According to data collected by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Yemen has been struck more than 40 times by US drones — perhaps twice as often as Pakistan — in 2012 so far. On April 25, the New York Times reported a White House directive to CIA and military drone operators watching Yemen, allowing them to target “militants who may be plotting attacks against the United States, but whose identities might not be completely known, an authority that already exists in Pakistan.” The rule change “broadens the aperture slightly” for missile launches, an unnamed official told the Times. And in mid-May, President Barack Obama issued an order authorizing the Treasury Department to freeze assets of persons who “obstruct the political process in Yemen.”
What thread might tie these items together?
Yemen, along the southwestern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, is the new showcase of Obama’s turn in the war on terror. In 2010, a Times reporter pegged the country as “the next Afghanistan,” and indeed it conforms to several specifications: Desperately poor, hungry and thirsty, mountainous, its past peopled by monarchs and Marxists, Yemen is home to numerous armed tribes who shun central government and, as of March 2011, a tiny enclave that calls itself an Islamic emirate.
These are mere descriptions, however. At the analytical level, Yemen and Afghanistan are both places where authoritarian post-colonial states have sought to subdue the population with recourse to ill-conceived development schemes and, failing that, great-power intervention. The resulting wars attracted radical Islamist fighters to these countries — not the other way around.
It is far from certain that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, labeled as global terrorist threat number one because of two inept would-be underwear bombers, bears much relation to al-Qaeda as it was constituted under Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. As Jeremy Scahill has detailed in The Nation, the authorities in Sanaa are adept at convincing their opposite numbers in Washington that al-Qaeda shelters under every Yemeni crag. Scahill counters that Ansar al-Shari‘a, which patrols the so-called Islamic Emirate of Jaar, probably has primarily local grievances, as did its precursors in the 1990s and 2000s, like the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army. It is easy to imagine, though, that cells with broader ambitions might multiply in the Petri dish of Ansar’s war with the Yemeni army and its pilotless allies in the sky.
With its Predator drones, of course, the Obama administration means to preempt any further parallels with the history of al-Qaeda under bin Laden. The US is not poised to invade Yemen to rescue its clients as the Soviets did Afghanistan in 1979. Obama’s weapon of choice in the war on terror is designed precisely to avoid that sort of messy enmeshment. Sleek and silent, guided by satellites and shifts of desk jockeys half a world away, the Predator is supposed to wreak surgical havoc and then scan the wreckage without much notice. It is the ultimate “over-the-horizon” armament.
Such an approach, after the graceless sorties of George W. Bush, is said to suit the post-2011 regional flux, in which six Arab nations, including Yemen, are convulsed by revolt. The Obama administration has cloaked the same old US backing for Arab autocrats in careful affirmations of “political transition.” The ruse is perhaps clearest in Yemen, where US-Saudi pressures helped to remove the wounded septuagenarian president, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, in favor of a long-time lieutenant who can be presented as a fresh face. Obama’s asset-freezing executive order may be aimed less at al-Qaeda types than at those who harbor mad dreams of Salih’s restoration.
It would be hard for Obama not to be a smarter steward of US empire than his predecessor, but the creeping campaign in Yemen reminds us of 1998, when we wrote in this space that US missile strikes upon bin Laden’s al-Qaeda “exhibit a wide firing range but a narrow strategic vision.” Today’s favorite tactic is similarly not surgical; the drones court blowback as they kill untold numbers of real people and inflame the crisis in the places where those people live.