Can the Next President Dismantle an Inherited Drone War?

By David Sterman

Since he took office, President Donald Trump has overseen unprecedented escalations in America’s counterterrorism and drone wars in Yemen and Somalia while simultaneously ramping up secrecy around the drone strike program. In some ways the escalations are no surprise, as Trump campaigned in part on extreme violence as a counterterrorism strategy, including arguing for killing terrorists’ families – an act which would be a war crime. Some reports have suggested this attitude found expression within the policy process.

Yet careful tracking of the America’s counterterrorism wars by New America shows that the violent rhetoric is hardly a prerequisite for widespread use of drone strikes by presidents of either party. The Trump administration’s counterterrorism strategy has substantial commonalities with the Obama administration’s approach, and the Obama strategy took many of its cues from the Bush administration. Different administrations have talked about drones and airstrikes in different ways, but such strikes have become a key part of a bipartisan counterterrorism consensus. As a new crop of presidential candidates pledge progressive approaches to foreign policy problems, voters are owed answers about whether and how candidates will meaningfully change American counterterrorism policy.   

The 2020 election provides a rare opportunity for progressives to reshape – or even end – America’s counterterrorism wars abroad. If progressives hope to chart a different path, they will have to both be prepared with new policy ideas and have wrestled with the ways Trump’s wars continue Obama’s wars. Under President Trump, much of the conduct of operations was delegated to commanders. A progressive presidency that doesn’t explicitly address the issue and come prepared with policy ideas will likely end up allowing these existing policy processes to continue. A progressive presidency that accepts general rhetoric about the danger of “stupid” wars in the Middle East as sufficient will have failed to learn the lessons of the Obama administration: that a general skepticism regarding U.S. wars abroad is not a barrier to escalation nor a guarantee of timely, transparent reporting of the wars being waged.

It is true that Trump massively escalated the counterterrorism wars in Yemen and Somalia. The United States conducted 131 airstrikes in Yemen in 2017 – the first year of the Trump presidency – as well as multiple ground raids, according to United States Central Command (CENTCOM). That is more than twice the prior peak number of strikes in Yemen in 2012, when the Obama administration conducted 56 strikes, according to New America’s research.

In Somalia, the Trump administration conducted 37 strikes during 2017 (in addition to one strike conducted in January 2017 during the Obama administration), more than twice the number of strikes in any prior year of the campaign, according to New America’s research. The number of strikes grew again to 43 over the course of 2018, and there have already been 29 reports of strikes killing a total of 299 people in the first three months of 2019.

In addition to these escalations, the Trump administration has radically backtracked on the transparency of the counterterrorism campaigns. The Trump administration replaced the Presidential Policy Guidance regarding the conditions and authorities under which the United States would conduct strikes, which the Obama administration eventually released publicly, with new guidance that has not been publicly released. In addition, in March, the Trump administration rescinded an Obama executive order mandating a report on civilian casualties in all US strikes. While military-conducted strikes are still covered under Congressional statutes, the intelligence community is no longer required to report on the toll of its covert strikes.

These escalations in particular theaters do not indicate any great shift in overall counterterrorism strategy from the Obama to Trump administrations. This is a toggling up of intensity of existing airstrikes, rather than an entirely new approach. A number of counterexamples show the clear through-lines in American policy through the years.

April 4th marked the ninth month without a reported US strike in Pakistan, according to New America’s research. The last reported strike on July 4, 2018 ended another almost five-month pause in reported strikes. At no point has the Trump administration’s drone campaign in Pakistan come near to the peak of the campaign under Obama when the United States conducted 122 strikes over the course of 2010. There are many possible explanations for the low rate of strikes in Pakistan under Trump, but the most convincing appear to involve the reduced need to conduct force protection strikes as the US troop presence in Afghanistan declined and Pakistan’s successes in suppressing terrorist activity in Pakistan itself in part via its military campaign – Operation Zarb-e-Azb – in the country’s northwest.

