Editor’s Note: The U.S. drone program – as Lawfare readers well know – raises contentious policy issues as well as criticisms of its legality and morality. Many of these policy issues come to the fore in Yemen, where chaos and civil war are sweeping the land. Jillian Schwedler, a professor at Hunter College and expert on Yemen, argues that the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen is backfiring, enraging locals and contributing to a range of U.S. policy failures there.
The United States began to use drones in Yemen in 2002 to kill individuals affiliated with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its predecessor organizations and disrupt its operations there and abroad. Since then, over 200 strikes have killed over a thousand Yemenis, tens of children, and at least a handful of U.S. citizens – one of whom was a deliberate target. The program has drawn widespread condemnation from human rights organizations and some UN bodies, yet it remains in place because the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama view it as a success, as both have publicly stated.
Criticism of the program often takes the form of debates about which legal regime is relevant to judging a state’s use of targeted killings, which critics call “extra-judicial executions” or simply “assassinations.” While dissent has been strongest in academic and human rights communities, some scholars have echoed the arguments made by states that the imperatives of self-defense permit states to carry out such killings as legitimate acts of war. The Lawfare consensus seems in favor of these strikes.
I share the views of the moral and legal dissenters and hesitate to move beyond those debates because I don’t want to suggest that I accept the program’s legality. But I do want to engage those who do view the program as working – after all, if the U.S. administration did not believe it was working, it wouldn’t need to justify it legally. But by what metrics should we consider judging its success?
Perhaps the most obvious metric is whether AQAP leaders are actually being killed and, even more, whether their deaths substantially disrupted the group’s activities in Yemen or its ability to pursue objectives outside of Yemen. For advocates of this metric, the program has been successful in the short term – individuals killed – even if the longer-term impact is less clear because new leaders seem to step in with regularity.
Yet the success in taking out AQAP’s leadership is overstated. The numbers of AQAP members and supporters officially reported as killed are questionable, and probably grossly exaggerated. This is because the U.S. administration considers all adult males in the vicinity of the strikes to be combatants, not civilians, unless their civilian status can be established subsequently. Full investigations are neither desirable nor pragmatic for the U.S. government – particularly now that Yemen is the site of a civil and regional war. Even more troubling is that at times the U.S. may not even be certain of its primary targets. It frequently uses language that is so conditional that there seems to be more than a bit of guessing about the identities of those being targeted.
But I would like to focus on different metric: the longer-term impact of the drone strikes on the legitimacy and attractiveness of al-Qaida’s message in Yemen and its ability to recruit among Yemenis themselves. Drone strikes are widely reported in local media and online and are a regular topic of discussion at weekly qat chewing sessions across the country. Cell phone calls spike after drone strikes, which are also widely reported on Twitter and Facebook. The strikes are wildly unpopular, with attitudes toward the United States increasingly negative. An Arab Barometer survey carried out in 2007 found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that U.S. involvement in the region justified attacks on Americans everywhere.
The narrative that the West, and especially the United States, fears the Muslim world is powerful and pervasive in the region. The U.S. intervenes regularly in regional politics and is a steadfast ally of Israel. It supports Saudi Arabia and numerous other authoritarian regimes that allow it to establish permanent U.S. military bases on Arab land. It cares more about oil and Israel than it does about the hundreds of millions in the region suffering under repressive regimes and lacking the most basic human securities. These ideas about the American role in Middle East affairs – many of them true – are among those in wide circulation in the region.
Al-Qaida has since 1998 advanced the argument that Muslims need to take up arms against the United States and its allied regimes in the region. Yet al-Qaida’s message largely fell on deaf ears in Yemen for many years. Yes, it did attract some followers, mostly those disappointed to have missed the chance to fight as mujahidin in Afghanistan. But al-Qaida’s narrative of attacking the foreign enemy at home did not resonate widely. The movement remained isolated for many years, garnering only limited sympathy from the local communities in which they sought refuge.
