In fact, while press and public attention appears to have focused on strikes in areas that are part of America's “shadow” wars, the real drone war, according to publicly released data, is still in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military had conducted 333 strikes in 2012 as of Oct. 31, according to data released by U.S. Central Command. And the number of drone strikes in Afghanistan has increased progressively each year since 2009, when the number stood at 255.
But the clearest line between CIA and military operations occurs in Pakistan, where it is CIA UAV strikes, rather than military operations on the ground, which lead the hunt for Al Qaeda and insurgent leaders. The U.S.'s expanding drone war in Pakistan has received the bulk of attention not because it is the epicenter of those strikes, but largely because they are conducted in secret by the CIA. Those attacks continue to take place in a bizarre world whereby U.S. officials decline to talk about the strikes, on the grounds that they are secret, yet publicly acknowledge they take place. Pakistan's government, which approves the strikes, publicly criticizes them.
Some of that ambiguity was cleared up earlier this year when Obama publicly acknowledged the strikes for the first time, while answering questions during an online forum. In answer to a question specifically about drones, Obama referred to the strikes in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, known as the FATA. “For the most part, they've been very precise precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates, and we're very careful in terms of how [they have] been applied,” he said.
Those strikes, he continued, were aimed at “people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases, and so on.” The drones were to be used against Al Qaeda operatives in the FATA, he said, because it allowed the U.S. to conduct strikes where the U.S. military might not be able to conduct operations.
While Obama's comments did not reveal new information, the fact that the president was willing to finally acknowledge the unacknowledged was itself a significant policy shift. It also follows on what has been a steep rise in drone attacks outside Afghanistan under his administration.
According to the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that has been tracking the strikes in Pakistan based on news reports, drone attacks reached a high-water mark under Obama of 122 in 2010. However, there have been just 43 drone strikes to date in 2012, down from 72 in 2011. Understanding the true reach of those attacks is hampered, however, by the secrecy that covers them. For example, the New America Foundation estimates the number of dead in 2012 between 209 and 328, an understandably wide spread given the lack of independent reporting coming from the regions where the strikes occur.
Nor is it the U.S. alone that is increasing its use of UAV strikes; the U.K. has conducted 248 lethal attacks in Afghanistan, according to a report released in February 2012 by a website called Drone Wars UK, which based its number on U.K. government documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests. The organization said details of only 40% of those strikes have been released.
Outside Afghanistan, Camp Lemonier in Djibouti has become a hub of U.S. Predator/Reaper operations in the Horn of Africa, while also serving as a launchpad for the CIA's strikes in Yemen. Additionally, the U.S. military has reportedly opened up two additional bases to house UAVs: one in Ethiopia and another on the Seychelles islands. The bases are part of an expanding U.S. strategy to target militants in Somalia and elsewhere on the African continent.
Even as U.S. operations expand in Africa, Yemen—home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—remains at the forefront of the U.S. drone wars. There, U.S. strategy has benefited from political leadership that has not only allowed the U.S. military to carry out strikes, but also publicly embraced the strategy.
In a recent trip to the U.S., Yemen's new president, Abd Rabbo Mansur al-Hadi, citing his own air force experience, praised the “high precision” provided by U.S. strikes. “The electronic brain precision is unmatched by the human brain,” al-Hadi told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Hadi also revealed to journalists during that trip that he personally approves all strikes, which are coordinated with the U.S. through a joint operations center located in Yemen.