The Human Impacts of the US Drone War in Yemen
June 13, 2014
Michael Shank / The National Review & US News & World Report
Commentary: "As Washington debates the legal merits of killing American citizens in Yemen via drones, a bigger debate must be addressed: the merits of our Yemen policy generally. Yemenis' opinion of us was already low under President George W. Bush, but it has reached a new low under President Barack Obama. Building a nation after an Arab Spring-like revolution isn't easy, especially when corruption is rampant, the population is starving and the country is running out of water."
The drone memo matters, but what the West is failing to do on the ground matters more
Michael Shank / The National Review
SANAA, YEMEN (MAY 22, 2014) -- In Washington, D.C., it is rare for any adversarial country to remain in the forefront of foreign policy for very long. Yemen is an excellent example of how forgetful Washington can be. Having returned from Yemen this month, I was startled by the degree to which the country had already been placed on the back burner by much of the media only a few weeks after the White House killed scores of civilians in Yemen's restive south.
Despite our perpetual drone strikes throughout Yemen, an ongoing humanitarian crisis, and a government in disarray, it took a White House memo to put Yemen back in the spotlight. The memo will be released thanks to pressure by liberal and conservative senators who have joined in holding up President Obama's nomination of one of the memo's authors, David J. Barron, to a federal appeals-court judgeship.
The White House's forthcoming release of its classified drone memo, which justifies the killing of American citizens in Yemen, is an opportunity to discuss the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. Passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the ill-forged joint resolution permits the Pentagon to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time.
lthough Representatives Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D., Calif.) have both been working to sunset the AUMF through the National Defense Authorization Act, this policy has kept the administration's hand unfettered in Yemen.
Now, as Washington debates the legal merits of killing American citizens in Yemen via drones, a bigger debate must be addressed: the merits of our Yemen policy generally. According to one prominent sheikh I met in Sana'a, who is close to Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the US has dropped significantly in Yemeni public opinion. Yemenis' opinion of us was already low under President George W. Bush, but it has reached a new low under President Barack Obama.
Winning hearts and minds in Yemen, however, doesn't have to be so difficult, according to the sheikh. His three recommendations are simple. First, provide economic support for the basic human needs of a population whose majority is starving and lacking access to clean water and sanitation. Second, decrease the drone strikes perpetrated by America in Yemen. This was a resounding call from everyone I met with in Sana'a, whether in government, the private sector, academia, or the media, and whether religious or secular. Third, choose better diplomats and experts for Yemen. The most recent US ambassador's approach, apparently, was not only insensitive but offensive and unhelpful.
Most importantly, drones won't fix the instability in the south. After meeting with one prominent doctor from southern Yemen, who noted that there have been no tangible results from the United States' war on al-Qaeda, I concluded that the issues are explicitly non-drone-worthy.
The biggest problems causing the most conflict are the lack of justice (i.e., rights, freedoms, social justice, and basic services, which were all things that President Saleh ignored), identity (the school curriculum erased southern Yemen as part of the nation and treated the south as non-native), and education (especially for women).
These historical wrongs must be addressed in a process that remedies decades of political and economic marginalization, something American drones will never do and will ultimately make worse.
The paradox in Washington, among the development-contractor industry and international donor institutions, is that they claim this has been their focus in Yemen all along. The concerns and critiques voiced by members of civil society in Sana'a, however, tell a very different story. They speak of non-expert advisers and short-term workshops in five-star hotels, instead of human and financial resources directed to real needs on the ground and long-term mentoring and coaching that would build a sustainable capacity to lead.
For Yemeni women, for example, the international footprint has been particularly useless. While women now account for up to 30 percent of the national dialogue process and the transitional government -- something for which the United Nations special representative took primary credit despite the years of advocacy by Yemeni women for this work -- the US and other foreign donors continue to treat women's work shallowly and without appropriate expertise.
If women's rights in Yemen were of real international concern, say locals, health funding would not remain a meager 4 percent of the government's budget, leaving little money to provide primary health care and nutrition, and nothing for reproductive health. The development community would be working to combat female illiteracy (which hovers at a staggering 70 percent) and helping women set up small businesses and monitor the use of money -- which we know women are better at than men -- to cut down on rampant corruption.
Since social capital remains strong among women, and they are providing much of the remaining glue in this unstable society, this is where the West should invest.
This may all seem far afield from the White House's release of its drone memo, but it's not. If policymakers truly care about the recruitment of Americans, or anyone, to the adversarial cause of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, and in Yemen specifically, they should change course in how we counter extremism.
Violent extremism in Yemen is being built on the backs of the poor and the marginalized. If the West wants to undermine al-Qaeda's rhetoric, it must work to remedy the reality on the ground. No number of White House kill lists, and the classified memos that obscure them, will cure it.
Michael Shank is the associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and a member of the adjunct faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He returned this month from an FCNL fact-finding mission in Yemen.
