American soldiers may now be out of Afghanistan, but the U.S. military and intelligence services are not. As President Joe Biden has made clear, the United States will continue conducting drone strikes in Afghanistan to weed out enemies. “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries,” Biden declared at the end of August, explaining his decision to withdraw forces. “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities”—including drones—“which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground.”
The president’s plan might seem logical, or even necessary. A number of anti-American terrorist groups continue to operate in Afghanistan, and without troops on the ground, American officials may rely on armed, unmanned aerial vehicles to kill potential opponents. This represents a tragic irony: by increasing its reliance on drone strikes, Washington will be embracing a tactic that played a major role in the United States’ strategic defeat in Afghanistan. Throughout the two decades of war there, U.S. policymakers used short-term operations such as drone strikes to put off thinking about and confronting the weaknesses of the Afghan National Army, the foibles of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, and the absence of a workable endgame. Drones also killed hundreds of innocent civilians, most recently Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group, and nine members of his family. Errant strikes, especially those that hit children, can inflame local populations and help extremists recruit new members. Despite years of withering “decapitation strikes” against terrorist leaders, one estimate found that there are more than four times as many Islamist extremists worldwide now as there were on September 11.
Biden inherited this failure. His three predecessors all aggressively used armed drones, engendering regional (and international) political backlash. If he continues that tradition, Biden will only make matters worse. He should instead pivot away from continuous manhunting and use lethal drones only under specific circumstances, when there is clear evidence of an imminent attack by a known terrorist. The United States must be more transparent about its decision-making and about the outcome of drone strikes and should compensate innocent victims. Otherwise, Washington will continue perpetuating a needless cycle of violence.
On the night of October 7, 2001, a CIA Predator 3034 drone flew from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan. Armed with a Hellfire missile, the aircraft fired at Taliban Supreme Commander Mullah Omar at a compound in Kandahar. It missed, instead killing several bodyguards. This marked the first time that a U.S. drone had been used to directly conduct an assassination attempt.
Over the next month, CIA Predators hit more than 40 Taliban and al Qaeda targets. By the end of the George W. Bush administration, Washington had carried out nearly 60 drone strikes, mostly in Pakistan. Sanctioned by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), Bush kept the initiative small and covert, although those living along Pakistan’s frontier region knew about it and grew to fear the weapons.
Upon taking office, President Barack Obama expanded the drone program. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of strikes outside designated war zones grew tenfold, to 563, and killed at least four American citizens. As the names of al Qaeda leaders came off the hit list, foot soldiers, drivers, and messengers filled the empty slots. Eventually, the administration shifted from conducting “personality strikes”—which took aim at specific individuals—to carrying out “signature strikes,” which selected targets through general profiling. Under this system, unidentified, military-age males in suspicious-looking training camps or compounds were all fair game.
Although Obama increased the use of drones, he did attempt to create a more regulated system than the one that had existed under Bush. The Obama White House tightly controlled targeting choices. Suspected terrorists in places such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen had to pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, as determined by an interagency process that culminated in National Security Council meetings known as “terror Tuesdays.” The administration published strike data as public pressure mounted. But the growing use of drones outside combat zones still resulted in an estimated 606 innocent deaths between 2009 and 2017.
After assuming the presidency, Donald Trump further ramped up the pace of drone attacks. He swept aside Obama-era restrictions and delegated targeting decisions to CIA operatives and military commanders. His administration secretly issued rules that lowered the threshold for killing, especially when it came to civilian adult men, and allowed strikes when there was a more tenuous connection to imminent terrorist attacks. Trump reversed a late-breaking executive order by the Obama administration, which required agencies to investigate reports of civilian casualties and offer restitution. Commanders increased the number of unilateral airstrikes against low-level fighters and ordered more attacks to protect partner forces in conflicts in which the United States was not directly involved. The Trump administration launched 40 drone strikes in Somalia alone during the first six months of 2020, compared with 41 attacks there during the 16 years of the Bush and Obama eras.
One of the first national security steps Biden took after becoming president was to reimpose White House control over the drone process, outlining new rules for how U.S. military and intelligence services may conduct strikes. No drone attacks happened in the first six months of 2021. But National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has said the new procedures are “interim guidance,” and a full interagency review has been continuously delayed. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has not yet issued permanent guidance to raise evidentiary standards, and U.S. Africa Command justified the first Biden drone strike, in Somalia at the end of July 2021, as an act of collective self-defense on behalf of partner forces.
Drone attacks have helped fight terrorism. By killing insurgents abroad, the weapons hollowed out the leadership of al Qaeda, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and other groups. They hindered militants’ ability to move and reduced their capacity to plan operations far afield. Without declassified data, it is hard to know exactly how many imminent attacks have been thwarted, but targeted strikes have saved American lives.
