- Since Joe Biden took office, there have no reports of US drone strikes or civilian casualties.
- This comes after Trump carried out more strikes in Somalia and Yemen than all other presidents combined.
- “If there is a pause in airstrikes overall, we hope it’s due to a reassessment of the United States’ strategy,” said Amnesty International’s Daphne Eviator.
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It’s a dark rite of passage for new, post-9/11 US presidents: Usually, within the first weekend, the fresh commander-in-chief, having inherited a global war on terror, orders the military or an intelligence agency to end someone’s life with an airstrike. To adversaries, it demonstrates resolve; to allies as well as critics, it demonstrates that there will be continuity, no matter which party controls the White House.
President Joe Biden, it appears, has been different. Under his watch, there has been just one declared US airstrike: a February 9 attack in Iraq that, the military claims, “resulted in the deaths of two Daesh terrorists.”
And in stark contrast to his immediate predecessors, there have been no immediate reports of civilian casualties – this, following months of escalated US attacks, from Central Asia to Africa, during his predecessor’s last couple months in office.
Clandestine operations, by their nature, cannot be ruled out. What we know for sure, though, is that “there have been zero local or official reports of US drone or other strikes in Somalia, Libya, Yemen, or Pakistan so far under Biden,” Chris Woods, director of the monitoring group Airwars.org, told Insider.
Biden’s forerunners, Republican and Democrat alike, both carried out US military operations that were both well-publicized and fraught, the demonstration of American power resulting in the death of innocents.
Former President Barack Obama ordered his first drone strike within 72 hours of taking office; that attack, aimed at the Taliban and carried out by the CIA, missed its mark, killing three Pakistani civilians and gravely wounding a child. The tactic would come to define Obama’s legacy, boots on the ground replaced by unmanned aerial vehicles, American lives protected at a cost borne by others.
Former President Donald Trump oversaw his first drone strike on January 20, 2017, the day he was inaugurated. A spree of attacks took place in Yemen, culminating a week later in a botched raid that killed an 8-year-old girl and other civilians. Over the next four years, Trump would go on to bomb the country more often than any of his predecessors combined – not counting ramped up US support, just rescinded, for the Saudi-led war against the nation’s Houthi militants.
Biden is no peacenik. In the US Senate, he backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And there is no reason to believe a lull amid a pandemic and other domestic crises will evolve into a policy of unilateral disarmament.
Nicholas Grossman, a professor of international relations at the University of Illinois and author of a book on drone warfare, wonders if the apparent pause in most US military operations is the aftermath of his predecessor’s outgoing escalations.
“Under Trump, the US ramped up drone strikes in Somalia, though that escalation was already happening in Obama’s final year,” Grossman told Insider. According to data from the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, there were 43 airstrikes in Somalia targeting the extremist group al-Shabaab, during Obama’s two terms in his office, including 16 in his last year. During Trump’s single four-year term, where a focus on rhetoric led many falsely to label him a principled isolationist, there were 208 such airstrikes, including 14 in his final six months.
There have been previous gaps in US strikes, Grossman noted; a lot or a little can happen in three weeks. It’s also possible, he said, that this is something more: “the Biden administration is pausing while reviewing the strategy.” Relatedly, “it’s possible the US military and intelligence agencies launched a few strikes at the end of Trump’s term in anticipation of that pause.”
Alternatively, “it’s also possible that those January strikes did real damage to al-Shabaab as intended, and for that reason there either isn’t a need or a good opportunity at the moment,” Grossman said.
Critics of the US-led war on terror hope the apparent moratorium signals something greater.
“If there is a pause in airstrikes overall, we hope it’s due to a reassessment of the United States’ strategy,” Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International, told Insider, “and a recognition that past strikes have not succeeded in ending attacks by armed groups, but have instead killed and injured thousands of civilians.”
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