America’s Failing Drone War in Yemen
by Micah Zenko, CFR
In February, Eric Schmitt wrote in the New York Times about the Obama administration’s emerging Yemen strategy, whereby U.S. and Yemeni intelligence and military officials would “work together to kill or capture about two dozen of al Qaeda’s most dangerous operatives, who are focused on attacking America and its interests.” Like all previous objectives of America’s Long Third War of drone strikes, the scope of intended targets has expanded far beyond those two dozen individuals, who should have been killed at least nine times over by now. According to the Long Wars Journal database, there have been forty U.S. airstrikes (drone or fixed-wing) in Yemen this year, up from ten in 2011. These have killed 223 people, an estimated 19 percent of them were civilians.
One of the Obama administration’s core principles of its counterterrorism policies is that the use of force should not radicalize populations, or increase recruits for terrorist organizations, in the countries where the United States drops bombs. As the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin, emphasized in 2010: “We are eager to ensure that whatever policies we pursue do not result in one terrorist being taken off the street while ten more are galvanized to take action.”
Moreover, the Obama administration claims that the significant growth in U.S. airstrikes in Yemen has not had this effect. Deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism John Brennan stated in August: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that [drone strikes] are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP. In fact, we see the opposite…Targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem–they are part of the solution.” In Late November, Stephanie Spiers, identified as “director for Yemen at the National Security Council, 2011-12,” wrote a letter to the Times challenging an op-ed by Princeton doctoral candidate and Yemen scholar Gregory D. Johnsen. According to Spiers:
“Mr. Johnsen says airstrikes are driving the growth of the group known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, it was expanding long before American counterterrorism activities escalated, to several hundred members by December 2009 from twenty-three in 2006 — a period when no airstrikes were conducted. AQAP grew in 2011 because of unrest and an influx of foreign extremists, but membership has declined after the signing of last year’s transition deal.”
Forget that most of the 223 people killed by U.S. airpower in Yemen are not “the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists,” but actually primarily engaged in a domestic insurgency. The latest State Department Country Reports on Terrorism claims that AQAP is comprised of “a few thousand members.” According to Johnsen, “Yemenis who are close to AQAP suggest that the group has as many as six thousand fighters.” No matter which estimate one chooses, the Obama administration has a tremendous amount of killing to do in Yemen (and elsewhere) if it is to achieve its strategic objective, which Brennan articulated as: “We’re not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas.”
There are three excellent pieces of journalism from Yemen this week, which demonstrate that the administration has failed to use force in a manner that has not radicalized Yemenis, or increased the size of AQAP. While actual Yemenis and journalists reporting from the country (see here, here, and here) have found repeatedly that the vast majority of Yemenis hate drones strikes, these latest pieces provide additional updated, confirming evidence. It hardly seems necessary to continue stating the obvious point that people—who also do not welcome Islamic militants from operating among them—hate foreign military or intelligence agencies bombing them.
In yesterday’s Washington Post, Sudarsan Raghavan reported on how the government of Yemen has tried to conceal civilians killed by U.S. drones and fixed-wing aircraft as having been killed by its own Soviet-era combat aircraft. As Raghavan wrote: “the weak government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public, fearing repercussions in a nation where hostility toward U.S. policies is widespread. It continues to insist in local media reports that its own aging jets attacked the truck.”
This is an especially egregious abdication of responsibility since the United States also blames Yemen in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: 2011 for civilian killed by airstrikes:
“The government also employed air strikes against AQAP and affiliated insurgents in Abyan, with some strikes hitting civilian areas. Although some accused the government of intentionally striking civilians in Abyan, most if not all noncombatant casualties from these bombardments were attributed to a lack of air force training and technical capability.”
As I wrote in May 2012 about this State Department characterization:
“Because U.S. targeted killings in Yemen are “covert,” the State Department cannot acknowledge American complicity or collusion. But it stands to reason that some, if not a majority, of these air strikes were carried out by CIA or Joint Special Operations Command drones, or even U.S. Navy assets offshore. Even the most careful, discriminate, and “surgical” uses of force can unintentionally kill civilians. According to three Yemeni officials, for instance, two drone strikes earlier this month killed seven suspected AQAP militants and eight civilians…
Although some of these strikes could have been carried out by Yemeni forces, civilians on the ground are hardly able to distinguish among Yemeni, CIA, and JSOC missiles. It would be difficult to devise a counterterrorism strategy that did a better job at creating a common enemy among victims or neutral third parties.”
Also yesterday, in the Los Angeles Times, Jeffrey Fleishman and Ken Dilanian quoted various Yemeni parliamentarians and analysts who are demanding that President Hadi end the practice of endorsing U.S. airstrikes. As an analyst on Islamic militants Ahmed al Zurqua stated: “The drones have not killed the real al Qaeda leaders, but they have increased the hatred toward America and are causing young men to join al Qaeda to retaliate. President Hadi is distorting and violating Yemen’s sovereignty by cooperating with the Americans.”
Finally, today at Foreign Policy Letta Tayler writes from Yemen about the September 2, 2012, U.S. airstrike in al-Bayda government, which killed twelve civilians, including three children. Tayler quotes “Ahmed al-Sabooli, twenty-two, a farmer whose parents and ten-year-old sister were among the dead.”
“It’s as if we live in a jungle and the attack was on wild animals — no one cares. Both the Yemeni government and the American government killed my family and my villagers. Both of them should be brought to justice.”
Read these pieces carefully—as well as the claims by U.S. officials cited above—and judge for yourself if America’s drone war over Yemen is achieving the Obama administration’s goals.