The Slatest

Obama Is Sorry His Drone War Killed Two al-Qaida Hostages. But Don’t Expect Big Changes to His Drone War.

Pakistani protesters shout slogans against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal region in Multan on Oct. 31, 2014. 

Photo by SS Mirza/AFP/Getty Images

Today, President Obama apologized for the accidental killing of two al-Qaida hostages. One word that was missing from his apology, and also from the official White House statement, was drone. While a detailed Wall Street Journal story published concurrently with the White House announcement made clear that the two hostages—American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto—were killed in a U.S. drone strike targeting an al-Qaida compound in Pakistan in January, the White House refers only vaguely to a “counterterrorism operation.”

The choice is consistent with the administration’s reticence about its drone war, which this event will once again thrust into the media spotlight. The Journal reports that the White House has “launched a review of the January strike to see if changes are needed to the drone program to avoid similar mistakes.” The killing is likely to hasten the demise of a campaign that was already in the process of being wound down—but that won’t mean that the drone was is over, just that it’s shifted.

Officials said in February 2014 that the U.S. was scaling back the controversial campaign, with plans to end it completely when current Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s term ends in 2018. The CIA claims it is no longer adding targets to its “kill list” and is focusing on a smaller number of high-level targets. This is due in part to the backlash faced by the Pakistani government over the program, which is extremely unpopular with the country’s public, in part due to the U.S. scaling back its troop presence in Afghanistan (reducing the need for force protection), and in part due the fact that al-Qaida central’s leadership has been decimated.

In another blow to the group, the White House also announced Thursday that a separate operation had killed Adam Gadahn, the California metalhead turned influential al-Qaida propagandist. The killing also opens up another potential legal controversy. A U.S. citizen charged with treason, Gadahn was apparently accidentally killed in a strike that was not targeting him.

For a five-month period last year, there were no drone strikes at all in Pakistan, while the country’s government attempted unsuccessfully to launch peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban. So far this year, there have been only five, and just one since January, according to data from the New America Foundation. That’s down from 122 in 2010, the drone war’s peak. (It’s not clear which of those were the ones that killed the hostages and Gadahn.) Presumably, the administration would still take the shot if it had a chance to kill al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri or other senior commanders, but it seems likely that the campaign in Pakistan will continue to taper off.

That doesn’t mean that the drone war is over. With al-Qaida’s global leaders in Pakistan isolated and seemingly ineffectual, U.S. attention has shifted to Yemen, home of the much more potent affiliate al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The drone strikes in Yemen have continued even after the overthrow of the country’s pro-American government earlier this year.

Despite his earlier pledges to rein in the program, drones continue to be Obama’s weapon of choice for taking on al-Qaida. And a promised shift of responsibility for the program from the CIA to the theoretically more transparent and accountable Pentagon has been slow-going. I’m glad Obama apologized and took full responsibility for the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto this morning. But his act of contrition was also a reminder of the fact that the hundreds of Pakistani and Yemeni civilians accidentally killed in the drone war received no such acknowledgment.