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As talk about the "drone war" heats up, their use is actually going down (updated)

As all the talk about the "drone war" heats up, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at their actual use lately. Here's what I found...since February 1, 2013, there have been a total of 3 drone strikes and two of those are disputed.

For a little historical context, the use of drones in Pakistan peaked in 2010 with a total of 122 attacks (an average of over 10/month). Last year there were 48.  So far this year there have been 9. Six of those occurred in January and 3 in the month and a half since then (with 2 disputed). Similarly, their use in Yemen peaked in 2012 with a total of 84 strikes (an average of 7/month).  This year there have been a total of 6 strikes with all of those occurring in January. Since February 1st this year - there have been none.

Not being privy to the intelligence reports our Commander-in-Chief receives, it is hard to predict whether this pattern of the last month and a half will be sustained. But lets plug a couple of events here on the home front into this timeline and I think the picture starts to get a little more clear.

First of all, on November 31, 2012, General Counselor to the Department of Defense Jeh Johnson talked - for the first time - about ending the war on al-Qaeda.
"There will come a tipping point," he said in the speech, "a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States," that al Qaeda will be "effectively destroyed."

"At that point, we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an 'armed conflict' against al Qaeda and its associated forces."
Then on January 7, 2013, President Obama announced the nomination of John Brennan as Director of the CIA. Due to his ties to the Bush/Cheney administration, that got many on the left pretty riled up about his position on the use of drones. But as I noted previously, Ben Emmerson - who heads the UN inquiry into the use of drones and targeted killing - supported his nomination.
“Warts and all” conversations with current and former Obama administration officials convince Emmerson that Brennan tried to steer the drone program from a “technology-driven process” to one that attempted to balance the interests of the law, counterterrorism, and the agencies involved in implementing it. “There are significant elements within the CIA who are unhappy about Brennan’s appointment,” Emmerson says. “These are the hawkish elements inside the CIA who would rather have as a director someone who reflected their agenda, rather than someone who is there to impose the president’s agenda.”
But what really got the ball rolling on all this talk about drones was the release of the white paper on the legal rationale for their use. It was published by Michael Isikoff on February 4th.

Many people assume the release of that paper came from a whistleblower in the White House. But I have always maintained that it probably happened with the President's blessing. The fact that it coincides with the time that the actual use of drones has come to a practical standstill leads me to think that President Obama believes we might have reached that "tipping point" Johnson referred to in which our efforts should no longer be considered an 'armed conflict.'

Establishing a "drone court" with oversight from the judicial and/or legislative branches of government would essentially usurp the powers granted to the President via the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) and end the indefinite war.

That's just the discussion the release of the white paper sparked in Congress with an assist from President Obama's critics on both the right and left. Imagine what the reaction would have been - especially on the right - if the President had simply proposed to repleal the AUMF and/or an end to the war on al Qaeda. OH MY!!!! This way he gets many of them to use their contempt for him to accomplish what has always been his goal.
My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. The Iraq War is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al Qaeda...

This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.

 - President Barack Obama, May 1, 2012
UPDATE: I see that as the result of a link to this article by Andrew Sullivan, commenters on another blog are suggesting that perhaps I "cooked the books" on the number of drone strikes lately by comparing annual data to the last month and a half. The suggestion is that perhaps there are seasonal factors that affect their use and a better comparison would be over the same time frame in years past. Here you go:

Number of strikes in Pakistan Feb 1st to March 17 in -

2010 - 14
2011 - 13
2012 - 8
2013 - 3

Number of strikes in Yemen Feb 1st to March 17th in -

2012 - 6
2013 - 0

No matter how you look at these numbers - there is a very clear pattern.


  1. The term mastermind simply doesn't cover how amazingly clever PBO is politically. I love how you present this to us in easy-to-understand ways. Thanks. So totally never would have figured this out for myself. Glad you're on the case.

  2. As P.O.'d as I sometimes I become at the President because he's overzealous about the domestic use of drones for national security and the expansion of the Patriot Act, BHO is one smart dude in terms of foreign policy and getting us out of Afghanistan where we don't belong anyway

  3. "This way he gets many of them to use their contempt for him to accomplish what has always been his goal."

    While I believe the Obama WH is amazingly patient and always playing the long game, I think this is a bit too clever.

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    1. In case you didn't notice, the whole point of all this is to END the war.

      Perhaps for some folks its more important to wring your hands about how awful it all is. I'm more interested in stopping it.

    2. I wonder why that American kid's family sent him into a war zone where he drove around with people who made bombs to be used against Americans.

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    4. J. Farmer

      I applaud your consistency. I've always been supportive of arguments based on a real commitment to pacifism.

      But I wonder why you limit your critique to post-war presidents when it comes to innocents killed. What about all the civilians who were killed in WWII?

