Last month, according to news accounts, U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to widen the scope of drone attacks carried out against al Qaeda members in Yemen. Previously, strikes targeted only known individuals; henceforth, the CIA and the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command will be permitted to target people whose patterns of behavior make them high-value targets. Many counterterrorism and Yemen experts think that the White House is opening up the gates of hell. They might be right, but I wish the alternatives they suggest were more convincing.
The White House's decision is important not only in itself but as an indication of how Obama wishes to fight the war on terror. The president inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; whatever he did there was largely reactive. Americans are no longer fighting in Iraq, however, and they have begun to draw down in Afghanistan. The locus of terrorism has also moved on, to Yemen, Somalia, and the Maghreb. These are the sites where Obama is free to choose his tactics -- and make his mark. His strategy is complex; in places like Yemen and Nigeria, the Obama administration is trying to improve the ability of embattled governments to deliver services and is training militaries to stand up to terrorists. But drone warfare has moved to the very center of the White House's strategy. Just as George W. Bush may be recalled as the president who tried to fight terrorism by waging war and removing tyrants, Obama may be recalled as the president who sought to rout terrorists through targeted killing from the sky.
Obama has authorized not only a new policy but a new global infrastructure for drone warfare. Last year the Washington Post reported that the United States is "assembling a constellation of secret drone bases" in Ethiopia, the Seychelles, Djibouti, and the Arabian Peninsula. After years of refusing to acknowledge the secret effort, the White House has decided to openly make the argument for drones. On April 30, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan delivered a speech in which he argued that targeted strikes from remote aircraft satisfy the criteria of just war and constitute a "wise" choice because they allow for immediate response, eliminate American casualties, and minimize -- virtually to zero, according to Brennan though not to a multitude of skeptics -- collateral damage to civilians. Brennan went into unusual detail in explaining the painstaking standards applied to each targeting decision.
If drones are the future of counterterrorism, Yemen is the laboratory. The country looks like a much more propitious setting for the effort than Pakistan, where Obama has also stepped up the pace of attacks. The Pakistani security establishment treats the Taliban not as a threat but as a strategic asset, while the current, admittedly extremely tenuous government of Yemen views al Qaeda as a threat to its sovereignty. Over the last year, as the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh disintegrated in the face of massive public demonstrations, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the local affiliate is known, occupied a swath of territory in southern Yemen. The new interim government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has welcomed the U.S. effort and used its own air force to supplement American drones. And while in Pakistan al Qaeda and Taliban forces mingle with the local population, AQAP, by staking out its own territory, has exposed itself to aerial attack. In the last few weeks, drone strikes have killed Mohammed Saeed al-Umda, fourth on Yemen's most-wanted list, and Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, AQAP's external operations director.