How Post-9/11 America Set Off the World’s Horrific Drone Wars
America gave the world a decades-long masterclass on drone warfare. Now, it’s spiraling out of control.
After a deadly attack that killed 13 American Marines and more than 100 Afghans at the Kabul airport last month, the U.S. launched drone strikes against members of what it said were ISIS-K, the group responsible for the terrorist attack. The first drone strike was on Friday, Aug. 27, followed by a second attack on Aug. 29. America then proudly took credit for these attacks, in which it used a unique Hellfire missile known sometimes as a “flying Ginsu,” named after the blades it uses to kill its target rather than explosives.
The first attack appeared to demonstrate the precision targeting for which drones are designed. But the attack two days later, on a vehicle suspected to belong to the ISIS-K group, was an utter disaster. Among the victims were 10 members of a single family, including six children between the ages of 2 and 12. Grimly, some of them were waiting for visas to join American evacuation flights; one of them had actually worked for American forces. The weapon that America first unleashed to win the “Global War on Terror” had—not for the first time—let America down.
Drones, particularly Predator and Reaper drones, have played a massive role in the war on terror, enabling the U.S. to fight shadowy enemies with a shadowy weapon system. Washington leaned on drones and drone airstrikes heavily in wars from Afghanistan to Iraq, and in clandestine operations over Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other parts of Africa. Barack Obama enabled more strikes in his first year in office than George W. Bush in his entire eight-year tenure. Later, the Trump administration would oversee 2,243 strikes. The Predator drone was such a darling for the U.S. Air Force and CIA that one has even found its way into the Smithsonian Museum. The one hanging there is described as “one of the first” of three UAVs to fly operational missions over Afghanistan after 9/11. It went on to fly 196 combat missions in Afghanistan.
But today, the U.S. isn’t the only drone power. China, Turkey, Iran, Israel, and other countries have also adopted drone technology, pioneering new uses for drones and selling them all over the world. The same technology that was pioneered and pushed by the U.S. has now been rapidly acquired by America’s adversaries.
This is especially good news for China, whose military drone exports have now found their way to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries that traditionally purchased weapons from Washington. Chinese drones are cheaper and Beijing has no qualms about selling them abroad, unlike the U.S. which traditionally hogged drone technology. In an international conference in Baghdad on Aug. 28, which was attended by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, France, and other key countries, rumors swirled that Baghdad might buy drones from Turkey. Turkey’s new drones have been used on battlefields in Libya, Syria, and Armenia and are being exported to Ukraine and Poland.
Meanwhile, Iran has built an impressive fleet of drones. It has exported drone technology to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Hamas militants in Gaza. In late July several Iranian drones were alleged to have been used in an attack on a ship in the Gulf of Oman, killing two mariners.
The proliferation of drone technology, particularly military drones, comes as the U.S. appears to be rolling back its drone program. “U.S. military forces conducted a self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike today on a vehicle in Kabul, eliminating an imminent ISIS-K threat to Hamid Karzai International airport,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Urban wrote in a statement on Aug. 29. This was actually one of the rare recent drone strikes the U.S. publicly took credit for. From the high point of the Obama and Trump years, it appears America’s reliance on drones as a weapon of choice against terrorists has waned. Even the types of munitions used, the R9X version of the Hellfire, is designed to slam into a target without causing an explosion, reducing the chance for nearby civilians to be harmed.
While the U.S. reduces its reliance on armed drones, other countries are rolling out masses of the machines. These include small quadcopters that can be used in “swarms,” as Israel recently used in Gaza against Hamas, to the kamikaze drones that Iran is increasingly sending to Iraq and Yemen. A missile and drone attack launched by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen reportedly killed up to 30 people on Aug. 29. These forces don’t appear to have qualms about the high casualty counts that led to the U.S. curtailing its use of armed drones. The Taliban, for instance, have not only used drones, but captured American ScanEagle drones during their rapid offensive on Kabul.
There is some strange irony here in how the drone wars that have taken place over the last two decades, fueled by 9/11, have come full circle: from the U.S. using them to try to find Osama bin Laden, to having American drones fall into the hands of the Taliban.
Washington has long thought of drones as a perfect system for the war on terror after 9/11. Because the machines are unmanned, they can carry out dull and dangerous missions, over ungoverned spaces, or even in the airspace of countries the U.S. doesn’t want to ask permission to send armed aircraft into. But as the technology matured and became a billion-dollar business for drone manufacturers—with sales to civilians, police and homeland security groups around the world—other countries filled the vacuum left by America’s reluctance to export armed drones.
The result today is a world full of drones—and an America seeking to dial back its reliance on the technology it helped unleash.