The Peril and the Promise of Biden’s Drone Review

The drone-strike reduction seems to be real. But so is the pull of the status quo, reflected in the Pentagon’s force-posture overview.

The Peril and the Promise of Biden’s Drone Review
Emal Ahmadi surveys the damage inflicted by a U.S. military drone strike that killed 10 of his family members, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Marcus Yam, via Getty.

Edited by Sam Thielman

ON FRIDAY MORNING, SOCIAL MEDIA accounts began posting pictures purporting to show the aftermath of a U.S. drone strike in Syria’s Idlib governorate. By the early evening, U.S. Central Command confirmed the drone strike to me and other reporters who asked. The command said its initial review indicated the “potential for possible civilian casualties.” It was vague about whether the strike killed its intended target, a suspected al-Qaeda figure.

“We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them. The possibility of a civilian casualty was immediately self-reported to U.S. Central Command. We are initiating a full investigation of the allegations and will release the results when appropriate,” said Capt. Bill Urban, CENTCOM’s chief spokesperson.

Before Friday, CENTCOM last confirmed a drone strike in Syria on Oct. 22. Another CENTCOM strike, this one also in Idlib, took place on Sept. 20. On Aug. 24, U.S. Africa Command conducted a drone strike in Somalia, its second that month. Everyone knows the relevant outlines of the U.S. drone strike in Kabul on Aug. 29. AFRICOM also acknowledged drone strikes in Somalia on July 20 and July 23.

This isn’t and can’t be a full tally of the Biden administration’s drone strikes. Transparency about drone strikes is, to be flippant, optional. (For most of 2021, the Biden administration has stonewalled me on confirming at least one other strike and as many as three that it launched early on; more on that when I can responsibly say.)

But the soda-straw view we have into President Biden’s tenure has him launching significantly fewer drone strikes than either Barack Obama or Donald Trump did at this point in their presidencies—although an important caveat, for Afghanistan, is in order. The nonprofit transparency organization Airwars, which just updated its Iraq/Syria figures, documents this phenomenon thoroughly. And that opens up a tremendous opportunity for Biden to stop the drone strikes durably, rather than just grounding the drones until a successor president decides to launch them again.

“Across almost all active U.S. conflicts, we have seen an extreme fall in declared U.S. military actions under Joe Biden, including by drone—in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Libya. While this partly reflects a trend already underway during the latter half of Trump's presidency, it's clear that Biden's reported moratorium has now seen strikes reaching near-zero in most conflicts,” said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars.

Now for that caveat. “The one theater we can't say that of is Afghanistan. While CENTCOM and AFCENT [the Air Force contribution to CENTCOM] continue to hide the actual numbers, there was a well reported surge in U.S. strikes in 2021 as the Taliban made lightning advances across the country. Many of those were close air support actions trying to bolster ANA [the former Afghan National Army] allies on the ground—which always carry higher risks to civilians. So until this data is published, we would urge caution in claiming an overall fall in U.S. strikes during President Biden's first year in office.”

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THE BROAD CONTOURS OF THIS appropriately-caveated-decline in drone strikes have been on display for most of 2021. Some reporter told you in February that Biden had placed the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus under a review, run by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, that I understand will be completed some time next year. The New York Times, a few weeks after my piece, reported that Biden imposed substantial restrictions on drone strikes during the lifespan of the review. Beyond that, last year I reported that the person who now serves as director of national intelligence was the Obama administration’s most important voice for limiting—but not abolishing—the drone strikes.

Now look. You absolutely do not have to hand it to someone who’s launching fewer drone strikes but more than zero drone strikes. Recall what Malcolm X said about pulling a knife six inches out of a nine-inch wound. But it’s important to recognize that the U.S. is conducting substantially fewer strikes, because doing so prompts the most important question facing Sullivan’s review: Doesn’t the quasi-pause demonstrate the hollowness of any U.S. claim that national security requires drone strikes? It turns out bombing random people halfway around the world doesn’t actually prevent mass American deaths. The things that actually bring mass death to Americans cannot be resolved by drones.

“The counterterrorism review should be looking at exactly this question of need. The counterterrorism review will be a fairly useless exercise if policymakers didn’t question the assumptions the U.S. government has been making for twenty years now,” said Sarah Holewinski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch and a former adviser to the military’s Joint Staff.

