How the President became a drone operator: The escalation of unmanned warfare — from Obama to Trump
We’re only a few days into the new decade and it’s somehow already a bigger dumpster fire than the last. On January 2nd, President Trump decided to order what one expert called “the most important decapitation strike America has ever launched." This one took out not some nameless terrorist in a distant land or a group of civilians who happened to get in the way, but Major General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the mastermind of its military operations across the Middle East.
Among the thousands of ignored American drone strikes since the 9/11 attacks, this was not one of them. In the wake of the assassination, we’ve seen: the Iraqi parliament vote to expel American forces from their country; all the Democratic presidential candidates make statements condemning the strike; thousands of protestors around the world take to the streets; and both chambers of Congress introduce resolutions aimed at curbing the president’s expanding war powers. Even though there is still so much we don’t know, one thing is for sure. Everything we thought we knew about drone warfare -- and America’s wars more broadly -- is about to be thrown out the window.
When I first started writing this piece, I was simply reflecting on a decade of U.S. drone warfare and the problems it had spawned. But when this world-altering news broke, I immediately started thinking about how I got here, as well as how my country could continue to recklessly breed chaos and destruction throughout the Greater Middle East.
New decades afford us a chance to take a good, hard look at what transpired in the years past. Until that strike in Iraq occurred, it seemed like every time I opened Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram in the new year, I was inundated with sentimental reflections about how far we’ve come in the last 10 years and where we’re going next. And I get it. I really do. It’s the beginning of a new decade and nostalgia is in the air.
In fact, over the holiday season, I found myself with time on my hands and that same sort of sentimentality creeping up on me. So I decided to indulge myself by looking through old journals of mine. One entry in particular caught my attention. In 2010, when I was still an idealistic high school student in Tennessee, I wrote about the democracy movement I saw rising in the Middle East (what we came to know as “the Arab Spring”) and how hopeful it made me that global peace might be achieved in my lifetime. I wrote about my desire not only to see the world but to help make it a better place.
Rereading that entry 10 years later, a few thoughts came to mind. First, I was amused by my unwavering optimism and how sure I was that everything would work out okay. Although I’d like to think that I still see glasses as at least half-full, the never-endingly destructive feedback loop of American foreign policy has certainly left me a more jaded twenty-something.
Then I was suddenly impressed by how close I’d actually come to living the life that the 16-year-old me once imagined. Of course, I haven’t yet seen the entire world (though it’s on my bucket list) or managed to bring about world peace (a girl’s gotta sleep, ya know). Still, working to bring attention to undercovered issues like drone warfare seems like a reasonable first step to have taken.
With the world veering into unprecedented territory, I realized that it was time for me to take off those rose-colored glasses, reflect on what our world really looked like 10 years ago and how oblivious I was to so many of the darker parts of it.
If you remember, as 2009 ended, President Barack Obama went to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. While accepting the award, he made a moving speech about war and peace. Noting the absurdity of receiving the prize while still “the commander-in-chief of a nation in the midst of two wars,” he laid out his ideas on how to build a just and lasting world of peace. At the same time, he defended his continued use of military force in the Middle East, arguing that “the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace,” even if we “must also think clearly about how we fight” war.
Looking back, there’s no doubt about the eloquence of his words, which fit well with my 16-year-old dreams. Unfortunately -- for him, for me, and for the world -- he didn’t take his own advice. Instead of preserving the peace, he quickly embraced the latest instruments of war, like drones, and so helped usher in a new era of warfare that, as the latest drone strike in Baghdad makes clear, is likely to haunt us for decades to come.
A large part of Obama’s speech was dedicated to America’s adherence to the laws of war and the importance of protecting civilians when using force. As he put it,
“Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct... And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.”
For those not familiar with those “laws,” the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols specifically protect people in areas of armed conflict who are not taking part in the hostilities (civilians, health workers, and aid workers in particular) and those who are no longer participating in the hostilities, including the wounded, the sick, and prisoners of war.
Unsurprisingly, nowhere in Obama’s 36-minute speech did he mention that he had already authorized more drone strikes than his predecessor, George W. Bush, approved during his entire presidency. Nor did he mention that those strikes had already killed dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians in countries ranging from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Yemen and Somalia.
On January 23, 2009, for instance, just three days after Obama’s inauguration, a CIA drone strike in Pakistan ripped through a house filled with friends and family sitting down to dinner. Nine civilians were killed. As Faheem Qureshi, a teenager who barely survived the attack, told the Guardian, “I am the living example of what drones are... They have affected Waziristan [the district of Pakistan where he lived] as they have affected my personal life. I had all the hopes and potential and now I am doing nothing.” More than a decade later, Faheem has still not been given an explanation for what happened to his family, even though the president was told almost immediately that a mistake had been made and innocent civilians had been killed.
Six months later, a U.S. drone strike took out a mid-ranking Taliban commander in Pakistan. At his funeral, attended by 5,000 people, another drone fired missiles into the crowd in an attempt to kill Baitullah Mehsud, the founder of the Pakistani wing of the Taliban. Forty-five civilians would die, but not Mehsud who was targeted seven times before eventually being killed on August 5, 2009. The drone pursuit of him would leave at least 164 dead, including eight-year-old Noor Syed who was playing in a house near one of Mehsud’s suspected hideouts when a piece of shrapnel hit him.
