Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

U.S. Escalating Drone War in Yemen

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

U.S. Escalating Drone War in Yemen

Article excerpt

Even as President Barack Obama touts his progress in extracting the U.S. from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his administration appears to be deepening its covert and military involvement in strife-torn Yemen.

Washington is worried about recent advances by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), particularly in the southern part of the country.

Since the failed "Christmas Day" bombing by an AQAP-trained Nigerian national of a U.S. airliner over Detroit in December 2009, the group has been regarded here as a greater threat to the U.S. homeland than its Pakistan-based parent.

Quoting senior officials, The Wall Street Journal and other major U.S. publications reported April 26 that the administration has relaxed constraints on both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon in conducting drone strikes against suspected AQAP-affiliated militants in the Arab world's poorest nation.

Henceforth, the CIA and the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which conduct parallel counterterrorist campaigns in Yemen, will be able to strike suspected militants whose precise identity may not be known but whose "behavior" suggests that they are either "high-value" operatives or engaged in plots to strike U.S. interests.

Such assessments will be based on intelligence acquired from such sources as informants on the ground, aerial surveillance, and phone intercepts, as well as circumstantial evidence regarding their associations, according to the reports.

The new guidelines are apparently a compromise between those in the administration who favored that the previous policy of authorizing strikes only against positively identified militants who appeared on a "kill list," and others, including CIA director Gen. David Petraeus (ret.), who wanted a further easing of the rules of engagement.

They are raising concerns among some experts that Washington is slipping ever more deeply into a conflict-or a series of conflicts-it knows relatively little about.

"There is a dangerous drifthere, and the policymakers in the U.S. don't appear to realize they are heading into rough waters without a map," wrote Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University and editor of the Waq Al-Waq blog.

"In Yemen, drones and missile strikes appear to have replaced comprehensive policy," he noted. "...Since late 2009, the number of U.S. strikes in Yemen have increased and, as the strikes have grown in frequency, AQAP has grown in recruits."

"What does the U.S. do if AQAP continues to gain more recruits and grow stronger even as the number of missile strikes increase?" he asked. "Does the U.S. bomb more? Does the U.S. contemplate an invasion?"

Other critics have worried that escalating the drone war in Yemen, where the U.S.- and Saudi-engineered resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in February has so far done little to calm the country's many regional, tribal, political and sectarian conflicts, could further poison public opinion against the U.S., much as it has in Pakistan. The CIA has carried out more than 250 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2009, according to the Long War Journal Web site.

Many of those were so-called "signature" strikes against targets whose observed behavior, or "pattern of life," suggested that they were active members of either the Afghan or Pakistani Taliban insurgencies. Under the prevailing rules of engagement, the CIA did not have to know either the precise identity or importance of the target before ordering a strike.

According to published accounts, Petraeus has repeatedly requested similar rules of engagement for the CIA, which works closely with JSOC, in Yemen. …

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