“I’d be asking, for example, is killing terrorists the best way to counter terrorism? Are drone strikes really keeping us safe or are they, in fact, creating more anger around the world against Americans? Is terrorism the big threat facing Americans right now?”

Biden’s review, however, doesn’t have to confront these questions. I would have to do far more reporting on Sullivan and his team to say anything about its focus, composition or conclusions. But at the risk of banality, the Biden counterterrorism review will either take a monumental step toward actually ending the Forever Wars, or it will squander the opportunity. For all his reductions in drone strikes, Biden, particularly during the Afghanistan withdrawal, committed the typical liberal mistake of portraying drone strikes as a hedge against—that is, an alternative to—a wider war. Viewing the drones as an “over the horizon” capability is how you get a More Sustainable And Agile Counterterrorism Approach, not an end to the War on Terror.

THERE’S ALSO A STRUCTURAL FACTOR at work in the review.

At The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill reports on the Pentagon’s Global Posture Review, an enterprise with a different but complementary focus. The Global Posture Review is what the name says: a document that reflects where the Pentagon outlines its needs and desires for sustained overseas basing and staging. The study will have a major influence on Biden’s first National Defense Review, its major geopolitical/military strategy statement. (You’ll notice that conducting a force-posture review before a strategy document, rather than afterward, diminishes the integrity of both—but whatever, the first thing you learn in the Pentagon press corps is that you’ll lose your mind if you try to make things like this make sense.)

The majority of the posture review is classified. But Jeremy observes that the toplines of the Pentagon findings reflect continuity with the U.S. military’s current global footprint rather than departures from it. Continuity, in this context, means growth, either by inertial drift or by specific design. As Jeremy reports, the prerogatives of imperial competition with China are prompting a forecasted need for expanding the U.S. military presence in the “vast swath of the eastern hemisphere encircling China.”

Mara Karlin, a senior Pentagon policy official, told reporters on Nov 29 that the U.S. war in Iraq and Syria will continue. (“DOD posture will continue to support the defeat ISIS campaign and building the capacity of our partner forces”) She also indicated that the broader U.S. presence, the one staged out of the Arabian/Persian Gulf, is subject to modification (“we have global responsibilities and...these considerations require us to make continuous changes to our Middle East posture”) but re-escalation is a perennial option. (“We always have the capability to rapidly deploy forces to the region based on the threat environment.”)

One of the legacies of the War on Terror is that the U.S. military now has an open-ended presence on the African continent. Much of it consists of airfields, built or leased, for conducting drone strikes. My favorite example, in Chapter Eight of REIGN OF TERROR, is the CIA using an airbase in northeastern Niger to launch drone strikes into Libya even as the Air Force spent $110 million building its own Nigerien airfield at Agadez.

Having established this presence, the military (and its bureaucratic allies) will be highly reluctant to relinquish it. It projects U.S. power deep into parts of Africa that many U.S. officials see as a field of imperial competition with China. “In Africa,” Karlin said last week, “analysis from the Global Posture Review is supporting several ongoing interagency reviews to ensure the Department of Defense has an appropriately scoped posture to monitor threats from regional violent extremist organizations to support our diplomatic activities and to enable our allies and our partners.” That underscores the diversity of interest in Africa across the national-security bureaucracy.

But that also means the test for the Sullivan counterterrorism review isn’t just recommending not droning Country X anymore. The test is in its active recommendation to pull up stakes. U.S. forces in Country X can always be repurposed from mission to mission.

Take the airfield in Agadez. That airfield, which began operations in 2019, is “one of the harshest locations from which the military operates.” It supports drone surveillance throughout the Lake Chad Basin, where 30 million people live. Sullivan’s review could say that the military has no pressing need for conducting drone strikes there. But unless it says the military must divest itself of Agadez, Agadez will at most pause drone strikes, until either a competing military interest or a successor administration nullifies or reverses the Sullivan review. And the Air Force has $110 million worth of reasons to insist Sullivan recommends no such thing.

Right now, one of the primary tasks of the U.S. military in Iraq is deterring and confronting Iran-backed militias, not fighting ISIS. Their original mission, overthrowing the Saddam Hussein government, is as forgotten as it is irrelevant. Persistence is how the War on Terrorism converts itself, as Kerry Howley so perfectly put it, into U.S. foreign policy.

Biden’s counterterrorism review can be an important obstacle to that grim normalization. Or it can facilitate it.