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While No One Is Looking, Trump Is Escalating America’s Drone War

In expanding US drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan, Trump has "shredded" Obama-era safeguards to minimizing the risk of civilian casualties.
An MQ-9 Reaper taxis at Holloman Air Force Base. Photo: USAF

On his first full day in office, during a visit to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, President Trump’s inheritance of the US’s drone war came into stark relief.

Trump "seemed unimpressed" as the head of the CIA’s drone campaign told him about how the agency, aiming to limit civilian casualties, had created unique munitions to that end, the Washington Post reported. The former reality television personality then viewed footage of a previously-recorded CIA drone strike in Syria. In that episode, the agency apparently waited to pull the trigger until it was sure the target, who’d been inside a house with his family, was sufficiently far enough away from the residence so as to avoid collateral damage.


As a presidential candidate, Trump told "Fox & Friends" in late 2015 that taking out terrorists means "you have to take out their families" too, which could explain his four-word response to the strike video, despite what CIA brass had just told him about the agency seemingly exercising precaution in its covert drone operations. "Why did you wait?" Trump asked, according to one individual who was present at the meeting.

In the time since, the Trump administration has quietly, and dramatically, increased the number of drone strikes on suspected militants in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. And to clear the way for this drone-war escalation, Trump has eliminated many of the safeguards that President Barack Obama put into place in an effort to minimize the risk of civilian casualties from air strikes, including those by unmanned aerial vehicles.

"Any restrictions on unmanned aerial vehicle use under Obama have been loosened or simply shredded."

Among those safeguards was a requirement that officials verify that civilians weren't in danger from a planned air raid before authorizing an attack. "Any restrictions on unmanned aerial vehicle use under Obama have been loosened or simply shredded," Andrew Cockburn, author of Kill Chain, a book about drone strikes, told me.

In 2017, the US military and CIA launched at least 161 air raids in Yemen and Somalia, according to statistics compiled by the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which aggregates official data and news reports to track air strikes around the world.


The majority of the attacks in Somalia and Yemen most likely involved so-called hunter-killer drones. The Pentagon and CIA increasingly rely on these unmanned aircraft owing to their ability to fly long distances and "loiter" for 12-plus hours at a time over a battle zone. Shifts of two-person crews—a population increasingly defined by psychic wounds of "joystick" war-from-afar that can manifest in what some psychologists have called "moral injury"—remotely control forward-deployed Predator and Reaper drones via satellite from bases in the United States.

The 161 air strikes in Somalia and Yemen together represent a threefold increase over US attacks in the same countries in 2016.

That elevated pace of drone operations continued in 2018. So far this year, the BIJ has counted at least 15 US air strikes in Somalia and 27 in Yemen. As many as 81 people died in the air raids; around 10 of them were probably innocent bystanders, according to the bureau.

A Yemeni boy passes a mural depicting a US drone in the capital, Sanaa, in December 2013. A drone strike on a wedding convoy in Yemen that killed 17 people (mostly civilians, medical, and security) became a flash point in mounting criticism of what was then Obama's drone war. Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

In Afghanistan, the number of air strikes involving manned and unmanned warplanes roughly doubled between 2016 and 2017, and dropped slightly in the first five months of 2018, according to official US military statistics provided to Motherboard by CENTCOM. There were 615 US air attacks in 2016, 1,248 in 2017, and 353 between January and May 2018.

But the intensity of the strikes in Afghanistan increased out of proportion to the number of attacks. In that country, US aircraft dropped or fired 1,337 bombs and missiles in 2016, 4,361 in 2017, and 2,339 in the first five months of 2018.


The military declined to specify how many of the air strikes involved unmanned aircraft. It's worth noting, however, that in January 2018, the Air Force surged three squadrons of Reapers to Afghanistan, boosting the drone force there to its largest size ever. (A typical Air Force drone squadron has around a dozen aircraft.)

Here again, the air-war escalation coincided with a spike in civilian casualties. During the first nine months of 2017, the UN mission in Afghanistan documented "466 civilian casualties (205 deaths and 261 injured), a 52 percent increase in civilian casualties from air strikes compared to the same period in 2016."

Read more: The CIA Can Now Order Drone Strikes Without Pentagon Approval

Each of the last four American presidents has overseen his own drone war. The US military first began adding weapons to remote-controlled Predator drones in 2000 during the administration of President Bill Clinton, hoping to strike al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Afghanistan.

Under Clinton's successor President George W. Bush, the Pentagon and CIA’s respective drone forces were hugely expanded with new Predator and Reaper models that were deployed against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and militants in Somalia and The Philippines.

During the Obama administration, drones struck more frequently and in more places. During his final few years in office, Obama concentrated drone strikes on Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria and suspected militants in Libya.


Trump spoke to roughly 300 people at CIA headquarters on January 21, 2017, in Langley, Virginia, during what was his first official visit with a government agency. Photo: Olivier Doulier - Pool/Getty Images

Now it's Trump's turn to wield an increasingly lethal unmanned force. In March 2018, the Air Force retired its last Predator drones in favor of a fleet of around 220 larger and more powerful Reapers. The CIA maintains its own robotic air arm that, as recently as 2014, numbered around 80 Predators or similar drones.

But Trump's expanded drone campaigns in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan are only possible because the air war over Iraq and Syria is winding down with the near-total defeat of Islamic State in recent months, Chris Woods, author of Sudden Justice, a book about drone wars, told me. "The American drone fleet is a finite force and has to be applied sparingly," Woods explained.

In 2015, the Air Force said it wanted to cut back on drone missions in order to allow Predator and Reaper operators to rest and train. "We’re going to get to a level we can afford and can train to, and that’s got to be enough," Col. James Cluff, the top officer in the 432nd Wing, the Air Force's main drone training unit, told me at the time.

Then again, no country that acquires armed drones has ever reduced their operations. Once a country gets them, "they deploy them to the max, because they open up new capabilities," Woods said. "The demand is never going to go away."

Drones are the ultimate military growth industry, in other words. And Trump is only continuing that trend.

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