Go Drones in Yemen, Part 2

Brian at AlwaysJudgedGuilty provided some excellent feedback on my previous post, Go Drones in Yemen.  Really insightful and I appreciate his thoughts and I look forward to hearing Gregory’s take at Waq al Waq.  I tried to respond to AlwaysJudgedGuilty’s comment section but I went way over the character limit so I’ll post here. Thanks Brian and here was my comment to your post:

Brian,

Excellent post!  I am definitely not an expert on Yemen so I appreciate the insight on what might happen in the country.  You’ve already gotten some good comments so I’ll hit a few points and then I’ll have another follow up in about a day reference not using drones alone.

To avoid the obvious backlash that comes from using drones and the subsequent civilian casualties that inevitably follow, I hear and agree with the arguments about not alienating locals and minimizing civilian casualties and I respect them all.

I am all for being surgical in CT application.  That being said, I can’t imagine that AQAP settled in its Yemen safe haven because the locals were big fans of ‘American Idol’.

As for relationships, I’m certain the U.S. will expand them in Yemen.  I agree these are necessary and important for the future.  But ten years of counterterrorism suggests that creating relationships really only gets one so far.  We’ve maintained 30-year relationships with Taliban tribal leaders and still Bin Laden and Zawahiri set up camp there and remain entrenched to this day.  I mentioned in my previous post that drones must be coupled with an overt strategic communications effort at the local level.  I’m not talking about “Visit Disney World” ads in Sana’a.  I mean direct solicitation and engagement at the local level where AQAP is hiding.

Another key factor is recognizing that drone operations don’t occur overnight and don’t always mean “Warheads on Foreheads”.  Examine the progression of drone use in Pakistan and it is clearly a sophisticated escalation where great effort is actually made to be surgical and limited during each engagement.  Drones don’t act alone and begin with in-depth surveillance and escalate into full-blown engagements when all peaceful options have been exhausted.  I expect the same progression to occur in Yemen.  Drones are a deterrent as much as a tool of action.

Despite media cries of tragedies and civilian casualties, closer examination reveals that most of these drone strikes are spot on.  The “Inside al-Qaeda” Newsweek article describes in detail how a drone strike smashed an AQ operations and training center with pinpoint accuracy.  Even during that operation there were so called “civilian casualties”.

Conducting drone strikes in Yemen will create casualties, physical damage and will impair relationships permanently.  However, I haven’t seen a better method yet for getting to these hard to reach areas rapidly and interdicting AQAP.  Counterinsurgency is too costly, too time-consuming and still produces civilian casualties.  Worst case, counterinsurgency can be even worse than limited drone actions.  For a snapshot of how counterinsurgency can go sideways, see Sri Lanka’s so-called “successful” counterinsurgency campaign over the LTTE, which killed tens of thousands.

The next question is civilian casualties: who is a combatant and who is not?  This debate began on September 11, 2001 and hasn’t progressed substantially one way or another since.  Bin Laden would claim that the victims of the 9/11 attacks were merely an extension of the U.S. government.  Meanwhile, the U.S. still can’t determine if supporters of AQ are combatants or not.  If you are the owner of a home in Yemen, where AQAP is seeking refuge, are you a civilian on the battlefield or an enemy combatant?  I don’t know and I’m not a lawyer so I can’t really dissect this issue properly.  However, if you are the homeowner providing refuge to Awlaki, I rather doubt that the drone attack on your home is what turns you against the U.S.  My guess is that you are already in the “Death to America” camp.  As seen in the comments section reference the “local farmer”, I agree that the psychological implications of drones buzzing around an innocent village is awful.  So then we need to tell the farmer what his options are vis-à-vis his preferences and provide the “true” civilian farmer a way to opt out, preserving his dignity and his livelihood.  However, the timeline for this option is short.  I’ll write more on this during my strategic communications post coming up next.

Overall, I’m frustrated with the CT discussions I see reference Yemen, Pakistan and the Sahel.  Most of the interviews and articles I’m reading are informative but then fall apart when they get to prescriptions.  Pundits keep articulating the “dire consequences of not dealing with AQAP”, and then subsequently discredit every course of action proposed.  My number one issue, which I tried to highlight in my last blog post, is that maintaining the status quo (or doing nothing) is not an option.  I guess my message to the expert pundits and persistent naysayers is, if you take a stand against every action, then you are an advocate for inaction.

Thanks for the details Brian, and I’d definitely like to hear more from you and Gregory as you think about it.  I know the two of you have some ideas about what can be done, in a hurry, to deal with AQAP. I’ll gladly echo whatever ideas you two have, as there are people desperate to pursue the right policy.

More to follow,

Clint
SelectedWisdom.com

7 comments

  1. “I am all for being surgical in CT application. That being said, I can’t imagine that AQAP settled in its Yemen safe haven because the locals were big fans of ‘American Idol’.”

    Come again?

