Obama dials back drone strikes: 3 reasons why

Data collected by the media suggest that US drone strikes are declining. For President Obama, who has founded much of his counterterror strategy on drones, that's a significant development.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/File
A protester against US drone strikes in Yemen, who holds a banner with photos of people killed in drone attacks, stands outside the US Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, in April.

How's this for a paradox: US drone strikes are now declining under President Obama – the man who made drone strikes a primary element of his counterterrorism strategy.

President Obama has, in some ways, become known as the "drone president." His drone campaign started three days into the first term of his presidency. His national security policy has been defined, at least in part, by a penchant for targeted killings. And he has already authorized more than six times the number of strikes in Pakistan that President George W. Bush did in his entire presidency.

And yet, as the president prepares to make his case for drones in a Thursday address at the National Defense University in Washington, it turns out drone strikes are actually down considerably, according to an analysis in The New York Times.

In Pakistan, drone strikes plummeted nearly 61 percent from 2010 (117 strikes) to 2012 (46 strikes), and they’re still dropping, with a relatively scant 13 strikes so far this year, according to data from Long War Journal, a website that tracks American drone strikes. In Yemen, strikes are down from 42 in 2012 to 10 in 2013. And in Somalia, no strikes have been reported in more than a year. 

Why the quiet drop-off in drone strikes? Here’s three reasons:

Fewer targets remain

That’s right, the program’s very success in efficiently eliminating scores of Al Qaeda operatives means there are, quite simply, fewer Al Qaeda targets left to kill.

“The [Obama] administration used the drone strikes aggressively and killed the top al Qaeda leaders,” an unnamed intelligence official told Pakistani news site The News International in December 2012. “Now that we have taken out most of these guys, the usage of the drone strikes seems decreasing.”

In Pakistan, it appears so many Al Qaeda targets have been killed, the focus has quietly shifted to Taliban fighters. Taliban targets account for more than 50 percent of targeted killings, compared with just 8 percent for Al Qaeda figures, according to national security analyst Peter Bergen.

Diplomatic strains

No surprise, Mr. Obama’s drone program has alienated allies abroad, largely because of the number of civilian casualties incurred as a result of the strikes. Nowhere is that more true than in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiments are already high due to US actions such as the SEAL team operation to kill Osama bin Laden.  

For a president who, upon taking office, vowed to improve relations with the Muslim world, the drone program is counterproductive. A Pew Research Center survey reveals that under George W. Bush, a relatively unpopular president in the Muslim world, the United States generated higher approval ratings (19 percent) than it does now (12 percent), under Obama.

“Globally these operations are hated,” Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times. “It’s the face of American foreign policy, and it’s an ugly face.”


Al Qaeda has used the Obama administration’s drone program, and particularly its sad side effect of civilian casualties, as a central part of its recruitment propaganda. Wildly unpopular in the Muslim world, the strikes are leveraged by Al Qaeda to make a case that the US is at war with Islam and to drum up sympathy for its cause.

The drone program has also been mentioned by convicted terrorists as motivation for their crimes, as the Times points out, including “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who tried to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009, as well as Faisal Shahzad, whose attempted Times Square car bombing was foiled in 2010.

In other words, drone strikes may be creating as many would-be terrorists as it seeks to eliminate. 

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