The Obama Administration is currently contemplating drone strikes against terrorist strongholds in Yemen, reports the Los Angeles Times, citing two anonymous officials.
America has been flying unmanned aircraft over Yemen since earlier this year, but the drones have been used for surveillance and not for attacking militants who have taken refuge in the country’s rugged hinterlands.
The option under consideration by the White House would escalate the effort, enlisting Yemeni government support for drone strikes and developing more intelligence sources about where militants are hiding.
Washington has been engaged in Yemen’s two different, dangerous wars for close to a year now. Western countries become involved after an Islamic extremist trained in Yemen tried to detonate a bomb on board a commercial airliner headed for Detroit in December 2009. The United States are currently spending millions of dollars training and equipping Yemeni army and police forces to fight the insurgency in their state. Britain, too, is involved.
Since it become known last week that terrorists based in Yemen had managed to get explosives sealed in packages on board airplanes headed for the West, several countries have temporarily closed off their airports from cargo flights that originated in Yemen.
A senior administration official, who spoke with the Los Angeles Times on condition of anonymity, said Sunday that Washington is “engaged in a robust dialogue with the Yemeni government about a range of things.” As the newspaper points out, winning Yemeni approval for airstrikes carried out exclusively by the United States could prove difficult.
Yemen hasn’t exactly been forthcoming in the War on Terror in general. The country’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has never been a friend of America’s. Instead, his government has shown tremendous leniency — and sometimes outright support — for Al Qaeda. He opposed the 1991 invasion of Kuwait and in 2000, after Al Qaeda had attacked the USS Cole which was stationed in Yemen at the time, the president went as far as to suggest that the United States help pay for the damages to the port where the destroyer had harbored.
In recent years, things have started to get more difficult for Saleh and suddenly, he revealed himself an ally of the West. His government hasn’t managed to control the previously quiet war in Yemen that erupted in 2004. It has alleged instead that Iran funds the Shiite uprising in the north of the country while neighboring Saudi Arabia built a wall and conducted airstrikes to prevent rebels from crossing the border into the kingdom. This rebellion however is distinct from a separatist threat in the central south of the country that is fueled by Al Qaeda.
In spite of the millions of American aid that have flowed into the country, the Yemeni government has failed to have any significant impact on Al Qaeda’s strength. Rather it is using the money to suppress the insurgency in the north which poses a greater risk to Saleh’s regime but is of little interest to the rest of the world. This summer, The New York Times reported that Saleh’s government was actually negotiating with Al Qaeda.
Of course, the president will pretend that the two conflicts are intertwined; that Al Qaeda is communicating and coordinating tactics with the rebels; and that Iran is masterminding the uprising from afar. The average Westerner may have difficulty distinguishing between the two insurgencies, both of which would appear to be violent outburst of radical Islamism. One is an internal power struggle however that the United States should want to keep its hands off altogether. The other is a minor terrorist threat which the Yemeni government has, and probably will be, unable, if not outright unwilling to suppress.
Drone strikes may be an effective alternative to feeble military support from the Yemeni government but Washington should not pretend that it has an ally in the country.