In Yemen, Drones Aren’t a Policy

I recall the good old days in Yemen from 2004 to 2007—that is, relatively speaking. I was then the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, which pretty much enjoyed the run of the country. Sanaa is now classified as an unaccompanied post, meaning it is too dangerous for diplomats to bring families with them.

I recall the good old days in Yemen from 2004 to 2007—that is, relatively speaking. I was then the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, which pretty much enjoyed the run of the country, except for the northern region of Saada, which the government of Ali Abdallah Saleh denied us permission to visit due to the then ongoing war there. To be sure, coordination with local authorities were required, but I was able to obtain permission to go hiking in the gorgeous mountain regions around and south of Sanaa. On occasion, I was also able to travel unescorted to remote villages and actually spend the weekend. On one occasion, driving with a British friend in my personal vehicle, we stopped at an odd looking little place just off the road with a sign that said “Youth Sports Club.” On the first floor (literally) all conceivable brands of alcohol; on the second floor, all conceivable types of weapons. The shopkeeper quipped, “If you don’t see it, ask me; I’ll know where to get it for you!”

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) certainly existed then, although it had not yet acquired the name and notoriety that it now enjoys. It was a rare occasion, in those days, that U.S. forces or equipment were needed to directly go after an AQ operative.

So what happened, between 2007 when I left Yemen and 2013? The United States sent back home a few Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, the Iraq war ended and Yemeni foreign fighters returned home, and Osama Ben Laden was killed. Meanwhile the U.S. policy of using drones to track and kill AQAP elements went into full gear.

If we assess U.S. policy in Yemen from a security standpoint first, we would have to conclude that it has certainly not brought more security to the American diplomats in Yemen. Sanaa is now classified as an unaccompanied post, meaning it is too dangerous for diplomats to bring families with them. Further, diplomats who, until recently, tended to live on the economy, in villas and apartment buildings in the middle of downtown Sanaa, were first moved to a well guarded hotel near the Embassy compound in 2011, and consequently into crowded quarters on the compound itself. American diplomats wishing to go outside embassy walls to meet with Yemenis, now have to have heavy security escorts and are discouraged from all but essential meetings impossible to conduct on the compound itself. In terms of security of the homeland, one can only conjecture. True, there hasn’t been an attempt on the U.S. mainland since the failed Christmas “underwear” bombing of 2009, but the number of AQAP operatives has risen over recent years, from several hundred in 2008 to several thousand estimated today. Surveillance interceptions continue to catch “chatter” among AQAP operatives, alerting Washington to continued plotting and acts of terrorism being planned against U.S. interests (as testified to publicly by top intelligence officials). Nowadays, traveling outside of Sanaa is a virtual impossibility for all foreign diplomats. In all respects, the security situation in Yemen today is a far cry from the 2004 to 2007.

Almost as a side issue, from a U.S. policy point of view, Yemen’s Arab Uprising took place in 2011, and brought down Ali Abdallah Saleh, after thirty years of his presidency. The uprising itself had nothing to do with either AQAP or U.S. foreign policy. Yemeni foreign fighters had decided, as early as 2005, to make Yemen both a refuge and a place in which to build a powerful regional base for their operations. The preoccupation on the part of the U.S. government with AQAP made our policy makers all but oblivious to one of the most significant movements in Yemen’s modern history. So far at least, Yemen’s protest movement represents the most successful uprising in the region, given the bloody implosion of Syria, the teetering of Libya and the turning south in the course of Egyptian and perhaps the Tunisian experience as well.

On the positive side, the U.S. government has supported the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plan for transition in Yemen right from the start. The U.S. has also supported politically and financially the National Dialogue, offering $10 million for the negotiation process itself and promising to fund needed training and institution building after the dialogue concludes. A U.S. assistance package of $356 was dedicated to Yemen for 2012, of which roughly half was spent by USAID and other civilian agencies. This is more than ten times what U.S. assistance to Yemen was during the 2004-2007 period.

Spending money on good governance, participation, women’s health and education is definitely a step in the right direction. Yemen, however, has major economic and political development challenges ahead. In the long term, it is Yemen’s stability, unity and democratic development that will improve security and guard against the spread of AQAP. The international community, which has pledged 8 billion dollars since 2011, needs to pool these resources and spend them according to a grand scheme, a new Marshall Plan monitored by international institutions to prevent the bilateral-aid-as-usual from being syphoned off by local corruption and inefficiency.

Despite the renewed focus on aid, U.S. Policy in Yemen still reflects ambivalence, uncertainty and conflicting goals. The global war on terror sill trumps the prioritization needed for assisting the democratic transition underway. Drone strikes take out a few bad guys to be sure, but they also kill a large number of innocent civilians. Given Yemen’s tribal structure, the U.S. generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP operative killed by drones. Open source reporting records 45 drone strikes in Yemen in 2012, and 22 so far in 2013.  Reported casualties are 491 for 2012. In war, unmanned aircraft may be a necessary part of a comprehensive military strategy. In a country where we are not at war, however, drones become part of our foreign policy, dominating it altogether, to the detriment of both our security and political goals.

Nabeel Khoury is Senior Fellow for Middle East and National Security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He previously served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Yemen (2004-2007), Deputy Director of the Media Outreach Centre in London (2002-2004), and Consul General in Morocco (1998-2002). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at U.S. Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad.