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Drone Strikes in Yemen and Pakistan: Collateral Damage?360°ANALYSIS

Yemen replaced Pakistan as the primary destination for US drone strikes in 2012. In both countries, official government support for this US policy often comes at odds with the average citizen.

Yemen’s President, Abd-Rabbo Mansur Hadi, does not have any particularly strong local powerbase in the country, normally a pre-requisite for leading as unstable a country as Yemen. Perhaps that is why he continues to vocally support the continuation of a US drones campaign in his country in the face of widespread national opposition to a counter-terrorism strategy,  that often results in civilian ‘collateral damage.’

Hadi: Drone Strikes in Yemen

Hadi needs America’s backing, and he knows it. He has provided cover for the Americans, giving the operations against al-Qaeda the appearance of a strategic partnership between Washington and Sana’a, rather than having conceded ground on national sovereignty.

At the UN General Assembly in September 2012, Hadi extended an even more unconditional endorsement of his support for the American campaign in Yemen stating:  “there is zero margin of error if you know exactly what target you’re aiming for.” Unsurprisingly, this sentiment is hardly endorsed outside the confines of Yemen's presidential palace.

Civilians are dying, and an alarming number of them at that. Advocates of the drones warfare, mostly in Washington, put forth the rationale that despite the loss of civilian life drones have been the most effective way of combating al-Qaeda offshoots, such as AQAP (al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula) active in Yemen, without putting boots on the ground and thus guaranteeing zero casualty.

The self-serving policy of the most militarily advanced country in the world, however, has not cut it with the families of the victims and the wider Yemeni populace. This is a war that they want no part in, and one that has evidently killed more civilians than the ‘terrorists’ it targeted.

A joint research study released by Stanford University and the New York School of Law, recently claimed that US drone warfare had killed 50 civilians for each terrorist taken out in the name of Washington’s counter-terrorism strategy of targeted killing. Taking cognizance of the report — and in an unprecedented move — the UN is now setting up an investigation into the drones-related mass deaths in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The first US drone strike anywhere in the world was carried out in Yemen in 2002. Since then the focus shifted to Pakistan and Afghanistan, but it has once again returned to Yemen over the last few years. Regardless of the shift, the optimism over drones’ strategy in Washington remains unwaveringly firm. In Pakistan, it took out Abu Laith al-Libi and Baitullah Mehsud. In Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdulrahman al-Wuhayshi were amongst those killed.

Al Majala, in 2009, was one example of where a drone attack went tragically wrong. At least 41 people were killed including 14 women and 21 children. Summing up the shock and grief, one angry survivor, an elderly man, said: “If they kill innocent children and call them al-Qaeda, then we are all al-Qaeda. If children are terrorists, then we are all terrorists.”

The general feeling is one of helplessness, and anger. Outrage over mounting number of deaths caused by drone strikes at the hands of a foreign power and worse, the failure to bring justice to the victims and their families, is breeding resentment amongst the Yemeni populace against their government as well as the US.

Pakistan's Reaction

The anger at drone strikes is not confined to Yemen. Pakistan, Washington’s most important ally in the war on terror, is exploding with fury over the highest number of US drone deaths globally.

In fact, the reaction to the US drones warfare on Yemeni streets seems to be taken from the Pakistani template of the preceding years. Both countries are not only witnessing mass protests against Washington’s counter-terrorism strategy, the simmering anger is also providing breeding grounds for new anti-American groups therein.

In both countries, drones are argued to be the most effective way of fighting terror enclaves that have grown powerful in the absence of a strong central government.

Yet, in both Pakistan and Yemen, extremist ideology not only remains unencumbered, disturbingly it appears to be rather flourishing – rendering the drones warfare arguably counterproductive..

None of the US trophy heads – including those of Awlaki and Mehsud – have brought about the end of al-Qaeda related militancy in either country. If anything, in Yemen, drone strikes have mainly served as a recruitment advert for AQAP and the related ‘Ansar al-Sharia’ group. Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen and AQAP, has argued that the group actually has three times as many operatives now as it did three years ago. Not a particularly resounding success for the Obama administration.

The vast majority of Yemenis, as with the vast majority of Pakistanis, will agree that terrorism and al-Qaeda must be fought. Both countries have had to deal with home-grown terrorism and insurgency: Pakistan saw the assassination of its former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, while Yemen bore the brunt of the May 2011 suicide bombing that killed over 120 soldiers in Sana’a.

The disagreement with President Obama comes in the strategy employed. Pakistanis and Yemenis will argue that they cannot take American reasoning seriously while it continues to further and propagate a very flawed foreign policy and antagonizing the Muslim world in the process. In Yemen, there are many unanswered questions when it comes to AQAP and its links to former President Saleh, to put it tactfully.

Although drones have been partially, and some would say arguably, successful in eliminating high level targets of al-Qaeda  and affiliated groups, their failure in avoiding ‘collateral damage’ has simply meant that new figures have risen up to replace those assassinated. Extremism, in both Pakistan and Yemen, continues to linger.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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