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Are Drone Strikes Strategically Counterproductive in Yemen?

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Friday, March 8, 2013 at 4:38 PM

One of this country’s most knowledgeable writers about Yemen is Greg Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Queda, and America’s War in Arabia. Johnsen is often read as arguing that American drone strikes in Yemen do more harm than good, because they spawn increased membership in the jihadi forces there.

Johnsen was here at NYU Law School for a discussion this week and I learned that his views are considerably more nuanced than that simple characterization suggests. Based on his experience, he believes that a more refined drone program remains necessary — not that the US should end its drone program altogether. In particular, he believes that targeted killing in Yemen of high-level figures in AQ and associated forces does not tend to generate greater support and membership for these forces. Most Yemenis do not support these figures, are not outraged when they are killed, and do get mobilized against the US or the Yemeni government as a result.

Instead, Johnsen identifies two flaws with the scope of the current program as it actually functions (in his view): (1) The problem of accurate identification in Yemen is particularly difficult, since the effectiveness of drones always depends on the quality of intelligence on the ground, including human intelligence. Thus, “accurate” strikes there have in fact at times killed innocent, non-jihadis who have been misidentified as terrorist figures, and these episodes generate backlash; (2) The targeted killing of lower-level figures in the jihadi forces can trigger a backlash because local Yemenis often do not perceive these figures as fundamentally terrorist fighters, but as figures with broader identities, such as members of local tribes who are fundamentally perceived through that lens.

Thus, Johnsen argues for a narrower drone program that concentrates on high-level figures. And while accuracy is always essential, he stresses greater awareness of the difficulties in being sure in Yemen that individuals are who the US believes they are before striking. We do not know, of course, whether the accuracy of identification has improved significantly over the years and whether some of the mistakes Johnsen sees in earlier strikes no longer occur or occur much less frequently.

There’s also a point here about the difficulty of generating well-informed, accurate, public and political discussion of issues as charged as the drone program. Johnsen himself seemed frustrated that his work was being absorbed in overly simplistic ways in policy discussions and public debate.

I believe I’ve characterized Johnsen’s views accurately. If not, I’m sure he will clarify, including through his own blog, which is here.