President Obama, take two

This week began with the second inauguration of Barack Obama here in the US, and with a series of air strikes--likely carried out by American drones--in Yemen. In fact, there have been six or seven strikes within the last week, though the exact number of resultant casualties is unknown. Along with these "kinetic" events, recent weeks have featured another kind of activity from President Obama. Mr. Obama has announced his nominations for CIA Director and Secretary of Defense. If things go according to plan, John O. Brennan--who has been Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor and is generally thought to be the most important man in Washington for Yemen policy--will take over the CIA, and Chuck Hagel will head to the Pentagon. Obama's nominee for Secretary of State, John Kerry, breezed through confirmation hearings yesteday. Mr. Kerry said during his hearings that he wants to see a demilitarization of US foreign policy, that "we cannot afford a diplomacy that is defined by troops or drones or confrontation." I couldn't agree more, as any reader of this blog knows. I wish Mr. Kerry the best, and I do expect that he'll try to redirect this country's foreign policy priorities to some extent. But it'll be an uphill battle, especially when it comes to Yemen. Within his own department, the rising trend of the fortress embassy (exemplified by the growing "Green Zone" around the embassy in San‘a) is a major hindrance to this objective. And Kerry will have to claw back control of the Yemen portfolio from the NSC, DoD, and CIA , if he even wants it. While I'd love to see him really shake things up at State, I don't know that Kerry is willing to take the kind of risks that might disqualify him from higher office in the future.

Gregory Johnsen and Micah Zenko, among others, have made the case against John Brennan as CIA director (and indeed, against John Brennan as decent human being), based in large part on his handling of America's war in Yemen. There are others who argue in Brennan's favor. Some say he has worked within the president's CT team to limit the use of targeted killings, and that he will work to demilitarize the CIA. Joshua Foust gives Brennan the benefit of the doubt on that issue and explains the choices Brennan will face at CIA in this brief piece.

Chuck Hagel will be, if confirmed, the first former enlisted soldier to serve as Secretary of Defense. As a young man at war in Vietnam, he was wounded and decorated multiple times. Critics in congress see Hagel as not hawkish enough to lead the country's military. Hagel himself says that he is not a pacifist, but will do anything in his power to avoid involving America in a new ground war. This conviction sounds like a pretty good fit with Obama's idea of war; this administration favors a "small footprint" in foreign operations, hence the focus on air power and cooperation with local forces in Yemen.

It's doubtful that any of these men will push the Obama Administration toward any major changes in its policy toward Yemen if status quo is what the president has in mind. It is possible, however, that Mr. Obama himself is interested in trying a new strategy in Yemen and elsewhere.  His administration is notoriously opaque, so if he and his team are planning to significantly change their approach to certain foreign policy challenges, the public shouldn't expect to hear it from the president until such plans have been implemented and appear to be bearing fruit.

US Senate hearings, part II

My previous post presented a Storified version of the live-tweeting of yesterday's Senate hearings on US Yemen policy. Here I'd just like to add a little bit of analysis. As is often the case with these things, one of the most notable things about the hearings was what wasn't heard. The witnesses testifying included several individuals from the Department of State, and two think-tankers who commented on US involvement in Yemen more broadly. But there was no one among the witnesses from the CIA or the Joint Special Operations Command, the two organizations involved in so-called "kinetic" operations in Yemen--that is, targeted counter-terrorism strikes.

What this means is that while US diplomatic and humanitarian efforts were put on trial (very politely, of course), US military operations were not. At a time when the Congress is looking for programs to cut, and politicians are looking to score points ahead of elections, this discrepancy is particularly noteworthy. The Obama administration loves drones and special ops (as does much of the public), and Congress is much more willing to fund military projects than diplomatic ones. A hearing like this one, in which senators challenged witnesses to prove the effectiveness of "soft" assistance to Yemen, could certainly aid in explaining the prioritization of the kinetic approach to America's problems in Yemen, while still maintaining the fiction that this country cares about the plight of the Yemeni people. I doubt it's a coincidence that on the same day, someone from the military/intelligence community fed ABC news a very sexy and impossible to verify story on just how close US operators have come to killing the dreaded Anwar al-Awlaqi.

War without a face

If you read the international papers, you've surely noticed that a day no longer goes by without a story of "suspected US drone strikes" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These strikes are always "suspected" because, even though everyone in the world knows about them, they are the work of the CIA's "clandestine" services, and thus officially secret. September was an especially busy time for the drones, with over 20 separate attacks reported in the media. Occasionally the US or Pakistani authorities will announce the death of a major militant figure in such a strike, but more often, it seems, America's robotic killers take innocent lives. Jason Ditz at puts it this way:

President Obama has made the drone strikes the centerpiece of his foreign policy, and has killed well over a thousand people inside Pakistan since taking office. The vast majority of those killed have turned out to be innocent civilians, while large numbers of others remain unidentified but classified as “suspects.”

Obviously, with so many victims to its credit, the impact of these clandestine weapons is only too visible to most Pakistanis and Afghans. But in the United States, drone warfare seems immune to the kinds of scrutiny and criticism that other elements of the president's military policy have faced. Politicians and generals in this country have long understood that the public will stand in their way if American lives are at stake; as long as the only people dying are foreign nationals, we as a people will keep quiet. This sense of safety, even from their enemies in the Republican Party, has allowed the Obama administration to develop a severe addiction to robotic warfare.

Given all of that, it should be obvious why I'm writing about AfPak policy in a blog about Yemen. Obama has already increased US military aid to President Saleh's government, and sent more covert CIA and Special Forces operatives to Yemen; the drones cannot be far behind. Right now, the American public knows almost nothing about Yemen, and is willing to believe anything about it. Aside from a few hardcore pacifists and Yemen-philes like us, Americans seem to be completely at ease with the expansion of the "War on Terror" to a new front. What this means is that Yemen will be an ideal killing ground for Obama's Predators and Reapers. American apathy, if left unchecked, will ensure that thousands of Yemenis are added to the civilian death toll that the US government touts as progress.

Obviously, the Yemen Peace Project opposes the use of drones in Yemen, just as we oppose all American military action in the country. But as the American presence grows and becomes more and more costly for the Yemeni people, we must increase our efforts to bring their suffering to the attention of the world. We'll want the help of our readers and friends, as well, to make sure that every death is counted, that the American public that funds and encourages this pointless war is forced to reckon with the true cost of their decisions.

Stay tuned for updates on this subject, and on our efforts to change America's policy toward Yemen.

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.