Yemen: Pyrrhic victory against al-Qaeda?

Yemeni officials announced June 12 that government troops have recaptured two al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula strongholds in the country's south after a month-long offensive against AQAP, which seized the areas more than a year ago. Officials said Yemeni troops and tribal allies took full control of Abyan's provincial capital, Zinjibar, and the town of Jaar to the north. They said government forces also re-opened the highway linking Abyan with the southern port of Aden. (VOA, June 12) The next day, airstrikes destroyed a car parked near a house in the AQAP-held town of Azzan, Shabwa province, leaving nine dead. AQAP charged in a statement that the strike came from a US drone. (AP, June 13)

The day after the strike, Ibrahim Mothana, a founder of Yemen's Watan Party, had an op-ed in the New York Times, "How Drones Help Al Qaeda." Mothana notes the warning (on AlJazeera May 10) of Robert Grenier, former CIA counterterrorism head, that the US drone program in Yemen risks turning the country into a safe haven for al-Qaeda like the tribal areas of Pakistan—"the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan."

Mothana writes that the first known drone strike in Yemen to be authorized by Obama, in late 2009, left 14 women and 21 children dead in the southern town of al-Majala. Only one of the dozens killed was identified as having strong Qaeda connections. A US drone strike in May 2010 killed Jabir al-Shabwani, a prominent sheikh and the deputy governor of Marib province. The slain sheikh's tribesmen attacked the country's main pipeline in revenge, costing the government over $1 billion.

The strikes have created an opportunity for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Ansar al-Sharia to recruit fighters from tribes who have suffered casualties... Unlike Al Qaeda in Iraq, AQAP has worked on gaining the support of local communities by compromising on some of their strict religious laws and offering basic services, electricity and gas to villagers in the areas they control...

And the situation is quite likely to get worse now that Washington has broadened its rules of engagement to allow so-called signature strikes, when surveillance data suggest a terrorist leader may be nearby but the identities of all others targeted is not known. Such loose rules risk redefining "militants" as any military-age males seen in a strike zone.

Certainly, there may be short-term military gains from killing militant leaders in these strikes, but they are minuscule compared with the long-term damage the drone program is causing. A new generation of leaders is spontaneously emerging in furious retaliation to attacks on their territories and tribes.

This is why AQAP is much stronger in Yemen today than it was a few years ago. In 2009, AQAP had only a few hundred members and controlled no territory; today it has, along with Ansar al-Sharia, at least 1,000 members and controls substantial amounts of territory.

Yemenis are the ones who suffer the most from the presence of Al Qaeda, and getting rid of this plague is a priority for the majority of Yemen's population. But there is no shortcut in dealing with it. Overlooking the real drivers of extremism and focusing solely on tackling their security symptoms with brutal force will make the situation worse...

Unfortunately, liberal voices in the United States are largely ignoring, if not condoning, civilian deaths and extrajudicial killings in Yemen—including the assassination of three American citizens in September 2011, including a 16-year-old. During George W. Bush's presidency, the rage would have been tremendous. But today there is little outcry, even though what is happening is in many ways an escalation of Mr. Bush’s policies.

Defenders of human rights must speak out. America's counterterrorism policy here is not only making Yemen less safe by strengthening support for AQAP, but it could also ultimately endanger the United States and the entire world.

Whether the US has a "counterterrorism" policy or just a "terrorism" policy—that is, a policy of terrorism—depends on one's point of view.

See our last posts on Yemen, al-Qaeda and the drone wars.

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