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Why the US is likely to step up their use of drones in Yemen even if it makes things worse

02/05/2012

By Gabriel Avner

The United States’ preference for drone warfare in dealing with insurgencies in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan invasion era has become increasingly apparent when viewing their approach to their involvement in the tumultuous state of Yemen. In the month of March, the US launched at least seven strikes against Islamist militants operating against the government in the southern provinces. More strikes have since followed in April leaving close to 30 dead, further highlighting

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US Drone

the deteriorating security conditions in the country. However in spite of its effectiveness, drones come with hidden costs that in the end, might prove to affect their usage in the Yemeni conflict.

Drones provide the US with a seemingly painless method of tracking and killing militants in countries where they are hard pressed to justify a serious involvement. With drones, there is no risk to pilots, no rescue missions and no need for Jessie Jackson. The avoidance of having to put boots on the ground can be highly appealing to both the public and decision makers. These birds of prey are known to be used in conflicts in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and Afghanistan for both surveillance and kinetic missions. They allow the US to enter into countries where the government is either unwilling or unable to cope with the militant threat.

Yemen falls squarely in the middle of these two categories. While their military has had a modicum of success in fighting back the Islamist expansion that has grown during the unrest that began with the uprising against the regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, militant expansion appears to continue unabated. Coupled with the lack of a well organized military, it has been widely reported that the former president is attempting to undercut the fight against the militants to serve internal political struggles for power. These factors have made relying on the Yemenis to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) linked cells a difficult option.

In spite of these appealing advantages to using drones, recent weeks have seen some of the unforeseen consequences of their application. Due to the fact that the militants are unable to shoot down the drones or otherwise strike at the Americans operating them, they have chosen to respond with reprisal attacks against Yemeni troops and infrastructure. Following a pair of drone strikes in late March, militants struck back with attacks that left 30 soldiers dead and a crucial gas pipeline severely damaged. An additional factor is the backlash from instances of collateral damage against civilians that can quickly turn public opinion against the Yemeni government. Should the leadership feel too much pressure from either the hits against their soldiers or their public, they might decide to order the US out thus ending the important operations against the Islamists.

While the drone appears to have become the weapon of choice for the US, it is a tool whose use must be balanced in accordance with the overall regional policy as well as local political considerations with the host country. That said, it is easily arguable that as Pentagon budgets become smaller and the US public further looses its taste for war, drone strikes will likely continue to rise in prominence in the US’s global anti-insurgency policy.

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From → Yemen

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