Response to New York Times article

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran this article about the "covert war" that the United States is currently waging in Yemen and around the world. The Yemen Peace Project responded to the article with an op-ed piece, which the Times declined to publish. Here, for our friends and visitors, is the text of the piece we submitted:

In the August 14 piece “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” the Times exposes important details of the Obama administration’s covert war against Al Qaeda in Yemen. But the article fails to adequately examine the tactical shortcomings of the campaign, and dismisses the inexcusable suffering US-Yemeni policies have visited upon the Yemeni people.

The article quotes Deputy National Security Advisor John O. Brennan as likening the current US campaign in Yemen to a “scalpel” rather than a “hammer.” America’s supposedly scalpel-esque operations include cruise missile and drone strikes, as well as covert actions by small Special Operations and CIA teams. But the label Brennan applies – and the Times accepts – is misleading

Since 2009, American ordnance has killed or injured hundreds of Yemeni civilians and incited additional terrorist attacks. For example, the Times article reports that a cruise missile strike against a “makeshift Qaeda camp” on December 17, 2009 killed “at least 41” Yemeni civilians. Estimates in Yemeni papers at the time were much higher. But the Times cites no evidence – and none has been presented by either American or Yemeni officials – that any enemy operatives were killed in the attack, or that a Qaeda camp was even present. Nor have US or Yemeni officials justified the decision to launch a missile packed with cluster munitions into a populated area.

It is common to see Yemen portrayed in the press as lawless and inaccessible. If these descriptors can accurately be applied to any part of Yemen, the particular district where the December 17 strike occurred is not such a place. There is no sensible reason why a criminal target in this area could not have been dealt with by Yemeni police or counter-terrorism forces. More to the point, cluster munitions are the literal opposite of a scalpel, and the use of such weapons in populated, civilian areas is unjustifiable. For the administration to describe such tactics as “surgical” is perverse. For a journalistic institution like the Times to relay such descriptions as fact is irresponsible.

The Times article does a better job of questioning the strategic rationale behind this campaign. Many of Mr. Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisors are veterans of the CIA’s Afghan campaign of the 1980s, in which attrition was the goal. But the reality, expressed admirably by former US Ambassador to Yemen Edmund Hull, is that a strategy of killing terrorists will not protect US interests or destroy Al Qaeda. Rather, all available evidence suggests that US and Yemeni counter-terrorism policies have in fact led to an increased entrenchment of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Once a pariah in Yemeni society, the organization now voices the grievances of the people, while the reckless disregard for civilian safety demonstrated by the US and Yemeni governments reinforces the idea that the Yemeni people have nowhere else to turn.

But a kind of victory is still possible, if the Obama administration is willing to listen to its better angels. Ambassador Hull hits close to the mark in saying that counter-terrorism must not be limited to the military and intelligence sectors, but must also include “political, social and economic forces.” In fact, State Department officials have already released several documents emphasizing the need to address Yemen’s systemic problems of corruption, unemployment, an extreme water shortage, and other crises of capacity. Secretary Clinton and her deputies have consistently said that a secure and peaceful Yemen can only be achieved through development and humanitarian aid. If given the necessary resources, a State Department-led effort could make a significant difference, for the people of Yemen and for the United States.

At present, the Obama administration is touting a humanitarian aid package that amounts to just over two dollars per Yemeni, while spending millions on military operations. Only if this calculus is reversed will the US have a chance at weakening Al Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere. In the meantime, media institutions like the Times need to scrutinize the facts, and not allow Defense Department and CIA rhetoric to cloud their reporting of this very un-surgical and costly war.