Yemen drone strikes expose US policy flaws
On May 9, Barack Obama’s administration extended Yemen’s national emergency status, declaring “certain members of the Government of Yemen and others” as posing an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”. This statement and the recent spate of US drone strikes in Yemen should prompt questioning about the current strategy for defeating terror networks such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Since the current counterterrorism campaign began on April 19, drone strikes have killed between 46 and 79 alleged militants in the Abyan, Shabwa and al-Bayda provinces. While reports indicate that some midlevel AQAP members died in the attacks, the two primary targets of the operation were not among the dead. It remains unclear how many civilians were killed during the operation, but as many as 10,000 civilians have been displaced during the operations.
It is hard to know if the drone strikes are actually achieving US security goals. To begin with, the recent uptick in the number of strikes call into question President Obama’s counterterrorism policy. His administration has stated that drone strikes would only be deployed when the target presents an imminent danger to US lives or interests, where they cannot be captured by local security forces, and where there is near certainty that civilians will not be hit. Recent reports indicate that this threshold is not being upheld.
Assessing the effectiveness of the current approach should begin by reviewing the 2012 Abyan campaign, supported by the US, in which the Yemeni military partnered with local tribesman. After months of pummeling, AQAP suffered significant losses but have regenerated in different areas over the past two years. There is little reason to believe this pattern will change. No matter how many rank-and-file are killed, new recruits always emerge, and the drone strikes are not limited to top-tier leadership.
This approach will not make Americans or Yemenis safer or lead to the defeat of AQAP and its affiliates in Yemen. At present, the Yemeni military lacks the capacity to do more than displace AQAP, and this is where the US should place its investment. President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi claims that as many as 70 per cent of AQAP are foreigners, but this is perhaps an exaggeration. While foreigners may play a prominent role, the underlying issue is that Yemen lacks a security infrastructure to effectively police its interior and its borders. Recruitment to extremist groups is not difficult in a country with high unemployment and a complete absence of government services in many areas.
In short, if the US intends to defeat AQAP it will have to commit to Yemen’s security and development beyond a shortsighted focus on terrorist groups. Such an approach should take into consideration the breadth of Yemen’s problems. The Houthi group’s conflict with tribesmen has displaced 70,000 Yemenis. The Southern Hirak Movement continues to organise for secession. Tribal conflict in Marib and Hadramawt affects the foundation of the state’s revenue by sabotaging oil pipelines. While none of these problems fundamentally threaten core US strategic interests, they all contribute to a general climate of lawlessness and instability.
Meanwhile, the reckless destruction wrought by drones adds fuel to the fire. The US has no interest in becoming embroiled in Yemen’s complex political and social environment, but the current approach has a profound impact on these various conflicts. Just one example: Yemeni security officials killed a sheikh of the al-Shabwan tribe (accused of being an AQAP member), the killing exacerbated tensions between the government and the tribes of Marib province, and the resulting clashes led to sabotaged oil pipelines. In an effort to reconcile with the tribe, the central government announced the formation of a committee to investigate the incident. Just days later, a US drone strike killed as many as six members of the same tribe, throwing mediation efforts in question.
Mr Hadi’s alignment with the US counterterrorism campaign and drone programme complicates the government’s ability to successfully pursue and navigate peacemaking processes with frustrated and disgruntled populations seeking whatever leverage they can muster. Perhaps more importantly, Mr Hadi’s open arms approach to US military engagement is undermining his legitimacy in the eyes of his people because of the unintended, but unavoidable, civilian casualties. For Mr Hadi as well as the US, this continues to demonstrate a nearsighted cost-benefit analysis.
The US can support Yemen’s fight against terrorism, but it can do so more effectively by committing to a long-term strategy that takes a comprehensive look at what is causing extremist networks to flourish. It can focus on capacity building and training for Yemeni military forces rather than targeted killings and a sustained investment in helping Yemen’s economy survive and grow. Without this fundamental shift, the US and Yemen will face the prospect of waging the same battle over and over again, but never win the war.
Danya Greenfield is the acting director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Adam Simpson is an intern with the Rafik Hariri Center
Published: May 21, 2014 04:00 AM