    5. Only guilty people died in Hiroshima, according to progressives.

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    7. So when you wrote "I am of the radical opinion that if a president kills even a single innocent person, he or she should be impeached and put on trial." , you didn't mean it. Apparently, what you meant is that wars are, at best, morally murky events in which innocent people are certain to be killed, maimed, orphaned, burned, and otherwise damaged, but that in some circumstances you don't object while in others you do. That's what most people think, but it certainly makes your righteous indignation less sustainable.

      The current state of affairs is that the US public strongly supports military action against AQ affiliates, the Congress has also endorsed such action, and the President it carrying it out. So what's the grounds for impeachment and trial? That the US is carrying out a policy you don't agree with?

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    9. To me, you are evading the issue. You wrote: " I am of the radical opinion that if a president kills even a single innocent person, he or she should be impeached and put on trial. This would include virtually every post-war president. But in our society, for advocating even this minimal level of human morality, you tend to be called naive, stupid, unserious, or a kook."

      But if you think that there are just wars, you must agree that that "mimimal level of human morality" _is_ unserious. All wars involve murder of innocents. And if you want to argue that sometimes it's ok to murder innocents and sometimes not, you are down in the mud with horrible people who approve of slaughtering children for some abstract principle. You just don't think some particular abstract principles are justification. For example, you think that the bombing that stopped the Serb genocide in Bosnia was unjustified and that the lives of the people who were saved were not as important as the lives of those who were bombed - murdered.

      For morally impure people like me, that's not a moral code as much as an excuse for not thinking about things. And I oppose the US proxy war in Yemen, but I don't pretend that Al Alwaqi or the people traveling with his nephew were innocent victims.

      To me, once you start with "unserious" non-sense about how any President who kills even one innocent should be impeached and on trial, a position you don't even agree with yourself, you have closed off the chance of a real discussion and chosen instead to just shout slogans.

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    11. In the 1970's and 80's the CIA was involved in killings via proxy dictators in South and Central America. So I'd argue against a starting point on that in late 2001. The one big difference is that all of that wasn't a response to a specific attack like 9/11 and wasn't authorized by Congress via something like the 2001 AUMF.

      Estimates from that time are that 300,000 people "disappeared" as a result - some of whom (ie Charles Horman) were American citizens. Were their deaths justified? If you are looking for outrage, I'd suggest that it is the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan CIA that is more deserving of it.

      Otherwise I apologize for assuming your argument was based in pacifism. I, like root_e assumed that you were condemning ANY innocent person killed during war. I see now that you were referring only to wars you don't approve of.

    12. "For all intents and purposes, no, I do not believe that there are just wars."

      So FDR and Abraham Lincoln were war criminals who should have been impeached and imprisoned? The french maquis and jewish partisans who killed nazis (and innocent bystanders) were criminals? So were the Amistad rebels?
      That's not my morality.

      "There's a reason that virtually every war ever fought by humans to my knowledge up until late 2001 did not require a spy agency to go around the world and figure out who the enemy combatants were. "

      That's not correct. Union troops used spies to identify Confederate irregulars, and that was not a new practice.

      "The administration has essentially conceded that 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlawki was killed while eating dinner at a restaurant because he was unluckily near an Egyptian man the CIA accused of being a terrorist. Was that teenager's death justified? "

      Yes. He was an unlucky bystander. I have much less sympathy for him than for the people who are in a war zone, not by their own choice. I don't think his wealth or his US citizenship makes him more valuable than some poor Yemeni who did not have the choice of living outside a war zone.

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    14. "Yes, I would argue that FDR and Lincoln were both war criminals. "

      And I think your morality is the morality of the comfortable who thinks the slave should just accept his lot.

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    16. J. Farmer

      I'm not going to try to speak for root_e, but I'd like to get the subject back to the post I've written here.

      We can talk all day about whether or not the current war on al Qaueda is justified and whether or not those waging it are "war criminals."

      What I wrote about here is an avenue for ending it. Would you not agree that is the most pressing issue we're facing right now?

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    18. This comment has been removed by the author.

    19. You begin with a sweeping moral assertion that, on inspection turns into gibberish. I think this is sadly typical of "progressives" who want to argue by slogan and shallow legalisms instead of thinking things through and trying to persuade. The President has reduced US military action in the ME enormously and has vastly reduced the number of civilian deaths. But the "progressives", obsessed with drones (as if helicopter gunships were friendly) and essentially captive to GOP narratives have nothing interesting to say. To really critique US military involvement in the ME, one needs to think about oil and energy and multinational companies and trade. And you need to understand a little history instead of engaging in hysteria about the black guy. Stale and false slogans don't get you there.

  5. There's no statute of limitations for either murder or war crimes.


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