Sorry about that, Yemen

The United States needs to reassess its use of unmanned drones…


USAF surveillance drone © Bytemarks


The Wall Street Journal reports that a U.S. unmanned aerial drone strike inYemen on May 25, 2010, hit the wrong target. The United States thought that it was striking at Al-Qaeda. Instead, the strike killed one of the political enemies of Yemen’s outgoing dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.  Where did the United States get the intelligence for the strike?  From President Saleh’s government.

Is it too much to suggest that the United States has been having too many of these “whoops” moments? In November, 2011, a U.S. helicopter assault on a Pakistan Army outpost near the Afghan border killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers. The United States blamed faulty intelligence. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: hitting one wrong target may seem like a misfortune. Hitting two wrong targets seems like carelessness.  Since mid-November, the United States has suspended drone strikes in Pakistan.

Experts such as Dr. A.S.M. Ali Ashraf of the University of Dhakain Bangladesh have concluded that, more often than not, U.S.drone strikes hit the wrong target. Regarding Pakistan, Dr. Ashraf estimates that of those killed in drone attacks, only a mere 3% constitute high value terrorist targets. One such high value target inPakistan was Baitullah Mehsud, commander of the Pakistan Taliban who was killed by an American drone onAugust 5, 2009.

Drone strikes per se may not be illegal under international law.  In 1984, the International Court of Justice in the Nicaragua decision reiterated a long-standing rule of the law of armed conflict:  military action becomes illegal if it causes too much collateral damage (the ugly phrase military and politicians use for unintended deaths of civilians).  Civilian casualties are unavoidable in war, but they must not be out of proportion to the importance of the military objective sought to be achieved.  So how many civilians deaths are too many?  Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation estimate that drone strikes have carried a 32% civilian casualty rate since 2004.  We suggest that that number is much too high.

Pakistanis agree.  The U.S. drone strikes are the greatest contributor to Pakistanis’ growing anti-Americanism.  Drone attacks are enormously unpopular with Pakistanis, partly because they are perceived to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty, and also because they take many innocent lives.  Yet, Wikileaks confirms, the Pakistani government has quietly consented to the U.S. drone strikes, even while denouncing them in public.

By 2006, it appears, U.S. and Pakistani war-planners had evolved a new strategy, of which drones were a part.  Militants had regrouped in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and were directing their renewed energies both against NATO in Afghanistan and against Pakistan’s government. Pakistan has since then lost and regained portions of its territory to militants, and threats to the country’s territorial integrity continue.  Those threats compromise Pakistan’s capability to carry out its alliance with the United States, as per the militants’ wish.  By 2009, both the U.S. and Pakistan recognized the need for decisive action in the tribal areas. U.S. drone strikes complement the Pakistan army’s operations and remove the need for American troops in the country, which no Pakistani wants.

Drone attacks play a similar role inYemen. Yemenis the home of the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born Islamist radical cleric who counseled Major Nidal Hassan, killer of 13 of his fellow servicemen at Fort Hood, Texas, was killed in Yemen by a U.S. drone in September.  Al-Qaeda is said to have regrouped inYemen in 2006 because Yemen’s location makes it a strategic point of access to the Arab world as well as a chokepoint for cutting off oil destined for the West.

The United States’ error in the Yemen drone attack should provide lessons.  First is the danger of seeing Al-Qaeda everywhere. Al-Qaeda isn’t everywhere. This is borne out in a new book by Fawaz A. Gerges of the London School of Economics, The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. Gerges maintains that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan shattered Al-Qaeda, leaving it a shell of its former self. Unfortunately, Gerges writes, the U.S. cannot escape the grip of a myth of a globe-straddling, vastly powerful Al-Qaeda.

Second, local actors have their own motivations; these may be quite different from U.S. aims.  The stated purpose for United States involvement inYemenis the struggle against Al-Qaeda.  What appears to matter most to the ordinary Yemeni is the uprising which finally forced Saleh to agree to resign.  What seems to matter most to Saleh is not fighting the terrorists but holding on to power.  Saleh may have been able to manipulate America’s anti-terrorism campaign to X-out a political enemy.  The United States must not let its preoccupation with fighting terrorists blind it to what is actually going on around it.

Above all, the United States needs to be careful how it uses drones, particularly where they risk civilian lives.  When Barack Obama was elected president, it seemed that he would recapture the Muslim world’s goodwill, which had been lost by George W. Bush.  More and more, President Obama has squandered that opportunity.  Besides, killing innocents is counterproductive as it wins more followers for the militants.  The United States must change course.


Dr. Imrana Iqbal, a native of Lahore, Pakistan, is a former Professor of English at the University of Texas at Arlington. When living in Pakistan she wrote for The Frontier Post and The Nation (Lahore). She is the founder of the Pakistan Reconstruction Project.
Charles Pierson, a Board Member of the Pakistan Reconstruction Project, is a lawyer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who writes on international law.