x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Yemen-US ties must go beyond drones

Yemen's silent encouragement of the US drone war against Al Qaeda could have some nasty blowback for the new government there.

Washington's most active military engagement on the Arabian Peninsula is its covert drone war in Yemen. It was in Yemen where America's use of drones to target terror suspects was hatched, by the Bush administration in 2002. And strikes by drones and cruise missiles against individuals have been increasing in Yemen more recently. Last year, there were more drone strikes and air strikes in Yemen (at least 65) than there were in Pakistan (43).

The effect of these so-called "targeted" strikes should not be underestimated. The US claims that they target only militants - but extends the definition of "militants" so widely that it becomes almost meaningless. Officially, the US says that any military-age males in a strike zone are combatants, and grants itself the authority to kill from the sky.

Not surprisingly, the Yemeni families of children and mothers who have been killed have not accepted such spurious legality. Last year, after missiles fired by a US drone hit a minibus carrying children, the families attempted to carry the corpses to the president's palace in Sanaa. In the US, a lawsuit has been brought by the family of Anwar Al Awlaki, a US citizen accused by the US of supporting terrorism who was later killed. His family argues that, as a citizen, he was entitled to due process.

Legal ambiguity aside, there are no signs the Obama administration plans to scale back its Yemen drone strategy. In tapping John Brennan - architect of the American drone programme - to head the CIA, President Barack Obama has endorsed a continuation of the status quo.

Yemen's president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, is in a difficult position but has openly sided with the United States against his own citizens - he has praised the strikes and said he personally approved all attacks. And to be sure, death from the air has limited Al Qaeda's gains.

But these are short-term tactical victories that cannot replace strategies for long-term stability. For a fragile Yemen, drones could be catastrophic, stoking anger and resentment against the United States and the Yemeni government. No one likes their people killed with impunity.

Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh made the mistake of allowing the US to operate with impunity inside Yemen, and over it. Mr Hadi risks creating conditions of huge mistrust that could bubble over in unexpected ways if he continues to do the same.