January 19, 2013

AQAP, U.S. Drones Compete For Unpopularity In Yemen

As if to prove to any lingering doubters (few exist) that the Obama administration is going big into Yemen in pursuit of al-Qaeda in the Arabia (AQAP), between two and four drone strikes were conducted on Saturday night in Mareb governorate - the latter would be a 24-hour record. The bombings occurred in the Abedah valley near Wadi Abida, suggesting that a meeting was about to take place or had just taken place. A modest total of nine casualties have been reported, with varying accounts of their identification. Yemen's Defense Ministry recorded the destruction of two vehicles carrying AQAP suspects; local media has reported various AQAP-related deaths, at least one of them a Saudi national.

Estimating the total damage caused by drones is inherently challenging due to diverging local accounts, misreporting and media bias. Governments also cooperate or disagree with the U.S. (Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia) when denying civilian casualties or inflating militant kills. In short, every factor is preconditioned to obscure the truth.

Today's public outrage was immediate regardless of the collateral damage, hitting Yemen's local media and social networks hours before Marib's strikes reached the international press. Angry at their own government's inability to confront AQAP without foreign assistance, at the White House and House of Suad for interfering with their land, and at the lies told to cover up civilian casualties, Yemenis are stuck in a vicious catch 22: their current government and military lack the independent strength needed to reverse AQAP's influence, but the U.S. drones that temporarily fill this need are undermining the Yemeni government's own credibility with its people.

Wadi Abida is the same town that witnessed the droning of Jaber al-Shabwani, deputy governor of Marib. This episode opened a brief rift between Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's former dictator, and the U.S. officials (David Petraeus and John Brennan) that received his approval to begin systematically bombing Yemen. Saleh's former vice president, Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, is now overseeing an escalation of this policy after the Obama administration and Saudi Arabia successfully installed Hadi as Yemen's transitional president.

The ongoing debate of whether drones bring more long-term risk than short-term reward  has yet to impede the Obama administration's escalation in Yemen, where the dual priorities of political and military hegemony overrule the immediate need for popular support. A large amount of today's condemnation was directed against John Brennan, President Barack Obama's nominee to replace Petraeus as CIA Director. This continuity is especially pronounced in Yemen, as Petraeus and Brennan handled Saleh's profile prior to the country's revolution and lobbied to fund the same "counter-terrorism" forces that have attacked Yemeni protesters, Southerners and Houthi members. 

The Obama administration continues to maintain ignorance of Brennan and U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein's unpopularity - concrete evidence that U.S. policy has no intention of building sincere relations with Yemen's people.

How the U.S. and Yemeni governments are supposed to defeat AQAP's influence with this strategy has never been fully explained. Few U.S. officials are willing to address the specific effects of drones and U.S. policy in Yemen, and Washington's "commitment to supporting Yemen during its historic transition" hinges solely on self-interests, a policy that perpetuates guerrilla warfare. Luckily renewed focus is being driven onto this counter-productively as Brennan nears his confirmation hearing on February 7th, but popular appeals and collateral damage won't sway U.S. policymakers.

The final outcome will present a vivid contrast of reality - the Senate welcoming Brennan's rise and Yemenis wishing for his fall.

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