By Noah Shactman | Wired | Sept. 5, 2012
29 dead in a little over a week. Nearly 200 gone this year. The White House is stepping up its campaign of drone attacks in Yemen, with four strikes in eight days. And not even the slaying of 10 civilians over the weekend seems to have slowed the pace in the United States’ secretive, undeclared war.
At this week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, you’ll hear lots of talk about the Obama administration’s pursuit of al-Qaida and its allies — including, of course, the raid that ultimately took out Osama bin Laden. But the hottest battlefield in this worldwide conflict isn’t likely to receive much attention. It’s a shame, because the fight in Yemen is one that demands discussion. Not only does the White House consider al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to be the extremist group most likely to strike in the United States. But the American response to that threat was been widely questioned by regional experts, who wonder whether U.S. drones and commandos aren’t being duped into fighting on one side of a civil war.
The latest attack came in Hadramout province, where a barrage of eight missiles slammed into a suspected militant safe house on Wednesday, killing six people. “The exact target of today’s strike has not been disclosed; no senior AQAP leaders have been reported killed in the attack,” the Long War Journal notes. Most of those killed were fresh recruits; only one could be considered an extremist veteran, a security official tells CNN. Several others were able to escape the hideout alive.
On Sunday, at least 10 civilians were not so fortunate. They were killed in a strike gone awry near the town of Rada’a in al-Baitha province. An aircraft — believed to be an American drone — fired a pair of missiles at a vehicle supposedly carrying a local AQAP leader. One of the missiles instead hit a nearby minibus. A 10-year-old girl and her mother were among the dead. “Families attempted to carry the victims’ corpses to the capital, Sana’a, to lay them in front of the residence of newly elected President Abdurabu Hadi, but were sent back by local security forces,” according to CNN.
“You want us to stay quiet while our wives and brothers are being killed for no reason. This attack is the real terrorism,” one Rada’a resident tells the network. Members of parliament and Yemeni human rights groups were quick to condemn the killings, as well.
The U.S. has two separate drone campaigns underway in Yemen — one run by the CIA, the other by the military’s Joint Special Operations Command. Together, they’ve conducted 43 strikes since the start of 2011, according to a Long War Journal tally, killing 274 people in the process. Exactly how many of the 274 were militants is tough to tell; the U.S. “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,” the New York Times recently reported. As long as someone acts like a terrorists — whatever that means — he could be taken out in a so-called “signature” strike.
Either way, the drones are only one facet of a much American broader war effort in Yemen. U.S. commandos stationed inside Yemen are helping government forces target their militant adversaries. American warplanes, based in neighboring Djibouti, are also flying missions over the country. The U.S. has acknowledged it will spend $112 million on military assistance to the Yemeni military for gear like night vision goggles and commando raiding boats. More than twice that amount will help fund nation-building there, to include “food vouchers, safe drinking water and basic health services,” according to top White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.
The rationale for this rather sizable campaign is simple, Brennan says: AQAP is al-Qaida’s “most active operational franchise.” Its members have tried to launch attacks on the U.S., including the infamous “underwear bomber” of 2009, and inspire American-based extremists to do the same. Its allies even managed to take over Yemen’s Abyan province for a time. In a single attack this March, insurgents surprised Yemen’s 25th Mechanized Brigade, kidnapped 73 soldiers, and killed as many as 200 more in their sleep.
But the results of U.S. intervention are harder to gauge. Brennan and his colleagues say they’re making progress in Yemen as a new government there gets trained up to take on the counterterror fight. Yet AQAP’s ranks appear to be swelling. University of Virginia researcher Christopher Swift found on a recent trip to Yemen that economic arguments were AQAP’s biggest allies. “But the recent shift to ‘signature’ strikes in Yemen and the growing risk of civilian casualties is swiftly undermining our credibility with many ordinary Yemenis,” he writes. That matches what one member of Yemen’s coalition government disagrees told the Washington Post in May: “There is a psychological acceptance of al-Qaida because of the U.S. strikes,”
Nor is it always clear who is fighting whom. Yes, the government is battling AQAP. But it’s also trying to put down a rebellion — and the rebels are often hard to separate from the terrorists. Meanwhile, forces supporting the former president have battled with troops loyal to the new administration, and tribal militias have struck both Islamists and soldiers. So this is a conflict with as many as five sides, which would present a strategic challenge even if American policy makers were intimately familiar with Yemen. They are not.
“This is not going to end well,” Princeton University’s Gregory Johnsen, an expert on the region, recently wrote. “In an effort to destroy the threat coming out of Yemen, the U.S. is getting sucked further into the quicksand of a conflict it doesn’t understand and one in which its very presence tilts the tables against the U.S.” Meanwhile, the strikes keep coming.