Throughout Obama’s presidency events like these occurred with alarming frequency. A pregnant woman in Yemen died while driving with her children. A 4-year-old girl was left without an eye, nose, or lower lip in a rural province of Afghanistan. Rescue workers in Pakistan were killed while trying to retrieve bodies after an airstrike. Even American military personnel weren’t spared. In 2011, for instance, Marine Staff Sergeant Jeremy Smith and Navy corpsman Benjamin Rast were unintentionally killed near Sangin, Afghanistan, by a drone strike while on their way to rescue Marines pinned down by Taliban gunfire. According to outside monitoring groups, by the end of his second term, President Obama had authorized 528 strikes with a death toll reaching somewhere between 380 and 801 civilians in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen alone. And that’s believed to be a conservative estimate.
The “Precision” of Drone Warfare
In 2013, when discussing the high number of civilian casualties from drone strikes, the president defended them by claiming that “conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage.” That same year, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared, “You can far more easily limit collateral damage with a drone than you can with a bomb, even a precision-guided munition, off an airplane.” Or, as former CIA Director Leon Panetta put it, “I think this is one of the most precise weapons that we have in our arsenal.”
If it sounded too good to be true, that’s because it was and still is.
When political scientists Micah Zenko and Amelia Wolf did a careful analysis of this claim for the Council on Foreign Relations, they found that “the White House is deeply misleading about the precision of drone strikes. They are, in fact, roughly thirty times more likely to result in a civilian fatality than an airstrike by a manned aircraft.” A deeper dive into the technology used for military drones showed that it’s prone to significant error. After analyzing documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act related to drones, previously unpublished court documents, dozens of engineering and technical studies, and contract data, CorpWatch’s Pratap Chatterjee and Christian Stork came to a similar conclusion: “Planning for drone operations was handicapped by a fog of numbers and raw data derived from flawed technology marketed by contractors, the military, and the intelligence agencies.”
The false notion that drones are more precise and effective -- and so less dangerous -- to civilians gained special, if grim, traction in the Obama era. During the Trump presidency, it would only become more of a given. In the years since Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, in fact, the U.S. military has only expanded its use of artificial intelligence, or AI, in warfare in order, as the Pentagon’s chief information officer Dana Deasy puts it, to maintain America’s “strategic position and prevail on future battlefields.”
Unfortunately, as my colleague Emily Manna and I have pointed out, this is a development that’s anything but relegated to those “future battlefields.” The military is already hard at work making its existing weapons systems, including drones, ever more autonomous. This process is sure to accelerate, even if the American public will hear little about it, thanks to the secrecy surrounding the application of AI and the fact that private companies with no commitment to public accountability are deeply involved in creating the technology.
Under the circumstances, one thing is predictable: ever more civilians are going to die in America’s wars.
Drone War Escalates Under Trump
Almost as alarming as the rate of civilian casualties from drone and other air strikes in the Obama years was the lack of information provided about them. The American public couldn't find out how many civilians had actually been killed, whether their government compensated those who were harmed or not, or even the legal rationale for such strikes. Sometimes, it was impossible to tell whether drones were even behind them. Most of what could be known about the U.S. drone program, in fact, including the CIA’s role in it, how its “targets” were tracked, or even what those in targeted countries thought about such strikes, came from leaked information and independent reporting. On rare occasions when the drone program was officially acknowledged, statements made about it usually turned out to be lies.
Through executive orders just before he left office, President Obama finally put in place modest reforms to make the drone program more transparent and accountable. His key order outlined a process of review and investigation that had to be set in motion anytime reports of civilian casualties from drone strikes came in. Information from all available sources, including non-military or government organizations, was to be taken into account and the government was required to acknowledge responsibility for civilian deaths and injuries while providing redress to the victims and their families. Finally, the director of national intelligence was to release estimates of the number of combatants and civilians killed by military drone strikes since 2009. Another executive order required future presidents to release similar information annually. Although the numbers still proved dubious and many questions remained about, among other things, the CIA civilian casualty count, at least the pendulum finally seemed to be swinging in the right direction.
No such luck. Soon after President Trump took office, his administration began to quietly dismantle the safeguards Obama had just created. His administration would subsequently expand the battlefields on which drones would be used, ease combat rules in Somalia intended to protect civilians, rescind most aspects of Obama’s executive orders, and stop publishing civilian casualty data entirely, while telling the public even less about the program. Not surprisingly, drone strikes across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa would rise and a lot more civilians would start dying from them. None of this was exactly shocking from a commander-in-chief who had once asked a CIA official why he didn’t kill a terrorist target’s family during a drone strike.
In his Nobel Prize speech, Obama claimed that the reason the United States adhered to certain rules of conduct in war like protecting civilians was because “that’s what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is the source of our strength.” In the first half of last year, U.S. and Afghan air and drone strikes killed more civilians than the Taliban for the first time ever. Those strikes hit wedding parties, farmers, pregnant women, and small children. In Somalia, drone strikes decimated entire communities, destroying not only lives, but crops, homes, and livelihoods. And as the new decade began, President Trump not only carried out a drone strike so drastic and rare that many experts believed it was a straightforward act of (and declaration of) war, but also threatened to bomb non-military targets (“cultural” sites), a move which is generally considered a war crime under international law.
In its recklessness and brutality, Trump’s escalating drone war should remind us all of just how dangerous it is when a president claims the legal authority to kill in secret and no one can stop him. Maybe this decade we’ll learn our lesson.
Allegra Harpootlian, a TomDispatch regular, is a political partner with the Truman National Security Project. She currently works at the intersection of national security, politics, and the media. You can subscribe to her drone newsletter here and find her on Twitter at @ally_harp.
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