The dual effect of U.S. acceleration in drone strikes since 2010 and of their continued use during the “transitional” period that was intended to usher in more accountable governance has shown Yemenis how consistently their leaders will cede sovereignty and citizens’ security to the United States. While Yemenis may recognize that AQAP does target the United States, the hundreds of drone strikes are viewed as an excessive response. The weak sovereignty of the Yemeni state is then treated as the “problem” that has allowed AQAP to expand, even as state sovereignty has been directly undermined by U.S. policy – both under President Ali Abdullah Salih and during the transition. American “security” is placed above Yemeni security, with Yemeni sovereignty violated repeatedly in service of that cause. Regardless of what those in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats, the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks — most of them failed — against U.S. targets. The fact that corrupt Yemeni leaders consent to the attacks makes little difference to public opinion.
Regardless of what those in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats, the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks — most of them failed — against U.S. targets.
The United States cut aid to Yemen in 1990 when the newly united Yemeni state, which had just rotated into the Arab seat on the UN Security Council, failed to vote for a U.S.-led coalition to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Yemen suffered a tremendous economic blow, as the United States joined Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in unilaterally severing aid to what was then and still is the poorest Arab nation. But with the rise of jihadi activism on the Arabian Peninsula over the next decade, and particularly after the bombing of USS Cole in 2000, Salih welcomed the return of U.S. aid to Yemen. This included a strong security dimension as the United States began tracking those suspected of involvement in the Cole attacks and other al-Qaida activities. Conspicuous caravans of FBI agents became a topic of local conversations, so the return of a U.S. presence in Yemen was also more visible than it had been previously. Salih claimed to have had advance knowledge of every drone strike.
Saudi Arabia has meddled in Yemen at least since the fall of the northern Mutawakkilite monarchy in the late 1960s. The Saudi intervention that began with air strikes in March of this year and escalated to ground troops is thus only the latest – and most egregious – of the kingdom’s efforts to affect Yemen politics. This background is necessary to understand that if Yemen is a “failed state,” despite scholarly protestations otherwise, it is at least in part due to decades of external actors violating Yemeni sovereignty with near impunity. The drone program, like the Saudi-led war, is merely a recent and overt example.
I lived in Yemen for several years spread over the period from 1994-1999. During that time, the optimism about the democratic opening of 1990 gave way to increasing frustrations as Salih solidified his control over united Yemen. He defeated the southern leadership in the 1994 war and curtailed the freedoms and pluralism that marked the early unification period, but open public debate has always been vibrant. Travel throughout Yemen was easy at that time, the only obstacle being the need to hire an all-terrain vehicle and driver who knew the many poorly marked roads.
The Yemenis I met cut across social classes and regions, but were overwhelmingly welcoming and friendly toward Americans. In my research on Islamist political parties in Yemen and Jordan, I talked to hundreds of self-described Islamists. I spoke to people in the larger cities, the smaller towns, and in rural areas. We spent long hours talking about Islam and debating the contemporary political problems facing Yemen, the United States, and the world. In 1995 we spoke extensively about race and class in America as Yemenis watched the O.J. Simpson trial on CNN International. I often marveled at the knowledge Yemenis had of the U.S. political system; I wondered if most Americans had comparable knowledge of any other country at all. I was welcomed into homes and shared holidays with families.
What strikes me now is how most Islamists saw jihadi groups as having no place in Yemeni politics. There were jihadis in Yemen, of course, primarily the “Afghan Arabs” who had returned from fighting abroad in Afghanistan and other theaters of jihad and faced difficulties reassimilating. Islamists donning mustaches complained about Taliban proclamations that adult male Muslims must sport a beard at least a fist long. They also complained of the Saudi-sponsored “scientific institutes” that taught the super-conservative Wahhabi take on Islam. Salih had even enjoined these extremists to launch deadly attacks against Southern socialists in the first years after unification. Most of the individuals influenced by these trends eventually found their way into al-Qaida circles.
But they were relatively few. Al-Qaida found little success in attracting Yemenis who were not already drawn to jihadi ideas. The al-Qaida recruiting pitch of attacking foreign powers inside of Yemen simply rang hollow. Even the 2000 attack upon USS Cole – a warship docked in Aden – was not widely viewed as the legitimate targeting of a foreign military power intervening in Yemeni politics. Al-Qaida had to resort to extremist tactics precisely because its ideas did not attract a following significant enough to spark a popular mobilization.
