How America's Drone War in Yemen Strengthens al-Qaeda
October 1, 2015
Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic & Orin Kerr / The Washington Post
Some people in Yemen who once opposed attacks on foreign countries like the United States are becoming more willing to give terrorists like al-Qaeda space to operate. America's drone war is largely responsible for that shift. The US must "stop pursuing policies bound to enrage and embitter Yemenis who might otherwise be neutral," an expert on the country argues.
(September 28, 2015) -- Jillian Schwedler, a political-science professor in New York, spent several years during the 1990s living, traveling, and conducting interviews in Yemen, where she traversed unmarked roads in all-terrain vehicles. "What strikes me now," she writes in a new essay about the country, "is how most Islamists saw jihadi groups as having no place in Yemeni politics."
Today that has changed.
Some people in Yemen who once opposed attacks on foreign countries like the United States are becoming more willing to give terrorists like al-Qaeda space to operate.
In her expert opinion, America's drone war is largely responsible for that shift.
President Bush began the drone war. President Obama radically expanded it. Both have defended its legitimacy. Whether one believes the war to be moral or not, Schwedler points out, "the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks -- most of them failed -- against US targets. The fact that corrupt Yemeni leaders consent to the attacks makes little difference to public opinion."
The drone strikes have killed some terrorists, along with innocent men, women, and children. Washington, D.C., policymakers consider the operations a success if they can check individual names off a kill list, but they neglect a longer-term consequence: Al-Qaeda is able to operate in more spaces than ever before as the population becomes increasingly hostile to the United States.
For al-Qaeda, she says, "the drone program is a gift from the heavens. Its recruiting narrative exploits common misperceptions of American omnipotence, offering an alternative route to justice and empowerment. Regardless of American perceptions about the legitimacy or efficacy of the attacks, what Yemeni could now deny that the United States is waging an undeclared war on Yemen?"
Attacks in the country carried out by Saudi Arabia -- perhaps America's least defensible ally -- only add to US image problems. "Alongside the often indiscriminate Saudi-led bombing, American drones continue their campaign of targeted assassination."
Schwedler concludes that even drone strikes that kill carefully identified targets in Yemen are counterproductive, strengthening the very groups the United States is trying to destroy: "It provides evidence that al-Qaida's claims and strategies are justified and that Yemenis cannot count on the state to protect them from threats foreign and domestic."
If America wants to weaken al-Qaeda in Yemen, she writes, it at least needs "to stop pursuing policies that are bound to enrage and embitter Yemenis who might otherwise be neutral." But drone strikes won't stop, she says, so long as policymakers think "the measure of success is as narrow as the killing of a specific person."
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Back in 2013, I called for a moratorium on drone strikes in a debate with Benjamin Wittes, the editor of Lawfare, where Schwedler's essay appears. That same year, I wrote about a US drone strike that killed 14 people at a wedding in Yemen.
In 2012, I highlighted the innocents in Pakistan's tribal areas who were terrorized by US drone strikes. That same year, I argued that the Obama administration was engaged in Orwellian propaganda when it described lethal drone strikes as "surgical."
Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
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