Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Obama’s Final Drone Strike Data

by Micah Zenko
January 20, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump greets outgoing President Barack Obama before Trump is inaugurated during ceremonies on the Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017 (Barria/Reuters).


As Donald Trump assumes office today, he inherits a targeted killing program that has been the cornerstone of U.S. counterterrorism strategy over the past eight years. On January 23, 2009, just three days into his presidency, President Obama authorized his first kinetic military action: two drone strikes, three hours apart, in Waziristan, Pakistan, that killed as many as twenty civilians. Two terms and 540 strikes later, Obama leaves the White House after having vastly expanding and normalizing the use of armed drones for counterterrorism and close air support operations in non-battlefield settings—namely Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.

Throughout his presidency, I have written often about Obama’s legacy as a drone president, including reports on how the United States could reform drone strike policies, what were the benefits of transferring CIA drone strikes to the Pentagon, and (with Sarah Kreps) how to limit armed drone proliferation. President Obama deserves credit for even acknowledging the existence of the targeted killing program (something his predecessor did not do), and for increasing transparency into the internal processes that purportedly guided the authorization of drone strikes. However, many needed reforms were left undone—in large part because there was zero pressure from congressional members, who, with few exceptions, were the biggest cheerleaders of drone strikes.

On the first day of the Trump administration, it is too early to tell what changes he could implement. However, most of his predecessor’s reforms have either been voluntary, like the release of two reports totaling the number of strikes and both combatants and civilians killed, or executive guidelines that could be ignored with relative ease. Should he opt for an even more expansive and intensive approach, little would stand in his way, except for Democrats in Congress, who might have newfound concerns about the president’s war-making powers. Or perhaps citizens and investigative journalists, who may resist efforts to undermine transparency, accountability, and oversight mechanisms.

Less than two weeks ago, the United States conducted a drone strike over central Yemen, killing one al-Qaeda operative. The strike was the last under Obama (that we know of). The 542 drone strikes that Obama authorized killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians. As he reportedly told senior aides in 2011: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”


Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by moses isse

    Drone strikes are might is right to kill person or persons without due process. You just label one of those shadow double meaning nouns to someone or group of people like terrorist&Islam. These scenario is nothing more than transforming homo sapien into savages and won’t be anybody’s interest therefore politics’, power and material need should not be destroying planet earth

  • Posted by John R. Millerson

    In Somalia this policy of drone strikes have been trully appaling.

    In one instance in 2016 Obama killed 40 pro-Usa troops in a region known as Galmudug, apparantly a region known as Puntland gave the faulty information to the US Africom(Djibouti) inorder to use American firepower to decimate their hated enemy which was/is the Galmudug region. So the mighty US military is embroiled in Somali clan battles. Obama policy absurdicum at its wildest.

    The madness of Somalia, in fairness to Obama, is very very complex and the only Somali entity that functions(self declared country of Somaliland) is unfortunately the one which he did not support.

    Obama put all his support behind the Mogadishu with disastrous consequences and much unfairneess being that Somaliland had pulled itself up.by the bootstraps by itself. Yet day one Obama shunned Somaliland for Mogadishu, an unfair move not missed by many in the region. Trump can not but help to cut all support to Mogadishu which is a tremendously failed gov. Shifting to supporting Somaliland(regions most democratic country) like the Pentagon advocated a longtime ago is the right way forward.

  • Posted by Leo

    The whole premise of “war on terror” as basis for the deluge of US bombardments in the last 3 decades is a crime against humanity, let alone the actual number killed, maimed, or displaced, directly or indirectly. US foreign policy remains unchanged, it is bolder indeed. Unfortunately, only the technical aspects have changed, If Obama could sign off on thousands of deaths from the safety of a Nevada base, Nobel peace medal and all, with absolute disregard for international law, the prospect of a Casino king following suit is beyond criminal.

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