Report

Why U.S. Drone Strikes Are at an All-Time Low

The shift comes as the White House seeks to downgrade the threat of global terrorism after 20 years of “forever wars.”

By , a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
An anti-drone protest in Pakistan
Supporters of the banned Islamic group Jamaat-ud-Dawa protest against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal region, in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Nov. 29, 2013. A Majeed/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

In August 2020, the man who is now U.S. President Joe Biden’s deputy national security advisor, Jonathan Finer, co-wrote a privately circulated memo titled “Ending the ‘Forever Wars.’” Written with two others who have since joined the Biden administration, Christine Abizaid and Brett Rosenberg, the memo laid out a detailed program for extricating the United States from the two-decade-long campaign dubbed the “war on terror” that began on 9/11.

Six months into Biden’s presidency, the administration has said little about its longer-term plans in dealing with Islamist terrorist groups around the world, apart from announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And yet airstrikes by drones and other U.S. kinetic operations in trouble spots around the world, outside conventional battlefields, have dramatically dropped since Biden took office. The president imposed a partial moratorium as his team conducts an intensive review of every aspect of America’s global counterterrorism efforts, which have spread over two decades from Afghanistan post-9/11 to “Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and parts of the Maghreb, Southeast Asia and West and Central Africa,” as the Finer memo notes.

In August 2020, the man who is now U.S. President Joe Biden’s deputy national security advisor, Jonathan Finer, co-wrote a privately circulated memo titled “Ending the ‘Forever Wars.’” Written with two others who have since joined the Biden administration, Christine Abizaid and Brett Rosenberg, the memo laid out a detailed program for extricating the United States from the two-decade-long campaign dubbed the “war on terror” that began on 9/11.

Six months into Biden’s presidency, the administration has said little about its longer-term plans in dealing with Islamist terrorist groups around the world, apart from announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And yet airstrikes by drones and other U.S. kinetic operations in trouble spots around the world, outside conventional battlefields, have dramatically dropped since Biden took office. The president imposed a partial moratorium as his team conducts an intensive review of every aspect of America’s global counterterrorism efforts, which have spread over two decades from Afghanistan post-9/11 to “Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and parts of the Maghreb, Southeast Asia and West and Central Africa,” as the Finer memo notes.

This limited stand-down is happening in spite of rare exceptions like this week’s airstrikes by U.S. F-15s and F-16s on storage facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Iraq.

And while Finer’s 13-page memo has hardly become official administration policy, it’s notable that Biden’s senior team seems to be acting on some of its recommendations—and that Finer himself is one of the top officials working on a broad review of counterterrorism policy led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. 

One of the recommendations enacted from the memo is to “[r]aise the threshold for use of force.” This includes eliminating “strikes against individuals whose specific identities are not known and who are not identified as tied to immediate [U.S.] force protection concerns or otherwise posing an imminent threat” to the United States, as the memo puts it. 

According to the Finer memo, “Operations requiring force should be considered extraordinary, require approval at the highest levels, and pursued only when absolutely necessary, for instance, to avert a clear and present danger to U.S. persons.”

The Biden administration has since restricted field commanders from making independent decisions on strikes outside of conventional battlefield zones. Under the new rules the “military and the C.I.A. must now obtain White House permission to attack terrorism suspects in poorly governed places where there are scant American ground troops, like Somalia and Yemen,” the New York Times reported on March 3. A forthcoming directive is also being prepared by the Department of Defense laying out stricter guidelines for limiting civilian casualties in overseas attacks and setting new and higher thresholds for future U.S. attacks. 

Already there has been a dramatic reduction of drone attacks and other types of airstrikes, which once reached thousands a year. “The [United States] appears to be in a holding pattern in most conflict theaters that it still has a presence in—with no reported strikes in Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, or Somalia since Biden took office. U.S. strikes are continuing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—though at historically low rates,” said Chris Woods of the London-based Airwars monitoring organization, considered perhaps the most reliable tracker of U.S. airstrikes around the world. “What the strategic plan here is, other than for Afghanistan, we don’t yet know.”

Until Biden took office, the U.S. military had often followed a pattern of secretly striking alleged terrorists from the air without any accountability or announcement: no casualty lists, no public after-action reports, and few follow-up investigations about collateral damage. “Cumulatively we’re talking tens of thousands of civilians conservatively who have died in America’s wars since 9/11”—almost all without acknowledgement, Woods said.

No truly reliable figures exist, especially for drones, since for most of its existence the drone program has been shrouded in secrecy. In his final year in office, President Barack Obama briefly opened the window, revealing that during his term drone strikes, conventional airstrikes, or cruise missiles used outside conventional war zones like Afghanistan had killed as many as 116 civilians. But other independent monitors put the figures much higher. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, made the numbers classified again.

The cutback in drone strikes is one element of a much bigger rethink. One Biden administration official who has been involved in discussions said that while a policy isn’t yet set and it’s not clear when it will be, the upcoming 20th anniversary of 9/11 is an important target date in what is amounting to an exhaustive evaluation of the overseas terrorist threat. The Biden administration, he said, is now focused on demoting the Islamist terrorist threat on the priority list of U.S. strategic interests. 

“Biden wants one of his major foreign policy accomplishments to be to end the forever wars,” said this official, who would speak about internal deliberations only on condition of anonymity. The president is expected to deliver a speech that will sketch out the broad outlines, including possibly setting new restrictive and transparent drone rules, announcing the shutdown of Guantánamo Bay (where only about 40 prisoners remain out of a total of nearly 800), and upgrading the focus on domestic violent extremists, away from al Qaeda and its affiliates. 

