Since November 2002, there have been 400 more documented U.S. targeted killings in the non-battlefield settings of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines (where there was reportedly one). Although over 95 percent of all targeted killings have been conducted by CIA and JSOC drones, a small number have also been carried out by Air Force Special Operations Command AC-130 gunships, cruise missiles fired by Navy ships or planes, and raids by special operations forces, including the one that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
Targeted killings have exacted a considerable toll, far beyond what anyone imagined in the immediate post-9/11 era. Although the publicly available numbers vary among research organizations, an estimated 3,400 people have been killed -- 13 percent of whom were civilians. To more fully understand the scope of these operations, the charts below present data derived by the New America Foundation, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), and the Long War Journal. (Out of the three, only TBIJ provides estimates for Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.) Since the presentation of the data varies (either exact figures or ranges), these charts are based on the mean averages provided. These estimates are further complicated by the fact that some groups targeted by drones purposefully operate out of civilian facilities in an effort to avoid being killed, by the lack of reliable direct access for journalists due to threats from governments or nonstate actors, and by the Islamic practice of washing, wrapping, and burying an individual on the date of death. Some claim these figures are too high, and others too low. The truth is that nobody knows.
Figure 1: Estimated U.S. Drone Strikes and Targeted Killings
Figure 2: Estimated Fatalities by U.S. Targeted Killings
Despite the immense death toll, it is important to mention this is also the most one-sided war in U.S. history: 3,400 suspected adversaries and civilians to zero (Americans). No U.S. government employee has directly lost his or her life in all of the known targeted killing operations. Not the launch control element operators who take off and land drones in theater, the pilots launching stand-off missiles, or the special operations forces deployed on the ground. By comparison, 6,557 U.S. service members have been killed and over 50,000 wounded in action in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon data.
Although the Third War began 10 years ago, it shows no signs of ending. It will certainly outlast the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were also commenced as a result of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. During the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney warmly endorsed President Obama's drone strikes: "I support that entirely, and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology, and believe that we should continue to use it." Meanwhile, last week, Greg Miller reported that, among senior Obama administration officials, "there is broad consensus [targeted killings] are likely to be extended at least another decade." But, in the words of one senior official: "We're not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.'" What was once considered an immediate response to an exceptional threat to the United States is now a permanent and institutionalized feature of U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps by November 3, 2022, policymakers and the American people will have noticed.