"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Friday, November 12, 2010

Drones and Yemen ( Really long post)

(The original title of this post was "Send in the Drones", which I liked, until I remembered I was actually riffing off the not-so-classic Simpson's Halloween episode "Send in the Clones", itself a play on "Send in the Clowns".  "Clowns" does not rhyme with "drones".  Damn you, pop culture!)

Over at Selected Wisdom, which has rapidly become one of my favorite blogs, Clint Watts has a series of posts about drones, Yemen, and a Yemen/drone combo.  The first post is an excellent look at how drones have disrupted al Qaeda in the Af/Pak region.  As he states, drones have:
  1. Disrupted AQ’s strategic planning by eliminating AQ leaders or isolating them in protective positions.
  2. Caused AQ to exhaust additional resources to maintain operational security.
  3. Largely eliminated large-scale conventional training venues.  Hanif used to train formally at camps, but now he and his fellow recruits are confined to rooms in shacks.
  4. Forced AQ to use less experienced and poorly trained individuals.  These new recruits are less likely to be successful operationally and will also be unlikely to carry out terrorism for future generations.
They have been able to do this while not, in his estimate, racking up many more civilian casualities than a COIN operation would (obviously, this is a bit of counter-factual guesswork, but non-drone operations do kill civilians, regardless of the great care our fighters take).

Then, moving into Yemen, Clint argues against Robert Worth, who criticized the idea of using drones to hunt Anwar al-Awlaki.   For what it is worth, I agree with Worth on this very narrow point: hunting al-Awlaki and going for the kill is probably extra-judicial, most likely needlessly inflammatory, and an absolute waste of resources.  Readers of this blog know that al-Awlaki is a sideshow.  He presents some danger, but he is not the theologian, strategist, mastermind, and certainly not the leader of AQAP. Any time spent hunting him is time not spent hunting down the real threats.  It will give us all the negatives of using drones with very little in return, save for what would be a brief and entirely domestic PR victory. 

So then let's talk about drone use in general, assuming we would be using them against the real baddies.  The question is: should drones be used in Yemen?  I admit that I am kind of on the fence with this; I go back and forth almost hourly, like a whiny metronome.  I think the broader CT perspective provided by Selected Wisdom is very helpful, as a lot of us who write about Yemen tend not to focus on a wider picture.  I know I am cloistered and perhaps over-protective: a petulant teenager (No one understands Yemen!  We're in love!).  So let's look at some of the arguments. 

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.   If drone strikes are reasonably successful- and these arguments have to be taken in a vacuum right now, before I get into the negatives- AQAP operations will slow down, and foreign fighters, battle-hardened jihadis who can augment AQAP's operation prowess, might stay in Af/Pak or Kashmir or Indonesia.  Depriving recruits of a reason to go to Yemen would be a success.

But drone strikes wouldn't just deny a reason, they would make it harder to bring in more pros.  Hooking up with the leadership would become difficult, and in a country as proudly xenophobic as Yemen a bunch of foreign fighters waging jihad all willy-nilly would go a long way toward discrediting AQAP, even without standard hearts-and-minds ops by the US (though obviously those should go on).  The paranoia is a key element here as well.  AQAP has managed to be extremely successful while comprised almost entirely of Yemenis and Saudis.  Foreigners coming in while there are killers in the air could make it more difficult for AQAP to accept their help, to trust them.  The jihadi networks go a long way, so this would probably just be a slight benefit, but any little bit helps. 

Obviously there are benefits beyond what it will do to the foreign fighter networks, but I think those are going to be a huge deal as AQAP continues to evolve.  Domestically, if the leadership were to be incapacitated it wouldn't destroy the group, but would hamper them, and perhaps provide us with some breathing room to deal with other structural issues.  And Clint makes a good point that drones, while terrifying, leave considerably less of a military footprint than do soldiers.  But that brings us to the negatives.

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, that al-Hirithi and those in the car with him at the time of death were transporting a bomb that went off.  This was supposed to be a fingerprint-free operation.  But 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.  While Salih is far from an ideal ally, he is currently our best bet, and it is probable that even a successful drone attack will undercut another plank of our policy.

Hurting Salih isn't the only plank that will be undercut.  Even if you take out morality, even if you take out standard propaganda/recruitment arguments, collateral damage isn't just a matter of numbers.  Even if the terrorist-to-civilian kill ratio is 40-1, that one person could turn a potential tribal ally into a certain enemy.  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.  Clint argues that using soft power will " will slowly win over some of the Yemeni people and will cost the U.S. billions.  Around 2020, we might actually get one AQAP member turned over to security forces thanks to our niceness.  Ohh, that’s right, Yemen has already run out of water at this point, and most likely AQAP has conducted a thousand additional attacks and grown considerably due to the ripe recruiting conditions created by water resource shortage."   He makes a good point that soft power will be a slow process, but I think he underestimates what creating personal relationship will do.  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.  Salih depends on them, AQAP needs them, we shouldn't ignore them.