In Libya, the number of strikes under the Trump administration has remained in the low tens over two years while in 2016 the United States conducted 513 strikes in a single year, according to New America’s research.  The reason: the Obama administration conducted hundreds of strikes as part of an effort to push ISIS out of the Libyan city of Sirte and other territory it had seized, and that campaign had wound down by the time Trump took office.

Even in Yemen, where the Trump administration clearly escalated the war upon taking office, the war was already escalating – though to a lesser extent – in the last years of the Obama administration, according to New America’s research. The same was true in Somalia, where the Obama administration conducted more than twice as many strikes in its last full year in office as had been conducted in any prior year, according to New America’s research.

Perhaps more interestingly, while 2017 represented a major escalation in Yemen, the number of strikes declined to 42 in 2018, according to New America’s research, with CENTCOM saying it conducted only 36 strikes over the year. The final months of 2018 and first months of 2019 saw strikes slow even more with only nine reported strikes in the past six months – of which CENTCOM acknowledges only eight.  That said, March 2019 saw a flurry of six strikes.

It is worth noting that there may be ongoing US covert strikes in Yemen, a possibility made difficult to assess given the use of drones by the United Arab Emirates and the Trump administration’s backtracking on transparency regarding covert strikes. Indeed, one possible explanation for the slowing pace of US strikes in Yemen is that the Emiratis may be picking up the slack.

If the escalation in America’s counterterrorism wars cannot be placed fully at Trump’s feet as a man particularly prone to escalation, progressives must wrestle with what they will do if they inherit these exceedingly durable drone campaigns and how they will react to situations on the ground that might encourage escalation.

It is of course possible that a progressive president could merely refuse to conduct any strikes or escalation. Such a stance would, however, represent a substantial break from current US policy under the last three administrations and would require discussion of the real risks as well as the sustainability of such an approach. The documents captured in the 2011 raid that killed Bin Laden provide good reason to believe that drone strikes played an important role in disrupting al Qaeda’s ability to plot external attacks from Pakistan. The role of airstrikes in disrupting ISIS” territorial rule in Libya and Syria and preventing its expansion also should not be dismissed.

However, so far, the Democratic primary candidates vying for the chance to challenge Trump have shown little evidence that they would adopt a full halt to strikes as a counterterrorism strategy. To take just a few such candidates, during the 2016 primary, Bernie Sanders voiced support for the use of drone strikes in at least some capacity on multiple occasions. While the Sanders campaign has embraced a call for an end to the United States’ never ending wars, the war powers bill he has pushed on Yemen – though an important improvement on years of Congressional inaction that ought not be underestimated– excludes US counterterrorism strikes leaving it an open question what a Sanders administration would mean for such strikes. Tulsi Gabbard has also voiced support for the use of drone strikes, and Cory Booker joined with Senator Chuck Schumer to call for increased strikes against ISIS in 2015. Joe Biden, for his part, supported an Afghanistan strategy reliant on drone strikes and of course was part of the Obama administration throughout its multiple counterterrorism wars.   Several other candidates appear to have remained largely silent on their views of strikes.

The primary debates and campaign should involve tough questions on prospective Democratic presidential contenders’ approach to America’s counterterrorism wars. Returning to the transparency measures implemented at the end of the Obama administration and expanding them provides a basic foundation they should all embrace. But the question of if and how the candidates assess the wars in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Libya differently from the Trump administration and whether they would have escalated those wars is where the rubber really hits the road. That is a far tougher discussion than merely pointing to Trump’s violent rhetoric, but it is an essential one for a country that continues to kill thousands in multiple wars abroad.

David Sterman is a Senior Policy Analyst with New America’s International Security program, where he tracks America’s counterterrorism wars among other issues. He tweets at @Dsterms.


One thought on “Can the Next President Dismantle an Inherited Drone War?

  1. Pingback: World update: April 4 2019 – and that's the way it was

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