In Yemen, Drones Aren’t a Policy
October 23, 2013
the good old days in Yemen from 2004 to 2007—that is, relatively speaking. I
was then the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, which pretty
much enjoyed the run of the country, except for the northern region of Saada,
which the government of Ali Abdallah Saleh denied us permission to visit due to
the then ongoing war there. To be sure, coordination with local authorities
were required, but I was able to obtain permission to go hiking in the gorgeous
mountain regions around and south of Sanaa. On occasion, I was also able to
travel unescorted to remote villages and actually spend the weekend. On one
occasion, driving with a British friend in my personal vehicle, we stopped at
an odd looking little place just off the road with a sign that said “Youth
Sports Club.” On the first floor (literally) all conceivable brands of alcohol;
on the second floor, all conceivable types of weapons. The shopkeeper quipped,
“If you don’t see it, ask me; I’ll know where to get it for you!”
in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) certainly existed then, although it had not yet
acquired the name and notoriety that it now enjoys. It was a rare occasion, in
those days, that U.S. forces or equipment were needed to directly go after an
happened, between 2007 when I left Yemen and 2013? The United States sent back
home a few Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, the Iraq war ended and Yemeni foreign
fighters returned home, and Osama Ben Laden was killed. Meanwhile the U.S.
policy of using drones to track and kill AQAP elements went into full gear.
assess U.S. policy in Yemen from a security standpoint first, we would have to
conclude that it has certainly not brought more security to the American
diplomats in Yemen. Sanaa is now classified as an unaccompanied post, meaning
it is too dangerous for diplomats to bring families with them. Further,
diplomats who, until recently, tended to live on the economy, in villas and
apartment buildings in the middle of
downtown Sanaa, were first moved to a well guarded hotel near the Embassy
compound in 2011, and consequently into crowded quarters on the compound
itself. American diplomats wishing to go outside embassy walls to meet with
Yemenis, now have to have heavy security escorts and are discouraged from all
but essential meetings impossible to conduct on the compound itself. In terms
of security of the homeland, one can only conjecture. True, there hasn’t been
an attempt on the U.S. mainland since the failed Christmas “underwear” bombing
of 2009, but the number of AQAP operatives has risen over recent years, from
several hundred in 2008 to several thousand estimated today. Surveillance
interceptions continue to catch “chatter” among AQAP operatives, alerting
Washington to continued plotting and acts of terrorism being planned against
U.S. interests (as testified to publicly by top intelligence officials).
Nowadays, traveling outside of Sanaa is a virtual impossibility for all foreign
diplomats. In all respects, the security situation in Yemen today is a far cry
from the 2004 to 2007.
a side issue, from a U.S. policy point of view, Yemen’s Arab Uprising took
place in 2011, and brought down Ali Abdallah Saleh, after thirty years of his
presidency. The uprising itself had nothing to do with either AQAP or U.S.
foreign policy. Yemeni foreign fighters had decided, as early as 2005, to make
Yemen both a refuge and a place in which to build a powerful regional base for
their operations. The preoccupation on the part of the U.S. government with
AQAP made our policy makers all but oblivious to one of the most significant
movements in Yemen’s modern history. So far at least, Yemen’s protest movement
represents the most successful uprising in the region, given the bloody
implosion of Syria, the teetering of Libya and the turning south in the course
of Egyptian and perhaps the Tunisian experience as well.
positive side, the U.S. government has supported the Gulf Cooperation Council
(GCC) plan for transition in Yemen right from the start. The U.S. has also
supported politically and financially the National Dialogue, offering $10
million for the negotiation process itself and promising to fund needed
training and institution building after the dialogue concludes. A U.S.
assistance package of $356 was dedicated to Yemen for 2012, of which roughly
half was spent by USAID and other civilian agencies. This is more than ten
times what U.S. assistance to Yemen was during the 2004-2007 period.
money on good governance, participation, women’s health and education is
definitely a step in the right direction. Yemen, however, has major economic
and political development challenges ahead. In the long term, it is Yemen’s
stability, unity and democratic development that will improve security and
guard against the spread of AQAP. The international community, which has
pledged 8 billion dollars since 2011, needs to pool these resources and spend
them according to a grand scheme, a new Marshall Plan monitored by
international institutions to prevent the bilateral-aid-as-usual from being
syphoned off by local corruption and inefficiency.
the renewed focus on aid, U.S. Policy in Yemen still reflects ambivalence,
uncertainty and conflicting goals. The global war on terror sill trumps the
prioritization needed for assisting the democratic transition underway. Drone
strikes take out a few bad guys to be sure, but they also kill a large number
of innocent civilians. Given Yemen’s tribal structure, the U.S. generates
roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP operative killed by drones.
Open source reporting records 45 drone strikes in Yemen in 2012, and 22 so far
in 2013. Reported casualties are 491 for
2012. In war, unmanned aircraft may be a necessary part of a comprehensive
military strategy. In a country where we are not at war, however, drones become
part of our foreign policy, dominating it altogether, to the detriment of both
our security and political goals.
Khoury is Senior Fellow for Middle East and National Security at the Chicago
Council on Global Affairs. He previously served as Deputy Chief of Mission in
Yemen (2004-2007), Deputy Director of the Media Outreach Centre in London
(2002-2004), and Consul General in Morocco (1998-2002). In 2003, during the
Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at U.S. Central Command in Doha
and in Baghdad.