For al-Qaida, the drone program is a gift from the heavens. Its recruiting narrative exploits common misperceptions of American omnipotence, offering an alternative route to justice and empowerment. Regardless of American perceptions about the legitimacy or efficacy of the attacks, what Yemeni could now deny that the United States is waging an undeclared war on Yemen?
For al-Qaida, the drone program is a gift from the heavens. Its recruiting narrative exploits common misperceptions of American omnipotence, offering an alternative route to justice and empowerment.
Most recently, this narrative of direct U.S. intervention has been further substantiated by U.S. material and intelligence support for the Saudi-led military campaign aimed at the return to power of the unpopular and exiled-President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Photographs of spent U.S.-made cluster bombs are widely circulated. Nor have drone attacks ceased; alongside the often indiscriminate Saudi-led bombing, American drones continue their campaign of targeted assassination.
One might think that the Saudi attacks would not help al-Qaida, but it is contributing to al-Qaida’s growth in Yemen. The indiscriminate targeting of the Saudi-led campaign undermines any sense of security, let alone Yemeni sovereignty. And AQAP-controlled areas like the port of Mukalla are not being targeted by Saudi or Gulf troops at all. The United States aims to take up the job of targeting AQAP while the Saudi-led (and U.S.-backed) forces focus on defeating the Houthis and restoring Hadi to power. But the overall situation is one in which those multiple interventions in Yemen are creating an environment in which al-Qaida is beginning to appeal in ways it never had before.
For these reasons, the U.S. use of drones to kill even carefully identified AQAP leaders in Yemen is counterproductive: it gives resonance to the claims of the very group it seeks to destroy. It provides evidence that al-Qaida’s claims and strategies are justified and that Yemenis cannot count on the state to protect them from threats foreign and domestic.
U.S. officials have argued that the drone program has not been used as a recruiting device for al-Qaida. But it is hard to ignore the evidence to the contrary, from counterinsurgency experts who have worked for the U.S. government to Yemeni voices like Farea Muslimi.
It’s not just that drone strikes make al-Qaida recruiting easier, true as that probably is, but that they broaden the social space in which al-Qaida can function. America does not need to win the “hearts and minds” of Yemenis in the service of some grand U.S. project in the region. But if America wants to weaken al-Qaida in Yemen, it needs at a minimum to stop pursuing policies that are bound to enrage and embitter Yemenis who might otherwise be neutral.
There is an old saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. The U.S. military – let alone its drones – is not the only tool on which the United States can rely. But when the measure of success is as narrow as the killing of a specific person, the tool gets used with increasing frequency. Indeed, drone strikes have significantly expanded under the Obama administration.
It is crucial to see the bigger picture, the one in which long-time Yemeni friends tell me of growing anti-U.S. sentiment where there was previously very little. Public opinion toward America has clearly deteriorated over the past decade, and to reverse it may take much longer. But the use of drones to kill people deemed enemies of the United States, along with the Saudi-led war against the Houthis, is expanding the spaces in which al-Qaida is able to function.
A report released in September by human rights researchers at Stanford Law School and New York University Law School sets out to demonstrate that U.S. drone policies are "damaging and counterproductive."
Media outlets from CNN to BBC hailed the report as new evidence of the U.S. government’s false narrative on drones and the New York Times‘ Scott Shane described the study as "among the most thorough on the subject to date."
While the Stanford-NYU report certainly presents a comprehensive review of existing drone research, its new contributions to the evidentiary record are far more modest than its sweeping conclusions would suggest.
The U.S. government claims that civilian casualties caused by drones are in the "single digits" during Obama’s years in office, while the Stanford-NYU report seeks to establish that there is significant evidence that U.S. drone strikes have killed and injured a larger number of civilians. This is a low bar, and would merely necessitate proving that more than 10 civilians have been killed by drones since Obama assumed office, a claim that has been made by all three major databases aggregating information on drone strikes. The Stanford-NYU report goes further, claiming that between 474 and 881 civilians have been killed since 2004.
However, this does not represent new evidence. Stanford and NYU researchers made no attempt to offer new statistical analysis on the number of civilian casualties caused by drones. Rather, their report is essentially an extended endorsement of a database compiled by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a small team of journalists based out of City University, London. In doing so, the report rejects the findings of two other widely cited databases, The Long War Journal, which reports 138 civilian deaths and New America Foundation’s Year of the Drone, which lists 152-191 civilian deaths and the deaths of 130-268 "unknowns."
