President Trump has vastly upped the ante in drone attacks to score decisive wins in the war on terror, a policy that puts pressure on Democratic rival Joseph R. Biden to buck criticism of his role in the Obama administration’s remote-control killings.
Far-left Democrats and human rights groups have opposed the use of drones to target extremists with ties to al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. They say the lethal strikes result in civilian casualties and eschew due process.
The opposition has boxed in Mr. Biden. He must assuage his liberal base by condemning Mr. Trump’s lethal strikes without calling attention to the Obama-era escalation of drone killings to fight Islamic terrorists.
Ian Williams, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he was surprised that Mr. Biden’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination didn’t make a bigger issue of the Obama administration’s record on drone attacks.
“Those who are the most focused on the United States’ use of drones and the ethical and moral questions that arise are centered in the Democratic Party on the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren side,” he said.
After the Trump administration killed a top Iranian general in a January drone strike, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren called the operation “an assassination.” Mr. Sanders also said it was “a dangerous escalation.”
Mr. Biden, however, struck a more cautious tone. While saying he wouldn’t have ordered the strike, he attacked the president for a “haphazard decision process” rather than the operation itself.
Despite the campaign trail rhetoric, analysts and foreign policy experts say they don’t expect a radical shift on drone policy if Mr. Biden is elected.
“Candidates may say one thing on the campaign stump, but once they are in the White House and looking at all the intelligence reports, suddenly it is harder to say something when you are actually responsible for the security of the country,” Mr. Williams said. “Using these kinds of tools becomes more appealing, and that is why you have Trump continuing the Obama policies.”
Expanding the use of unarmed drones to conduct counterterrorism missions was one of the key foreign policy legacies of the Obama administration, where Mr. Biden served as vice president.
But with Mr. Biden’s leftist base getting what they want on social and other foreign policy issues, criticism of his potential drone use may be tamped down.
Mr. Biden also is exposed to the influence of his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, who has said publicly that the executive branch does not have authority to order drone strikes without a congressional declaration of war.
Lawrence Lewis, vice president and director of the Center for Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence at CNA, a nonprofit research organization, said Mr. Biden’s support for drones could be swayed by public opinion if an attack goes wrong and results in civilian casualties.
“If a wedding strike or mass casualty thing happened that was really clear, I wouldn’t see it as criticism, but I would see it as pressure,” he said. “Biden would now receive pressure to act, and he would feel beholden to respond. With the Trump administration, it is not a priority for them. They just shrug it off.”
Mr. Biden, a longtime senator from Delaware who spent decades on the Foreign Relations Committee, including a stint as chairman, played a key role in shaping Obama-era foreign policy.
Shortly after Mr. Obama’s inauguration, Mr. Biden immediately pushed back on plans by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command, to dramatically ramp up the number of troops in Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda.
Instead, Mr. Biden insisted on using a small number of special operations forces supported by an aggressive drone campaign in the air. Mr. Biden dubbed the strategy “counterterrorism plus.”
When troops started to return home in 2011, the Obama administration hailed the strategy as a success. Killing terrorists from the air soon became the model.
Mr. Obama ramped up drone strikes in Pakistan and built a network of bases to hit terrorists in the Sahara, the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Mr. Obama had become so aggressive with drone strikes that he authorized the CIA and military to launch attacks in Yemen even if the identities of those who could be killed was not known.
At the time, the policy shift was widely viewed as the most significant expansion of the drone war against al Qaeda in Yemen.
By the end of his second term, Mr. Obama had racked up an impressive list of terrorists taken off the battlefield through drone attacks. At least 17 terrorists with top positions in al Qaeda, the Taliban or the Islamic State were killed by drone strikes.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden has not been pressed about his stance on drone strikes. The Biden campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Washington Times.
As a candidate in 2016, Mr. Trump criticized Mr. Obama for running “a politically correct war” against the Islamic State and promised that his administration would be willing to take out the families of known terrorists.
