On January 31, Harith al-Nadhari, a senior al-Qaeda figure who praised the Charlie Hebdo attackers, was killed by a US drone strike. This is the first drone strike in Yemen for a number of weeks, and it comes as the country’s government has just fallen after facing attack by Houthi insurgents.
The timing of the strike shows just how much tension there is between strategy and tactics in US counter-terrorism. To be sure, killing a senior figure from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) figure is a tactical coup for the US, and keeps up the rate of attrition against AQ figures throughout the Middle East. But, as with air power against Islamic State, the question is whether this is actually degrading terrorist networks – or just keeping a lid on them.
Nabeel Khoury, the US State Department’s former deputy chief of mission in Yemen, put it this way in 2013:
Drone strikes take out a few bad guys to be sure, but they also kill a large number of innocent civilians. Given Yemen’s tribal structure, the US generates roughly 40 to 60 new enemies for every [AQAP] operative killed by drones.
There is another issue besides. Until recently, Yemen’s government supported drone strikes on its territory. But Yemen is now facing not only a challenge from AQAP and Sunni extremism, but also a guerrilla revolt from Shia Houthis, supported by a former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
While the US and UK were busy worrying about the al-Qaeda threat in Yemen (and by extension, to themselves) the Houthi militias were busy developing a Taliban-style strategy to use against the state. They then raided the seat of power in the middle of Sanaa, and the government duly fell.
Some voices in the US are trying to spin this positively, pointing out that the US and the Houthis both have the same enemy in AQAP, but this is cold comfort given the gravity of the situation. After years of American support with drones, Yemen’s government is now a power vacuum – and that just shows how the drone-driven approach has failed to stabilise one of the Middle East’s crucial terror hot-spots.
Tactics in search of a strategy
In one way, the use of drones to assassinate leading terrorist figures is what the military thinker Gian Gentile calls a “strategy of tactics” – using techniques because they are available and feel new and direct, rather than using them because they have a chance of swinging the outcome of a conflict.
Remote warfare, and drone strikes in particular, came to the fore in the aftermath of the failed strategy of deploying troops in large numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its ascendancy reflects the now massive political resistance in both the UK and USA to putting any more troops on the ground. It is also driven by the idea that the West can be seen as “doing something” without having to clarify or be held to its long-term aims.
This was most evidently seen in Libya in 2011, where the UK, France and the US deployed remote warfare to remove Colonel Gaddafi. They achieved this, turning the rebels from a ramshackle collection of groups to a force capable of overthrowing Gaddafi. Libya has since collapsed into an anarchic, bloodstained mess, in which a US ambassador was killed and where competing governments battle to control a proliferation of militias. The tactical aim of overthrowing Gaddafi was achieved but no long-term strategy has ever been clearly articulated.
After 15 years investing in lethal hi-tech counter-terrorism abroad, the West’s vacuous strategy has landed it firmly in a cul-de-sac. The world is now dealing with al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, IS, the Pakistani Taliban and a host of other movements which are better armed and staffed than ever before.
The Iraq war was midwife to al-Qaeda in Iraq, which in turn birthed the new threat of IS. NATO started a programme of intervention in Afghanistan that ended up strengthening the Taliban. Anglo-American drone-strike assassinations led to the relocation of the Taliban to Pakistan, where it is now embedded.
The intervention in Libya, meanwhile, not only destabilised a huge country but also released a tide of military-grade weaponry across a vast region with plenty of militias ready to cash in on the chaos.
The increasingly sophisticated use of drones and other forms of remote warfare may have extricated certain governments from politically problematic troop deployments, but it has clearly failed to staunch the spread of jihadist terrorism. Any “landmark” drone-led achievement, such as Harith al-Nadhari’s death, should be interpreted with this firmly in mind.