American Drones Will Not Save Yemen

An attempted terrorist attack this week has been bookended by U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. Do we know they're effective?

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An unmanned security drone on patrol / Reuters

The first half of May has seen significant levels of violence in Yemen. On May 3, a drone strike killed 13 suspected militants in southern Yemen. On May 6, a drone strike killed Fahd al-Quso, one of the al-Qaeda operatives behind the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. On May 10, another drone strike killed 8 more suspected militants.

In the middle of all that, on May 8, the AP announced a blockbuster story: American intelligence agents had broken up a sophisticated bomb plot in Yemen. It seemed like the month of May has been a bonanza for counterterrorism efforts in the Arabian Peninsula. But there's another side to all this, and the drone-led war there has its costs as well.

At the end of 2009, Yemeni officials estimated there were about 300 al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters in the entire country. This was right after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, at the behest of AQAP, tried to detonate an explosive he wore inside his underwear on a flight to Detroit. Calling the attack a "grave threat," President Obama vowed to intensify the fight against terrorists worldwide.

Obama followed through on his promise. He had already dramatically increased the pace of operations in Yemen, using the famed JSOC units to coordinate a series of deadly strikes against AQAP (part of a global, Obama-overseen expansion in drone strikes). Those operations continued throughout the next year. The war in Yemen had come into full force.

But what has that war actually accomplished? In this week's public discussion of the latest underwear bomb, U.S. officials have estimated that AQAP has more than a thousand fighters in Yemen. Can we reasonably call our counterterrorism efforts there a success if the terrorist organization there has tripled at the same time? To be fair, these estimates are imperfect, and there are many other factors determining the size and reach of the group. But it's hardly a high-five moment.

There are other consequences of America's efforts in Yemen that might not bode well for our strategy and methods there. The CT (counterterrorism) mission, as it's known, is based parltly on the belief that the U.S. must support the ruling regime in capital city Sanaa, run for decades by Ali Abdullah Saleh and recently succeeded by a protege, Abdo Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi. That regime is so unpopular it sparked more than a year of Arab Spring protests in every major city in the country.

AQAP has moved into this gap. An aggressive new group, Ansar al-Sharia, has taken over some areas in the south and fought Yemeni security forces. There is some disagreement among analysts about whether this new group is a part of AQAP. But, by co-opting at least some of Ansar al-Sharia's message, AQAP could benefit by transitioning from an isolated terror group to a part of the larger, southern secessionist movement, against which the Yemeni government has been struggling since the country's unification in 1990.

The current chaos and legal anarchy in Yemen -- some areas of the country fly al-Qaeda's flag, not the Yemeni government's -- has created space for the terror group to innovate new weapons.

From this perspective, it's difficult to conclude that the counterterrorism mission in Yemen is succeeding. Sure, "bad guys" are being killed off by the dozen, but tribal elders in the countryside insist a lot of innocent civilians are being killed as well. And the morality of drone strikes is still far from crystal clear.

The challenge in Yemen is, ultimately, a political one: an illegitimate government struggling with multiple resistance and rebellion movements, in addition to a terrorist movement slowly making inroads into one of them. That's probably not a challenge that can be ultimately solved by sending in JSOC and firing a bunch of drones into the desert; it is a challenge that requires a comprehensive political, economic, and social framework for addressing the many facets of the problem. Of course, the U.S. also has diplomats in Yemen, and many policy and economic analysts back in Washington are working tirelessly on the country's problems. But the point is that terrorist-killing drones are not the answer.