Less than two days after his inauguration, Mr. Trump carried out his first drone strike, killing three al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. He then went to work expanding battlefield designations to allow for the increased use of unmanned strikes in Yemen and Somalia, where the Islamic State and al Qaeda had taken root.
That set the stage for a rapid escalation of overseas drone attacks.
The numbers are murky because the Trump administration rolled back public reporting requirements imposed by the Obama administration.
However, a review of publicly available data shows a significant ramp-up by the Trump administration.
This year, the Trump administration has launched at least 40 airstrikes in Somalia alone. Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush carried out a combined 41 airstrikes there from 2007 to 2016, according to Airwaves, a British nonprofit group tracking international military action in Middle Eastern countries.
In Yemen, the Trump administration carried out 176 strikes in its first two years, compared with 154 during all eight years of the Obama administration, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit monitoring civilian deaths from drone strikes.
Perhaps most stunning is that Mr. Trump has launched 11,766 strikes in Afghanistan over the past four years, the bureau found. Although complete statistics for the Obama administration were unavailable, the nonprofit estimated that it carried out 1,306 strikes in its final two years.
By this year, Mr. Trump had racked up an impressive list of terrorists hit by drone strikes.
In January, a drone strike in Baghdad killed top Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who the administration said assisted the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers traveling to Afghanistan to carry out the terrorist attacks in the U.S.
That same month, the CIA used an unmanned drone to kill Qassim al-Rimi, the al Qaeda leader in Yemen, one of the few whose ties to the terrorist organization predated Sept. 11.
Although U.S. fighter jets fired rockets into the Syrian compound where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed, his movements were tracked with a drone.
A new reality
Analysts and foreign policy insiders don’t expect a major change in drone policy if Mr. Biden is elected.
However, Ms. Harris is a wild card.
“Biden talks about ending the forever wars in Afghanistan, scaling back U.S. involvement in Yemen and narrowing the scope of the U.S. mission to focus on al Qaeda and other terrorist elements,” Mr. Williams said. “In some ways that could mean that he could look to continue the [Trump] policy.”
Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama championed the drone program because it saves U.S. troops from having to risk their lives in foreign countries. The Pentagon said in 2014 that drones reduced the number of military casualties caused by friendly fire or accidents.
Those advantages are why analysts expect drone strikes to increase regardless of who wins the presidency.
“I don’t think there is going to be big changes regardless of who wins the election,” Michael Blades, vice president of aerospace, defense and security at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. “It’s fewer boots on the ground, but in order to affect that, you’ll need an uptick in drone use.”
The differences between the presidential rivals could lie at the margins.
Analysts expect Mr. Biden to reinstate an Obama-era rule that required the CIA to release an annual summary of U.S. drone strikes and how many people died as a result.
The Trump administration said the rule was “superfluous” because Congress had enacted a law mandating the Pentagon to publicly report the deaths of civilians killed in drone operations. But that law covered only the Pentagon, not a separate campaign run by the CIA, which was expanded under Mr. Trump.
Democrats and human rights groups slammed the Trump administration’s action.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called the rule “an important measure of transparency” and said there was no justification for canceling it.
Mr. Lewis, who helped draft Mr. Trump’s executive order, defended it. He said the Obama-era requirements didn’t separate drone strikes ordered by the Pentagon and CIA. Under the Trump administration, the numbers are split, making it easier to calculate.
“So now all you need is basic math to figure out the CIA numbers,” he said.
Regardless, there has been confusion over the human cost of drone attacks.
The Pentagon has said at least 1,257 civilians were killed in drone strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from 2017 through 2019. But Airwars, a British drone monitoring group, insists the number is at least 7,500.
Such discrepancies also existed in the Obama administration, which said it killed 64 to 116 civilians during its eight years. But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism says the number is six times greater and that “noncombatant” casualties range from 380 to 801.