Trump’s Drone Doctrine

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During the Obama administration, the US’ drone and air strike program grew dramatically in response to an increasing number of global terror threats. While battling the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda affiliated groups across the Middle East and Africa, President Obama passed guidelines on the use of drones that brought some transparency to the program and limited the use of drone and air strikes in non-combatant zones. However, the Trump administration has also made significant changes to US drone policy in response to a changing topography of threats in the Middle East. In some ways, the administration has expanded the program much further, and in other ways it has limited the program by withdrawing from key conflicts.

The first year of the Trump administration saw a rapid expansion of the American strike campaign in the Middle East. In keeping with President Trump’s campaign promise to escalate the fight against ISIS, the US dropped 12,000 bombs in Syria and northern Iraq in 2017. After ISIS lost almost all of its territory in 2018, that campaign de-escalated.

The Trump administration also reversed Obama-era guidelines regarding the use of drone and air strikes in regions not considered battlefields, such as Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. The US has deployed drone and air strikes in Somalia against Al-Shabab militants (an al-Qaeda affiliate) since 2007, but under the Obama administration, these strikes were infrequent. In the first year of the Trump administration, the US used 35 strikes in Somalia, more than in all previous years of US involvement in the region combined. Unlike in Syria, the US has escalated its campaign in Somalia since 2017. In 2018, it deployed 45 strikes.

The George H.W. Bush administration began using drone and air strikes against Taliban forces in Pakistan in 2004. This campaign escalated significantly in 2010 and 2011, during which period the US deployed 203 strikes in the country, which was not considered an official battlefield. Over the course of his presidency, President Obama de-escalated the strike campaign in Pakistan. Throughout 2016, there were only three strikes in the country. President Trump reinvigorated the campaign, though the theater remains much quieter than during the height of 2010 and 2011, with only five strikes in 2017 and one in 2018. Trump also significantly increased the number of strikes in Afghanistan, where the US is also fighting the Taliban. Between the last year of the Obama administration and the first year of Trump, the number of strikes in the country more than doubled, from 1071 in 2016 to 2,609 in 2017.

Most controversially, the Trump administration has escalated the US’ drone and air strike campaign in Yemen. The small Middle Eastern country has dealt with internal turmoil for decades, but tensions came to a head in 2015, when a group of Shia Houthi rebels broke away from the Sunni-backed unity parliament, sparking a civil war that continues today. A coalition of states started a campaign of air strikes against the rebels in 2015, with the US providing intelligence and logistical support, such as refueling stations for Saudi bombers. The US has been using drone strikes in Yemen intermittently since 2002, but the campaign ramped up under Obama and escalated even more significantly under President Trump. More drone and air strikes were used in Yemen in 2017 and 2018 than during all the previous years of the US campaign in the country combined.

As a result of the war, there are 2.6 million internally displaced persons in Yemen. The local economy has collapsed, and 15.9 million Yemenis are facing starvation. In light of the growing humanitarian crisis, as well as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which US intelligence has linked to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the US’ involvement in Yemen has grown unpopular. In November 2018, the US government called for a ceasefire until the humanitarian crisis could be remediated. In February 2019, both houses of Congress passed a resolution to withdraw US military support from the region.

In addition to escalating the US’ use of drone and air strikes, the Trump administration has also reversed Obama-era guidelines on the transparency of drone use. In his first year, he transferred the authority to conduct drone strikes back to the CIA, which operated the program under President Bush. President Obama had given the DOD authority over the program and requested after-action reports about their use. His office also issued a series of guidelines near the end of his second term that devised interagency policies to limit civilian casualties, and required a report to Congress every year about the number of civilian and combatant casualties due to drone strikes in areas outside of active battlegrounds. After coming into office, President Trump replaced these guidelines with a new document that lowered the threshold of certainty for approving a strike and expanded the geographic scope of the US drone program.

Although the Trump administration has in many ways expanded US drone and air strike campaigns, President Trump has also shown interest in withdrawing from conflicts in which the US is entangled, such as Syria. The US has begun to pursue new diplomatic tactics in Somalia, including appointing Donald Yamamoto, an experienced diplomat in Africa, ambassador to the country. In late 2017, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres claimed that conditions were taking shape that would allow Somalia to become a success story in Africa. In early 2019, US diplomats entered peace talks with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, introducing the possibility of a withdrawal of US military presence in the region for the first time in 17 years. Given these new diplomatic efforts, along with the substantial de-escalation of the strike campaigns in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen between 2017 and 2018, it is possible that the Trump administration is beginning to scale down the program.

To learn more about US relations with Yemen and Somalia, download National Journal Presentation Center’s Conflict Explainer on the civil unrest in those countries.

National Journal’s US-Saudi Arabia relations overview can also provide valuable context about the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, and how it affects military policy in the Middle East.