Following the release of his new book The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East hosted a roundtable discussion with Gregory Johnsen on December 3, 2012 to discuss US policy in Yemen and recommendations for the Obama administration’s second term. The discussion engaged Yemen experts from a wide array of organizations with interests in local capacity building, human rights, humanitarian relief, and good governance.

Johnsen critiqued US counterterrorism policy in Yemen and differentiated between the utility of drone strikes that are high value target (HVT) strikes and those that are characterized as signature strikes. According to Johnsen’s field research, the use of the less discriminate signature strikes, in which people on the ground are attacked based on observed behaviors rather than detailed intelligence, are causing increased civilian casualties and generating anti-US sentiments among the population. Although there are significant objections to the drone campaign among many human rights advocates, Johnsen contends that President Obama and his advisors are highly unlikely to step back from this politically expedient tactic. He suggests that the Obama administration should refrain from using signature strikes and instead focus on the more targeted HVT strikes that tend to cause fewer civilian casualties.  

Participants in the discussion also noted other problems with the drone campaign that might undercut US security objectives. The Obama administration seeks to support and strengthen the hand of the Yemeni President, Abd Rabbo Hadi Mansour, however President Hadi’s robust embrace of US military engagement and its drone campaign has generated great discontent in Yemen and diminishes his credibility among the general population. The United States’ continued use of drones may be undermining its stated objective of supporting Hadi during the National Dialogue and through this transition period. 

Participants noted that current US strategy in Yemen focuses too narrowly on counterterrorism and must also consider the political, social, and economic problems in the surrounding provinces beyond the capital of Sana’a. Although there is development programming outside of the capitol, US policy must consider local priorities during planning and implementation for them to be successful. Further examples of policy recommendations from the discussion include: 1) investing in economic and social development in the south as a means of countering the influence of extremists in that region; 2) focusing aid on education and scholarships; and 3) refocusing the US counterterrorism efforts into a more holistic counterinsurgency campaign that would partner with local leaders in the provinces.