Drone Strikes Do Fuel Blowback in Yemen

Slate columnist Fred Kaplan recently attempted to defend President Obama’s increasing reliance on drones. While he partially concedes that drones could be "morally iffy," Kaplan argues that this "kill list" of extrajudicial assassination could be "assuring":

"Not only are people—trained, authorized personnel—very much in control of what the drones do; in the most sensitive cases, the ultimate decision is made, in a very deliberate fashion, by the president of the United States."

Clearly, Kaplan has completely disregarded one of the most disturbing revelations from a May New York Times piece: "Today, the Defense Department can target suspects in Yemen whose names they do not know." Increasingly, Yemenis and Pakistanis are victims of signature strikes. These attacks target groups of people with traits that are shared by "terrorists" or "militants." Violent, aggressive traits like loading fertilizer onto a truck or doing jumping jacks.

For this reason, Marcy Wheeler has attacked the "kill list" as a "shiny object"

"…because it propagates the myth that everyone we’re killing is a known terrorist…The reference to and focus on a Kill List hides precisely the most controversial use of drones outside of Afghanistan: the targeting of patterns, not people."

No wonder American drones are highly unpopular around the world.

Later in his piece, Kaplan cites a New America Foundation study that asserts 96% of all those killed by drones or air strikes in Yemen were "militants." But as The New York Times reported earlier this month, the Obama administration, "in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants." In other words, thanks to sinister accounting, the Obama administration has eliminated the divide between "guilty" and "innocent bystander." This would also explain why the official civilian casualty count has been incredibly low. So the true militant and civilian death tolls are unknown.

Finally, Kaplan raises many crucial questions about American involvement in Yemen:

"Are they having an effect on the war against al-Qaeda? Does killing the No. 2 in Yemen degrade the organization, or does it just mean the ascension of an equally competent No. 3? Have the killings to date triggered a backlash? Ibrahim Mothana, co-founder of the Watan party, writes in an op-ed in today’s New York Times, "Drones strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants." Is this true? I don’t know, but it’s a question worth investigating."

But just three paragraphs later, Kaplan himself writes:

"Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates out of Yemen, is now seen as the center of the most dangerous operations, the locus of several attempted attacks against the United States. AQAP’s ranks are said to have swelled to more than 1,000 fighters (up from 200 to 300 just three years ago), and they control significant parts of southern Yemen."

So under the Obama administration, AQAP has drastically increased its membership. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has drastically increased its drone strikes: since 2009, it has launched 28 drone strikes and 13 air strikes in Yemen. (By comparison, George W. Bush only ordered one drone strike during all eight years of his presidency.) More dramatically, according to the same New America Foundation paper cited by Kaplan, 99% of all Yemenis killed by American drones or air strikes occurred during the Obama administration.

Could these trends be related?


Appearing on Up with Chris Hayes, Jeremy Scahill, a national security correspondent at The Nation, argues that these strikes motivate people "to hate the United States:"

"The most dangerous thing I think the US is doing (besides murdering innocent people in many cases) is giving people in Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan a non-ideological reason to hate the United States. To want to fight the United States. Non-ideological reasons, meaning a personal vendetta, is much more powerful than ‘We hate your McDonald’s. We hate your freedom. We hate your Christianity.’ That’s real to them."

Or as a Yemeni lawyer tweeted in May, "Dear Obama, when a U.S. drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with al-Qaeda." Furthermore, a May 2012 Washington Post article declared, "In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda." That article meticulously detailed how resentment, outrage, and vengeance towards U.S. drones legitimize AQAP. While this concept of blowback is controversial in the United States, it’s increasingly becoming the consensus in Yemen, shared by politicians, human rights activists, and victims’ families:

"Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people, especially in al-Qaeda-controlled areas. The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes.

"These attacks are making people say, ‘We believe now that al-Qaeda is on the right side,’

"There is more hostility against America because the attacks have not stopped al-Qaeda, but rather they have expanded, and the tribes feel this is a violation of the country’s sovereignty…There is a psychological acceptance of al-Qaeda because of the U.S. strikes.

"The Americans are targeting the sons of the Awlak. I would fight even the devil to exact revenge for my nephew."

In addition, American drone strikes completely ignore the delicate complexity of Yemeni politics. According to Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, "Rather than encourage the Yemeni government to respond to southern demands for greater local autonomy, Washington’s tactics are helping the U.S.-backed Yemeni government repress Southern separatists."

Yet there has been push back against blowback. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Christopher Swift, a fellow at the University of Virginia Law School’s Center for National Security Law, argues that drone blowback is a "fallacy." Swift recently traveled to Yemen and interviewed 40 different politicians, tribal leaders, and clerics about their views towards drones. Instead of revenge, Swift argues that poverty motivates people to join or sympathize with AQAP. He quotes an Islamist parliamentarian:

"The driving issue is development. Some districts are so poor that joining al-Qaeda represents the best of several bad options."

However, Yemen’s economy has been stagnant. According to the CIA World Factbook, in 2009, the same year AQAP was first created, Yemen’s GDP per capita was $2,500. In 2011, it was $2,500. The Yemeni economy has not dramatically deteriorated since the inception of AQAP. But what has changed dramatically over the past few years is the number of Yemenis killed by American aircraft. As I mentioned earlier, 99% of all Yemenis killed by American drones or air strikes occurred during the Obama administration.

In addition, there could very well be an ideological divide between leadership and other elites and the low-level recruits who join AQAP. Furthermore, writing at Antiwar.com, John Glaser notes that Anwar al-Awlaki, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called "Underwear Bomber," and Faisal Shahzad, the so-called Times Square Bomber, all state that their plots were "in retaliation" for the US killing innocent civilians.

In order to prevail over AQAP in the long-run, the Council on Foreign Relations quotes Ali Soufan’s recommendation: "You have to counter the [al-Qaeda] narrative, the ideology," and prevent them "from becoming part of opposition society." But by needlessly killing innocent civilians, the Obama administration sows discord, thereby unwittingly strengthening al-Qaeda as an opposition force.

Furthermore, AQAP is a relatively young organization, first formed in January 2009. So escalating U.S. involvement against an al-Qaeda affiliate is precisely what these terrorists want. As Osama bin Laden himself explained in October 2004:

"We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy…All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations."