U.S. Drone Strikes Yemen: Has Washington's War in Yemen Failed?


U.S. policy towards Yemen needs careful re-thinking. While Washington has been pumping millions of dollars into counterterrorism efforts to thwart Yemen's persistent Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) presence, evidence suggests that these efforts may actually be doing the opposite. 

Following President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ousting in February 2012, Yemen remains just one of many Arab states hanging in "fragile" political transition alleged to continue to present “critical” threats to U.S. national security. There is growing concern that heavy-handed counterterrorism efforts relying primarily on targeted drone strikes may have unintended consequences in fueling the very outcome such policies intend to prevent. In the coming year, the Obama administration must take a hard look and focus, instead, on a more holistic approach in Yemen. 

Saleh’s own regime was bolstered by a careful manipulation of U.S. security concerns. U.S. funds under President Bush in the mid-2000s were intended to build up Yemeni counterterrorism forces but turned, instead, into personal security for the ruling family. Such U.S. funded "counterterrorism" forces in Yemen were never used to any significance against Al Qaeda forces, and instead helped prop-up Saleh’s own regime and vast patronage network during “Arab Spring” upheavals through 2012.

Jeremy Scahill, a reporter at The Nation who has spent time in the Al-Majalah village in Yemen, has been highly critical of such policies. He spoke with Yemeni Political Analyst Ghani al Iryani in February, 2012, who insisted that the U.S. “should have never made counterterrorism a source of profit for the regime,” claiming, “Their agenda was to keep terrorism alive, because it was their cash cow ... I think if we had been left alone, we would have less terrorists in Yemen than we do now."

Despite indications early on that the Obama administration understood the issue required a more holistic approach, U.S. funds in Yemen have been primarily used in targeted anti-terror programs hinged on drone warfare. Steven Heydemann, Senior Adviser for the Middle East Initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace, has said that since Yemen’s uprising, U.S. policy in Yemen has become “almost entirely defined by counterterrorism” and a “reliance on drones.” 

Drone strikes in Yemen either take the form of "high value target" types, based on gathered intelligence, or are less-discriminate “signature strikes,” based on observed behaviors. According to research by Princeton Near Eastern Studies scholar Gregory Johnsen, the latter of such drone policies cause the most civilian casualties, often inciting the most backlash among Yemeni people.

As early as December 17, 2009, such controversy arose after Obama authorized cruise missile strikes in Yemen and killed more than 40 bedouin civilians in al-Majila province. The fear remains among Yemenis suffering the blow of U.S. drone strikes across the country's villages that Anwar al-Awlaki's prophecy that the U.S. intends to turn Yemen into its new Iraq may ring true. 

Such incidents appear to clearly spurn an onset of anti-Americanism that remains the fuel for AQAP efforts in the first place. A Yemeni Lawyer’s famous tweet last year simply put it, “Dear Obama, when a U.S. drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with Al-Qaeda.” In 2009, AQAP reportedly had only a few hundred members and controlled no territory; today it has, along with Ansar al-Sharia, significant territory and at least 1,000 members. Efforts have not only been unpopular, but even costly. After an American drone strike in May 2010 prominent sheik Jabir al-Shabwani, the slain sheik’s tribe attacked the country’s main pipeline in response, allegedly costing Yemen over $1 billion in oil exports.

“Global whack-a-mole" strategies that are overly reliant on drone warfare are proving time and again to be a double-edged-sword that can do more harm than good. Yemen remains one of the poorest countries on earth, and conditions have only worsened with last year’s revolutionary upheaval, with chronic poverty standing over 54 percent.

The Obama administration has requested $72.6 million in State Department economic and military aid for Yemen for federal year 2013. While undoubtedly a tough road ahead for the administration to craft effective alternative strategies in Yemen, it is vital that policies continue to be monitored and evaluated for long-term security and humanitarian interests moving forward. U.S. military and aid resources need to be more carefully used to implement strategies that are closely monitored for impact. Such policies should shy away from an exclusive focus on military counterterrorism that has fueled backlash, and re-focus, instead, on potential humanitarian and institution building efforts that can offer more hope to bolster lasting change.