This year, according to The Long War Journal national security website, the U.S. has carried out 26 drone strikes in Pakistan. That’s slightly fewer than half of the 64 airstrikes recorded last year, and a fraction of the 117 strikes carried out in 2010.
In Yemen, it’s a different story. Since the beginning of this year, the U.S. has already carried out 25 drone strikes in Yemen – more than double the 10 strikes recorded last year and significantly more than the 4 strikes recorded in 2010.
“The U.S. has been carrying out strikes in Yemen since late December 2009, and they’ve dramatically increased in the past several months,” said Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen.
Although the situation in Yemen is far more complicated than these numbers imply – in part because it’s difficult to identify the origin of the military strikes – the figures nonetheless suggest a shift in the way the U.S. is thinking about its counter-terrorism strategy. “It’s using drones, naval ships, and aircraft, and there are Special Forces operating on the ground… it’s killing individuals,” Johnsen said.
In fact, the White House declared al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen – not Pakistan – the greatest terror threat to the U.S. today.
But whether or not the U.S. is officially at war in Yemen is an ongoing debate among scholars, in part because of a lack of government transparency. Top officials – including President Barack Obama and Panetta – have been tight-lipped on the issue.
As a result, “it’s very difficult to ascertain in every case who it is that’s doing the shooting and who is actually firing some of the missiles,” Johnsen said. “I do think it’s fair to say that the U.S. is carrying out military activities and military forces are being used.”
According to a recent article published on Wired magazine’s national security blog Danger Room, the U.S. alone has two ongoing drone campaigns in Yemen: One run by the C.I.A., and the other by the Joint Special Operations Command. This – combined with a lack of reporting on the ground – makes it even more difficult to gauge the extent of U.S. involvement in Yemen.
“There are very few journalists, whether local Yemeni ones or international ones, who are on the ground covering this,” Johnsen said. “This makes it harder to tell where the strikes are coming from, and the Yemeni government is taking credit for most of them.”
Despite the equivocation surrounding U.S. activity in Yemen, it’s clear that we are, at least to some extent , involved. To that end, some scholars say it’s imperative – as it is with any war or war-like initiative – to consider the costs and identify the end goals.
Unfortunately, a balance between the government’s need for secrecy and the public’s right to transparency has yet to materialize. There has been very little discussion regarding the goals of the operations in Yemen, and even less about a way to measure whether those goals have been reached.
“What it appears the U.S. wants to do is fire enough missiles into Yemen and keep al-Qaeda off-balance enough that the group can’t carry out attacks against the U.S.,” Johnsen said.
But activities in recent months – particularly the uncovering of what Johnsen called “underwear bomb 2.0” in May – suggests al-Qaeda’s appetite for carrying out strikes hasn’t waned in the face of increased U.S. presence in Yemen. On Christmas day in 2009, Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallah attempted to detonate a bomb on a Detroit-bound flight carrying 290 passengers and crewmembers. Officials later traced the bomb to an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.
According to the indictment filed in the case, the FBI reported, Abdulmutallah went to Yemen to get involved “in violent ‘jihad’ on behalf on al Qaeda.” While in Yemen, the report continues, Abdulmutallah “conspired with other al Qaeda members to bomb a U.S. aircraft over U.S. soil and received a device for that purpose.”
In May, the CIA thwarted a second plan to carry an underwear bomb onto an international flight. U.S. officials said the bomb resembled that used in 2009, and could once again be traced to al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen.
The Obama Administration’s policy on Yemen – spearheaded by White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan – is good on paper, Johnsen said, but has yet to be implemented. And if the U.S. adheres to its current strategy moving forward, and continues to rely heavily on military strikes, we will face a difficult conundrum, Johnsen said.
“Doing nothing is not an option because we’re worried that al-Qaeda will continue to attack,” Johnsen alleged. “Yet by doing something, the U.S. runs the very real risk of exacerbating the problem and making it worse than it was.”
That’s because drone strikes kill civilians too. One growing concern is that family members – especially young men and boys – who witness these attacks want one thing: revenge. And an increasing number, according to various reports, are joining al-Qaeda-linked groups to fight back against those who killed their fathers.