Go Drones in Yemen

So I watched Fareed Zakaria 360 this weekend and Zakaria interviewed NY Times reporter Robert Worth about Yemen, AQAP and what the U.S. should do.  I like Robert Worth and he has done some great articles on Yemen in the NY Times that have been informative and influenced my thinking.  However, after providing some really good points, Worth was asked about the use of drones for counterterrorism in Yemen.  Here is a quote from the interview transcript:

“ZAKARIA: As you know, there’s talk here about a drone attack on Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born preacher who sort of inspired the – the Nigerian Underwear Bomber and perhaps has been playing a – a more broad role in inciting anti-American jihad. What do you think would be the effect if there were a drone attack an Awlaki?

WORTH: I think it would be very unpopular in Yemen. I think Anwar al-Awlaki is mostly viewed as a charismatic preacher, and because he has – isn’t known to have actually killed anyone, most Yemenis -

I mean, first of all, he’s not that well-known in Yemen. He’s better known in the U.S. because of all the – of those – the media coverage of him here. He’s becoming better known.

But I think it would be viewed as an attack on a Yemeni, on someone who, you know, isn’t necessarily guilty. Yemenis are deeply, deeply skeptical of this kind of thing.

So, I think – but I think it would – killing Awlaki would – would have a lot of negative reaction, and so there are some people who say that the Yemeni government doesn’t want him to be found, doesn’t want him to be killed because they – they’re nervous, understandably, about what would happen then.”

Well, Mr. Worth left me scratching my head.  He not only ‘shot down’ the use of drones in Yemen but also eliminated several other strategies to counter AQAP.  Worth contends that AQAP is getting stronger, but he can’t describe any American action that can deal with this problem.

So, let’s look at the basic options the U.S. has in dealing with AQAP.  Sure, some of these options overlap with one another, but these are the common choices:

  1. Do nothing. OK, we already tried this approach since the 2000 Cole bombing.  Sure, we tried some de-radicalization programs to the tune of about $15-$20 but that hasn’t worked.  The U.S. public and the U.S. government can’t pursue a do nothing approach right now.
  2. Arm, train and assist Yemeni forces. The U.S. is already doing this and as Worth noted, these forces are pretty good.  The upside is that the Yemeni security forces have made some advances.  The downside is that our support of Yemeni government forces puts us against the Al Houthi Rebellion and the Southern Movement of secessionists.  Additionally, Worth claims that despite the Yemeni forces being pretty good, they haven’t made any significant gains against AQAP.  I’m not sure I agree with his assessment, but I’m going to just roll with his argument for now.
  3. Provide U.S. foreign aid and conduct diplomacy, soft power catchall. Sure, we will do this regardless of the severity of AQAP’s actions.  At its best, this will slowly win over some of the Yemeni people and will cost the U.S. billions.  Around 2020, we might actually get one AQAP member turned over to security forces thanks to our niceness.  Ohh, that’s right, Yemen has already run out of water at this point, and most likely AQAP has conducted a thousand additional attacks and grown considerably due to the ripe recruiting conditions created by water resource shortage.
  4. Conduct a counterinsurgency effort to win over the Yemeni populace. I’m sure some COINdinista’s somewhere are already conjuring up plans to win over vulnerable tribal populations.  I have no doubts that if we spend enough time and money we could conduct a multi-billion dollar campaign to root out the 50-200 real AQAP bad dudes that pose a true threat.  We obviously can’t pursue this costly and inefficient approach because we are already fighting two counterinsurgencies that make only a minor dent in terrorist operations.  A third would be too much.
  5. Deploy drones to disrupt AQAP’s safe haven. As I mentioned earlier in the week, the drone program is the most successful safe haven denial tactic used by the U.S. Drones have significantly reduced AQ Central’s ability to train, plan, and operate.  Drones are a cost effective method for disrupting small groups of terrorist actors.  Drones create a light U.S. military footprint in comparison to more aggressive measures.  Yes, there will unfortunately be some unintended civilian casualties.  I would say to Worth, all of the above options would cause civilian casualties.

The U.S. needs action and results in Yemen now.  Looking at the above options, we are likely to pursue parts of options 2 and 3 no matter what the circumstances.  But, option 5 is a must.  The U.S. must act, and drones are the most effective option the U.S. has against small-decentralized terror cells immersed in indigenous populations in rugged terrain.  I think drones should be accompanied with a localized, strategic communications effort but I’ll talk more about that in my next post.


  1. Per my promise on twitter, here are my thoughts regarding drones and Yemen. Brian discussed some of the points I was going to make so I added only a few other points, but I believe it will further move us forward with understanding the situation and context of Yemen and then how to proceed. I would definitely be interested in your feedback about the issues that worry me the most regarding drones in Yemen since you come from a strategic background. That said, here is a link to the post: http://thewasat.wordpress.com/2010/11/12/to-drone-or-not-to-drone-yemen-edition/

  2. After the resistance/insurgency started in Iraq, to the astonishment of the neocons and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I saw a comment that has stuck with me ever since. “There are people in this world who want to kill us, so, of course, we have to go kill them. Unfortunately, sometimes we make a mistake and kill people who did not want to kill us, and then all their friends and relatives want to kill us.” Despite all the assertions coming from the Special Operations guys about how careful they are and how they only kill actual terrorists, my guess is that at least two thirds of the people killed in night raids and drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan are civilians, and a lot are women and children. Every time one child is killed, we send a dozen recruits to Al Qaeda. Behold, we have created Ouroboros, the snake that consumes/creates itself.

    • Roger,

      I don’t advocate the killing of civilians. However, I think there are several things that must be considered.

      1- I do not believe that two-thirds of the people killed in drone strikes are women and children. This is a commonly repeated story in the media, but I have seen no data to back up these claims. I just attended a conference in DC by FPRI reference foreign fighters. During the panel on Pakistan, they addressed the issue of drone strikes killing civilians and all members of the panel said that the alleged killing of civilians was exaggerated by the media. These were people that were in Pakistan doing research so I value their opinion.

      2-The assumption in your above article is that every person in a given location containing an AQ member is a civilian. I don’t think this is really the case. If a terrorist seeks refuge in a specific house, I would imagine that the terrorist chose that refuge for a reason. I don’t believe these terrorists are forcing themselves on the population. The population is probably on the side of the terrorist, before the drone undertakes a mission.

      3- You are assuming that if it weren’t for night raids and drone strikes, these young children and civilians would then be on the side of the U.S or indifferent. This is definitely not the case. In fact, by leaving the terrorist to operate freely in these locations, we are permitting the recruitment of these children to the terrorists’ side. So a “do nothing approach” is a lose as well. I will try to find a couple of videos where U.S. forces recognize they can’t completely eliminate civilian casualties and then undertake deliberate efforts to reconcile with the local people that are truly affected adversely. They are out there but I’ll have to do some digging.

      In your above scenario, I don’t see how we can match and overtake terrorists and not create some civilian casualties. It’s unfortunate, I agree. But, I have yet to see the peaceful silver bullet where only the bad guys lose and everyone else wins.

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