    • I condensed too much here.
      1) I don’t think we should pursue a CT campaign that disregards civilian casualties.
      2) Those areas and populations that AQAP has sought safe haven within are unlikely to be pro-Western/pro-American and are likely to be pro-AQAP.
      3) Therefore, U.S. CT efforts should not be so afraid of civilian casualties as to justify inaction.

      I discuss later in the post about the spectrum of AQAP support by “civilians on the battlefield”. I’m not sure that all of the “innocent civilians” that unfortunately feel the wrath of drone targeting are truly neutral or on the side of the U.S. The assumption in many of the articles I read is that these individuals have no involvement with AQAP. I believe there is a scale of involvement that generally (not always) correlates to the distance between where a “civilian” happens to be with respect to where a drone missile lands.

  2. I don’t think I’m as knowledgeable about Yemen as you, but some of your comments leave me wondering. For example:

    “We’ve maintained 30-year relationships with Taliban tribal leaders and still Bin Laden and Zawahiri set up camp there and remain entrenched to this day.” Errr… As I understand it, the CIA was funding and helping Bin Laden to organize Al Qaeda as part of the resistance to the Soviet support for its puppet government. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that they started to decide Bin Laden and his merry men weren’t on our side any more. That was after twenty years or so of treating them as our allies. Why should we then be surprised that they retain their relationship with the Taliban. After all, Bin Laden is married to Mullah Omar’s sister, isn’t he?

    “Examine the progression of drone use in Pakistan and it is clearly a sophisticated escalation where great effort is actually made to be surgical and limited during each engagement.” Can you provide a source? You seem to be getting different information than I can find. I am aware that you are repeating the story that Petraeus is putting out, but I have reasons to be skeptical, especially wince we know that some portion of the drone strikes are being conducted by Derek Prince’s merry men, who seem to be xenophobic sociopaths. Not to say that the CIA aren’t xenophobic sociopaths, of course.

    “The “Inside al-Qaeda” Newsweek article describes in detail how a drone strike smashed an AQ operations and training center with pinpoint accuracy.” You trust what you read in Newsweek? You don’t suspect it might be a clever psywar piece from the Pentagon?

    I’m afraid I’m an advocate of “Do nothing for the time being. Form relationships. Learn the language and the culture. Find out who is allied with and against whom. Treat this as a police/intelligence problem, not war. War is the wrong analogy here.”

    • Thanks for the comments Roger, I’ll add some notes in here below:

      “We’ve maintained 30-year relationships with Taliban tribal leaders and still Bin Laden and Zawahiri set up camp there and remain entrenched to this day.” Errr… As I understand it, the CIA was funding and helping Bin Laden to organize Al Qaeda as part of the resistance to the Soviet support for its puppet government. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that they started to decide Bin Laden and his merry men weren’t on our side any more. That was after twenty years or so of treating them as our allies. Why should we then be surprised that they retain their relationship with the Taliban. After all, Bin Laden is married to Mullah Omar’s sister, isn’t he?

      My point here is that we have tried “the build relationships” approach before and it has failed; repeatedly. When we are talking about building relationships in Yemen, we (the U.S.) are asking native Yemeni’s to choose the U.S. over fellow Yemeni’s and Arabs. This is a really hard sell. We have very little leverage in this situation and ultimately we must turn to money and aid to cultivate these relationships. Money and aid always prove unsustainable in the long-run. The U.S. cannot provide money and aid to every tribe and clan in the world. And, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, money can only buy a temporary relationship. When the money runs out (or if the money is insufficient), centuries long family and social relationships, local relationships, will win out. Building relationships takes a very long time, is extremely costly, and still may not reach our end goal; destroying AQAP. AQAP has conducted several attacks of increased sophistication. AQAP has targeted several airliners in American airspace. We don’t have time to wait to build relationships, and I believe the U.S. has a decent handle on who is who in Yemen. The U.S. has been dealing with counterterrorism in Yemen since the Cole bombing ten years ago so we are not exactly starting from scratch.

      “The “Inside al-Qaeda” Newsweek article describes in detail how a drone strike smashed an AQ operations and training center with pinpoint accuracy.” You trust what you read in Newsweek? You don’t suspect it might be a clever psywar piece from the Pentagon?

      I don’t trust everything I read. But I do not believe this article to be propaganda. If you read the article, I think it speaks for itself.

      I’m afraid I’m an advocate of “Do nothing for the time being. Form relationships. Learn the language and the culture. Find out who is allied with and against whom. Treat this as a police/intelligence problem, not war. War is the wrong analogy here.”

      There is not enough time. If one of the jets containing a ‘printer bomb’ or the ’2009 Christmas Day Underwear bomber’ had exploded, I don’t believe there would be any debate about whether the U.S. would send drones. It would just happen. These are direct plots on the U.S. homeland. We have to go after them and in the process minimize casualties to the greatest extent possible.

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