September 11, 2012

U.S. Drones Buzzing Between Yemen's Political Lines

The latest U.S. drone strike in Yemen has reportedly killed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) deputy following a raid in Hadramout governorate (Yemeni activist Jane Novak notes that Said al-Shiri has been reported dead on four previous occasions). State media attributed al-Shiri's death to a "qualitative operation" conducted by government forces - local redemption is especially needed after Raada's disastrous airstrike - but reliable evidence points to Hellfire missiles. 

A Pentagon document released by WikiLeaks assessed al-Shiri as a "HIGH risk" prisoner of Saudi Arabia's rehabilitation program because "he is likely to pose a threat to the U.S., its interests and allies."

Even before their freshest kill, U.S. drones and their operators have undoubtably scaled AQAP's hierarchy as more resources flow into the country. An open playground for foreign intelligence agencies before revolution broke out in January 2011, Yemen is now crawling with Saudi, American and British agent who operate in coordination with an influx of U.S. Special Forces. Failing to find AQAP's leadership would be more surprising than any other option, and the eventual death of its leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi can be anticipated in the future.

Yet the overriding dilemma of drones remains unchanged. While AQAP cannot lose its main personalities and avoid a strategic impact, eliminating many former "leaders" over the last decade has "disrupted" but failed to dismantle the group. Neither Anwar al-Awlaki nor al-Shiri were as vital to AQAP's operations as U.S. and Yemeni officials claim, and new personalities stand ready to fill their places. Drones must stay active for another 2-3 years at the minimum to effectively reduce AQAP's leadership back to a starting point, a time-line that Washington has subtly acknowledged by building a drone base along the Saudi-Yemeni border (possibly inside Hadramout) and shipping in a new fleet.

The human cost of this strategy will be paid almost entirely in Yemeni blood; a longer period of operations equals more drone strikes and, inevitably more missed targets. U.S. counterterrorism officials argue that the reward of military success exceeds the risk of civilian casualties and collateral, however this attitude has eaten away at Washington's limited credibility in the country. The Obama administration's war in Yemen began with high-profile civilian casualties and never looked back, establishing a negative perception that rivals the drones' trophies in weight. Democratic activists and tribal networks both take offense to the intrusive nature of U.S. drones and have repeatedly expressed the dangers of alienating Yemen's population.

Furthermore, many view Saudi and American hegemony as partly responsible for AQAP's spread in their country. al-Shiri's past service to Saudi intelligence is one many suspicious factors that perpetuates this belief.

In terms of Yemen's U.S.-sponsored GCC deal, Washington continues to reap the spoils of war gained by the soft removal of Ali Abdullah Saleh. The murderous tyrant rests in a glorified state of house arrest in Sana'a, still able to interfere with Yemeni politics as his replacement caters to the Obama administration's demands. Despite repeated threats of Western sanctions against unnamed "spoilers," he also enjoys international immunity granted by the UNSC via the GCC power-sharing agreement. Committing human rights abuses with U.S. military aid perversely added to his leverage with Washington. Meanwhile President Abd Mansur al-Hadi, Saleh's former vice president, has reversed his predecessor's tactic of abandoning territory to AQAP and launched a comprehensive, U.S.-backed offensive against the group's southern positions.

Drones now enjoy greater freedom of movement than under Saleh's fair weather approval.

Equally disturbing, Washington's emphasis on counterterrorism has left internal problems in Yemen's north and south to simmer in a bath of instability. Both the northern Houthi sect and secessionist-minded Southern Movement were excluded from the GCC's power-sharing deal, and while both plan to join November's "National Dialogue," they are more likely to air grievances than reach any agreement with the national government. Most aspects of these long-standing issues must be decided by Yemenis and have nothing to do with America, but the US-KSA counterrevolution has recklessly marginalized a large area of Yemen's political environment. Many Yemenis subsequently believe that AQAP should be handled as an internal issue, not by external forces.

Washington likely hopes that "cleaning up" AQAP will allow the north and south's political actors to resolve their differences without interference. While a plausible case can be made in defense of this strategy, U.S. policy would generate more encouragement if the Obama administration devoted the same attention to Yemen's dynamic politics. Momentum needed to be built up amongst the northern, southern and revolutionary movements ahead of November's summit. Unfortunately these factors, some of which enable AQAP's growth, remain unstable periphery areas of U.S. policy because Washington envisions a long-term client state at the corner of Bab-el-Mandeb.

This parallel, more than any other, mirror's U.S. policy in Pakistan. Too much power would be ceded if those acting outside Yemen's political status quo are genuinely brought into the national equation.

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