“He wants to show we made the world safer, to say that we are taking a multilateral approach and returning to smart power, reducing our military footprint and increasing our diplomatic footprint, and adapting to new threats of today,” the official said. 

The White House team is also seeking a broader reorientation toward what the president has called “the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20,” including climate change, the threat from China, COVID-19-type pandemics, and America’s economic and social problems at home.

“At the Department of Defense but also in the U.S. intelligence community, counterterrorism has taken a back seat,” said Seth Jones, a senior vice president and counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The focus of efforts is primarily on how to deal with China and to some degree Russia. And you don’t need drones to deal with either of them. It’s just not a priority, and that’s a big shift certainly from the Obama years and partly the Trump years.” 

Some activist groups are mildly optimistic. “It’s encouraging that there’s a pause in the lethal strikes program and the Biden administration is considering what is hopefully a better approach to end the forever wars,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. On Wednesday, the ACLU and 112 other organizations both in the United States and globally sent a letter to Biden calling for an end to the U.S. program of lethal strikes outside recognized battlefields such as Afghanistan. 

“Successive presidents have now claimed the unilateral power to authorize secretive extrajudicial killing outside any recognized battlefield, with no meaningful accountability for wrongful deaths and civilian lives lost and injured,” the letter read.

Sullivan and other senior Biden officials are particularly intent on involving every major government agency in their review—another recommendation of the Finer memo—in an effort to forestall the kind of bureaucratic pushback that Biden confronted when he made his decision on Afghanistan. In his April 14 speech announcing the withdrawal, the president appeared to refer several times to all the backbiting he had to deal with from the Pentagon and intelligence community, which for years have insisted on waiting for the right “conditions” for a stand down in their counterterrorism campaigns. 

“‘Not now’—that’s how we got here,” Biden said, referring to the answer given by U.S. generals in years of briefings he sat in on as senator, vice president, and president, on when would be the right time to leave. “I’m not hearing any good answers to these questions,” he said.

Bureaucratic resistance remains strong, especially in the Pentagon, intelligence community, and national security offices of the Justice Department. “The forever wars debates are about resources and power,” the Biden official said. “These guys have been systematically pumped with resources since Sept. 11, and to lose the main argument for it means they have to respect budgets like everybody else. They are ludicrously over-resourced and overstaffed, and the table is wildly disproportionate in favor of people pushing these counterterrorism concerns.” 

The Biden administration review encompasses what the Finer memo called a “vast network of counterterrorism agencies and offices,” including the National Counterterrorism Center, the counterterrorism offices within the Department of State, the Department of Defense, various law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and a counterterrorism policy process led by the deputy national security advisor and homeland security advisor. And senior Biden appointees are gradually moving in—like Abizaid, who also signed off on the Finer memo, and who was recently confirmed as director of the National Counterterrorism Center

Asked to comment, National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said nothing had been decided yet beyond Biden’s interim national security strategy announced in early March, which stated simply: “The United States should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars’ that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.” Horne said Sullivan and the National Security Council are engaged in “a thorough interagency review” of counterterrorism policies and “it would be premature to anticipate specific recommendations.

It’s clear that the number of Islamist terrorist threats to the United States has dropped considerably, facilitating the stand-down in drone strikes and raising questions about whether al Qaeda and its offshoots represent a significant a strategic threat any longer. Though terrorist activity is creeping back in places like West Africa and Syria, the main targets appear to be regional and local forces, not the United States. An April report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that the proportion of domestic attacks and plots inspired by a Salafi-jihadist ideology fell to 5 percent in 2020—a sharp decline compared to recent years. 

Biden is also determined to avoid the frustration he saw his former boss, Obama, go through. Obama, too, made speech after speech decrying “endless war” and trying to get off what he called “a perpetual war footing.” Yet even as he spent his presidency trying to reduce America’s fight against international terrorism to something manageable, al Qaeda spawned new affiliates, and the chaos of Iraq and Syria gave birth to the Islamic State. Obama ended up vastly increasing the number of drone strikes and giving up his plans to close Guantánamo. According to the United Kingdom-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Obama launched a total of 563 strikes, mostly by drones, targeting Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, compared to 57 strikes under President George W. Bush.

Since then, however, the Islamic State and other Islamist threats have been significantly degraded, and those that remain have turned their attention elsewhere for the moment. In addition, “there was a lack of commitment by Obama himself,” the Biden official said. 

Still, Biden is deferring a key element of his efforts to end the forever wars to Capitol Hill: repealing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which has justified broader counterterrorist military campaigns since 9/11. Biden wants it replaced it with a new AUMF that prescribes “a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars,” Horne said. 

To this point Congress has focused mainly on repealing the 2002 AUMF authorizing the Iraq War. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives also voted to repeal the 1991 AUMF that authorized the Gulf War in Iraq, as well as a long-antiquated 1957 resolution that opened the door to military action in the Middle East to protect against “armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism.”

But the 2001 AUMF remains a sticking point.

“A drawdown in troops and drone use are almost irrelevant with the 2001 AUMF still in place,” said Marc Garlasco, a former military intelligence official who works for PAX for Peace. “It, and it alone, is the true litmus test for this administration’s desire to put the forever wars behind us. With the AUMF the U.S. can turn the spigot of war on again at their discretion.” 

Biden could well find himself confronting a new challenge if al Qaeda or its affiliates manage to regroup in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal. According to former Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, under the new peace agreement, the Taliban “will be the dominant force.” “They accepted two decades in the wilderness rather than give up al Qaeda,” Crocker said. “It’s not likely they’re going to block al Qaeda now.”

Correction, July 1, 2021: The original version of this piece incorrectly identified Marc Garlasco’s affiliation.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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