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Drones Instead of a Strategy

For the past few weeks I have been going back and forth with Frank Cilluffo and Clint Watts over their paper on what to do in Yemen.  (Their original post is here, my critique is here, and their rebuttal is here.) 

Last week the argument spilled over into twitter, with Will McCants taking their side.  Although outnumbered I have attempted to fight back valiantly.  Unfortunately I haven’t had time to respond in full form until today.  (Also this debate seems to grow with time, so I’ll try to keep this short, attacking what I see is they key flaw of their argument: namely, that it won’t work.)

As I understand the argument Cilluffo and Watts are making, it basically boils down to this: the US needs to increase its use of drone and air strikes in Yemen to keep AQAP back on its heels so that the organization doesn’t attack the US.

Now, contrary to what some seem to believe I’m not an out and out opponent of drones.  In fact I find myself agreeing with Andrew Exum when he writes: “I do think the drone program has been a tactic executed in the absence of a strategy and without proper transparency and oversight.”

Drones are a weapons system that likely isn’t going away anytime soon.  Now, I do have some serious questions about whether the drone and air strikes that the US is carrying out in Yemen are legal under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) from 2001.  And I would be much more comfortable if there was a new AUMF, but Congress doesn’t appear to be moving anywhere on that, so we’ll have to leave that not insignificant caveat aside for the moment.

Drones have a place in the US approach to Yemen, but they are only one, and hopefully a small piece of any strategy.  At the moment they seem to be the only tool the US is using, and that is a dangerous and deadly mistake.

In Yemen the US is driven by the fear that a terrorist plot originating from the country could strike the homeland.  This is neither sustainable nor wise.  When the fear subsides, as it did in 2004 and 2005, policy is left adrift, bouncing from one minor crisis to another without the benefit of an overarching strategy.

When the fear is acute, as it is at the moment, the US runs the very real risk of making the situation worse.  For some time I have been arguing that the US air strikes from Dec. 2009 – May 2010 instead of weakening AQAP actually made the organization stronger.  Yes, the US was able to eliminate some key commanders, but these individuals were easily replaced by new recruits.

In a twitter exchange Will McCants asked how I came to that conclusion, which is obviously a fair question.  When, I explained that it was based on my analysis and reading of Sada al-Malahim’s growing stable of writers, the martyrs biographies as well as AQAP videos and local news reports from Yemen, he said my sourcing was a little thin.

Fair enough, I can only use the evidence that is available.  But I have been studying AQAP and its predecessors for a number of years and that is what I see when I look at the evidence.  (An organization that is getting stronger not weaker as a result of US attacks.)  Maybe I’m wrong. That is certainly possible.  But no one I know has looked at all the evidence and come to the opposite conclusion: that the air strikes are working.

This, I think, gets at one of the key problems of Cilluffo and Watts’ paper.  They argue that leadership decapitation is the most effective way of reducing AQ’s capabilities.  And in a sense they are right, but what they miss is that this is not a zero-sum game. 

There is, I think, a dangerous assumption here: that the US has a good handle on the all the dangerous figures within AQAP. 

After nearly a decade of continuous war in the Muslim world I find the idea that killing AQ figures is a zero-sum game to be fundamentally flawed. 

Since their rebuttal didn’t deal with my example of Badawi and Banna v. Wihayshi and Raymi, I’ll throw out another one.

One of the individuals the US is most worried about at the moment is a Saudi member of AQAP named Abdullah Asiri.  This is the guy who built the bomb used by the underwear bomber as well as the two parcel bombs last fall. 

In September 2002 Abdullah was a chemistry student at a university in Saudi Arabia.  Eventually, he dropped out of school and to try to make his way to Iraq, but he was arrested by Saudi forces and, according to him, this is when his thinking started to change.  Now, Abdullah never made it to Iraq and wasn’t a member of the original AQAP. 

So by the time he arrived in Yemen he had little experience on a battlefield, but in a very short time he has become someone who has cost the west millions in airport security and continues to worry security officials.

And until 2009 no one knew about him.  Given how many Yemenis and Saudis have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade the odds are that there are many more like him, probably even with better training and more experience than he had when he started in 2006. 

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My point is the: the US needs to use drone and air strikes much more judiciously in Yemen, being careful not to make a bad situation worse.  And so far it has been neither careful nor judicious, which is why AQAP is growing stronger instead of getting weaker.

A military heavy response to AQAP may give the illusion of confronting the threat, but it won’t defeat the organization.  And if it actually exacerbates the problem, as I believe it is, then it is time to look for a new approach.  The US has a great hammer in drones, but AQAP – no matter how much we want them to be – is not a nail.  Military alone can’t defeat the organization. 

Ok, I didn’t do very well at keep this short, but hopefully this helps move the discussion along. 


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