The Unanswered Questions About America's Escalating Fight in Yemen

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U.S. drone strikes against suspected terrorists could risk worsening violence there.

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Tribal militants man a checkpoint on a road linking the Yemeni capital Sanaa with the oil-rich province of Marib. (Reuters)

America's Third War is escalating quickly in the skies over Yemen. Despite previous rebuffs from the White House, last month the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the CIA--which both run parallel drone campaigns in Yemen--were granted broad authority to conduct "signature strikes" against anonymous suspected militants, who are determined to support al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based on the observed "patterns of suspicious behavior" from multiple intelligence sources.

A senior Obama administration official described the enlarged scope of targets as "broadening the aperture" for JSOC and CIA drones. By one estimate, there have been more drone strikes in the past month (seventeen, including two on Saturday) than in the preceding nine years, since the first strike on November 3, 2002. Meanwhile, there have been between ten and fifty other U.S. attacks on militants in Yemen using manned aircraft or naval platforms.

It is difficult to understand the scope of the campaign, as Yemeni officials claim to conduct the vast majority of the strikes. This is highly unlikely, however, given that many its pilots have been intermittently on strike since January, and Yemen's Air Force capabilities are dismal--despite receiving $326 million in (overt) U.S. security assistance between 2007 and 2011, when a large chunk of military aid was suspended in response to the government's violent crackdown against unarmed civilian protestors. As Air Force General Ali Abdullah Saleh Al Haymi told journalist Sharon Weinberger in March, "U.S. assistance was used to kill Yemeni people, not to kill al-Qaeda."

Several smart pieces were recently published warning of the increased likelihood of blowback, as AQAP will undoubtedly redouble recruiting efforts in response to the expanded air campaign. A few additional points to consider:

First, it is not clear who are the targets of these airstrikes. Three months ago, Eric Schmitt wrote that the Obama administration's "two-pronged strategy calls for the United States and Yemen to work together to kill or capture about two dozen of al-Qaeda's most dangerous operatives, who are focused on attacking America and its interests." Less than two months later, John Brennan, the senior White House counterterrorism adviser, stated that AQAP has "more than a thousand members"--a big leap from the aforementioned twenty-four. He continued by framing the U.S. mission and goal: "We're not going to rest until Al Qaida the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa and other areas."

This statement--among others--raises a few red flags. If the goal is to kill or capture (let's be honest, to kill) only twenty-four AQAP militants, shouldn't the JSOC and CIA campaigns be nearly finished? There are over 950 more suspected militants to target and kill--assuming there are no additional recruits--if we are to destroy and eliminate AQAP, to borrow Brennan's words.

Second, there are several tribal groups fighting to capture substantive autonomy from the central government of President Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi, who has been in power for less than three months. At the same time, elements of AQAP are engaged in brutal insurgent attacks against the Hadi regime. According to U.S. officials, there is no daylight between armed militants seeking to overthrow Hadi, and terrorists working to strike the American homeland: "AQAP's antigovernment insurgency and its terrorist plotting against the West are two sides of the same coin." Excellent reporting by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad from southern Yemen finds that secessionist rebels are divided between receiving weapons from Iran with strings attached, and aligning with AQAP against the regime. One Yemeni activist tells Abdul-Ahad: "If young men lose hope in our cause they will be looking for an alternative. And our hopeless young men are joining al-Qaida."

The likelihood that U.S. air power will target only those (anonymous) individuals who aspire to attack the United States, while sparing Yemeni rebels, is low. Perhaps more importantly, drone strikes could ultimately unite these disparate groups behind a common banner that opposes both the Hadi regime and its partner in crime, the United States. It would be easy for the U.S. military and CIA to become a Yemeni counterinsurgency air force for the Hadi regime.

Third, the average Yemeni will eventually come to resent a foreign military that repeatedly attacks its territory. If there is one lesson to be learned from the three hundred CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, it is that the fervent and impassioned opposition to drones is more pronounced where the strikes do not occur. One distinction between Pakistan and Yemen is that, in the latter, U.S. drone strikes are geographically distributed throughout the country. This poses a particular difficult problem for the Obama administration, which, until two weeks ago, claimed that drone strikes were "covert," and thus failed to counter the myths and misinformation proliferating in Pakistan.

Fourth, the United States has collected intelligence and targeted individuals in Yemen since April 10, 2002 (at least), when the country was officially designated a combat zone. Among the suite of manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, National Security Agency listening facilities, and Yemeni government and tribal officials on the CIA payroll, there should have been some early warning of AQAP's increasing strength, as well as a platform for in-country policies to prevent and mitigate AQAP's reach.

Given the marked increase in AQAP's size, scope, and influence, the steady accretion of U.S. intelligence collection and strike capabilities have failed to reduce the threat of terrorist plots from Yemen. The current eliminationist, uncompromising counterterrorism mission in Yemen is not delivering results, but it is unlikely that the Obama administration, in alliance with the Hadi regime, will change course anytime soon. In the words of President Hadi, the "hunting of terrorists is irreversible."

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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