Drones in the Skies over Yemen Again


With embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh spirited away to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment and government troops besieged by Islamist militants emerging from the Hadramaut woodwork, the United States turns yet again to its weapon du jour: armed drones. 

Re-deploying Predator drones in Yemen presents the Obama administration with a thorny scenario. And yet again, as in the case with Pakistan, while the potential negative consequences are many, the risk of extending the use of armed drones in Yemen is one the administration ought to take. 

We have debated the use of drones on PolicyMic before, though we limited our comments to U.S. strategy in Pakistan. In recent weeks, we’ve learned that the U.S. is also using drones against Qaddafi forces in the ongoing Libya campaign. Now a New York Times article reports the U.S. has revamped its covert operations in Yemen by re-deploying armed drones against suspected Al-Qaeda operatives, who might attempt to consolidate power in Saleh’s absence.

The U.S. has employed Predator drones against Yemeni militants for many years. The C.I.A. increased their usage in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing attempt in 2009, which was orchestrated by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) suspected leader, the American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Aulaki.

As has been the case in Pakistan, while drones have succeeded in killing several senior Al-Qaeda leaders, they have also resulted in a number of civilian deaths, infuriating the general public and Yemeni leadership.

Pakistan and Yemen are similar cases. Both have weak and largely ineffective civilian leadership and both are plagued by nearly ungovernable regions rife with Al-Qaeda and other like-minded jihadists. Both share a border with a perennially worrisome neighbor (in Pakistan’s case, several neighbors) and both are recipients of considerable U.S. military aid. Saleh has had the particular difficulty, however, of holding the country together since North and South Yemen unified in 1990. It seems quite clear now, given the current level of violence and the players involved, that full-scale civil war is at hand (if not already begun).

With all these factors at play, do U.S. drones then help to deter AQAP from wrecking total havoc or do they further complicate the situation? The answer is more muddled than in the case of Pakistan. Drones have the ability to disrupt jihadist planning and movement, as we’ve seen in Pakistan. If AQAP’s ability to move with relative ease in southern and eastern Yemen can be hindered even on an interim basis, so much the better. And if a drone were to hit Anwar Al-Aulaki, one fewer prominent Al-Qaeda leader to contend with would be a welcomed outcome. 

But southern Yemen is not Waziristan. The ability to gather intelligence is far more complicated and local allegiances far more obscure. As the New York Times points out, “one faction might feed information to the Americans that could trigger air strikes against a rival group.” U.S. strikes will no doubt further inflame antipathy for the completely discredited Saleh regime, once a nominal U.S. ally. 

Al-Qaeda must not be allowed to make any further substantial gains. What happens next in Yemen without Saleh is uncertain, but whatever Al-Qaeda's role is must be diminished now. U.S. drones can get the ball rolling. 

Photo Credit: Mauricicho