At Foreign Policy, James Traub wonders whether we might be causing outrage and creating enemies through our drone war in Yemen.
As Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen, notes, “Right now we don’t have a Pakistan-like reaction. But at first we didn’t have that reaction with Pakistan either. This is something that builds. And folks in Yemen know what’s going on in Pakistan. This will play into the broader narrative of the drones we use in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Another lesson learned from Afghanistan is that even a counterinsurgency effort designed to protect civilians and promote good government will provoke nationalist resistance. People on the ground will see the intervention as against them, not for them (which explains why, according to WikiLeaks cables, President Saleh publicly insisted that the Yemeni air force had launched the strikes). Counterinsurgency, which seemed so promising all of two or three years ago, now looks like an illusory, or at least oversold, solution to the war on terror. How long before we say the same of drones?
First of all, to describe the U.S. war and occupation in Afghanistan as a project “designed to protect civilians and promote good government” is to have a severely warped view of what’s been going on there over the past decade. Overall violence and civilian casualties have increased for five years in a row and promoting good governance is laughable in the context of the inordinately corrupt Karzai government and its savage security forces. But Traub seems to acknowledge that this “counterinsurgency” campaign has been a failure, so we’ll leave that aside.
Traub writes this piece in the context of Obama’s recent decision to allow the CIA and JSOC to employ “signature strikes,” to bomb groups of individuals that they cannot even identify and who present no imminent threat that the administration is willing to establish. Even though Traub seems to be recognizing that the drone war in Yemen may be similarly “oversold,” he’s not getting off the train just yet. “There are no cost-free military solutions,” he posits, presuming there is a military solution to begin with. “But when does the cost exceed the value?” he asks.
The frequency of strikes is already much greater than most of us realize. A report by the Britain-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism counts 21 definite or possible drone strikes in Yemen over the last two months; a Yemeni government official has said that the United States has been launching an average of two strikes a day since mid-April. The danger of producing more militants than we kill in Yemen hardly seems hypothetical.
Plenty of informed voices have been singing this tune for years (not to mention this very site). And ever since Obama approved “signature strikes” in Yemen, these narratives of blowback have become more pronounced.
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University (who Traub actually quotes), recently wrote, “Body bags are not a good barometer for success in a war like this. I would argue that U.S. missile strike[s] are actually one of the major — not the only, but a major — factor in AQAP’s growing strength.”
Jeremy Scahill, reporting for Nation, exposed in February after visiting Yemen how U.S. airstrikes that kill civilians and those ill-defined as militants – along with support for the brutal Yemeni government – foments anti-Americanism and fuels international terrorism.
As Charles Schmitz, a Yemen expert at Towson University in Maryland, told the Los Angeles Times, “The more the U.S. applies its current policy, the stronger Al Qaeda seems to get.”
“U.S. involvement is far more than ever in Yemen. We have no evidence that all those being killed are terrorists,” Abdul Salam Mohammed, director of Abaad Strategic Center, told CNN. “With every U.S. attack that is conducted in Yemen al Qaeda is only growing in power and we have to ask ourselves why that is happening.”
“Drones are a weapon of terror in many ways, and the kind of hostility this is going to breed may not be worth the counter-terrorism gains,” says Barbara Bodine, who was U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001.
Understanding blowback is an elementary part of understanding U.S. foreign policy. Yet in the pages of Foreign Policy, that understanding is only now just barely rearing its head.