The State of America’s Drone Wars in 2022
Dec. 14, 2022
As 2022 comes to a close, it provides an opportunity to understand the current state of America’s counterterrorism and drone wars under President Biden. At the end of the year, Biden will have been in charge of the various drone wars including in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia for just short of two years. The Biden administration has also reportedly formalized its rules for U.S. counterterrorism strikes.
Based on an examination of reports of U.S. strikes, it is clear that the drone wars remain far from their peaks under the Obama and Trump administrations. The war in Pakistan remains in a long-term pause that predates the Biden administration, and the war in Yemen may be entering a similar pause. Overall, the U.S. drone wars remain at a low point compared to the past.
Yet, the drone wars are far from over. In Somalia, U.S. strikes escalated slightly in 2022 compared to 2021, although the number of strikes in Somalia remains far below its peak during the Trump administration. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has not sufficiently clarified and limited the objectives and authorizations underlying American counterterrorism warfare, giving even paused wars an endless character.
Pakistan: A Long-Term Pause
The U.S. drone war in Pakistan remains in a prolonged pause that predates Biden’s inauguration. The last strike recorded by New America occurred more than four years ago on July 4, 2018. Moreover, that strike interrupted an almost five month pause. Before that Trump had carried out a small number of strikes in Pakistan, ending yet another pause that had begun under Obama in 2016.
There are many factors that may have led to the prolonged pause (potentially a form of end) in the U.S. drone war in Pakistan. The U.S. troop drawdown and eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan may have reduced the need for strikes tied to the war against the Taliban. Pakistan’s own stepped-up military efforts including Operation Zarb-e-Azb may have degraded the strength of militant groups and enabled Pakistan to take action in cases where the U.S. might previously have relied on its own strikes. Meanwhile, increased Pakistani government opposition to strikes and growing risks that strikes would undermine U.S. political interests may have raised the bar for a judgment that a strike would be worth conducting.
Trump’s final strikes in Pakistan also appear to have primarily targeted the Haqqani Network and the Taliban. The drone campaign against al-Qaeda in Pakistan (as opposed to the Taliban) may have effectively drawn to a close even earlier than 2018 with the substantial degradation of al-Qaeda’s leadership and networks in the country and the shift in the group’s center of activity to the Middle East and Africa.
However, because the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force continues to support a global war on al-Qaeda, and because the U.S. drone war in Pakistan was waged covertly without clear, public statements of what an end might look like, it remains unclear whether the war is truly over or just in a long-term pause pending the appearance of a sufficiently high-profile target or a crisis that resuscitates the jihadist threat.
Yemen: An Emerging Pause or Just Covert War?
The U.S. drone war in Yemen may be entering a prolonged pause similar to the pause in Pakistan. The Biden administration did not include Yemen as “a declared theater of active armed conflict” when it released its assessment of civilian casualties in U.S. military strikes during 2021, a change from the report on civilian casualties in 2020.
The last U.S. strikes in Yemen recorded by New America occurred on November 14, 2021 – a pair of strikes reportedly in the border area between Shabwa and Al Bayda. However, the strikes may not have been conducted by the United States. U.S. Central Command denied carrying out the strikes. While such a statement does not rule out that it was a covert U.S. strike, other reports suggest that the strikes may have been carried out by the Saudi-led coalition.
If the November 2021 strikes were not carried out by the U.S., the last strikes recorded by New America occurred in 2020. Strikes in Yemen in 2020 include a strike targeting the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) figure believed to have enabled the 2019 attack in Pensacola, Florida. Such an operation was acknowledged by then-Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray in a May 2020 press release. The New York Times cited an anonymous senior U.S. official as saying it was a CIA strike.
Strikes in 2020 – under Trump - also included a January 2020 strike that killed then-AQAP leader Qassim al-Rimi. That strike was acknowledged by President Trump and the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2020, which stated, “U.S.-led military operations in 2020 resulted in the deaths of Qassim al-Rimi” among others.