How to Pull Yemen Back From the Edge
Yemen needs international support to overcome serious political and economic hurdles
Michael Shank / US News & World Report
SANAA, YEMEN (May 6, 2014) -- Building a nation after an Arab Spring-like revolution isn't easy, especially when corruption is rampant, the population is starving and the country is running out of water. Yet that is exactly what Yemen is trying to do and in just a few years.
Seem impossible? Perhaps. But citizens in Sanaa, the capital city, are insisting that they have no other choice. If the new constitution isn't drafted by the end of this year, approved by a referendum and followed up by presidential and parliamentary elections, the country may very easily descend into widespread conflict.
If the international community wants to prevent the kind of Arab Spring fallout witnessed in Syria and Egypt, then we must rally on Yemen's behalf, and quickly, before the year 2014 expires. It's that kind of urgent.
When I visited Yemen this month, my meetings with parliamentarians and those in the private sector, sheikhs and civil society, media and academia, government officials, the international development community, and others all pointed to a comprehensive set of obstacles that must be addressed immediately and which require meaningful international support on the ground. The conversation cannot take place solely in London, where the "Friends of Yemen" discussed last week the distribution of funds and assessed political progress, but on the ground in Yemen as well.
No matter how resilient Yemen may be (and without question the people of this country have endured worse), my short time there bore witness to this once-in-a-decade (or century) opportunity to positively impact a country and set its trajectory towards political and economic progress. In order to do so, several fronts must be tackled.
On the political front, the state of Yemen is now struggling to stand up after being undermined by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who weakened political institutions and power, strengthened the tribes and created an antagonistic culture towards the private sector. The immunity deal for Saleh and his supporters set an incredibly problematic precedent for transitional justice, and clauses in the existing constitution -- such as Article 65 -- allow those in the quasi-handpicked parliament to extend their term, which they've done for the last five years, without re-election.
As one progressive parliamentarian told me last week, this is merely a photo of democracy, nothing more. While the national dialogue deserves credit for bringing every party (including mainstream moderate and more extreme Islamic parties) to the table in an impressive show of the balance of power, everything now depends on the constitution and elections being managed properly and promptly. Unless some kind of decentralized federalism materializes, with strong political provincial representation at the local level, public distrust in Sanaa political elites will continue.
On the security front, the country is saturated with weapons, with millions of assault weapons in the hands of countrymen and civilians. This makes for a combustible situation. A rich history of military spending and training (including US training for Saleh's special forces, skills that were used in 2011 against revolutionary protesters) has done little for sustaining state security.
Generals and soldiers have little allegiance to the state, but rather answer to tribal and factional leaderships, making a cohesive response to any security threat more difficult. Furthermore, according to accounts there, some generals have been keener to profit off their position by providing security to the oil companies in the east rather than provide security for the people.
The police are not much better off. In at least half the country, there are no police whatsoever. In these locations, people often depend on a Yemeni tradition of reconciliation that deals with crime by acknowledging guilt, offering payment, but not pursuing punishment or prosecution. The police that do exist in the urban areas are often illiterate, older, underpaid, undertrained and under-resourced.
Watching them patrol the streets of Sanaa last week, after multiple cases of attempted kidnappings of Russian and German nationals, it is clear that the police are no match for the kind of violent crime that is increasing. The more desperate attempts at keeping the peace, like banning tens of thousands of motorcycles because they're often the vehicles of choice to carry out assassinations, are already deemed ineffective.
Beyond military and police, there are other security threats that must be addressed, including the mounting water wars and America's increasingly reckless response to al-Qaida. Both issues are causing more violence and are creating adopters of violent strategies, but shockingly little attention is focused here.
On the economic front, the government is struggling to provide services for a burgeoning population of 25 million people. Yemen has the second highest rate of malnutrition in the world, the highest rate of poverty and illiteracy in the Arab World, and a youth bulge that is overwhelmingly unemployed.
According to one successful businessman, there are no economic minds in the government. Between a lack of economic acuity and corruption, there is simply no money left in the bank. Roughly two-thirds of existing funds are spent on government salaries and fuel subsidies, with very little spent on infrastructure, jobs or social services. The system is completely unsustainable.
Yemen's $13 billion budget and $36 billion gross domestic product could be much higher. The government desperately needs revenue, and a higher sales tax (which currently only collects a paltry 5 percent of the GDP) offers an easy mechanism. The business community is also ready and willing to partner on domestic power projects, but the government refuses to collaborate, despite persistent public frustration over power outages.
The government has yet to enact a public-private partnerships law, as most countries have, and has failed to consider codes of conduct or provide the business community with the necessary and dependable regulations and rules that are consistent across the country, irrespective of region.
Despite all of this, Yemen's nation-building road ahead need not be dire, provided the international community is willing to roll up its sleeves and get to work on the ground and with the people. Politically, that includes forcing the old guard's hand to ensure transparency, inclusiveness and delivery of basic services. This is a must.
Militarily, that means downsizing and disciplining the troops, while transitioning to more appropriate policing and law enforcement capacities. Economically, that requires ramping up job creation through myriad infrastructure projects. The world cannot continue to watch Yemen from a 30,000-foot perspective, or from drones in the sky, or from behind the compound wall.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.