There were ten times more air strikes in the covert war on terror during President Barack Obama’s presidency than under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama embraced the US drone programme, overseeing more strikes in his first year than Bush carried out during his entire presidency. A total of 563 strikes, largely by drones, targeted Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during Obama’s two terms, compared to 57 strikes under Bush. Between 384 and 807 civilians were killed in those countries, according to reports logged by the Bureau.
The use of drones aligned with Obama’s ambition to keep up the war against al Qaeda while extricating the US military from intractable, costly ground wars in the Middle East and Asia. But the targeted killing programme has drawn much criticism.
The Obama administration has insisted that drone strikes are so “exceptionally surgical and precise” that they pluck off terror suspects while not putting “innocent men, women and children in danger”. This claim has been contested by numerous human rights group. The Bureau’s figures on civilian casualties also demonstrate that this is often not the case.
The White House released long-awaited figures in July on the number of people killed in drone strikes between January 2009 and the end of 2015, which insiders said was a direct response to pressure from the Bureau and other organisations that collect data. However the US’s estimate of the number of civilians killed – between 64 and 116 – contrasted strongly with the number recorded by the Bureau, which at 380 to 801 was six times higher.
That figure does not include deaths in active battlefields including Afghanistan – where US air attacks have shot up since Obama withdrew the majority of his troops at the end of 2014. The country has since come under frequent US bombardment, in an unreported war that saw 1,337 weapons dropped last year alone – a 40% rise on 2015.
Afghan civilian casualties have been high, with the United Nations (UN) reporting at least 85 deaths in 2016. The Bureau recorded 65 to 105 civilian deaths during this period. We did not start collecting data on Afghanistan until 2015.
Pakistan was the hub of drone operations during Obama’s first term. The pace of attacks had accelerated in the second half of 2008 at the end of Bush’s term, after four years pocked by occasional strikes. However in the year after taking office, Obama ordered more drone strikes than Bush did during his entire presidency. The 54 strikes in 2009 all took place in Pakistan.
Strikes in the country peaked in 2010, with 128 CIA drone attacks and at least 89 civilians killed, at the same time US troop numbers surged in Afghanistan. Pakistan strikes have since fallen with just three conducted in the country last year.
Obama also began an air campaign targeting Yemen. His first strike was a catastrophe: commanders thought they were targeting al Qaeda but instead hit a tribe with cluster munitions, killing 55 people. Twenty-one were children – 10 of them under five. Twelve were women, five of them pregnant.
Through 2010 and the first half of 2011 US strikes in Yemen continued sporadically. The air campaign then began in earnest, with the US using its drones and jets to help Yemeni ground forces oust al Qaeda forces who had taken advantage of the country’s Arab Spring to seize a swath of territory in the south of the country.
In Somalia, US Special Operations Forces and gunships had been fighting al Qaeda and its al Shabaab allies since January 2007. The US sent drones to Djibouti in 2010 to support American operations in Yemen, but did not start striking in Somalia until 2011.
The number of civilian casualties increased alongside the rise in strikes. However reported civilian casualties began to fall as Obama’s first term progressed, both in real terms and as a rate of civilians reported killed per strike.
In Yemen, where there has been a minimum of 65 civilian deaths since 2002, the Bureau recorded no instances of civilian casualties last year. There were three non-combatants reportedly killed in 2016 in Somalia, where the US Air Force has been given broader authority to target al Shabaab – in previous years there were no confirmed civilian deaths.
Strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia have always been dwarfed by the frequency of air attacks on battlefields such as Afghanistan.
December 2014 saw the end of Nato combat operations there, and the frequency of air attacks plummeted in 2015. Strikes are now increasing again, with a 40% rise in 2016, though numbers remain below the 2011 peak.
The number of countries being simultaneously bombed by the US increased to seven last year as a new front opened up in the fight against Islamic State (IS). The US has been leading a coalition of countries in the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria since August 2014, conducting a total of 13,501 strikes across both countries, according to monitoring group Airwars.
In August US warplanes started hitting the group hard in Libya. The US declared 495 strikes in the country between August 1 and December 5 as part of efforts to stop IS gaining more ground, Airwars data shows.
In the final days of Obama’s time in the White House, the Bureau has broken down his covert war on terror in numbers. Our annual 2016 report provides figures on the number of US strikes and related casualties last year, as well as collating the total across Obama’s eight years in power.
The article was published at Obama’s covert drone war in numbers: ten times more strikes than Bush.