If the Stanford-NYU team wants to paint a picture of the U.S. as a human rights abuser, then the Bureau, whose casualty statistics dwarf the more conservative estimates of the other databases, is best suited to that purpose, but that does not make it the most reliable source.
While a comprehensive assessment of the Bureau’s data should have been conducted before giving it a resounding endorsement, just a cursory review of its account of 2012’s drone strikes reveals problems:
– On May 5, 2012 the Bureau reports that a strike in North Waziristan killed 8-10 people, of whom between zero and ten are listed as civilians. Upon reviewing the accompanying sources one find that early reports said the identity of the dead could not be determined, but subsequent reports from government officials identified them as militants. Of the 15 sources cited by the Bureau, not one states that the victims were civilians.
-On June 2, 2012 the Bureau reports that 2-4 people were killed and between zero and two of them were civilians. These civilian deaths were inferred based on a report that a motorbike was accidentally hit, but the Bureau fails to take note of a later report from The Express Tribune identifying the motorbike victims as suspected militants Khalil Yargul Khail and Rehmanullah Gangi Khail.
-On July 23, 2012 the Bureau references 25 sources for a drone strike, only one of which described the victims as local residents and based on this the Bureau reports that up to 14 civilians were killed.
The Stanford-NYU report critiques the Long War Journal for not making its data available in a verifiable strike-by-strike format, over-relying on U.S. intelligence sources, and identifying all victims as militants unless they are specifically identified as civilians. These are reasonable criticisms, but when the critique turns to New America Foundation research, it becomes logically inconsistent.
While Stanford-NYU researchers admit that all three databases rely on "the same universe of publicly available press reports," they criticize only the New America Foundation for over-relying on the anonymous Pakistani government officials cited in such news reports. The Stanford-NYU report laments that these officials are cited in 88% of articles referenced in New America’s 2012 data but fails to consider that these same articles are referenced by the Bureau. Furthermore, the only reason the researchers were able to generate that statistic is because New America compiles a highly transparent summary of media sources relied on for each strike with a list of which sources reported which casualty estimates, something no other database provides.
The Stanford-NYU report goes on to question the "deep reporting" capabilities of New America’s sources (The New York Times, Reuters, AP, BBC, etc.) while uncritically accepting the veracity of reports from fringe outlets such as the Kuwait News Agency, the South Asian News Agency, Central Asia Online, and Punjab News, which are sometimes the sole sources for the Bureau’s reports of civilian casualties.
This is not to suggest that the Bureau’s research is without merit, but it should be noted that it represents an interpretation of the facts with a bias toward reporting civilian casualties. The Bureau’s database does not even have a category for reporting militant deaths. It seems counter-intuitive that the organization’s researchers can have such absolute faith in their civilian casualty estimates, but not have the confidence to label any of the deceased as militants.
And the Stanford-NYU team was not impartial. By the report’s own admission, the research project it undertook in Pakistan to interview family members of drone strike victims was commissioned by Reprieve, a UK based advocacy organization. Reprieve, which filed two lawsuits on behalf of alleged drone victims in May of 2012, arranged, paid for and collaborated on many of the victim interviews conducted by the Stanford-NYU researchers.
No database is perfect, but a strong argument could be made that the New America Foundation’s policy of attempting to identify both militants and civilians while maintaining an explicit category for "unknowns" to represent the uncertainty surrounding many of the strikes is a more balanced representation of the facts. After all, if the public is to assess the efficacy of drone strikes then we need to consider the strikes that hit their targets as well as the ones that do not.
Stanford and NYU’s analysis of the three drone databases, in some respects, misses the forest for the trees. A comparison of the annual data collected by the Bureau with that compiled by the New America Foundation suggests that while their numbers may differ, their underlying findings are substantially similar. Both the Bureau and New America have observed a general decline in the percentage of civilian fatalities since the high in 2006, with a sharp decrease during the Obama administration. According to the Bureau’s data, the proportion of civilians killed in drone strikes fell from 35 percent in 2008 under President Bush to 9 percent thus far in 2012. Similarly, New America reports that the rate of civilian and unknown casualties decreased from 23 percent in 2008 to 2 percent in 2012. This stands to reason when we consider that the Bureau tends to err on the side of assuming that unidentified dead or individuals of disputed identity are civilians, while New America prefers to accommodate ambiguity by listing "unknowns" and only reports a civilian or militant casualty when it is reported by two independent sources.
