A mistaken U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan in August that killed 10 civilians was a fleeting reminder of the terrible collateral damage caused by our war on terror, which spanned two decades. But new data show numbers of deadly drone strikes overseas plunging during President Joe Biden's administration.
Reliable data on U.S. drone strikes are hard to come by since the Pentagon (deliberately) provides very little information about them. 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, an independent nonprofit that tracks strikes and casualties in conflict areas like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, provides regular assessments of civilian deaths. And in their latest data which spans the first year of Biden's presidency, civilian deaths and strikes plunged in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
The differences are striking, even keeping in mind we're comparing just one year of Biden's presidency with four years of President Donald Trump and eight years of President Barack Obama.
During the length of Trump's four-year presidency, Airwars documented more than 16,000 air and artillery military strikes in Iraq and Syria, which itself was a decline of more than 1,500 strikes when compared to Obama's second term. During Biden's first year, there have been 39 total military strikes spread between both countries.
Alleged civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria skyrocketed under Trump's four years in office to more than 13,000 compared to 5,600 during Obama's second term. Thus far, Airwars reports only 10 under the Biden administration. There have been no reported civilian deaths in Somalia thus far during Biden's term, compared to 134 under Trump and 42 under Obama over both of his terms. Strikes in Yemen, which had declined each year throughout Trump's administration, have dropped to just four this year (Airwars did not provide civilian deaths for Yemen).
This follows reporting earlier this year that Biden had quietly imposed restrictions on the use of drone strikes outside of active war zones. Trump had eased restrictions and allowed the military and CIA to decide when to strike, thus explaining the dramatic increase in strikes and civilian deaths in Somalia during his term. Biden is now requiring the White House to vet and approve these strikes, for now, until the administration sets up new formal policies (about which we know very little, but observers hope will require more procedures to ensure that civilians aren't killed).
But there's one country whose absence from Airwars' list is glaring: Afghanistan. Airwars does not track strikes in Afghanistan. Data from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University calculates at least 71,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001. The relaxing of the rules for airstrikes under Trump likely led to an escalation of civilian deaths. And it's notable that even under Biden, the mistaken drone strike in August that killed a humanitarian aid worker and several children was deemed by Air Force Inspector General Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said to be an accident and not a result of criminal negligence, and therefore did not recommend any punishment for those involved.
Spencer Ackerman, author of Reign of Terror, analyzed the drone data and writes on his "Forever Wars" Substack that the decline in drone strikes appears to be real, except in Afghanistan. Also real is the pressure to maintain the status quo of American military involvement overseas in these conflict-ridden countries:
At the risk of banality, the Biden counterterrorism review will either take a monumental step toward actually ending the Forever Wars, or it will squander the opportunity. 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. Viewing the drones as an "over the horizon" capability is how you get a More Sustainable And Agile Counterterrorism Approach, not an end to the War on Terror.
It's worth a reminder here that even though Biden has withdrawn troops from Afghanistan, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Congress passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks is still active. Even with the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, we're still technically at war, and the Biden administration can continue drone strikes in Afghanistan.