Now, all that said (is this post still going on?), any operations we enact will involve the hideous death of innocent people, unless we only rely on soft power- and I don't think that is an option.  One of the reasons it isn't an option is because AQAP wants to destroy the center, and they aren't going to step up and dig irrigation channels.  While AQAP is around, there is a vanishingly small chance of providing any relief.  I think an important argument is that even if we merely train Yemeni soldiers and arm the government, and even if the government doesn't use our arms against other foes, like the southern movement (which is: not a realistic hope), Salih will still be painted as a puppet of the US, and anger at his tactics will redound upon us as well. 

Which is why I am very reluctantly, and surprisingly to me, signing off on drone use.  The Yemeni army is not known for restraint, and while most operations need to be run through them, if we can have successful strikes without local sloppiness and aggression we can minimize PR losses.  If the US is going to take the heat anyway, it is better to have a few deaths than to have a village razed in our name.  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.  And we have to make sure that these are necessary and important, and not just an attack on a charismatic nobody who happens to speak English, or, god forbid, some tiny foot soldier doing it to put food on his families plate.  I understand this distinction can't often be made, but trying to destroy the entire group rather than just its leadership will have severely negative consequences. 

Obviously, 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.  These last strident point aren't meant to be arguing against Clint, who didn't argue them.  But they are a must.

OK- that seems long enough.  I reserve the right to change my mind after breakfast or something, or when Greg argues differently.  I welcome all comments and arguments.  This is really important, and I want to know what all of you, who know a lot more than I do, think about this. 


  1. The most difficult part about this, I think, will be to make sure the drones aren't being misdirected because of the involvement of the Yemeni military with whom, as you mention, we will have to operate. That part is essential because the US will need to minimize collateral. It will happen, though, and the US needs to be prepared for collateral - there should be no surprise in Washington when a drone strike kills a half-dozen civilians and the Yemeni population is shocked and offended. Drone strikes will probably only be used in the rural areas of Shabwa and Mareb, right? So have US diplomats on the ground, ready to engage in tribal arbitration and pay compensation to the tribes and families affected by collateral loss. The US should engage in conflict resolution on Yemeni terms, otherwise it will only perpetuate the reputation that drones are giving America in Iraq and Af/Pak, that is to say, a faceless, menacing superpower that can strike anyone, anywhere on a whim (drones have inherited the reputation that the RAF gained in Iraq in the 1920s, which, incidentally, was transferred to South Yemen during the negotiation of the Ingrams' Truce in Hadhramaut in the 1930s).

  2. I tend to fall on the no drones side of the fence, but then I'm not tasked with defending national security. A more nuanced point might be that I would be more in favor if they were only used in the most surgical of cases, when no collatoral damage could be guaranteed. That's a big if.

    I also tend to be of the view the the US administration would be taking a huge legal risk if they used one to kill al-Awlaki, which could discredit the entire drone program. More generally it strikes me that this kind of security policy is fraught with inconsistencies (like: torture is bad/illegal, but killing is ok; extra-judicial killings of non-US citizens is ok, but of US citizens is not...).

    On a different point, it might be worth noting that there is more than one way to use a drone - notably surveillance vs attack. Accounts from places like Shabwa seem to suggest that the former is relatively routine and easily observed/heard from the ground. It seems to me that the use of drones for surveillance begs a slightly different set of questions to those relating to the use of missiles. E.g. whether the drones themselves can serve to terrorize local civilians and drive grievances simply by being there. Can you imagine what it would be like for a farmer living under a drone flight path, wondering if he might be wrongly identified as an AQ member?

  3. Please don't send in the drones - your post and comments sound very US-centric. There would be bound to be what's quaintly called 'collateral damage' - which could be Westerners or more likely local women and children. Don't think the damage would stop there - in my experience there's plenty of communication between family members in remote tribes and others in the main cities. Drones for surveillance only please! Let's engage in dialogue - and if the US has to suffer a couple of bomb strikes from there or Afghanistan or Pakistan, well tough - that's a lot less than many countries in the EU have suffered and we're not out there whacking air strikes in. Nothing sacrosanct about US soil. Madrid, London, other places. We're likely to get much better intelligence if we play by the book with restraint. It was security tp-offs that raised the alert about these recent bomb plots.

  4. Brian,

    Excellent post! Turns out my response was too long, so I copied onto my blog here http://selectedwisdom.com/?p=69.

    Thanks Brian,


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