By Younes Hassar
Last August, Yemen was back again in the headlines as the Obama administration announced the closing of several embassies and consular representations in the Middle East allegedly due to threats emanating from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The United States chose to face the threat by replicating its policy in Pakistan and relying quite exclusively on the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) commonly known as Drones. Under the Obama administration, the drone campaign has increased in term of numbers of strikes and of geographical scope in Yemen. They were some prominent hits like Abu Ali Al Harithi, one of the alleged masterminds of the 2000 USS Cole attack, or more recently Anwar al-Awlaqi, a leading figure of the AQAP network. But increasing reports of mistakes and civilian casualties led several voices to question and criticise the drone policy and its impact on the field. One of the main blowback regularly identified was the increased ability of AQAP to recruit new members, especially those who have friends or family killed in a previous attack. But another more frightening and long-term blowback has been overlooked: the destabilizing effects of these increasing and concentrated airstrikes on the very fabric of the country. Indeed, repeated attacks could very well constitute the catalyst for AQAP and other radical groups to move to the next stage and seek to establish their own regime over Yemen. The central government, very weak and perceived as an American stooge, would be easily overrun by militant groups branding themselves as victims of oppression and resisting American imperialism. A sustained American drone campaign could very well be the last straw for Yemen as a unified state.
In fact, this scenario is nothing new and America just needs a quick look in its rear-view mirror to spot some warning signs. Cambodia in the 1970s presents some troubling similarities with nowadays Yemen. At the time, the country was a hotspot due to the war raging in Vietnam. Prince Sihanouk’s government had been overthrown in a military coup because of its softness regarding the Vietcong’s. But the Lon Nol regime, corrupt and incompetent, couldn’t effectively control the east of the country, which quickly turned into a safe-haven for the Vietcong. This prompted the Nixon administration to launch a series of secret bombing operations deep into Cambodia. The airstrikes were aimed at destroying the mobile headquarters of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army in the Cambodian jungle. Recent reports revealed that an estimated 2,750,000 tons of bombs were dropped in more than 113,000 sites across the country. The hundred or so drone strikes over Yemen can’t be compared with the carpet bombing of Cambodia militarily speaking, but the destabilizing effects are the same. The constant attacks drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouges, a radical group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of success. Everyone knows how the story ended. The Khmer Rouges launched a guerrilla that eventually succeeded in capturing Phnom Penh, the capital, before conducting an atrocious genocide and deconstructing methodically the whole infrastructures of the country.
The US airstrike campaign played a defining part in the rise of the Khmer Rouges. By declaring half the country a de-facto warzone and by subsequently depriving the Cambodian state of its most important regalian function, America helped in the fall of a friendly regime and in the unravelling of a sovereign state. The same could happen in Yemen. Like the Lon Nol regime, President Hadi’s government is very weak and enjoys a very limited legitimacy among its people. Like Cambodia in the 1970s, the US airstrikes over Yemen are creating a situation where restive parts of the country are policed by a foreign and unpopular power driving a revengeful population into the arms of radical groups.
Comparisons can be misleading but when they summon history and old experiences they provide us with precious guiding steps. Drone warfare in Yemen won’t overcome Al Qaeda and its networks. On the contrary, they will strengthen the organization and endanger the future of a country that has been struggling to find peace and stability.
Younes Hassar is an investment management specialist and a post-graduate candidate in comparative studies of development, currently living in Paris. He previously worked on Conflict Management issues in Lebanon and Jordan and blogs at Reflexion from the East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect La Voix du Yémen’s editorial policy.