Yet the way the United States deploys drones undermines their utility. Under the Obama administration, decapitation strikes drove al Qaeda to decentralize into a franchise model, increasing the role of Sunni extremism in other regional conflicts and helping spawn new organizations. There are more terrorist organizations worldwide now than there were 20 years ago. These groups have shared tactics to avoid drones, including staying in urban areas and integrating more closely with civilians. Since the 9/11 attacks, Washington’s main counterterrorism objectives have been to eliminate global terror networks, shrink the overall number of combatants, and decouple them from the general population. But the United States has not achieved any of those goals, despite its drone campaign—or perhaps partly because of it.
There is no reason to think drones will be more strategically successful in Afghanistan going forward than they have been for the past 20 years. If anything, it will now be even more difficult for U.S. forces to accurately identify and hit targets. The Biden administration’s original plan was to conduct attacks only with the permission of Ghani; his flight from the country and the quick collapse of his government has made that impossible. A plan for Turkish troops to stay behind and provide intelligence fizzled when the Taliban forced them to withdraw. Washington now has no straightforward way to collect the intelligence it needs to inform targeting decisions—or to figure out whom, exactly, it has killed in the wake of a drone strike.
That is especially concerning given that the United States frequently hit the wrong targets even when it had an on-the-ground presence. Consider, for instance, the mistaken August 29 killing of Ahmadi, two of his adult family members, and seven children. Coming days after Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) suicide bombers murdered 13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghans, the strike was a response that went horribly awry. Ahmadi delivered meals to displaced people and brought home large containers of water, which operators mistook for bombs. Even though these operators did not know who their target was, the American commander overseeing the operation reportedly decided the attack met the U.S. standard of “reasonable certainty” of no harm to noncombatants.
When the drone strike happened, thousands of American troops were still on the ground, and Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said it was conducted from the Kabul airport. Before it became obvious that the strike had been a disaster, Biden even cited it as a model. “We struck ISIS-K remotely, days after they murdered 13 of our service members and dozens of innocent Afghans,” he declared in an address two days after the strike, right after playing up the United States’ “over-the-horizon” capabilities. If Washington could make those kinds of egregious targeting errors in high-stakes, high-visibility situations when it had forces on the grounds, it is hard to muster much optimism regarding a drone campaign in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.
It is unclear if, given the Ahmadi tragedy, the White House will dramatically shift the way it uses drones. So far, the administration has given mixed signals. CIA Director William Burns has been conferring with Pakistan and even the Taliban about gaining permission to strike common enemies such as IS-K, and discussions are also underway about basing drones in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The administration seems to be moving toward a hybrid approach between Trump’s and Obama’s policies, tailoring drone targeting rules to individual countries. Local commanders would be free to carry out drone strikes in Afghanistan and Somalia, for example, but they would have to seek White House permission for operations further afield.
This hybrid approach may curb the worst excesses of the Trump years, but it will hardly fix the underlying problems. If the Biden administration really wants to break with the failed policies of the “war on terror,” it should dramatically curtail the use of drones. Biden can begin by ending Obama’s policy of conducting signature strikes and instead hit only known and confirmed targets; the United States must stop killing people it does not know. Even then, there must be far clearer evidence of imminent harm to Americans. Strikes should be approved by local U.S. ambassadors, who are familiar with country conditions and better poised to assess political contexts. In Afghanistan, the United States should work clandestinely with established sources on the ground and with regional actors such as China, Pakistan, Russia, and even Iran, none of which want a terrorist haven next door. (Plus, all of these neighbors now have their own drones.) The president should also limit the geographic scope of strikes. The United States has been using lethal drones in places such as Chad, Libya, Mali, and Niger, where groups have not shown the capacity to project force against the U.S. homeland or that of our allies. Unless this changes, Biden should cease conducting drone strikes in those countries.
American military and intelligence agencies must also work harder to determine civilian casualty figures and to make them more transparent. They should reinstate the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance, which directed agencies to publish information about drone strikes and investigate and explain discrepancies if they occurred. The U.S. government should also pay recompense when drone strikes go wrong. (In Afghanistan, this will require working through the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which maintains a presence following the Taliban takeover.) Biden can begin this process by giving Ahmadi’s family the opportunity to be resettled and supported at the federal government’s expense. Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of Central Command, has already apologized and has said that the United States is considering reparations.
“As we turn the page on the foreign policy that’s guided our nation the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes,” Biden told Americans in his speech on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. To make good on those words, it is not enough to just pull troops out. The administration must stop the endless parade of drone strikes, which have killed too many civilians, drawn the U.S. military and intelligence agencies into too many fights, and done too little to protect Americans.