Five Years Later, U.S. Drone Use on the Decline

But key questions — including how targets are chosen and an official civilian death count — remain unanswered.

A NASA Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone aircraft, takes off during a Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel, or HS3, mission at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, on September 10, 2013.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
Jan. 24, 2014, 9:09 a.m.

At least 2,400 people have been killed by U.S. drone strikes since Pres­id­ent Obama took of­fice five years ago this week.

More than a tenth of the deaths — at least 273 — be­long not to sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists, but ci­vil­ians, ac­cord­ing to data tracked by The Bur­eau of In­vest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism. More than 390 drone strikes, in total, have been used against Pakistan, Ye­men, and Somalia.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s use of drone strikes has be­come a fa­mil­i­ar, nearly con­stant point of con­ten­tion with some al­lies in the Middle East, par­tic­u­larly Pakistan. A key sup­ply route between Afgh­anistan and Pakistan con­tin­ues to be blocked off as Pakistanis protest the U.S.’s use of drones. The coun­try’s prime min­is­ter told De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel last month that its “counter-pro­duct­ive” to U.S.-Pakistani coun­terter­ror­ism meas­ures.

If the Torkham bor­der cross­ing isn’t re­opened, the De­fense De­part­ment could be forced to pay up to $1 bil­lion more to move mil­it­ary equip­ment out of Afgh­anistan.

But the ad­min­is­tra­tion has scaled back its use of drones in re­cent years. Pakistan was the tar­get of 28 drones strikes in 2013, down from a high of 117 in 2010, ac­cord­ing to the Long War Journ­al. The pres­id­ent launched his first strike against Pakistan on Jan. 23, 2009 — his third day in of­fice.

And though the ad­min­is­tra­tion has struck Ye­men three times so far this year, drone strikes were down in 2013 at 26, from a 2012 high of 41.

There is some dis­crep­ancy on the total num­ber of U.S. strikes and how many people have been killed by them. Al­most 2,700 people have been killed by drone strikes in Ye­men and Pakistan since 2009, ac­cord­ing to the Long War Journ­al, with 205 of those deaths be­long­ing to ci­vil­ians. The or­gan­iz­a­tion doesn’t track an­nu­al drone strikes in Somalia — where the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has tar­geted al-Shabaab mil­it­ants.

The im­pre­ci­sion on ex­actly how many drones strikes the United States has used, or how many people have been killed, un­der­scores the lack of trans­par­ency sur­round­ing the U.S. drone cam­paign.

And though the pres­id­ent pledged last year to be more trans­par­ent about his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s use of drones, as ProP­ub­lica notes key ques­tions still re­main in­clud­ing how many ci­vil­ians the ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves it has killed, how it makes it tar­gets, or the spe­cif­ic leg­al reas­on­ing it uses for the strikes.

And a move to trans­fer over­sight of the U.S. drone pro­gram from the CIA to the Pentagon was re­cently blocked by Con­gress un­der the om­ni­bus bill. Such a move could have shed more light on some of the miss­ing holes in the pub­lic’s know­ledge of drones, but mem­bers of Con­gress have voiced hes­it­a­tion on the De­fense De­part­ment’s abil­ity to ef­fect­ively and ac­cur­ately man­age the pro­gram.