New America Foundation says that US drone attacks in Yemen have risen from 18 in 2011 to 53 in 2012 [Reuters]

[Drones are now at the top of the news cycle. This commentary was originally published in the January online edition of Anthropology News.]

The Error in the War on Terror

In 1978 I arrived in the Yemen Arab Republic to begin 18 months ethnographic fieldwork. At the time North Yemen, as it was called, was in full development mode. A protracted civil war after the fall of the traditional Zaydi imamate had ended only a decade before. Aid was pouring in from the United Nations, the United States, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Russia and mainland China as the country was in the throes of building itself up by its sandalstraps. Once settled in my field site, the beautiful spring-fed highland valley of al-Ahjur, I could not help but notice that just about everyone was armed, many with kalashnikovs. This was a tribal area, where the central government exercised little control, but I never felt safer in my life.

I felt safe because as a foreigner I was protected under tribal customary law. At this time the United States was well liked, often in contrast to the atheist communists of the Soviet Union who supported the socialist regime in South Yemen. This was before any hint of terrorism, before the Iran hostage affair and long before al-Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden had just turned 21 and was still in college. In this tribal area there was an honor code, exemplified by the Yemeni term qabyala, that required protection of unarmed guests, as it did women and children. In 2004, on a return visit to the valley, I found myself in the difficult situation of explaining why I did not support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. One of my Yemeni friends noted that he used to think that America was different, but now he believed that the U.S. president was as bad as his own, Ali Abdullah Salih.

Although I have not returned to Yemen in the past seven years, the situation there is always on my mind. The winds of the “Arab Spring” finally dislodged President Salih after three decades in power. The transitional government of President al-Hadi is beset with seemingly insurmountable problems: years of government corruption, economic stagnation, open rebellions of the Huthi group in the north and southern secessionists, and the continuing presence of extremists who label themselves Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Once again Yemen is poised at a critical moment for development, although this time the global implications of local politics overshadow all hopes for progress.

Yemen is front and center in America’s unending war on terror and the weapon of choice is now the drone. In military terms, a drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle which can hit a moving vehicle full of al-Qaeda operatives with incredible accuracy. It can just as easily target a car full of civilians or a room full of children. In Yemen and Pakistan the most lethal drone is the MQ-9 Reaper, also known as the Predator, used for what are termed hunter-kill missions. Drone strikes in Yemen have quadrupled in 2012 from the strikes in 2011. Estimates vary, but the Long War Journal estimates that since 2002 in Yemen there have been 59 drone strikes with “enemy” deaths numbering 298 and civilian deaths numbering 82. A reporter for Yemen Post reports that this year al-Qaeda gunmen killed 74 Yemeni security or military officials, about the same number as the militants killed by drones over the year in Yemen. Four drone strikes were authorized after Christmas, 2012. Drone strikes are even more common in Pakistan; since 2005 they have caused an estimated 3,000 deaths, with between 473-889 civilian casualties. Over 300 of 355 drone strikes in Pakistan have occurred under the watch of President Obama, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Drones are effective killers because they are unmanned. From a military point of view it is better to lose a drone priced at about 37 million dollars than a pilot or crew. I do not dispute this rationale, but what about the value of those who die in the drone’s wake? Drone strikes inevitably kill civilians from time to time, either due to faulty targeting or the fact that innocent people may be nearby suspected terrorists. Every time a family mourns the loss of a victim, there is a recruiting tool for yet more terrorists. Then there are the flight mishaps, especially when drones crash in or near civilian airports, as has been documented. Is it reasonable to expect that every identifiable terrorist can be taken out by a no-end-in-sight drone strategy?

The Reaper is aptly named, given the grim results of its destruction. Also grim is the fact that drone deaths are almost never covered in the news media, at least here in the United States, except in the rare case of an American citizen, such as Anwar al-Awlaqi, who was killed along with fellow American Samir Khan in 2011. This raised the issue briefly of what right an American citizen has to a trial before being killed, but says little about what being a “suspected” terrorists really means. It is as though the argument of the neatness of precision bombing justifies use of a weapon which is not in fact failsafe, even if handled properly by the remote controller. The collateral damage here is not simply loss of vehicles and houses, but more importantly human bodies are incinerated simply on the suspicion that these individuals are said to be terrorists. If killing terrorists serves as a rallying cry for recruiting new terrorists, then those who hate America are quite happy if we drone on, perhaps getting something from small battles but ultimately not doing much to win the overall war on terror.