On January 7, 2014, Amnesty International issued its latest warning as part of a seemingly endless demand for US accountability in Yemen. Nearly a month prior, on December 12, a US Reaper drone bombarded a wedding party near Rada’a and sent 12 people to untimely deaths. Investigations of US strikes in the country have unfolded at a notoriously slow pace, or else not all, depending on the level of media scrutiny and local damage among Yemen’s many tribes. Rada’a is no different, with US officials offering few comments beyond the packaged regret that accompanies an errant strike.
“US officials have responded to Amnesty International’s concerns by referring to President Obama’s May 23, 2013 speech at National Defense University, in which he reaffirmed his commitment to the rule of law and transparency. Yet the Administration’s unwillingness to acknowledge and investigate potentially unlawful killings flies in the face of that commitment.”
The Obama administration claims it is internally investigating the strike’s casualties, the possibility of being fed false intelligence and the overall launch process of targeted strikes. But who expects an investigation to change the system? In Yemen particularly, its astute activists and street revolutionaries have become accustomed to the US government’s false friendship and the excuses, propaganda and hostility that lie underneath. President Barack Obama had his chance to reform US-Yemeni relations after his now-infamous Cairo speech, but no actual initiative followed to befriend the Yemeni people.
Instead, they became a collective pawn of international politics and a casualty of the long war against al-Qaeda’s hydra. When revolution spread from Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011, the Obama administration initially backed Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh until the murderous actions of his familial autocracy were no longer publicly defensible. However Saleh’s vice president of 19 years, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, was quickly selected as a replacement by the US and Saudi governments, along with Yemen’s other so-called “friends,” the United Nations and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saleh also received the parting gift of immunity from the UN and GCC for vacating his position in February 2012.
It would be revealed later that the Obama administration utilized this period to establish drone operations inside the country, near the southern port of Aden and along the Saudi Arabian border.
Calls for the cessation of drone strikes on the grounds that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) benefits as much as the US and Yemeni governments naturally go ignored on a regular basis. Measurable growth in AQAP’s brand recognition, its numbers (from the low to high hundreds) and its area of operations across southern Yemen’s governorates only provide more impetus to strike again. Cluster bombs have been stuffed into a closet of skeletons. Obama’s own visage has been torched in the streets and US Ambassador Gerald Feierstein made himself a public enemy by meeting too cordially with Saleh.
So despite the current level of backlash from Rada’a, nothing is likely to change in Washington’s long-term conception of Yemen.
Yemen is perceived as a colony, not a sovereign nation, from Washington’s point of view. Yemen is a land where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who boasted of her prescience in seeing a youth uprising, shook hands with Saleh just before revolution struck. It is a land where, when revolution accelerates, so too do clandestine operations and open warfare.
This reaction is consistent over time and not liable to break from a singular event, no matter how visceral.
“You cannot imagine how angry people are,” Nasser Al-Sane, a local Yemeni journalist, told NBC News. “They turned a wedding into a funeral.”
The first participants to benefit from America’s aerial operations, in no established order: AQAP and the US, Saudi and Yemeni governments. AQAP receives an influx of recruits to compensate for lost members, creating a futile loop on the ground and fueling AQAP’s propaganda machine. The US and Saudi governments, in turn, maintain political and military control of the Arabian horn and its vital waterways. Hadi and other military personnel befriended by Washington and Riyadh to replace the Salehs keep their private lifeline to foreign capital, securing positions in any type of “new” Yemen. Oil companies from around the world are moving in.
Last place goes to Yemen’s people – an autonomous Yemen threatens all domestic exploitation and foreign hegemony.
These concerns aside, the Yemeni people remain open to better relations with America, and a true representative government would assist the United States in combating AQAP. It simply won’t grant the current level of intrusion. If Obama did intend to shift US policy in a positive direction, he has wasted an open invitation to meet with Yemenis and to invest time building a relationship with them. Wasting this advantage is inexcusable in politics and warfare, for Yemenis are the only people who can permanently halt and reverse AQAP’s growth. Efficient counterinsurgency utilizes the local population to fight the war at the military and non-military levels and blends into the background as much as possible.
Yemen’s tribes have been intermittently supported by the Yemeni and US militaries, along with the CIA, but Washington’s ongoing use of drones creates the impression drones wage the bulk of fighting against AQAP. And these same tribes are treated as political enemies once the words “South Yemen” are uttered.
Yemen’s general citizenry remains out of the battle.
As for Yemenis themselves, the task of expelling foreign influence depends on their initiative alone. Only they can seal all the gaps against AQAP, fight back against their self-interested government (the co-ruling General People’s Congress and Joint Meeting Parties) and establish a self-sufficient society capable of managing its own future. Political education and mobilization is vital to overcoming dire economic obstacles. If Obama won’t willingly listen to Yemenis’ security concerns, the other option is to make him listen to their demands for liberty and equality.