Under McChrystal, Drone Strikes in Afghanistan Quietly Rise as Civilian Casualties Drop

January 14, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Last week’s [two drone strikes](http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-afghan-missiles13-2010jan13,0,3404492.story?track=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+latimes/news/nationworld/world+(L.A.+Times+-+World+News\)) in Afghanistan rattled journalists. Didn’t Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, sharply restrict offensive air strikes? Laura King, reporting from Kabul for the Los Angeles Times, [wondered](http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-afghan-missiles13-2010jan13,0,3404492.story?track=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+latimes/news/nationworld/world+(L.A.+Times+-+World+News\)) if the two strikes, occurring in rapid succession, “signaled what could be a change of tactics against Taliban fighters.”

According to McChrystal’s command, however, there is no change in tactics. Or, rather, the only change in tactics is an increase in drone strikes under his six-month old command from his predecessor. Overall airstrikes, particularly from piloted aircraft, are indeed down under McChrystal. But “the two-in-one-day strikes you saw the other day may have been unusual from a press release standpoint,” McChrystal spokesman Tadd Sholtis, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, emailed, “but it wasn’t an operational aberration.”

Indeed, according to data provided by Sholtis, the first half of January has seen six airstrikes from remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) like the Reaper. December 2009 featured 14 so-called RPA strikes; while under McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, December 2008 featured three. From Sholtis, here’s the full monthly breakdown of those drone strikes since McChrystal took command in Afghanistan this summer, as compared to the previous year:

July 2009:  13 — July 2008: 15

August 2009:  14 — August 2008: 11

September 2009:  8 — September 2008: 5

October 2009:  11 — October 2008: 12

November 2009:  23  — November 2008: 12

December 2009:  14 — December 2008: 3

January 1 – January 14, 2009: 6 — January 2008: 3

The spike in recent months compared to the previous year looks like the result of a combination of factors. First, the increased operational tempo of U.S. troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan’s south and east, despite the (increasingly less relevant) traditional winter lull. Second, senior military leaders like Central Command’s Gen. David Petraeus and Iraq’s Gen. Raymond Odierno have spoken for months about accelerating the transfer of combat-support assets like surveillance drones to Afghanistan; and those drones can be outfitted with Hellfire missiles. “More strikes by these aircraft is probably best understood as a function of more ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] -and-strike capable assets flowing to the theater,” Sholtis said. And finally, the precision capabilities contained within the remotely-piloted drones satisfy McChrystal’s guidance for a “a higher degree of certainty, patience and restraint in employing air strikes,” in Sholtis’ phrase. Or, as a Marine officer quoted in The Washington Post put it, “It has pinpoint precision, and it limits collateral damage.”

And that’s the most important aspect of the increase in drone usage: it has occurred during an internationally validated reduction in U.S./NATO-attributable civilian casualties. A United Nations report released yesterday determined that the U.S. and its allies are responsible for 28 percent fewer civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2009 than in 2008, a drop that the U.N. specifically attributed to McChrystal’s instructions to prioritize the protection of Afghan civilians. It looks like McChrystal’s command has found the sweet spot: an increase in aerial lethality that does not result in significant collateral damage.

For more on the air war in Afghanistan and McChrystal’s role in it, I can’t recommend this recent Wired piece by Noah Shachtman highly enough.