Academic journal article Parameters

Drones over Yemen: Weighing Military Benefits and Political Costs

Academic journal article Parameters

Drones over Yemen: Weighing Military Benefits and Political Costs

Article excerpt

The future role of US drones has been the subject of considerable controversy due to their use in remote parts of the world to target individuals designated as terrorists. In his confirmation hearings, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concerns about overseas perceptions of such activities by stating that, "American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone." (1) Additionally, within the United States, many issues surrounding drone use clearly need scrupulous legal and ethical consideration. Underlying all these factors, however, must be a consideration of the issue of military effectiveness. Regulating the use of a marginally valuable weapons-system is easy, while regulating a highly effective system in a way that forecloses options can be difficult since more is at stake. Careful consideration must be given to how effectively these systems can serve US interests as well as the negative consequences of overseas backlash to their use when evaluating their optimal place in US strategy.

In the case of Yemen, drones are not popular with the local population, but they do appear to have been stunningly successful in achieving goals that support the United States and Yemeni national interests by helping to defeat the radical group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This organization is one of the most successful affiliates of the original al Qaeda group led by Osama bin Laden until his death in 2011. AQAP became prominent in the early 2000s when it began terrorist operations in Saudi Arabia, though it was ultimately defeated in that country. Following this defeat, AQAP retained its name and regrouped in Yemen, merging with the local al Qaeda organization operating there in 2009. AQAP (which Yemenis simply call al Qaeda) has a recent history of challenging the Yemeni government as well as a long record of attempting to execute spectacular terrorist events in the United States. This agenda has made it vital for the United States to oppose AQAP and help the Yemeni government in a variety of ways, including drone use, when appropriate.

Clearly fearing a domestic backlash, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who remained in office until early 2012, consistently denied his government was allowing the United States to conduct drone operations over Yemen. Saleh's denials regarding drones could hardly be considered credible since some extremely high profile strikes occurred while he was president. Of special importance was a successful February 2002 missile attack on six senior al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. The Saleh government originally claimed these individuals were killed in a Yemeni Air Force bombing attack, but this story unraveled after a senior US official revealed information about the drone strike during a CNN interview. (2)

In response to domestic pressure created by the CNN disclosure, Saleh eventually acknowledged that the February 2002 strike was conducted by a US drone, but he did not admit to any later strikes by the time he left power ten years later. (3) The president's continuing denials were almost universally disbelieved as there had been numerous Yemeni and international news reports of US drone warfare against AQAP, often citing seemingly credible sources on background. These press reports included a discussion of a fatal September 2011 US drone attack on AQAP planner Anwar al Awlaki. In response to such information, Saleh went so far as to claim that Yemeni forces had killed Awlaki, although virtually no one took such statements seriously. (4) In sharp contrast to Saleh, current Yemeni President Abed Rabbu Hadi has spoken glowingly of US drones used in Yemen, describing them as an effective way to strike the enemy while minimizing collateral damage to innocent civilians through precision strikes. (5) Despite Hadi's assurances, drone use remains a hotly contested domestic issue in Yemen.

Achievements in Yemen Enabled by Drones

The history of US drone activity in Yemen is still subject to considerable secrecy and cannot be written in full until more information has been declassified and released. …

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