Accelerating the Counterproductive Drone War in Yemen

Although President Barack Obama pledged to curtail U.S. drone attacks in the war on terror, recently in Yemen, he has done just the opposite. Three such attacks whacked more than 40 alleged Islamist militants. It seems that three civilians were accidentally killed in the attacks. In terms of limiting "collateral damage" to noncombatants, that’s a very good outcome, right?

No. This self-perpetuating drone war is creating more enemies than it is killing. Western and Yemeni journalists on the ground in Yemen have documented this counterproductive outcome, cataloging the rise in membership of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) even as US drones are killing substantial numbers of militants. But with such seemingly low numbers of civilian deaths how could this be?

First of all, the US and Yemeni governments have an incentive to underestimate the number of civilian deaths and injuries inflicted. Second, sensational blunders, such as the killing of 15 civilians at a wedding party last December become infamous and are condemned by the Yemeni population. Third, a buzzing sound occurs before the deadly explosions, terrorizing far greater numbers of Yemenis than are actually killed or injured. All of these factors act as a recruiting poster for more jihadists.

Lastly, and most important, even if the United States thinks it is doing Yemen a favor by ridding it of Islamist radicals, while keeping civilian casualties to a minimum, Yemenis see only a foreign imperial power killing fellow countrymen and women. In short, as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, armed forces of foreign powers rarely get a break in local public opinion in these situations, even if they hand out candy to kids.

In addition to creating greater numbers of militants in Yemen, more evidence of the US drone war’s blowback has been illustrated by AQAP’s retaliatory attempts to attack U.S.-bound aircraft (placing bombs in group members’ underwear and computer printers).

The drone war confirms what most experts on counterinsurgency have concluded: killing your way out of such situations rarely works and often creates more enemies to fight. Yet why does the US drone war in Yemen continue? Because the CIA has developed vested bureaucratic interests in carrying out this function, is fighting an uphill battle with the US military to retain some control over this rising technology, and thus desperately wants its war in Yemen to succeed. Also, killing militants is tempting because it gives a sense, in the short- to medium term, of accomplishment—never mind the long-term downside.

Even worse, the latest barrage of drone attacks resulted from the AQAP leaders’ open taunting of the United States in a video. In the macho world of armed force, a tit-for-tat mentality often takes over that stipulates that provocations by an enemy require a rapid riposte. And that is exactly what AQAP wants. As a standard arrow in their quiver, insurgents and terrorists frequently attack the stronger party in order to elicit a disproportionate response, which then allows the militants to garner new fighters, funds, and other means of support. The CIA’s covert war in Yemen has provided ample opportunity for those militant activities, and this recent spate of drone attacks is merely more of the same in the agency’s ham-handed bungling that has created and strengthened American enemies.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.