Posted by on May 14, 2012 in Blog

The Obama Administration’s military obsession, the drone, has been hailed as the ideal example of efficient, humane warfare. Following the president’s decision to expand U.S. drone operations in Yemen, chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan provided a problematic defense of the drone program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Brennan’s explanation, which has already been addressed by AAI’s Jeffrey Wright, was based mainly on questionable legal justifications and the argument that that drones, in addition to saving the lives of our own servicemen and women, also spares civilian lives with their accuracy.

Whatever the purported benefits of the drone policy, the U.S. government’s reliance on drone strikes, coupled with its reluctance to deal with the more complex problems behind al Qaeda’s influence in southern Yemen, has produced growing anti-American sentiment among Yemenis. Unless we are willing to engage Yemen beyond carrying out assassinations of suspected militants, our policy in Yemen seems doomed to fail.

Americans must accept that drones are quickly becoming an immovable bastion of the U.S. military, and are without a doubt the main component of America’s strategy for defeating al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Washington Post recently reported that the U.S. has carried out “at least 15” drone strikes in Yemen this year, which would already be “about as many as the previous 10 years combined,” but a Yemeni presidential aide claimed that “at least two U.S. drone strikes are conducted daily since mid-April.” The new, augmented drone policy approved by President Obama gives the military the ability to launch strikes on individuals based on a pattern of behavior that suggests they are operating with AQAP, even if the individuals’ names and identities are not known. 

The Administration has been touting victories such as the recent assassination of Fahd al-Quso, an AQAP leader accused of playing a lead role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, as examples of drone strategy success. Another supposed source of justification for the program’s growth came in the form of last week’s underwear bombing plot out of Yemen, which was foiled by a Saudi Arabian-born double-agent who turned the weapon over to U.S. officials.

Unfortunately, the White House seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from the foiled plot, citing it as reason to further increase drone strikes in Yemen, rather than a warning sign of things to come. On Friday, former CIA counterterrorism chief Robert Grenier wrote an op-ed for Al Jazeera in which he criticized the drone program: “One wonders how many Yemenis may be moved in future [sic] to violent extremism in reaction to carelessly targeted missile strikes, and how many Yemeni militants with strictly local agendas will become dedicated enemies of the West in response to US military actions against them.”

Neither the American nor the Yemeni populace are given access to what goes into decisions of who to target, and when civilians are killed the information is scarcely reported. The government has taken to describing entire swaths of southern Yemenis as al Qaeda operatives, when in reality the situation in south Yemen is much more complex. Poverty and neglect have long been a source of tension and anti-government sentiment in Yemen’s southern provinces, and AQAP has used the people’s despair to its advantage. A CNN report recognized the fact that al Qaeda has been providing water and electricity to many impoverished towns, and has shown itself to be a promising alternative to the U.S. and Yemeni government partnership. The U.S. also gave millions of dollars in military aid to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh before he was overthrown by the populace last November, making the U.S.-Yemen coordinated counterterrorism program all the more unpopular.

The same CNN article acknowledged the rise of “a whole outfit” of AQAP devoted to attacking the United States, noting that al Qaeda has “tripled” in strength in Yemen over the past two and a half years. This assessment should cause Americans to take pause and consider that the U.S. military’s strategy of incessant drone strikes has not only failed to keep AQAP at bay, but has in fact resulted in the growth of al Qaeda’s influence in Yemen. Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst, claims that there are hundreds of Yemeni citizens who have turned to militant Islam but have no real ties to al Qaeda. “There is a nucleus of AQAP,” he says, “but the vast majority are people who are aggrieved by attacks by the U.S. and by the Yemeni government on their homes, that force them to go out and fight.”

If the U.S. mission in Yemen were to simply assassinate a few dangerous criminals, the drone program could provide a solution. However, since the professed goal is to weaken the threat posed by al-Qaeda to the United States, the strategy is an abysmal failure. As analyst Gregory Johnsen wrote in a recent blog, “this war isn’t about killing bad guys; it is about defeating al-Qaeda.” If the U.S. continues along this trajectory of striking any Yemeni who fits an ever broader and more mysterious definition, we will almost certainly be creating more violent extremists than we are eliminating.

comments powered by Disqus