Air Force UAVs average more than one strike per day in Afghanistan and are on pace to have more 2012 strikes in that country than the U.S. has launched against Pakistan over the past decade. Here, an MQ-9 Reaper taxis at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan in 2009. (DOD)
The number of UAV attacks in Afghanistan has increased every year under the Obama administration, according to data released by the U.S. Air Force this week.
The statistics represent the first time the Air Force has provided annual breakdowns on the number of UAV strikes inside Afghanistan, after years of rebuffing requests for the information.
Air Force UAVs average more than one strike per day in Afghanistan and are on pace to have more 2012 strikes in that country than the U.S. has launched against Pakistan over the past decade.
Since the start of 2009, there have been 1,160 strikes in Afghanistan. There were 255 strikes in 2009, 278 in 2010, 294 in 2011 and 333 through Oct. 31.
“The numbers are yet another powerful data point illustrating the fact that unmanned systems are here and they are here to stay,” said Peter Singer, director for the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
The data was released Nov. 7 as part of the monthly Combined Forces Air Component Commander statistics. Those releases traditionally include the amount of cargo flown on airlift missions but have not included UAV strikes.
“The release of this information is not tied with any specific event or timeline,” wrote Air Forces Central spokeswoman Capt. Kim Bender in an email, in response to questions as to why the data was being released. The Air Force, she wrote, merely decided to provide more information on UAV use in Afghanistan.
Bender confirmed that the data will be updated monthly.
The statistics include only strikes in Afghanistan because the Air Force is no longer actively supporting activities in Iraq.
Bender said there were four UAV strikes in Iraq in 2009, one in 2011 and none in 2010 and 2012.
As UAV use has increased, the average number of manned flights in which weapons were used has dropped, from 165 a month in 2011 to139 a month this year.
Since taking office in January 2009, Obama has embraced the use of UAVs and expanded their operations globally.
Singer, who reported similar numbers of strikes last month, said it is important to differentiate between UAV use on the battlefield, such as the operations tallied by the Air Force, and what he called “not so covert” operations — targeted attacks on militants around the globe. Those operations have become a source of criticism internationally, especially in Pakistan, where civilian casualties have been an ongoing result of the attacks.
Singer cites numbers by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to estimate that there have been 350 targeted strikes in Pakistan and “roughly 50” in Yemen. Those strikes are coordinated by the CIA, not the Air Force.
The New America Foundation estimates that 15 percent of Pakistanis killed in UAV strikes were non-militants, although the foundation believes those estimates have dropped to roughly 1 to 2 percent for 2012.
John Brennan, the administration’s top counterterrorism official, became the first administration official to acknowledge the program in April, calling it “legal, ethical and wise.”
Obama defended the policy in a September interview with CNN but insisted the criteria for using UAVs “is very tight and very strict.”