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Drone Strikes Are Winning War in Yemen -- for Al-Qaeda

Drones in Yemen
Photo: Bloomberg; Illustration by Bloomberg View

May 6 (Bloomberg) -- It was a contradiction that perfectly captured the essence of the U.S. drone war against Islamic terrorists: Just as we learned that strikes in Yemen had resumed after a three-month hiatus, a Yemeni journalist gave heart-rending congressional testimony about an attack that killed five in his village of Wessab.

“The drone strike and its impact tore my heart, much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine,” Farea al-Muslimi told a Senate judiciary subcommittee on human rights last month. “The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis.”

There are good reasons the U.S. has made Yemen a central front against jihadis: It was where the plot was hatched to blow up a U.S. jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009 and the base for the propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S. citizen killed in a drone strike in 2011.

Unfortunately, the effort’s destabilizing effect has given that divided nation, long the poorest in the Arab world, the additional distinction of being the most likely to collapse. That would be both a tragedy for its citizens and a golden opportunity for al-Qaeda to establish a haven similar to Afghanistan in the 1990s.

So, what can the wealthy Persian Gulf states, the U.S. and its allies do to keep Yemen from failing?

For starters, they should rethink the National Dialogue Conference that began in March in Sana, Yemen’s capital. The goal was to avert outright secession by Yemen’s south, which was the independent, socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen before unification in 1990. The conference was foisted on the Yemenis by neighboring Saudi Arabia -- to whom the U.S. has outsourced the job of holding Yemen together -- and excluded too many parties from both south and north.

A poor stepchild to the favored north under the dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the south would be ill-advised to secede. Given old tribal and regional grudges, the most likely result would be dissolution into a lawless and ungovernable mini-Afghanistan. The region would do better negotiating for increased autonomy and a fairer distribution of the country’s annual $7.6 billion in oil revenue. Given that 80 percent of oil reserves are in the south, they have a strong bargaining position.

The Saudis could do far more to facilitate a deal. In an effort to lower their own unemployment, they have enacted stricter caps on Yemeni guest workers, and have initiated a wave of deportations of foreign workers lacking proper papers. This puts a huge dent in the $4 billion or so that Yemeni workers remit to their families each year, without which Yemen’s economy would collapse.

Saudi Arabia has also made good on only about half of its $3.2 billion commitment to Yemen’s political transition, made in the feel-good days of the Arab Spring. Other Gulf Cooperation Council members, including Qatar and Kuwait, have been even more grudging.

Donor states claim, rightly, that corruption and political incompetence in Yemen threaten proper use of such funds. But political change will be slow and fitful; well-meaning donors should get off the high horse and either support the new government or find ways to funnel money to more deserving initiatives.

The U.S., meanwhile, supports the government on one hand -- $345 million in 2012 -- while destabilizing it through its counterterrorism policies on the other. The roughly 70 drone strikes since 2009 have killed at least 500 people. Although perhaps fewer than 10 percent were civilians, the deaths have outraged Yemeni public opinion and made it increasingly difficult for tribal and religious opponents of al-Qaeda to rally their followers.

Gregory D. Johnsen, author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia,” says Yemenis may be partly assuaged if the U.S. goes after only known terrorists and ends its campaign of “signature strikes,” in which targets are selected based on observations of suspicious activity. In general, killing fewer and capturing more jihadi leaders would offer both public relations and intelligence-gathering benefits.

“Drone strikes and the targeted killing program have made my passion and mission in support of America almost impossible in Yemen,” Al-Muslimi warned the senators. To defeat al-Qaeda, we must help him succeed.

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