To Drone, or not to Drone: Yemen Edition

I had originally planned to post something about the debate on drones in Yemen earlier in the week, but got caught up with other commitments. Since then, though, there has been a great back and forth conversation between Clint Watts at Selected Wisdom (see here and here) and Brian O’Neill at Always Judged Guilty (see here). To catch those up with what they have discussed thus far, I will first provide a spark notes version of what they said and then interject with another layer of issues to think about when establishing a long-term strategy and short-term tactics for the war against AQAP.

In Watts’ first post, he lays out five possible strategies and provides the pros and cons of each:

  1. Do nothing.
  2. Arm, train and assist Yemeni forces.
  3. Provide U.S. foreign aid and conduct diplomacy, soft power catchall.
  4. Conduct a counterinsurgency effort to win over the Yemeni populace.
  5. Deploy drones to disrupt AQAP’s safe haven.

The U.S. needs action and results in Yemen now.  Looking at the above options, we are likely to pursue parts of options 2 and 3 no matter what the circumstances.  But, option 5 is a must.  The U.S. must act, and drones are the most effective option the U.S. has against small-decentralized terror cells immersed in indigenous populations in rugged terrain.

Brian responded and teased out some thought provoking ideas to ponder too (since his post was long I will try and point out key parts):

What drones do best, or rather as a product of what they do best (killing), is disrupting networks and sewing paranoia.  This will become more and more important in Yemen as foreign fighters see it as a profitable place to wage jihad (creating this image is a major short-term goal for AQAP).  Drone strikes, even if they don’t end up taking out the leadership, will force it to be on the move and less able to plan operations- though they have shown a remarkable ability to learn and maneuver on the fly.

What is frequently lost in discussing Yemen is that future drone strikes wouldn’t be new in the country- in 2002 the US took out AQ’s leader in one of the first successful drone attacks.  This was an operation agreed to by both Yemen and the US, with the understanding that it would be presented as an accident … the US was understandably excited by their success, and publicized it.  This was dumb.  Pesident Salih felt burned, as that opened up a vulnerable flank to charges of lapdogism.  Right now, Salih is facing a massive crisis of legitimacy- drone strikes are a painful reminder of a recent past, and will allow not just al-Qaeda but other domestic enemies to charge him with being a puppet who lets Americans kill Yemenis.

Our best hope in Yemen, to me, is to maintain Salih’s power while devolving it and working with the tribes, both for security and structural reasons- working directly with them not only helps us keep contact with real power brokers, it also closes off avenues of corruption … Having tribal allies will speed up the process of apprehending AQAP and denying them tribal havens- it won’t be absolute, but it will be better than what we have now.  Killing with drones hurts our chances to establish these crucial relationships, and these relationships are the best way to get things done in Yemen.

I am very reluctantly, and surprisingly to me, signing off on drone use … But these drone strikes have to come with excellent local intelligence collected through a cultivation of tribal relationships- these will both help the chances of a successful strike and partially mitigate the chances of a blood feud.  We have to be smart so we aren’t used by one tribe to take revenge against another.

This has to be combined with aggressive soft-power remedies.  A civilian’s death can overwhelm the news of one good deed, or ten or 100, but these good deeds have to be so prominent they cannot be ignored.  We also have to have an anti-AQAP PR blitz, in Arabic.  Without these things, drone strikes are nothing more than a militant sop.

I think this is an important start to a crucial discussion individuals in the United States should be having over strategy in Yemen. I am glad to see that guys like Watts who provides a broader picture regarding strategy and Brian with his local knowledge will hopefully lead to the best possible solutions when dealing and trying to dismantle AQAP.

First off, I tend to come down on the same side as Watts and Brian regarding the use of drones in Yemen. I believe they are a necessary evil, but I do not believe we should be using them in Yemen at the same rate and level as in the Pakistani tribal regions. As Brian alluded to, establishing tribal relations is crucial and as a result could hopefully provide us with actionable intelligence, which would allow us to accurately target a high-ranking official within AQAP. In situations like that I am all for drones strikes. I believe the ideal scenario would be something along the lines of the successful drone attack in November 2002 in Yemen that killed the leader of AQ in Yemen Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, which caused minimal collateral damage.

