The Unanswered Questions About America's Escalating Fight in Yemen

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.

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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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