The solidity of what may be an emerging pause in Yemen is not as clear as it is in Pakistan. Questions remain about whether covert strikes continue. Tracking by Airwars, which uses more expansive inclusion criteria than New America uses, includes multiple allegations of U.S. strikes in Yemen during the Biden administration. While the U.S. did not include Yemen as a “a declared theater of active armed conflict” in its summary of civilian casualties in U.S. air strikes, Biden’s December 2022 War Powers Report letter, states, “A small number of United States military personnel are deployed to Yemen to conduct operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS.”
Even if there is a pause, it is a much younger pause than that in Pakistan and likely more prone to reversal. Recent comments by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines suggest that while al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is perceived as a relatively low threat to Americans and the homeland, AQAP is currently viewed as the top threat. This assessment suggests that renewed or expanded military action is more likely in Yemen than in Pakistan.
Nor has the U.S. clarified its objectives in the war in Yemen. As a result, the war retains an endless character bolstered by the overarching global authorization for war regardless of whether U.S. strikes have tapered off.
Despite such cautions, tracking of U.S. strikes suggests the pace of direct U.S. strikes in Yemen has slowed – even if there’s an open question regarding whether U.S. strikes are paused. New America’s tracking of strikes shows a consistent decline in the number of strikes since they peaked in 2017 under Trump. Other trackers of strikes have identified a broadly similar pattern.
Somalia: Ongoing War and Possible Re-Escalation
Somalia provides an important warning about over-interpreting the long-term pause in Pakistan and the potentially emerging pause in Yemen. In contrast to Pakistan and Yemen, strikes in Somalia have escalated following an initial six-month pause at the start of the Biden administration.
In 2021, the year of the pause, the United States conducted 11 strikes in Somalia, according to New America’s tracking. Seven of those were conducted in January under the Trump administration, meaning the Biden administration only conducted four strikes. However, in 2022, the Biden administration conducted 13 strikes – more than were conducted in 2021, according to New America’s tracking, and more than triple the number known to have been conducted under Biden that year.
This escalation comes at a time when Somalia’s Federal Government is in the process of what one AFRICOM press release called, “the largest combined Somali and ATMIS offensive operation in five years.” That same press release described U.S. strikes as allowing Somali “forces to regain the initiative and continue the operation.” Meanwhile, the Somali government has reportedly requested further expansion of the conditions under which the U.S. can carry out strikes.
Recent U.S. strikes in Somalia have also reported high death tolls. These include four strikes since mid-August 2022 that have killed more than 10 al-Shabaab members, according to AFRICOM: 17 killed in a November 9 strike, 15 killed in a November 3 strike, 27 killed in a September 18 strike, and 13 killed in an August 14 strike. In contrast, AFRICOM did not assess any of its 2022 strikes prior to mid-August as having killed more than five people.
The escalation of strikes in Somalia is not close to reaching the peak under the Trump administration, which conducted 64 strikes in 2019 and 51 in 2020. Even so, the escalation provides a warning sign regarding presumptions that the U.S. drone wars are on a glide path to ending.
A Risky Transitional Moment
U.S. counterterrorism warfare has entered a period of transition in which direct U.S. drone and air strikes appear to be playing a reduced role. Yet this transitional moment brings its own risks. There’s a danger that attention will turn away only to find that pauses are short-lived, prone to reversal at moments of crisis, or just an illusion resulting from a shift to partner-led and covert operations.
Moreover, the administration would be well-advised to remember that there is no linear relationship between the number of strikes or troops and endless war. A reduced pace of strikes can allow policymakers to avoid wrestling with the issues posed by a state of endless war – or even entrench them. As Brianna Rosen perceptively put it in Just Security, “this is the most dangerous phase of perpetual war, when public attention has shifted, and elected officials no longer speak of a ‘tipping point’ where the United States can declare victory and move to an approach that relies on law enforcement, intelligence, diplomatic, and other instruments of national power to address the residual threat of terrorism.”