If one takes the average number of civilian and unknown deaths counted by the New America Foundation from 2004-2012 as a percentage of the total number of people killed in drone strikes, the civilian and unknown deaths represent 15 percent of the total. The Bureau’s data suggests that civilian deaths account for 22 percent of the total killed. These numbers are in fact, not so very far apart. And while the Bureau has criticized New America for reporting that in 2012, civilian deaths are approaching zero, the Bureau’s own data suggests that the percentage of civilian casualties in 2012 is at nine percent, an all-time low and significantly less than the 23 percent the Bureau reports during Obama’s first year in office. This suggests that the choice is not between two very different data sets, but rather two different interpretations of similar evidence. Contrary to the Stanford-NYU report’s claims, the New America Foundation is not underreporting civilian casualties; its researchers have simply chosen not to feign certainty in the face of ambiguity.
What They Didn’t Say
The Stanford-NYU researchers also fail to incorporate evidence that might temper their claims. Their report makes numerous references to an AP investigative report that interviewed 80 villagers at the sites of the ten deadliest attacks in 2011 and 2012 but neglects its conclusions that "a significant majority of the dead were combatants" and the numbers of casualties gathered by AP investigators "turned out to be very close to those given by Pakistani intelligence on the day of each strike."
Numerous media accounts, including the LA Times, have highlighted that "the [Stanford-NYU] study concludes that only about 2 percent of drone casualties are top militant leaders." The study reached no such conclusion. This claim is based on research conducted by New America and published last month on CNN. While the Stanford-NYU report summarily dismissed New America’s militant and civilian casualty estimates, they have been quick to make this statistic a centerpiece of their argument. In doing so, they also take the conclusion out of context, and ignore the possible tactical utility of deliberately targeting low-level militants. Indeed, destroying communication centers, training camps and vehicles undermines the operational effectiveness of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and quotes from operatives of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network reveal that drones have forced them into a "jungle existence" where they fear for the lives on a daily basis.
A second key contention of the Stanford-NYU report is that drone strikes are "damaging and counterproductive" to U.S. national security. However, it is shortsighted to evaluate U.S. security in isolation from Pakistani domestic order. Terrorist attacks have been a pervasive problem in Pakistan, especially since 2007. While the report references these attacks and the frequent assassinations carried out by Taliban forces, it makes no reference to recent research by an analyst at the RAND Corporation, who identifies a negative correlation between drone strikes and militant violence inside Pakistan, indicating that the rate of violence has gone down as the rate of drone strikes has gone up. Analysis by New America suggests that while only 10 percent of drone strikes target al-Qaeda operatives, approximately 50 percent hit Taliban targets and in 2009, 19 of the first 32 drone strikes targeted the organization of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban who was ultimately responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis, and the alleged mastermind of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud was a far greater threat to Pakistani security than that of the United States.
These criticisms are not to suggest that the Stanford-NYU report is without merit. The anecdotal evidence on the adverse mental health impact of drones, the economic hardships created by attacks and the restriction of movement caused by FATA residents’ anxiety about potential strikes are all valuable contributions to the public’s understanding of drones, as is the report’s succinct and cogent summary of some of the key legal issues. Both of these topics merit further research and the teams at Stanford and NYU seem well poised to continue contributing in these areas.
However it would be a mistake to unequivocally accept all of the report’s conclusions or its stance on the civilian casualty debate. The U.S. government’s claims that civilian casualties from drone strikes during Obama’s term in office are in the single digits are manifestly untrue, but there is no need to overstate the rate of civilian deaths to make the point that drones strikes are legally suspect and morally hazardous.
Meg Braun is a Rhodes Scholar and MPhil candidate in International Relations at Oxford, where she is researching the evolution of U.S. drone policy. She was an intern at the New America Foundation during summer 2012, where she worked to revise and update its drone database.
Tags: AfPak, AfPak Channel, Afpak Poster 12, al Qaeda, Military, National Security Slider, Obama Administration, Pakistan, Security, Taliban, Terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy
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