Although the war against Al-Qaeda has primarily been fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States military has steadily expanded its counterterrorism operations across the Middle East, most notably to the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Even though Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has been successfully beaten back, small offshoots of the terrorist group are still popping up all over the region.
Yemen, one of the poorest Arabian countries, has recently become a hotbed for radical Islamist organizations. One of them is Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), formed in 2009 as a merger between the Yemeni and Saudi Al-Qaeda branches.
This is the same group responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attempted 2009 Christmas Day “underwear bomb”.
Since AQAP’s formation, it has arguably become the most dangerous and lethal offshoot of Al-Qaeda. Just recently, Al-Qaeda gunmen stormed a Yemeni city and killed 27 people in a hit-and-run attack. AQAP has also singlehandedly been responsible for the partial collapse of the Yemeni government and even successfully took control of two major provinces in the country’s southern region.
After a series of failed plots against the United States, the Obama administration designated AQAP a terrorist organization in 2010, and has extensively collaborated with Yemen on counterterrorism operations since then. But instead of human combat personnel fighting the enemy head-on, the U.S. and Yemen have steadily increased their reliance upon drones to fight AQAP.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (also known as UAVs or drones) have slowly become an alternative to the deployment of human soldiers. Drones have been primarily used for surveillance missions and to bomb the remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan where Al-Qaeda fighters have found refuge.
This ability to kill and survey enemies without putting soldiers in danger has now become a highly valued modern warfare tactic for the U.S.
As of 2013, the Obama administration and the CIA Joint Operations Command (JSOC) have carried out over 70 drone strikes. It is estimated that those drone strikes have killed a total of 876 people – including civilians. This represents a significant escalation in attacks compared to the Bush administration, which only launched one drone strike in Pakistan.
Both the U.S. and Yemeni governments consider the deployment of drones to be successful because their targeted strikes have resulted in the death of many high-profile targets.
But we must be careful about how we measure success. Success cannot be measured by how many people we kill, but by whether the tactics employed will result in a lasting reduction of terrorism or just backfire on us in the long run.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. carried out drone campaigns similar to the ones against AQAP in Yemen. These were effective at killing radicals, but also bred anti-American sentiment due to collateral damage and civilian deaths. This severely damaged our relations with those countries in which we have operated.
U.S. attacks in the tribal regions of Pakistan are extremely unpopular in the country. The Pakistani government has even gone as far to claim that America’s drone strikes infringe upon its territorial sovereignty and violate international law.
When America reacts unilaterally to crises around the world, its standing within the international community is also damaged. Even our own allies consider America’s global policies to be overly aggressive, militaristic, and expansionist – and rightfully so.
The same resentment that drone strikes fostered in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the international community is now growing in Yemen as well.
AQAP’s numbers are steadily increasing in Yemen. Disgruntled countrymen, ex-Guantanamo detainees, and prisoners from other Peninsula countries flock to the Peninsula to continue fighting against the Yemeni government and the support the U.S. offers it.
To put it mildly, it will be a difficult counterterrorism challenge for the Yemeni government to beat back AQAP, even with the United States backing them. The most important question both governments need to keep in mind is: “Is it worth dropping bombs labeled ‘Made in USA’ in a region whose people already resent you?”
It could be, but only time will tell.
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