Are We Getting into a War in Yemen?

Science, technology, and life.
April 26 2012 12:24 PM

Slipping With the Yemenis

We’re escalating our drone campaign in Yemen. Are we getting into a war?

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MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer drone in U.S. airspace.

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Our troops have come home from Iraq. They’re coming home from Afghanistan. Are you ready to send them off to Yemen?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

I didn’t think so. Neither is the Obama administration. But Yemen is where al-Qaida is setting up shop. Unless you’re willing to risk another terrorist strike on the United States, we’ll have to stay after these guys. And unless you’re willing to send troops or manned aircraft to do that job, we’ll have to send drones.

That’s why we just expanded, in a limited way, our drone campaign in Yemen. We’re trying to take out the people who are most dangerous to us without getting mired in Yemen’s civil war.

The CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command have been flying killer drones over Yemen for years. Last year, they took out Anwar al-Awlaki. But according to a report by Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman, and Julian Barnes in today’s Wall Street Journal, the White House has just changed the rules.

Under the old rules, the CIA and JSOC could use the drones over Yemen only for “personality” strikes, in which the target was identified as someone on an approved list of bad guys. Nobody was deliberately killed until we knew who he was and until we investigated his role in al-Qaida.

Last year, the CIA and JSOC asked the White House to relax the rules. They wanted authority to launch “signature” strikes. In a signature strike, you don’t have to know exactly who the target is. You just have to watch his behavior—the Journal cites transporting weapons as an example—and determine that it’s the behavior of a bad guy. The signature rule allows you to target a lot more people. That’s why we’ve launched so many strikes in Pakistan.

But in Pakistan, the signature rule has become pretty lax. What began as a campaign to take out al-Qaida operatives, based on what’s now a decade-old attack on the U.S., has become a broader air war on the Taliban. In the Pakistani frontier regions, the CIA has license to take out fighters who appear to be involved, or intent on getting involved, in the Afghan insurgency. The drone campaign has spread from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency.

The White House doesn’t want to slide into a counterinsurgency role in Yemen. According to the Journal, administration officials “feared they could be manipulated by Yemeni intelligence sources into taking out targets who don't directly threaten the U.S.” So they rejected last year’s request to expand the drone campaign. But proponents of an expanded campaign turned up the heat. They claim to be “tracking several direct threats to the U.S. connected to” al-Qaida in Yemen. And they note that drone operators have improved their ability to avoid civilian casualties.

So the White House has relented. It has authorized signature strikes, with a caveat. Under the new rules, you don’t have to know exactly whom you’re killing. According to the Journal’s paraphrase, you can even target “lower-level fighters.” But you have to “determine that their militant activities are significant enough” to make them “high-value targets,” or that they’re “plotting against U.S. and Western interests.”

The administration thinks this rule will prevent the Yemen drone campaign from slipping into counterinsurgency. I’m skeptical. Yemen’s leaders may distrust the U.S. and its drones, but why shouldn’t the distrust run both ways? The regime has every reason to feed us intelligence that will lead us to take out enemy fighters, regardless of what threat they pose to us. And that agenda coincides with the views of the U.S. military and intelligence officials who advocated the escalation of the drone program. According to the Journal, these officials think “more-aggressive U.S. action is necessary” in part “to help the Yemeni government regain control of southern provinces where [al-Qaida] and its allies hold sway.” One official flatly declares that al-Qaida’s Yemen “insurgency and its terrorist plotting against the West are two sides of the same coin.”

If that isn’t a recipe for mission creep, I don’t know what is. So keep an eye on the latest reports of drone strikes in Yemen, and whom they’re killing. Or, before you know it, we’ll find ourselves in another war.

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