Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 29 September 2020

Drones policy in Yemen flies blind without making the US safe

The media reaction to my testimony before the US Congress revealed astonishing misconceptions about the drones policy in Yemen
Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

On May 2, I testified before the US Congress on the tragic effects of America's drone policy in Yemen.

Speaking before the Senate judiciary subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights, and human rights, I offered, I felt, neither a new angle nor new insights to the wealth of information already written on the American drone programme in Yemen.

Activists and journalists have written extensively for years about the repercussions from drone strikes in Yemen, but such thinking was always taboo in Washington. No one wanted to discuss such assumptions in the halls of US power, despite significant evidence that the arguments Washington was using to justify the drone programme in Yemen were false.

For most Yemenis, my words were common sense. Yet the interest from the US media and public was striking.

There appears to be significant momentum to challenge the drones programme, although it remains an open question whether such interest will last.

Hours after my testimony, during a quiet dinner with American friends, I realised that the attention given to my testimony was extraordinary. That day and for the rest of the week, I repeated the same talking points a minimum of 15 times a day in 15 different interviews and meetings.

The week was one of the busiest of my life. I managed to escape the madness briefly to visit my American host family from when I attended high school in the US. My host mother reminded me to focus on the finer things, by insisting I fill my bag with Oreos and chocolate, just as she did when I was in high school.

I enjoyed this time, but was struck by the fact I had visited my American mother twice in the past eight months, two times more than I was able to visit my biological mother in Yemen during the same period. Going back now seems harder than ever, given that US drones now cruise over the roads to my home village.

In virtually all my conversations with the media and policymakers, I had to challenge common American assumptions and misconceptions about the drones programme and Yemen. My perspective was a sharp contrast to what they were used to hearing from foreign commentators, who mainly stay in five-star hotels in Sanaa, and trumpet the "success" of the programme.

What became abundantly clear from the discussions was the extent to which Yemen is misunderstood, even among those who claim to be knowledgeable about the country. A variety of assumptions seem to have been forged from misleading statistics and inaccurate or downright false information on the drones programme. I was shocked not merely at the ill-conceived notion of "seeing" Yemen from three kilometres above the ground from a camera on a drone, but more crucially in the apparent disinformation campaign circulating about the programme.

The most remarkable claim I encountered was that "targeted killing" was a necessity due to the inability to capture suspects. Such claims are patently false, certainly in my village, Wessab, but also almost anywhere else in Abyan province.

An even more misleading argument often thrown at me was that, "your government approves 'target killings'" - and that therefore there is no problem with the drones programme.

The main choice I faced with such a statement was whether to laugh or scream. I had to explain that the government in Yemen is not "my" government, but rather the world's government, including the US's, in the sense that it is a transitional government put in place by the international community.

Of course, I voted for the president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, but only over his shadow - there were no other candidates in the election - and I did not sign the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deal that brought corrupt politicians to the cabinet. A cabinet that even the most realistic Yemenis are unhappy with.

The current parliament and government in Yemen have no legitimacy whatsoever. The parliament's mandate expired in 2008, yet a deal among Yemen's elite has extended that term until today.

As a result, it was understandably difficult for me to listen to policymakers who helped impose a government on my country ask such questions. How could an unelected parliament effectively represent me or be accountable to me, if it was imposed? Ironically enough, it was easier for me to deliver my message to the US senate than it would be to deliver it to my own legislative body in Yemen. The possibility of communication between the US senate and any Yemeni is more likely than between any Yemeni and his/her own parliament.

There are not many countries where you can challenge their most secret policies from their capital. Yet speaking to US media outlets was both interesting and troubling. American media outlets tend to focus exclusively on the domestic political manoeuvring in Yemen, without any reference to the tragedies I encountered on the ground. It was as if someone wanted to focus on me but in no way discuss my personal experience with the powerful and horrific stories of the drone strikes.

One troubling aspect of the media coverage was the extent to which the focus was on how the drone strikes raise animosity in Yemen towards America. While that is true, I felt that some journalists focused too narrowly on this point at the expense of the more pressing issue: hundreds of innocent civilians were killed in these strikes. This point seemed obscured by the attention given to the reaction toward America after a drone strike. Civilian deaths should alone be the leading cause for discussion and critique of the programme.

I was also unhappy with the cheap attempts by a few media outlets to use the tragedies we were discussing as a way of making a party political point, usually against the Obama administration.

On the other hand, I was truly touched by the reactions I received from the general public in America, both in person and virtually.

While the hearing may have furthered some public and political critique of the drone strikes, the battle against this ill-advised policy has not even begun.

Yet journalists and legislators will soon focus on new developments and probably forget about Yemen. The American government will probably resume the old habit of raining down explosive mistakes from three kilometres above Yemeni soil. Nor is it likely that serious consideration will be given to even minute changes in the programme, such as the willingness to pay compensation to the Yemeni civilians who were victims, as was done in Pakistan.

No, continuity in the drones programme will probably be uninterrupted, enabled by the same elite politicians who disclose more to their American counterparts than to the Yemeni people.

On the other hand, the most promising front for change in the policy comes from human-rights activists, in Yemen and America, from the US and Yemeni publics, and from those politicians willing to challenge such senseless policies.

As I told countless reporters and legislators, the drones programme does not make Americans safer. Yet there is a wilful blindness to the full range of implications of this counter-productive policy.

After a beautifully calm final night in DC with American friends, I headed back to Yemen, after two weeks I still struggle to describe. At the airport, the immigration officer looked at my passport and told me I had been "randomly" selected for extra security checks.

I didn't buy the word "randomly" but smiled and told him: "Sure. It has been a random two weeks to start with."


Farea Al Muslimi is a Yemeni activist and writer

On Twitter: @Almuslimi

Updated: May 11, 2013 04:00 AM

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