An MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan Photo Credit: Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt / Wikimedia Commons

Last Friday, Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie of U.S. Central Command admitted that the August 29 drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that the U.S. had claimed hit ISIS-K fighters had instead killed 10 civilians, including seven children. This “tragic mistake,” as he called it, at the very end of the country’s 20-year engagement in Afghanistan, opens up the larger question of the growing U.S. use of unmanned aerial systems—drones—in warfare. 

Drones are a relatively new technology, and we have not yet had a national discussion about what it means to use them. 

The U.S. began to develop armed drones in the early 21st century and has used them against terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. President George W. Bush used them experimentally, launching 9 drone strikes between 2004 and 2007. In 2008, he launched 34 strikes, illustrating an increasing reliance on the unmanned weapons that spared U.S. lives while disrupting terrorist camps. 

When he took office, President Barack Obama followed the trend toward drone strikes, dramatically increasing their use in the war on terror. S. E. Cupp of the Chicago Sun-Times notes that compiling numbers of drone strikes is difficult but that in 2018, The Daily Beast attributed 186 drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia to Obama in his first two years and that the Associated Press and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism counted 154 strikes in Yemen during the eight years of Obama’s tenure. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a UK-based think tank, noted 1,878 drone strikes during the eight years of Obama’s presidency. 

Obama did add bureaucratic restraints to the use of drones, permitting strikes only against terrorist targets that pose a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” His administration also provided that “[a]bsent extraordinary circumstances, direct action against an identified high-value terrorist (HVT) will be taken only when there is near certainty that the individual being targeted is in fact the lawful target and located at the place where the action will occur. Also absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action will be taken only if there is near certainty that the action can be taken without injuring or killing non-combatants.” In 2016, under pressure for more transparency on his use of drones, the Obama administration began to publish the number of civilian casualties associated with drone strikes.

Once Trump took office, his administration wrote new rules for drones, permitting strikes without a threat standard against any person deemed to be a terrorist and allowing military commanders themselves to make strike decisions. It significantly increased the use of drones and revoked the Obama administration’s rule about reporting the number of civilians killed by drone strikes, calling that rule “superfluous.” According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Trump launched 2,243 drone strikes in the first two years of his presidency, a significant jump from the 1,878 launched in Obama’s eight years.

Famously, Trump launched a drone strike against top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Iraq in January 2020, killing him and nine other people. The UN’s expert on extrajudicial killings at the time, Agnès Callamard, said the attack violated international law because the U.S. had not provided evidence that Soleimani presented an imminent threat to justify the attack. The administration responded that she was “giving a pass to terrorists.”

On his first day in office, President Biden suspended Trump’s rules and began to review how the policies of both Obama and Trump had worked. On July 1 of this year, Foreign Policy reported that in its plan to end “forever wars,” the Biden administration had brought drone use to an all-time low.  But his move away from drones got little attention compared to the August 29 drone strike on Biden’s watch that killed 10 civilians. 

American presidents turned to the use of drones because they enabled the U.S. to attack terrorists without risking the same numbers of U.S. soldiers ground operations would require. But scholars note a significant downside to the use of drones. First of all, on occasion, they fall into enemy hands, transferring new technologies that could lead to military proliferation. Second, they lower the bar for military engagement, enabling the U.S. to insert itself into other countries at a much lower cost than in the past, opening the way for permanent hostilities around the world.

And, third, they kill civilians. 

It is not clear what the ratio of military deaths to civilian deaths actually is: estimates of the civilian casualties from drone strikes range from 30% to 98%. But we do know that the U.S. admitted to killing dozens of civilians at an Afghan wedding in 2008 and more than 100 civilians in a strike on Afghanistan in 2009.

What seems to be different about the August 29 killing of civilians in Afghanistan is that the U.S. government has admitted the killings, taken responsibility for them, called them “a tragic mistake,” and offered “profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed.”  In the wake of the strike, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered an inquiry into “the degree to which strike authorities, procedures and processes need to be altered in the future.”

Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared on her Substack, Letters from an American.