A recent drone attack in Yemen that killed at least half a dozen civilians shows the failure of U.S. drone policy.
In May, President Obama promised strict guidelines for drone strikes. But these haven’t been implemented on the ground.
So, the CIA still carries out in a cloak of secrecy most of the attacks despite promises that operational control would be shifted to the Defense Department. And the intelligence relied on to launch the strikes in Yemen is often dubious material fed to the U.S. agencies by Yemeni and Saudi intelligence sources with agendas of their own.
This is not the first time that drones in Yemen have come under sharp scrutiny. Earlier this year, a Human Rights Watch report on drone attacks in Yemen condemned their civilian casualties as being “in violation of the laws of war.” A U.N. report on drones released in September urged the United States “to declassify, to the maximum extent possible, information relevant to its lethal extraterritorial operations; and to release its own data on the level of civilian casualties." And the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in a prize-winning project, has estimated that hundreds of civilians have died in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia from U.S. drone strikes.
The drone strikes in Yemen are achieving the dubious distinction of angering elite and mass public opinion in Yemen alike. In an interview with me in the December/January issue of The Progressive, Yemeni Nobel Peace laureate Tawakkol Karman insisted that the United States halt drone attacks in her country. And the strikes may actually be increasing extremism in her country.
“When you kill people in Yemen, these are people who have families, they have clans, and they have tribes,” Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University told PBS Newshour in August. “The United States might target a particular individual because they see him as a member of Al Qaeda; what’s happening on the ground is that he’s being defended as a tribesman. So you have people flowing into Al Qaeda, not necessarily because they share the same ideology of Al Qaeda, but just so that they can get revenge for their tribesman who has been killed in a drone or airstrike.”
Last April, a Yemeni activist gave moving testimony before Congress in a rare hearing on the subject (which the Obama Administration refused to attend). Farea al-Muslimi first laid out his pro-American inclinations: “I don’t know if there is anyone on Earth that feels more thankful to America than me.” Al-Muslimi actually spent a year in the United States as a high school exchange student, an experience that made him really love America.
And yet he testified about how U.S. policy was making life very difficult for him.
“The killing of innocent civilians by U.S. missiles in Yemen is helping to destabilize my country and create an environment from which Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula benefits,” al-Muslimi said after describing the horrors of civilian casualties in his village caused by a U.S. drone attack. “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.”
The United States needs to pay attention to people like al-Muslimi and end its reliance on a failed strategy.