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Drone Debate: A follow-up

One of the things I most enjoy about blogging and about Waq al-waq in particular is the questions and discussions that often build off of posts. I have seen the comments section of numerous blogs devolve into craziness and hatred for reasons I am never quite sure of. Thankfully that hasn’t happened here – likely because I have a very narrow brief and try to stick closely to that – or less ego-inflating, because Waq al-waq has serious and responsible readers.

I like to think it is the latter and I often get very intelligent questions or comments e-mailed to me or posted in the comment section. Last night was one such case, when someone named CalvinmScott posted a question to my initial post on why drones aren’t the answer. I thought his reflections were brilliant and wanted to give them their space, and probably would have posted on them anyway, but when my response was too large for blogspot, I had my excuse to past them here.

What follows is CalvinmScott’s question/comment followed by my reply. (His in italics, mine in normal caps.)

Very interesting post and I agree wholeheartedly with the NYTimes op-ed from today. Thanks for re-starting this blog. It is a much needed perspective in the modern debate on Yemen.

If you have time, in a future post, it might be useful to deconflict a point that might notionally be at odds in your anti-drone argument: you have noted many times in your briefings on the history of AQAP that the “first incarnation” of the organization ended when Abu Ali al-Harithi and several other operatives died in a drone strike in 2002. In several articles, you state that AQAP has reincarnated and rebranded itself while the U.S. and Yemeni governments essentially turned a blind eye to the problem after this strike effectively killed the organization (an argument I mostly agree with).

Perhaps you believe that the current situation in Yemen (and within AQAP) is different now than it was in 2002. It seems – at face value – that a drone strike that wiped out Wihayshi, al-Raymi, and/or Asiri would deal a fairly harsh blow to the organization, similar to what occurred in 2002. Do you believe that the United States would inevitably launch several faulty strikes with a large amount of collateral damage before any significant strike that hurt AQAP’s operational capacity occurred? What are the differences between now and 2002?

It also must be noted that the strikes of this past year came from the much more erratic cruise missiles than from Predators or Reapers. Please don’t take this as an endorsement of drones: rather, just a note that, given a vast intelligence network and more accurate weapons (like in 2002), drones could conceivably deal a significant blow to the organization (like in 2002). It’s a discussion that seems like it’s worth having.


Great comment and question. I will attempt to post on this in the future. But briefly since I don’t know when I will have time.

I think there are two major differences between 2002 (al-Harithi) and 2010 (al-Wihayshi and co.).

First, the attitude of people in the world and in Yemen has changed. In 2002 the US was still seen as the victim of an attack by AQ and al-Harithi and company, while receiving refuge with some were still viewed as people who had made their own bed and had to deal with the consequences of their actions.

This is no longer the case. People in Yemen now see the US as the aggressor.

Second, there is a big difference between al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2002 and AQAP today. I tend to think that the initial version of the organization was fighting a reactionary war in which the US and Yemeni governments were bringing the fight to them. AQ was consistently and constantly on their heels.

This is no longer the case. If anything the roles have been reversed. AQ has had years, from 2006 to the attack on the US Embassy to entrench itself in Yemen while the US and Yemeni governments paid attention to other things.

This time AQAP is bringing the fight to the US and Yemeni governments. Also, given that time AQAP has put down a deep and durable infrastructure that is able to withstand the loss of key cell leaders.

Look at some of the people who have been killed – just a partial list, I didn’t go through my notes or anything – in what I often refer to as the Second Phase of the War against al-Qaeda in Yemen:

Fawaz al-Rabi’i (2006)
Hamza al-Qu’ayti (2008)
al-Qahtani (2010)
al-Mihdhar (2009)
al-Anbari (2010)
and so on.

In fact, AQAP lost a number of individuals in the US air strikes of late 2009, early 2010, but the organization moved on, recruiting and training more men and taking advantage of the deaths of women and children that the air strikes brought. So, while the US killed some key people – today AQAP looks to be stronger than it was in Dec. 2009. Not a good recipe for success.

The question of bringing down AQAP’s top leadership is also good. Of course AQAP would be much weaker if the US could somehow kill al-Wihayshi, al-Raymi, al-Shihri, al-Abab, Asiri, al-Rubaysh, al-Anbari and so on.

But I think, and recent history suggests, that the US would end up killing a lot more men than the ones above and by carrying out all those strikes and by being responsible for all those deaths the US would have brought about a new generation of al-Qaeda by the time they got done killing the old generation.

Again, I don’t think this is a problem the US can kill its way out of. A military response (with a Yemeni face) has to be part of the solution, but only part.

If this becomes only the US v. AQAP then I think it becomes incredibly difficult to win. It has to be the US and Yemen v. terrorists who are bad for Yemen and Yemenis – then we have a war we can win.


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