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Drone Strikes Questioned In New Report

Christopher Coppock |
October 23, 2013 | 9:46 a.m. PDT

Executive Producer
A General Atomics Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles flies over an unknown location. (Leslie Pratt/Wikimedia Commons)
A General Atomics Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles flies over an unknown location. (Leslie Pratt/Wikimedia Commons)
Over the course of six weeks earlier this year a Human Rights Watch reporter in Yemen gathered data on American drone strikes in the country. The six strikes the report focuses on resulted in 82 casualties, 57 of which were civilians.
The report, written by one of Human Rights Watch's senior terrorism and counterterrorism experts, Letta Taylor, alleges that the drone strikes have gotten so bad that “It’s gotten to the point where the Yemenis fear the U.S. more than they fear al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula…When the U.S. government is considered more of a demon than one of the most notorious groups in the world…Obama has an image problem.” 
Of the six specific cases discussed, the third one is perhaps the most telling.
The third case discusses a strike on the 7th of November, 2012, a day after President Obama was resoundingly reelected for a second term as the most powerful man in the world by the American people. The hellfire missiles launched from the drone on that day struck the car of a lieutenant Colonel in an elite Yemeni military unit, killing both him and his bodyguard. He was targeted because the Americans believed he was recruiting for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, though he was never described as an active member. 
Though the Yemeni government had approved the strike by the United States beforehand based on this information, the community and the tribe to which the commander belonged was somewhat understandably enraged.
Many members of his Sanhan tribe threatened to join al Qaeda in revenge, saying “Here when America is our enemy you are a hero. It makes al-Qaeda look good and gains the sympathy of the people.” Another member described the attack as “planting the seeds of terrorism” while yet another wondered, “Would the Americans accept it if a Yemeni warplane came and killed Americans without any judicial process?”
Herein lies the root of the problem: America’s drone campaigns, both in Pakistan and Yemen have yielded some impressive results and no doubt some significant kills, but at a cost that can easily be considered prohibitive. 
The legality of the drone strikes in sovereign nations alone is certainly up for debate, but when one considers a kill ratio of almost 3 civilians out of every for 4 persons killed, the efficacy of such strikes should also be called into question.
These drone strikes are, in theory, extremely efficient and safe because not only do they risk no American lives, but the missiles themselves are so mind bogglingly accurate that they can flown down a chimney from halfway around the world. As a result, these platforms have the ability to seriously disrupt senior leadership in AQAP by killing specific, high profile target. When human error and the current exhorbant use of drones is considered, however, it easy to doubt whether the current strategy is helping or hindering the fight against al-Qaeda. 
Ignoring the legal question for the moment, seeing as American administration’s have a tendency of not being to interested in following international law anyways, it must be determined whether the extreme loss of civilian life is really worth the gains that are being made in disrupting al-Qaeda. 
Even if one feels the strikes are, on balance, a net gain in the never ending race to destabilize al-Qaeda, does the fact that many in Yemen feel as though they are being forced in the direction of al-Qaeda by the attacks not indicate the current strategy is at least ineffective, and at worst detrimental to our security?
Reach Executive Producer Christopher Coppock by email.



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