence on the ground. It’s hard to get intelligence that would feed your strikes. And you have no basing rights nearby, meaning that your strike aircraft have to transit really long distances to get there.”
The human toll
Just two days before Biden spoke to the country about the new over-the-horizon approach, the dangers of that approach were demonstrated in stark and horrific terms by a U.S. strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed 10 civilians, including seven children. Pentagon leaders have subsequently acknowledged that multiple errors were made in the events leading up to the strike. No U.S. troops have been punished.
Tragic as it was, the Aug. 29 strike was not all that unusual. Over the course of the two-decade-long war against jihadism, American airstrikes have hit hospitals, weddings and multiple other civilian targets. The New York Times has released a multipart investigation into U.S. strikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, finding that they almost certainly caused far more than the 1,417 civilian deaths the Pentagon acknowledges, and were often based on faulty intelligence or poor targeting practice. Lawmakers are taking notice: On Jan. 20, a group of 11 Democratic senators and 39 House members published a letter, referring to both the Kabul strike and the Times’ reporting, calling on the Biden administration to “review and overhaul U.S. counterterrorism policy,” arguing that “the status quo will continue to undermine counterterrorism objectives, produce significant human and strategic costs, and erode the rule of law and the United States’ image abroad.” In January, responding to the criticism, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a directive ordering the military to take a series of steps to prevent harm to civilians.
The precipitous drop in drone strikes does not seem to be the direct result of any of these events. Again, numbers were trending downward under Trump, and the Biden administration’s targeting review began prior to the Kabul strike or the Times series. But the influence of this run of bad press and scrutiny is undeniable. Drones have always been a controversial tool; the military, CIA and multiple administrations have argued that the risks are worth the reward if strikes prevent or disrupt attacks against U.S. troops or the U.S. itself. That case is harder to make today.
Is the pause permanent?
It’s not hard to imagine circumstances under which the U.S. returns to the frequent use of drone strikes. In the past few weeks, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces spent nearly a week fighting to recapture a prison in northeastern Syria that had been taken over by ISIS fighters; in Mali, a U.S. service member — part of a small American contingent assisting French counterterrorism efforts — was injured in a mortar attack that killed a French soldier; and according to the Washington Post, an MQ-9 Reaper drone operated by the U.S. military provided targeting information for a French military operation in Mali in October. Escalations on these and other myriad fronts are possible.
The legal basis for much of the U.S. war on terror, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against terrorism, remains in place. The AUMF has been invoked to justify at least 41 military operations in 19 countries, often against groups that didn’t even exist when Congress passed it, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In essence, it continues to offer presidents and commanders wide legal latitude to order counterterrorism strikes — drone strikes, more often than not — across the globe.
“As long as you have those underlying legal authorities in place, there’s nothing to stop a future administration from discarding Biden’s policy framework and using the authorities as broadly as they can interpret them,” Brian Finucane, a former State Department legal adviser on counterterrorism issues now with the International Crisis Group, told Grid.
At some point, Biden or a future president could decide that a terrorist threat to Americans or American allies somewhere in the world demands a return to large-scale drone strikes.
Hartig suspects the pressure to do so will arise sooner or later. “We built this apparatus to conduct targeted strikes, and it’s had a number of really big wins,” he said. “And so, there’s always going to be an imperative to let it do the mission it was designed to do.”
A world of drones
The U.S. once had a monopoly on drone technology and was far and away the lead perpetrator of drone strikes. Increasingly, drones are proliferating, and the U.S. military is itself a target. An attempted attack by two armed drones — they were shot down — on U.S. forces at the Ain al-Asad air base outside Baghdad on Jan. 5 was the latest in a slew of such attacks, which the U.S. often blames on Iran-backed Shiite militia groups. According to U.S. officials, Iran began supplying its proxies in Iraq with drones shortly after the Trump administration’s targeted killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in 2020. U.S. and Russian forces in Syria have come under fire from unmanned aircraft as well. The actual drones used in these attacks range from sophisticated long-range aircraft to cheap remote-controlled models modified to carry explosives, but they all make clear that drone warfare has been globalized.
According to a 2020 New America report, 38 countries now have armed drones in their arsenals, and 11 have used them in combat. This doesn’t count the nonstate actors and terrorist groups that are also using drone weapons. Azerbaijan triumphed in its 2020 war with Armenia thanks in part to a fleet of Turkish and Israeli drones. Ukraine has been stockpiling Turkish drones to fight Russian-backed separatists and, potentially, the Russian military itself. Drones from Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates have helped Ethiopia turn the tide in its war with Tigrayan separatists.
The U.S. military is now making significant investments in anti-drone countermeasures — ways to shoot them down or disrupt their communications — but given how easily and cheaply simple armed drones can be deployed, U.S. Centcom Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie acknowledged in a recent interview with the Financial Times that “right now, generally, the advantage lies with the attackers.”
Not long ago, drone warfare was seen as a symbol of almost unparalleled American power and technological prowess: It was the means by which the U.S. went after its enemies in the world’s least governed places, often minimizing the risk to its own soldiers. Today, the tide has turned. If the U.S. does soon return to the widespread use of drone warfare, it will no longer be alone.