Drone Strike Success in Yemen May Actually Be Failure

On May 9, the Obama administration extended Yemen’s national emergency status-declaring “certain members of the Government of Yemen and others” an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” This statement and the recent spate of US drone strikes in Yemen should prompt some questioning about deteriorating security in that country and the effectiveness of current US strategy for defeating terror networks and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Since the current counterterrorism campaign began in Yemen’s hinterlands on April 19, drone strikes killed between forty-six and seventy-nine alleged militants in the Abyan, Shabwa, and al-Bayda provinces. While reports indicate that some mid-level AQAP members died in the attacks, DNA testing on the remains has confirmed that the two primary targets of the operation, Nasir al-Wuhayshi and Ibrahim al-Siri, were not among them. Given lack of verifiable information, it remains unclear how many civilians were killed during the total operation; the Yemeni government confirmed three, however, there may be far more, and as many as 10,000 civilians have been displaced during the operations.

Observers may cheer from afar when the body count of extremists is rising, but given the lack of transparency and disclosure, it is hard to know if the drone strikes are actually achieving US security goals. To begin with, the recent uptick in the number of drone strikes and civilian deaths calls into question the very premise of President Obama’s speech outlining his counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University in May 2013—that a drone strike would only be deployed when the target presents an imminent danger to US lives, where they cannot be captured by local security forces, and where there is near certainty that civilians will not be hit. Recent reports indicate that this threshold is not being upheld, and without the increased disclosure that the president pledged in his speech, there is no way to know if the attacks are even hitting the right targets. The December 2013 attack that hit a wedding convoy and killed more than a dozen civilians was a devastating and poignant reminder of this fact; one that even US government agencies are struggling to explain.

Assessing the effectiveness of the current approach should begin by reviewing the outcome of the 2012 Abyan campaign, supported by the United States, in which the Yemeni military partnered with newly established popular committees comprised of local tribesman who fought on the frontlines to push out AQAP strongholds and its affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia. After months of pummeling, AQAP suffered significant losses during that summer and was forced to move camp, but they survived and regenerated in different areas over the past two years. There is little reason to believe this pattern will change this time around. No matter how many rank-and-file are killed, new recruits always emerge, and the drone strikes are not limited to top-tier leadership. Wide swaths of ungoverned territory provide new bases of operation for AQAP to regroup, and disgruntled tribes—frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the central government and lack of resources in their communities—are frequently coopted to provide safe haven.

This short-term approach will not make Americans or Yemenis safer in the long-term or lead to the defeat of AQAP and its affiliates in Yemen. At present, the Yemeni military lacks the capacity to do more than displace AQAP, and this is where the United States should place its investment. President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi claims that as many as seventy percent of AQAP are foreigners, but this is likely an exaggeration made in an effort to dehumanize and dismiss domestic insurgents. While foreigners may in fact play a prominent role, the underlying issue is that Yemen lacks a security infrastructure to effectively police its interior and its borders, and recruitment to extremist groups is not difficult in a country with 30-40 percent unemployment, more than half the population food insecure, 10 million people malnourished, and a complete absence of government services in many communities.

In short, if the United States intends to defeat AQAP and other al-Qaeda affiliates that threaten US interests in the Gulf region and potentially even the homeland, it will have to commit to Yemen’s security and development beyond what seems to be an increasingly shortsighted focus on terrorist groups. Such an approach should take into consideration the breadth of Yemen’s security problems; the biggest destabilizing security factors continue to be lack of economic and employment opportunity, deteriorating quality of life, and the struggle for autonomy and local power embodied by the Houthi conflict in the north and tribal conflicts that plague many areas throughout the country.

The Houthi group’s conflict with northern tribesmen, particularly the Ahmar tribe in Amran, has displaced 70,000 Yemenis in Amran province alone along according to recent statistics, stressing the capacity of neighboring governorates and depriving citizens of access to their possessions and livelihoods. The Southern Herak Movement continues to organize for secession and the recent conflict in al-Dali’ displaced thousands more. Tribal conflict in Marib and Hadramawt affects the foundation of the state’s revenue by sabotaging oil pipelines and embarrasses the government by kidnapping expatriates and disrupting economic activity by setting up roadblocks. While none of these problems fundamentally threaten core US strategic interests, they all contribute to a general climate of lawlessness and instability primarily rooted in government dysfunction and competition over resources. All these factors combined have allowed terror networks to thrive.

Meanwhile, the reckless destruction wrought by unmanned drones and hellfire missiles adds fuel to the fire. The United States has no interest in becoming embroiled in Yemen’s complex political and social environment, but the current US approach has a profound impact on these various conflicts. Just one example: Yemeni security officials killed a sheikh of the al-Shabwan tribe (accused of being an AQAP member), the killing exacerbated tensions between the government and the tribes of Marib province, and the resulting clashes led to sabotaged oil pipelines. In an effort to reconcile with the tribe, the central government announced the formation of a committee to investigate the incident. Just days later, a US drone strike killed as many as six members of the same tribe, throwing mediation efforts in question.

Hadi’s alignment with the US counterterrorism campaign and drone program complicates the government’s ability to successfully pursue and navigate peacemaking processes with frustrated and disgruntled populations seeking whatever leverage they can muster. Perhaps more importantly, Hadi’s open arms approach to US military engagement is undermining his legitimacy in the eyes of his people by appearing lax with Yemeni sovereignty. For Hadi as well as the United States, this continues to demonstrate a nearsighted cost-benefit analysis.

The United States can support Yemen’s fight against terrorism, but it can do so more effectively by committing to a long-term strategy that takes a comprehensive look at what is causing extremist networks to flourish. It can focus on capacity building and education for Yemeni military forces rather than targeted killings and a sustained investment in helping Yemen’s economy survive and grow. Without this fundamental shift, the United States and Yemen will face the prospect of waging the same battle over and over again, but never win the war.

Danya Greenfield is the acting director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Adam Simpson is an intern with the Rafik Hariri Center.

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