June 14, 2011

"Covert" drone attacks in Yemen?

Recent press reports claim that the United States is about to begin a "covert" Central Intelligence Agency operation in Yemen. Much like a similar "covert" operation in Pakistan, the CIA will use armed Predator drones to launch missile attacks on al-Qa'idah militants in the country.

I have placed the word covert in quotes to indicate the irony that once the existence of an operation is made public, it can no longer be considered covert. In the cases of drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen, it is probably a moot point. While covert operations are operations that are readily apparent - like a missile strike - the persons, agency and/or country conducting the operations usually remain unknown.

When Predator drones are used in countries without a U.S. military presence, it is likely, but not certain, that the operation is an American operation conducted by the CIA. (The Royal Air Force and the Italian Air Force also operate armed drones). The covert nature of the operation is likely compromised after the first attack evolution.

Expanding the CIA drone attack operation beyond Pakistan makes sense, and the Obama Administration should be applauded for doing so. No doubt there will be a great hue and cry from various civil liberties groups that we are not affording due process to the targets of these missile attacks. I believe that we are in a war, but let them show their ignorance and disdain for effective counterterrorist measures.

Al-Qa'idah moved its operations from Afghanistan to Pakistan after being decimated by the American invasion in 2001. After the "Anbar Awakening" and American troop surge in 2007, the organization moved most of its surviving fighters from Iraq to Saudi Arabia, where the Saudi security forces killed many of them and forced the remainder to relocate to Yemen.

Since al-Qa'idah is no longer in strength in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but is in Pakistan and Yemen, these are suitable venues for American attacks. Rather than fighting the Taliban and engaging in nation building in Afghanistan, we should be killing the real enemy wherever that enemy is located. That currently is Pakistan and Yemen.

Yemen is in a state of turmoil. President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih and his regime are the targets of a popular uprising demanding that he step down. The President was wounded in an attack on the presidential compound and is currently in Saudi Arabia ostensibly for medical treatment. Whether or not he will return is unknown at this time.

The regional al-Qa'idah-affiliated group, al-Qaidah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is exploiting this power vacuum and is attempting to turn the country into a new Afghanistan, a venue for training operatives and planning attacks on the West, especially the United States. See my earlier piece,
Yemen - fertile ground for al-Qa'idah.

Of major interest to the U.S. government is the presence of an effective al-Qa'idah leader, American-born Anwar al-'Awlaqi. Again, given al-'Awlaqi's status as a native-born American citizen, there will be protests that any orders to kill him violates U.S. law. it would appear that the Obama Administration, to its credit, has determined that al-'Awlaqi is a valid terrorist target and should be hunted down and killed by whatever means, be it a missile strike or a visit from SEAL Team Six.

In this case, the Administration is continuing to operate under the finding issued by President George Bush which directed the CIA to kill or capture al-Qa'idah militants. The American people have spent a lot of money developing the unique low-risk, high-impact capability of the armed unmanned aircraft. I applaud the President's decision to use it.