The thing I am worried about, though, is if droning individuals becomes a large part of our strategy in contrast to soft power efforts and training Yemeni security officials. As Gregory D. Johnsen has noted in a couple of recent posts at Waq al-Waq, just because an individual or a group of individuals look like al-Qaeda and the tribal violence surrounding them might appear as an al-Qaeda operation, in fact it could be local tribal politics and fueds, and that is something we do not want to get in the middle of. It would only make our efforts significantly harder. As such, in my estimation it would only be prudent to go after senior-level officials in AQAP, which differs from the way the United States has conducted its drone campaign in Pakistan.

This leads me into my final point, which is a warning and potentially a worst case scenario when using drones in Yemen. Although I am pro-drone use in Yemen on a limited basis as described above, I fear that a drone campaign in Yemen could exacerbate the Huthi conflict and the southern movement’s secessionist cause. As I have previously argued:

The politics are treacherous. Launching drone strikes could hinder efforts to solve the northern and southern conflict peacefully.

If the United States tried to target an AQAP operative in a Huthi stronghold in northern Yemen and accidentally killed individuals who sympathize with the Huthi cause, it would most likely break the fragile peace and lead to a resumption and major escalation of war between the Huthis and the Yemeni government. Further, in the past round of battle from August, 2009 to February, 2010, Saudi Arabia — which collects a large amount of American military aid — overtly entered the war. A small counterterrorism operation could quickly spiral into a regional war that has nothing to do with AQAP, but could further destabilize the security situation in Yemen and detract from the fight against AQAP.

One has to also consider the rise in recent months of violence between AQAP operatives and Yemeni security forces, which has mainly occurred in southern Yemen as well as the recent uptick in violence by the Yemeni government against the southern movement. This could potentially lead southerners to establish closer ties to AQAP, even though each group has different goals. AQAP has already tried to co-opt the southern movement’s banner for cessation, though, under the framework of an Islamic Emirate when releasing a message titled “Message to Our People in the South.” As the leader of AQAP, Nasir al-Wahayshi, states: “We in the al Qaeda network support what you are doing: your rejection of oppression practiced against you and others, your fight against the government and your defending yourself.”  As of now, there is no evidence of collusion between the two groups even if the Yemeni government argues otherwise. The southern movement has rejected overtures from AQAP in the past. But if the Yemeni government continues to conflate the southern movement with AQAP and further violence is directed toward the southern movement, it could lead to an alliance of convenience.

Although the above is the worst case scenario it is not too far-fetched. For instance, a Yemeni airstrike on January 15, 2010 reported to kill, which ended up being untrue, one of the deputy leaders in AQAP, Qasim al-Raymi, in northern Yemen between Sa’dah governorate and al-Jawf governorate near the region of al-Buq’a. So even though AQAP assets are mainly located in South Yemen, there are AQAP operatives and activities in the northern part of the country as well.

Further, the southern movement is a huge catch-22 for the United States. In any other situation, one could argue that the southern movement would be a group that the United States would want to support. This is because they want to reestablish the state they had prior to unification in 1990, which was secular in nature and far more developed than northern Yemen. Also, one of the key leaders in the southern movement Tariq al-Fadhli raised an American flag in front of his residence. It is problematic then that we give so much largesse to Yemen’s President ‘Ali Abdullah Salih who has diverted these funds to violently deal with the southern movement (as well as the Huthis). As such, a group that we should be strengthening we could potentially be leading them into the hands of AQAP because of our unfortunate, but necessary relationship with the snake charmer.

As such, the above considerations should be taken into account as well when establishing a strategy going forward in Yemen and particularly the use of drones to hunt down AQAP senior leaders.