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The Changing Faces of American Drone Warfare Policy

Foreign Policy Brief #135 | By: Reilly Fitzgerald | October 19, 2021

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Policy Summary

Drones have been a weapon of choice for  previous Presidential administrations from George W. Bush to Joe Biden. Drones have been used all across the globe by the United States military and the intelligence community, especially by the Central Intelligence Agency. Drone warfare has tested the rule of law in many instances from surveillance usages for intelligence and law enforcement purposes, to the extra-judicial killing of an American citizen like Anwar Al-Awlaki; who was executed via drone by the Obama administration without his constitutional right to due process of law. 

The issue of drones is one that is coming into further examination in recent weeks as President Joe Biden ordered a drone strike within Afghanistan on August 29th which killed innocent civilians and  numerous civilians. The Afghanistan debacle has drawn criticism from political circles in the United States, in the international community, and other foreign policy experts; and so far the solution of the United States government is to pay the families of the victims for their losses. 

Policy Analysis

According to data published by the Council of Foreign Relations in 2017, in an article by Micah Zenko called “Obama’s Final Drone Strike Data”, President Obama authorized over 500 drone strikes in his time as President of the United States; these strikes were mostly limited to Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. This data shows the number of drone strikes in each country between the years of 2004 (pre-Obama) to 2017. The number of strikes clearly rises on almost a yearly basis.

Documents have come to light regarding the ‘rules’ that President Trump had while in office for his use of drones. According to the ACLU, President Trump changed the policy of using drones in response to a direct attack, to using it as a retaliatory measure against just the mere threat of violence against US interests. According to US News on March 8th of 2021, the Department of Defense (DOD) confirmed that the federal government (DOD, White House, etc) were starting to review these policies and attempt to make changes toward a more legal footing regarding the use of drones inside (and outside) of conflict zones and other standards regarding the presence of the target, or the presence of civilians. 

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Drones  capabilities and policies  have been the subject of many national discussions since the US left Afghanistan at the end of August. Those within the administration, like Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have touted the United States’ ability to strike “over the horizon” via our extensive drone warfare capabilities. These were the same capabilities that  killed 12 Afghan citizens in a mistaken US drone strike. 

It is unclear if the Biden administration will make much progress toward bringing the drone program towards a more legal footing than previous Presidents. Our ability to conduct these strikes with accuracy in former warzones  (Afghanistan, Iraq, etc) is going to be directly impacted by the lessening of our intelligence collection in these places. 

During the war in Afghanistan, the US intelligence community had an extensive presence throughout the country. Many of these assets are now either out of the country, or unable to conduct  intelligence  due to the lack of American (and allied) personnel in Afghanistan. 

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

Just Security (https://www.justsecurity.org/ )

Just Security is based at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law. Just Security writes on many issues regarding American foreign policy and international security issues. 

Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan

 (https://www.hrw.org/asia/afghanistan# ) – Human Rights Watch investigates and reports on abuses happening in all corners of the world. We are roughly 450 people of 70-plus nationalities who are country experts, lawyers, journalists, and others who work to protect the most at risk, from vulnerable minorities and civilians in wartime, to refugees and children in need.

ACLU, National Security Project

(https://www.aclu.org/issues/national-security) – The ACLU National Security Project is dedicated to ensuring that U.S. national security policies and practices are consistent with the Constitution, civil liberties, and human rights.

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