“The use of drones is heavily constrained,” said President Obama during his May speech about national security matters, held in response to growing criticism of the U.S. drone program. “Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” Obama went on to promise to repeal some of his own war powers, saying that he intends to “engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.”
Obama’s speech elicited praise from many as signaling a shift towards a more restrained drone policy overseas. The New York Times editorial board said that it was “the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks,” and that the president “stated clearly and unequivocally that the state of perpetual warfare that began 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant-future.”
Seven thousand miles away in Yemen, Obama’s words seem to be disintegrating along with the wreckage strewn along strike sites, where the U.S. launched nine drone strikes in recent weeks. The bombardment makes Yemen the epicenter of the air war this year with 21 airstrikes. (Pakistan is a close second with 18.) Far from narrowing war powers, the strikes in Yemen seem to be widening them. The terror threat that spawned the closing of U.S. embassies across the Arab world “expanded the scope of people we could go after” in Yemen, one unnamed administration official told The New York Times. “Before, we couldn’t necessarily go after a driver for the organization; it’d have to be the operations director. Now that driver becomes fair game because he’s providing direct support to the plot.”
It wasn’t immediately clear who was killed in the strikes. Reports put the death toll at 38. The U.S. was quick to claim it had targeted and killed operatives with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but a Yemeni official from that country’s Defense Ministry told CNN that “nearly a dozen of the killed over the past two weeks are believed to have been innocent.”
It is unclear whether the U.S. pays the families of innocent drone victims, as it does for civilian victims in declared war zones like Afghanistan. Responding to a FOIA request from ProPublica, U.S. Central Command says that it has 33 pages related to condolence payments in Yemen, but it refused to release any of them.
Farea Al-Muslimi, from Sanaa, Yemen, testifies on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, April 23, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights hearing entitled: "Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing." (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
While the strikes took place in rural regions of the country, U.S. warplanes buzzed the capital of Sanaa for days. Farea al-Muslimi, a U.S.-educated writer and activist who testified before Congress this past spring, writes that with the “public frenzy” over the planes and the drones, “any remaining credibility of the U.S. government’s stated intentions to take a comprehensive approach to Yemen’s economic and political development has now evaporated.” Keep in mind that these strikes occurred during Eid al-Fitr, the culmination of the holy month of Ramadan.
President Obama’s aerial attacks in Yemen, in the words of al-Muslimi, “do little more than terrify impoverished villagers and provide undue publicity to al-Qaeda.” Back in December 2009, the United States launched a series of air strikes with Tomahawk missiles and cluster bombs in the village of al Majala. The strikes were reported to be by the Yemeni government against an Al Qaeda training camp, but over time, it emerged that the U.S. was responsible. It is still unclear whether any members of Al Qaeda were actually killed in the strike — among the dead were 14 women and 21 children.
As the U.S. escalated its drone campaign in Yemen, public opinion in the country turned against Washington and towards Al Qaeda-aligned radical voices. Polling conducted in 2011 found that 98 percent of respondents held somewhat or very unfavorable views of the U.S. government; only one percent of Yemenis favored the United States as the “external group that can best help Yemen.” Meanwhile, 51 percent of Yemenis said the radical U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki – who made his cause organizing Yemenis against the United States and the bombing campaign before he was killed by a drone in 2011 — was “somewhat popular” or “very popular” in their area (contrast this to Osama Bin Laden, whose favorability rating was only 8 percent).
“Quite often, counterterrorism analysts try to apply their knowledge of Afghanistan to Yemen, especially in the administration’s targeted killing program. Unlike Afghanistan, AQAP is not made up of foreign fighters but local residents and tribesmen,” says Jeb Boone, a GlobalPost correspondent and former managing editor of The Yemen Times. “To kill a member of AQAP in a [drone strike], if the strike was successful and based on accurate intelligence, is to kill a tribesmen and community member. More often than not, that person’s family members and fellow tribesmen will take up arms against Yemeni government infrastructure to exact their revenge. Not only do drone strikes increase distrust in the American and Yemeni governments, they contribute to Yemen’s instability as tribesmen attack electricity and oil infrastructure in response to the killing of their family or community members, whether or not they were affiliated with AQAP.”
Obama’s continuing militaristic approach in the Middle East is exploding the prospects for the sea change in U.S. policy many hoped would come with his election. His approval ratings in the Arab world are lower than his predecessor’s, and in Pakistan, the main theater of the drone war, U.S. disapproval ratings went from 47 percent in 2009 to 92 percent at the end of 2012.
“It is no longer appropriate to worry about America’s image in Yemen. America’s image as a promoter of peace, democracy and progress in Yemen can no longer be resurrected. The families and friends of women and children killed in drone strikes will not tolerate any such masquerading,” advises al-Muslimi. “From a public relations standpoint, the focus of U.S. policy makers should now be to ensure that the U.S. does not become the No. 1 obstacle in the way of Yemenis’ dreams, hopes and aspirations.”