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How Does this End?

Last week I posted on the CIA’s request to carry out “signature strikes” in Yemen.  I made quite clear my opposition to the policy, not because I’m opposed to drones as some seem to believe.  I actually think drones can be a powerful tool in the war against al-Qaeda, but like all tools they have to be utilized correctly.

And this is where I believe the US has failed.  In Yemen, drones and missile strikes appear to have replaced comprehensive policy.  There is, I believe, a dangerous drift in US strategy when it comes to Yemen.  Since late 2009, the number of US strikes in Yemen have increased and as the strikes have grown in frequency AQAP has grown in recruits.  

So now the US is increasing drone strikes to combat a more active AQAP but – and this is a key question I haven’t seen anyone attempt to address in public – what if more drone strikes don’t work?

What does the US do if AQAP continues to gain more recruits and grow stronger even as the number of missile strikes increase?  Does the US bomb more?  Does the US contemplate an invasion?

None of these are great options and they all risk making the problem in Yemen much worse than it is now, and it can get much, much worse. 

There is a dangerous drift here and the policymakers in the US don’t appear to realize they are heading into rough waters without a map. 

Nevertheless, according to the Wall Street Journal which led the reporting, the White House appears to have ruled on the CIA’s request:

The White House’s decision this month stopped short of giving CIA and JSOC the Pakistan-style blanket powers that had been sought—opting instead for what one defense official termed “signature lite.”

I’m not quite sure what this means, but according to one source cited in the article: “You don’t necessarily need to know the guy’s name. You don’t have to have a 10-sheet dossier on him. But you have to know the activities this person has been engaged in,” a U.S. official said.

How the US determines that individuals it does not know the identity of are “high-value targets” or a threat to the US is not exactly clear to me – yet both the CIA and JSOC will be running “parallel” drone programs in Yemen.

There is a lot more here, and I encourage you to read the Wall Street Journal article I linked to above as well as the ones from Washington Post, which quotes this blog, and the one from the New York Times – but I want to touch on something else.

And that is I understand – at least partially – why there is a push to bomb more in Yemen and why officials say things like the following to the Wall Street Journal: “Some military and intelligence officials privately complain that the White House is being too cautious. They argue that more-aggressive U.S. action is necessary to combat the growing threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and to help the Yemeni government regain control of southern provinces where the group and its allies hold sway.”

AQAP is a threat to the US and it has grown stronger in recent years even after the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, which apparently surprises some people. 

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So, it is clear that the US has to do something in Yemen – AQAP is plotting attacks against the US and it is better to attack them before they attack the US, or at least that appears to be the rationale.  But what?

There is a temptation to believe that killing members of al-Qaeda in Yemen makes those of us living in the US safer, and to a certain degree that is true.  And for the military, counting the number of bad guys they kill in Yemen gives the impression that they are winning or at least making a positive difference. 

But what if – as I’ve argued so often here at Waq al-waq – this is a misleading rubric?  What if instead of solving the problem of AQAP in Yemen air strikes actually make it worse?  What then?

My argument has never been about abstaining from drones in Yemen.  That isn’t going to happen.  Instead I believe drones and air strikes should be used extremely sparingly and only in situations where the US knows beyond a shadow of a doubt who it is hitting.  Now, the US will say that is what it is doing, but tens of strikes in four months and a number of mistakes in the past three years suggest that these strikes have neither been sparing or surgical.

Too often in Yemen drones have been a shortcut that bypasses the really difficult work of diplomacy and counter-terrorism that is truly needed to defeat AQAP.  There is no magic missile solution to the problem of AQAP. And yet drones seduce us with their ability to kill bad guys without putting US troops at risk.  But this war isn’t about killing bad guys; it is about defeating al-Qaeda.

And to do that it is going to take a lot of work on a multitude of fronts, a great deal of patience and steady sustained effort.  Above all, it will require the US to see AQAP in the broader context of Yemen, instead of seeing Yemen through the context of AQAP.


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