US Politics

Strike Early and Often? A More Thoughtful Drone Policy Needed By The U.S.

In 2017, there were 131 airstrikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS in Yemen alone compared to a total of 543 drone strikes during the Obama administration. Rachel Kuhns analyzes the use of drone strikes under the Trump administration and its consequences.


John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, once famously said: “The earlier you strike, the more damage you can do.” The Trump administration seems to be taking a page out of Bolton’s book.  Early on, the President promised to “bomb the hell out of ISIS”, and his administration’s prolific use of drone strikes shows that this statement might not just be hyperbole. In 2017, Trump’s first year in office, there were 131 airstrikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS in Yemen alone. According to the watchdog group Airwars, collateral damage as a result of these strikes ranges between 3,000-6,000 civilian deaths. If the administration continues its aggressive drone policy, Trump may go down in history as the U.S. President responsible for the largest amount of civilian deaths as a result of drone strikes.

During his two terms in office, President Obama expanded and increased the number of manned and unmanned drone strikes as well as targeted killings against terrorist leaders in designated combat zones, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.  Under Obama, both the number of strikes and the total number of civilian deaths was much lower compared to the tally under President Trump to date. Figures from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) place the total number of drone strikes under the Obama administration at about 542, which were used in both “counterterrorism and close air support operations in non-battlefield settings”.  As reported by CFR, deaths as a result of these strikes totaled to about 3,797 people, 324 of whom were civilians.

Until the global “war on terror” began in the early 2000s, the U.S. was often reluctant to engage in the use of force against foreign adversaries, with the exception of sanctioned covert assassinations.  Throughout the Clinton and Bush administrations, the authorization of so-called “signature killings” against mid- and high-ranking terrorist leaders, as well as strikes in combat zones, gradually gained momentum as drone technology improved and more powers were given to the Executive Branch to authorize the use of force.  While Obama came under much scrutiny for his reliance on airstrikes, they may have been effective considering the number of terrorist attacks globally decreased between 2016 and 2017.  ISIS has also been substantially weakened by the U.S. and coalition-led airstrikes and a loss of territory in Iraq and Syria.  Although some of the success in debilitating ISIS can be directly traced back to strikes and targeted killings, the Islamic State is far from defunct. ISIS is an extremely change-agile, amorphous group that is becoming more networked, virtual, and less centralized than before. Radicalized in virtual and social networks and locally in their communities, “lone wolf” actors loyal to the Islamic State have continued to commit attacks in major cities across the globe.  In 2015 and 2016, there were about twice as many of these attacks than those that occurred during the three-year period between 2011 and 2014.  Drones may indeed cripple the ability of al-Qaeda or ISIS to carry out another large-scale centralized attack, but in the long term, the question remains whether drone strikes and targeted killings are merely short-term fixes that may cause more harm than good in the long-term.

So what is the Trump administration trying to achieve by increasing the number of strikes?  It is unclear whether Trump has a cohesive strategy for using drone strikes as an effective counterterrorism tactic. What we know so far is that the administration is not hesitant about using force to target not just terrorists, but also militants that pose a threat to U.S. backed governments, such as those in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When Trump took office, areas in Yemen as and Somalia were designated as combat zones to give the Administration more autonomy in authorizing drone strikes and military raids. Last year, the administration took an even broader approach by proposing to strike non-conflict areas and countries not at war with the U.S., such as Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. With many key leaders from al-Qaeda and ISIS killed or captured, strikes are now aimed at lower level ISIS operatives or anti-U.S. counterinsurgents. Will this be effective in further weakening ISIS, or will these actions just add fuel to the fire, spurning more extremist rhetoric and encouraging recruitment?

With all the focus on Trump’s tweets, the Russia investigation, salacious affairs, and rapid-fire staffing changes, it’s easy to lose sight of key foreign policy concerns that should be center stage for any administration. It is far easier to give attention to the low-hanging fruit than it is to discuss the legal and moral ramifications of targeted killings and drone strikes. The unintended consequences of these forceful tactics include civilian casualties, negative psychological effects on local populations and drone operators, more anti-American and anti-coalition blowback, and negative perceptions of the U.S.  The hard questions must be answered by the Trump administration very soon, instead of blindly pushing forward with a maximalist strategy in the fight against terrorism.  If the administration pauses to consider a more thoughtful strategy, the U.S. can improve its reputation at home and abroad, keeping U.S. citizens safer by causing a decrease in the frequency of future terrorist attacks.

Rachel has been a business analyst and legal professional in the private sector for over ten years, working in litigation and global trade compliance. Rachel received a Master of Science in Global Affairs at New York University in 2017, concentrating in Transnational Security.  Her Thesis research focused on U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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