Go Drones in Yemen, Part 3

Aaron at al-Wasat posted another solid note reference the use of drones in Yemen.  I just posted a response but I encourage all those interested in the drone debate to check his post. Aaron and Brian have both introduced some relevant information specific to Yemeni dynamics with respect to the use of drones.   Here is my note to Aaron’s post (which I screwed up the quotes on at his blog):


Good post, I’ll add a few more points to the discussion.

As far as rates and comparison with Pakistan, the drone program began there as mostly surveillance and only expanded after other options to root out AQ failed. I echo the point on relationships, but you noted in your post that our current relationships with certain tribal leaders is already exacerbating the problem. So it would seem to me that every relationship we make will only further exacerbate the divide between AQAP and the U.S., further entrenching certain tribes on the AQAP side.

Lastly, I see the drone program as a way to avoid getting involved in Yemeni domestic conflicts. All other options require us funding and bolstering the Salih regime; but drones don’t necessarily reinforce the Salih regime. Drones require basing but spin off little additional funding that can be diverted to the regime for violent use against the Huthi. As long as we thoroughly evaluate the intelligence we are provided, the drone program appears to me to be the best way to get at AQAP without getting enmeshed in Huthi insurgency issues. I don’t know enough about Yemeni internal politics, but all other support to Yemen seems likely to get diverted to other fronts and issues we don’t want to be involved in.


  1. This is all very interesting discussion but I don’t yet hear the wider context from a Yemeni point of view – which must be very hard for people in the US etc to comprehend. I’m sure I can’t fully comprehend it either, but some points below….

    They have a collective memory of the Crusades back in the twelve hundreds (Richard the Lionheart etc) or whenever it was; they have knowledge of their family lineages far back beyond what we in the West have – in detail 7 generations is not unusual. They have great grievances about the state of Israel taking over Palestinian lands, a sense of betrayal by the Brits about the whole process of the creation of the state of Israel, many broken promises. Then there’s the US bolstering of Israel, the lack of US pressure to prevent further building on the West Bank, the injustice of so many Palestinian refugees in neighbouring Jordan etc.

    Then there was the fall-out from the first Gulf War – Yemen sided with Iraq (it’s hard to understand why they would support Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait but I have heard that Kuwait used to be reckoned to be a part of Iraq so it wasn’t as outrageous as it appeared to us in the West).

    Then all the migrant Yemeni workers were kicked out of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; the country’s income from remittances was cut and US aid severely reduced (as punishment). No wonder Saleh rushed to show support to the US after 9/11, he couldn’t afford that mistake again. But it came with a cost – Yemenis have ever since suspected him of being a US puppet.

    Most Yemenis are now very disenchanted with a government that is seen as ineffective and corrupt. The remote tribal areas have seen little or no benefit from central government programmes. They have their code of honour which means they must offer hospitality and protection to visitors and thus AQAP personnel can easily become embedded, even marry into, local tribes. This doesn’t mean the tribes approve of them or their methods – just that they wouldn’t dream of turning them in to the (corrupt) state security.

    This is why drone attacks simply wouldn’t be able to separate out AQAP people from non-AQAP people where they are living. Deaths from bombs would be bound to include civilians, which would only serve further to alienate paople from the Government and the US. What a rich recruiting ground for AQAP!

    • PS – What was really important to mention – 57 Yemenis cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay (having been held for over 8 years, no charge, no proof of anything) – but still being held, no plans for release, just in limbo – no human rights or proper representaion or due course of law – no wonder the Yemenis don’t respect the US when this can happen without a murmur. What price democracy?

      • I’m not entirely sure how GITMO relates to whether we use drones as a counterterrorism tool in Yemen.
        That being said, I’m all for closing GITMO, but I’m not sure what we do with the 57 Yemeni’s. We’ve tried letting these guys go before and….oh that’s right, they formed the leadership of AQAP; leading attacks against the U.S. I’m open to solutions on the 57 Yemeni’s, but I’ve not heard one yet.

    • These are all great points. But it still leaves me scratching my head about what we do to stop AQAP. All of this history is important, and it appears the U.S. is using multiple approaches to entice Yemenis. But, we don’t have years to solve this issue. If you read the post, you noticed that I listed several options. I don’t see in your comment what we should pursue instead of drones. So, what do we do? ‘Do nothing’ is not an option. You claim that drones will create a rich recruiting ground. My impression is that this area in Yemen is already a rich recruiting ground for AQAP.

  2. [Cross-posted from my response in the comments section to your response of my original post - I hope that made sense, hah.]

    Hey Clint, thanks for the response. I agree with a lot of what you are saying.

    I should clarify a few things, though:

    1. Yes, I know that the drone program was limited in Pakistan originally, which is why I am concerned about a slippery slope occurring in Yemen where that becomes the only CT option. As a result, it could create more problems in the end due to the local context, which I think would react differently to a stepped-up campaign versus how it has been received in Pakistan.

    2. Sorry if it came off as if I was saying everything we do with exacerbate relations with the tribes in Yemen. It was more a warning for how difficult it is to navigate the tribal world in Yemen especially since Yemen society is already very violent. (I was referring to this post from Gregory Johnsen: http://islamandinsurgencyinyemen.blogspot.com/2010/11/whos-who-game-of-assigning-blame.html) I think that if we cultivate our relations with tribes in a correct manner it will be helpful for us in gaining HUMINT. That said, as much as I distrust Salih I do not think we should be directly contacting the tribes, but doing it through intermediaries in the Yemeni government since they know the local lay better than us and since Salih is known for being able to “dance on the heads of snakes.”

    3. I agree that along with soft power, special ops training of Yemeni security officials, and the drone program are the best multi-layered approach. That said, Salih is the only ballgame in town and as much as I distrust him we are going to have to work with him on some level because there really are no better options unless we support the southern movement who would in my estimation be better partners, but then that will just create more problems since Salih sees the southern movement as a threat to his power and an undermining of his crown achievements, the unification of Yemen.

    I look forward to you thoughts.

    • I noticed today in the paper another dose of financial aid to Yemen, so it looks like the U.S. is going with multiple efforts. We’ll see. It should be interesting.

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