Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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America’s Failing Drone War in Yemen

by Micah Zenko
December 26, 2012


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 herehere, 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.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by middle east

    obama filmed checking the drone controls


  • Posted by V. Perkins, Ph.D.

    Being part of a nation that feels perfectly free to violate international law troubles me greatly. There is no justification for drone strikes, whether they are killing those we consider enemies or the many civilians who are dying. The idea that we can eliminate Al-Qaeda in
    this way is the purest fantasy. The more innocent people we kill, the more angry people will join Al-Qaeda.
    Another thing that worries me is the passivity of American citizens in the face of our government’s evil-doing. Mr. Obama is planning to blanket U.S. skies too with drones; when that happens we will be a fully-fledged police state and the Bill of Rights will be a dead letter.

  • Posted by Bilal Ahmed

    Mr. Johnsen is quite possibly the only major analyst on Yemen in the U.S. that actually knows what he is talking about. I think the fact that the State Department says he does not is a great endorsement of him.

  • Posted by Phillip

    Excellent Analysis as always. It’s gotta be getting risky to speak so much truth. (To be a fly on the wall in canteen arguments at CFR with hawks like Abrams floating around and talk of descent – towards the ‘untouchable silver bullet drone program’. Nothing a good 24 hour AEI indoctrination session wouldn’t fix : ) haha kidding

    Now my speech ahem comment…
    The G.lobal W.ar O.n T.error is an Arbitrarily Self Prescribed Term which simply allows the US to break all IMPORTANT laws and Norms while lying to its ignorant public while it carries out Mass murder against Supposed ‘IMMINENT THREATS’. It is so sad to see such a potential power for good (the USA) get so abused and deformed into such a target for hate across the world. Infinite War creates Infinite Enemies – The NSA/CIA and their Drones will find and kill an unending list of supposed IMMINENT THREATS TO THE US and the fires of HATRED will continue to be stoked until somebody halts this irrational program. Saying all that – there is always a tendency to ignore the other side of the coin – put yourself in one of the commanders boots – he/she receives compartmentalized Intel which can range from good solid HUMINT from the ground all the way to pattern based target assessment i.e. he looks and smells like a terrorist so lets not waste time – put him on the list light him up! Remember that at this point the program is institutionalized ..and once you reach that point then a few things happen. 1) ‘It is what we do’ mentality creeps in: Suddenly the decision to put somebody on the kill list becomes quicker and easier and less guilt-ridden or individually complicated i.e. it becomes Normalized. 2) Because it grew in complexity into a whole machine unto itself – many people split up the guilt of the job kinda like a Sniper and Scout team i.e. ‘we all share the guilt and we are all responsible for parts of the whole which allows us to pull the trigger – together’ – this is very important to understand because then it allows you to analyze WHY people who do these things ie build the machines, command the pilot, release the Hellfire, fuel the Reapers etc.. do what they do… because they are not overloaded with human to human guilt which is already made more vague in the distance between operator and target which is specific to this new Drone War paradigm. 3) The BINARY problem: IF you hate drones you HATE America because IF you dislike the Drone program and think crazy things like it requires a massive re-think and needs massive democratization and should be heavily discussed within an oversight committee and within the house and senate and all over the media intellectually and in depth to understand what we are doing and what are the second tier effects of this program – then YOU HATE AMERICAN TROOPS which Drones replace in harms way – or so the story goes! Y0ou and I know that this is poppycock as they say but yet, these are the MEMES rotating between the interest groups in play here.
    4) When you institutionalize a program like this you end up compartmentalizing it as I mentioned but in a very important dynamic you divide the whole thing up into so many areas that you then require less and less drive from the top down to keep the wheel turning. It develops a life of its own and just as a scientist in a rainforest armed with high powered binoculars and advanced equipment finds more and more species of animals to be interested in and catch… the more you devote resources and money and staff and political energy to the ‘program’ you find MORE AND MORE TO SHOOT AT!!! and it is this final point which eventually makes the wheels come off the wagon and everything crashes!

    So before we can delineate all that is happening and predict a chaotic demise into bloodshed and political collapse through writing more and more fine articles such as yours – please take a moment soon and instead of appeasing your CFR readers whom wield so much keyboard anger at each other in the comments section : ) please instead take a pen and paper and write a ‘CFR weighted’ ‘truthful’ letter to your congressman or any congressman whom may be enlightened and may apply themselves to this very serious and troubling problem! A direct letter form you to them I feel would prick their ears up….as if somebody who cares about this subject hasn’t done so already..

    Note: you should if you havn’t already catch up on Amanpour and her latest drone piece – note the X47B in the background.

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thank you for the good information,

    My concern about the use of automated killing machines is perhaps a bit too abstract to grab much attention, but one can liken it to the same concern I would have over a policy to assassinate political leaders willy-nilly. We try not to do that because of blowback.

    This is what worries me about drones. There is this inherent lack of accountability with drones because they are uncrewed. Uncrewed means that the domestic, political ramifications of their use are not as severe as they would otherwise be.

    What happens when policy-makers can go on a global killing spree without having to worry about losing any U.S. personnel? A hint of where this is going can be summed up with two words: signature killing. This is symptomatic of the nature of the devices: without accountability one can start killing willy-nilly because when the lives of U.S. personnel are not at appreciable risk, having to explain this kind of thing becomes a little easier.

    Scary stuff. I hope Zenko will continue to share information on this paradigm shift.

    My own advice to USG would be much like Zenko’s: put down some credible rules around how *any* automated killing machine can be used.

    – kk

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