Tag Archives: Yemen

How strong is the human element behind drones?

War may be more automated than ever, but human fingers still pull the triggers.

Although President Barack Obama has adopted drones as the workhorse weapons system of his anti-terrorism strategy, full automation is unlikely in the near future.

“Drones don’t change the human dimension of war,” said Christopher Swift of Georgetown University, a leading expert on the anti-terrorism campaign in Yemen. The true philosophical quandary, Swift explained, comes with granting computers the power to shoot.

Replacing humans with computers in that capacity “seems like an incredibly bad idea,” said Josh Meyer, former chief terrorism reporter for The Los Angeles Times and director of education and outreach for Medill’s National Security Journalism Initiative.

While it’s unlikely that automaton UAVs would present a sci-fi threat akin to the Terminator series’ Skynet, the human element is still essential for effective use of drones.

Ground based teams commonly aid UAVs in finding their targets. There are also strong indications that the military is using manned aircraft in the sort of covert missions usually reserved for drones. Witness February’s fatal accident in Djibouti, in which an Air Force Special Operations U-28 with civilian markings crashed killing all 4 occupants.

But the level of reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is not to be underestimated. According to Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation, the Obama administration conducts a drone strike every 4 days. Under President George W. Bush, the average time between drone attacks was 40 days.

There are many reasons for the increased dependence on drones. One major advantage of drones over conventional aircraft is the UAV’s ability to remain in a holding pattern for a long period of time. This ability leads to “better precision [when conducting strikes]”, said Meyer.

Another advantage is political. Drone strikes have been ordered overwhelmingly in Pakistan and Yemen, countries where a conventional American military presence would likely create havoc. While Pakistan and Yemen have tacitly acquiesced to UAV operations over their territories, the strategy is not without flaws.

The strikes have successfully weakened Al-Qaida by killing off many within its leadership, especially those with battle experience. “It used to be that Al-Qaida had a deep bench,” said Meyer, “some killed aren’t easily replaceable.”

But the strikes aren’t 100 percent accurate. The collateral damage caused by drone attacks has at times alienated potential key allies on the ground. Swift claims drone strikes have multiplied the number of Al-Qaida militants in Yemen threefold.

The pressure for young Yemeni males is economic, Al-Qaida pays $200 a month in a $60 a month economy, and reactive: Signature strikes, attacks aimed at men behaving in a suspicious manner, have often hit undeserving targets. As Swift pointed out, “Not everybody with an Ak-47 and a turban in Yemen is al-Qaida.”

Most UAV missions are not signature strikes but targeted killings. Because of collateral damage, missiles mounted on drones have been modified over time to be more precise.



Yemen's water: a different national security threat

WASHINGTON–After a Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda claimed it was behind the foiled terrorist attack on Christmas day late last year, the country on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula has garnered national attention.
Described as a ticking time bomb for extremism, Yemen has captured public attention as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s primary new breeding ground —  a chronic politically unstable state ripe for AQAP’s exploitation. More than 100 Yemenis have been incarcerated in Guantanamo since 2002 and several hundred al Qaeda affiliated militants are said to operate in the country.
Yet for many Yemenis, the pervasive al Qaeda threat is eclipsed by more impending crises, including an increasingly violent secessionist movement in the south and a civil war in the north. In addition to civil unrest, the poorest nation  in the region – and one of the poorest in the world – faces yet another catastrophe whose numbers portend a far deadlier long-term challenge.
Yemen’s population of 23 million, nearly half of whom are under the age of 15, is expected to double by 2035.
And experts claim the capital city, Sana’a, could become the world’s first capital city to run dry, raising concerns that a World Heritage City could devolve into a mere ghost town.
Yemen’s oil accounts for approximately 85% of the government’s revenue. Profit is used to subsidize expensive diesel pumps to extract water, but analysts predict that its petroleum output, already down from 460,000 barrels a day in 2002 to 300-350,000 in 2007, will fall to 0 in 2017.
“Everyone — the Yemeni people, the American government — are sitting around waiting for the crisis to vanish,” said Mohammed Albasha, press and public relations officer at the Embassy of Yemen in Washington. “They’re just talking about it and no one is giving solutions.”
Greg Johnsen, Princeton University expert on Yemen, argues that solutions have been offered – they’re just detrimental.
“Counterterrorism is the only tool the administration is availing themselves with to deal with Yemen and that is a catastrophic mistake,” said Johnsen.
Will Rogers, research assistant at the Center for a New American Security think tank, says the development community must work with locals to break the cycle and bolster the government’s legitimacy.
“You can throw money at the problem but if u don’t have a sustainable plan, you won’t see improvement,” he said.
As water becomes more scarce, the government is increasingly unable to maintain control and legitimacy over tribal governments. Pockets of ungoverned spaces present opportunities for al Qaeda to exploit economic and political challenges.
If the overarching goal is to make Yemen a more stable state, then the first and most basic task is to develop sustainable water projects. But that has become increasingly difficult.
According to a February 2009 report by Integrated Regional Information Network, eighty percent of rural water projects funded by World Bank and Yemen government programs had been seized by tribesmen near or upon completion.
“The effective implementation of programs is hampered by Yemen’s limited institutional capacity,” said Xavier Devictor, World Bank Country Program Coordinator for Egypt, Yemen, and Djibouti. “And actions are likely to require social change, which may take time to materialize.”
Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affair Maria Otero recently traveled to the Middle East in a trip that was said to underscore the need to elevate America’s diplomatic efforts surrounding water.
“Yemen is perhaps the most extreme example of the problems in the region,” said Carl Schonander, primary policy person for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs under Otero.
But Yemen wasn’t a stop on the department’s tour.
“The trip was planned far in advanced and we didn’t make it to Yemen,” he said, “but the consciousness of the issues should no doubt be raised more.”
Many are counting on it. But as the Yemeni proverb goes, from a pound of talk, an ounce of understanding.
“The next big war in the Middle East wont be over oil, but water,” said Albasha.
“It’s the main source for life,” he said, “and will be the next big ugly battle.”