In order to justify the lethal use of military drones and counter their potential violation of international law, the U.S. government has compiled a list of benefits to outweigh the drawbacks. Some are impossible to argue against in a vacuum: cost-effective drones save American lives and limit the need for U.S. combat troops in foreign nations, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of occupation. Many officials, pundits and analysts believe that a hybrid policy of Special Operations and drone warfare guarantees success in the future war against "al-Qaeda 2.0."
However this strategy remains predominantly militaristic, with political and economic reform assuming a secondary priority behind security operations. Beyond the raw damage of civilian casualties, U.S. airstrikes are known to generate localized conflicts and dump America on the side of a corrupt, unstable government. Even when air strikes avoid collateral damage, the local interaction that drives COIN operations is lost in the process. These risks are calculated as the price of "doing business" against al-Qaeda - a far cheaper price than occupation - but a foreign nation's long-term political trajectory is often sacrificed for immediate military gains.
U.S. policy in Yemen vividly illuminates the flaws in "offshore" counterterrorism. Perceiving the Arabian state as Pakistan-lite, the Obama administration has spent the last three years scaling up operations with Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime. The administration hooked one big fish in September 2011 - cleric Anwar al-Alwaki - and has scored hundreds of kills since May 2011. Yet Washington's escalation and ongoing manipulation of Yemen's government has only increased AQAP's troop strength, territorial reach and international profile. Along the way, the Obama administration became permanently entangled in Saleh's regime and fueled anti-Americanism in Yemen.
Ambassador Gerald Feierstein insists that Yemen's new president, former vice president Abdu Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi, is now applying "a strategy to challenge al-Qaida in ways they have not done in the past months." Such a statement unintentionally reveals the duplicitous strategy employed by Saleh, who exploited AQAP's presence to acquire Western aid and crack down on independent political movements. John Brennan, the White House's counterterrorism coordinator and personal liaison with Saleh, recently added that "several more years of hard work" are necessary to defeat AQAP. Washington's current strategy, though, is doomed to prolong AQAP's lifespan and Yemen's instability.
The alienating influence of U.S. counterterrorism is presently manifesting in Jaar, where AQAP militants and tribal mediators are attempting to bargain the release of Saudi diplomat Abdallah al-Khalidi. Abducted on March 28th, the deputy consul in Yemen's port city of Aden is awaiting his release while AQAP demands the release of 15 jailed members. "Negotiations are ongoing and should result... in (Khalidi's) release in AQAPless than a week," Tariq al-Fadli, a tribal chief and former jihadist, told AFP on Sunday. Less than 24 hours later, al-Fadli expected al-Khalidi to be freed "within the coming hours" only to lose contact with the militants following a government air-raid.
"We are having difficulty contacting the militants because of the intensifying air strikes on their sites," he said.
Regardless of whether these strikes are responsible for interrupting AQAP's negotiations, al-Khalidi's scenario reinforces Washington's need to exercise a greater degree of caution. One deputy governor, Jaber al-Shabwani, has already been killed by a cruise missile (U.S. officials later accused him of collaborating with AQAP); after suspending operations until more accurate intelligence could be acquired, U.S. operations restarted in the middle of a revolution against Saleh. Many civilians have fallen victim to air-strikes, many more have been displaced by a seemingly-endless battle for Zinjibar, and anyone on the ground is subject to the indirect terror of drone overflights.
Reacting to the situation in Yemen's southern governorates is complicated enough with known factors. The mere consideration of expanding U.S. operations into nameless territory reinforces a chronic disconnect with Yemen's environment and the principles of asymmetric warfare.