How the U.S. Drone Warfare Program Evolved Over Two Decades
On October 7, 2001, a Predator drone armed with an AGM Hellfire laser-guided missile developed specifically for drone missions, was used in a targeted strike against Mullah Mohammed Omar, supreme commander of the Taliban. Instead of striking the facility that Omar was seen walking into, the missile hit a vehicle outside the compound. The strike killed several guards, but the compound was untouched. Before any further action could be taken, Omar and the other Taliban leadership in the vicinity fled. The United States never successfully launched another attack against Mullah Omar; he would eventually die of natural causes in 2013.
On August 29, 2021, in one of its last attacks in Afghanistan, the United States executed a drone strike that killed 10 people. At the time, the strike was lauded as a success—allegedly thwarting an attempted attack on the Kabul airport. Onlookers were told there was one primary target, and nine civilian casualties—collateral damage justified to avoid much greater loss of life if the attack had occurred. However, it soon became clear that American intelligence failed that fateful day. The target posed no provable threat to American security interests in Afghanistan. While the United States has ordered drone strikes in the months since those strikes have been carried out with additional scrutiny from myriad directions.
These bookends of U.S. drone warfare reveal a program enshrined in shadows. The program was launched secretly by the Bush administration after the attacks of 9/11, converting a tool that had been used solely for reconnaissance missions into a weapon that would allow the military to attack targets without risking the lives of American soldiers.
Joe Biden is the fourth president to use drone strikes—officially called targeted killings—but the program was not officially acknowledged until President Obama’s 2013 speech at the National Defense University, when he said: “The United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones. ”