Evicting Yemen’s Drone Base

The Washington Post recently published a controversial report about the future of al-Qaeda “2.0” and U.S. operations against the network. The ensuing narrative speculated whether the Pentagon and CIA are now manufacturing war after Osama bin Laden’s death, or whether news organizations should conceal a “secret” drone base inside Yemen.

Lost in the media haze is the base itself, a pillar of U.S. resistance against Yemen’s revolution.

Ultimately The Washington Post added little to previous reporting from The Wall Street Journal and Associated Press. By the time this “secret” base was outed in June, MQ-9 Reapers had already increased their patrols over Yemen and begun to search for targets after a year-long slowdown. U.S. Hellfire missiles had terminated the deputy governor of Marib in May 2010, killed while allegedly meeting an informant from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). CIA Director David Petraeus, then CENTCOM commander, negotiated these joint-strikes under Ali Abdullah Saleh’s table, only for Yemen’s strongman to flip after a tribal revolt.

When U.S. warplanes and drones again increased their activity “to exploit” the power vacuum opened by Saleh, the besieged president had actually begun passing new information to Washington, starting with AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Saleh’s tactics haven’t changed before or after Yemen’s revolution and neither has U.S. policy.

The Wall Street Journal’s key piece of information was an acceleration to this base’s construction from two years to eight months, a response to Yemen’s “instability.” Similarly, The Washington Post reported one vital piece of information: the base is scheduled for completion in September. Planning for a post-Saleh world became unavoidable and the Obama administration needed to finish its base before Yemen’s revolutionaries accomplished their own mission. The timing synchronizes with the revolution, eight months from February to September. Instead of supporting Yemen’s people, the White House’s first order of business was to further militarize their country at the hands of a delusional tyrant.

Speeding up the building process wasn’t a matter of adapting to security concerns but of overriding sovereignty. Throughout six months of peaceful protests, hundreds of civilian casualties and a government-induced humanitarian crisis, this one asset has overruled the Yemeni people’s support.

The drone paradox appears endless; Washington requires a base to hunt al-Qaeda operatives, when U.S. policy has boosted AQAP’s growth beyond what it would have obtained through its personal means. A base wouldn’t be necessary if America enjoyed the people’s support, but the administration opted to pump military equipment and economic aid into Saleh’s corrupt regime. U.S.-trained “counter-terrorism” units deployed against the Houthis, Southern Movement, tribal militias, revolutionaries and finally AQAP. When the revolution began, world powers labeled it a “political crisis” and summoned the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to negotiate a biased settlement for the regime. As protesters have refused to submit to foreign intervention, the past three months yielded a combination of U.S. air-strikes on AQAP units, anti-government tribesmen and civilians.

Since these collective measures resulted in deep hostility against U.S. policy, a base must now be constructed against their will. How does this equation make any sense? Most Yemenis and some observers firmly believe that Saleh and Washington are using each other to create chaos, a vain attempt to justify their illegitimate authority. Coolly rational, yet utterly deranged.

Half of Washington’s rationale involves Special Forces and CIA trainers currently active in Yemen; Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the CIA’s Special Activities Division are running white (training) and black (field) ops on the ground and aerial operations from Djibouti. A portion of these forces would presumably relocate to a concealed desert strip, revealing its full dimensions. The CIA’s base serves as Petraeus’s keystone to expanding Special Operations across the region, from the Persian Gulf to Somalia and all the waterways in between. Yet on the side of madness, any Yemeni believing that AQAP is enabled by Saleh would be frightened to know that, “the Obama administration is bolstering the CIA’s role in Yemen, seeking to replicate its pursuit of al-Qaeda in Pakistan.”

As if U.S. foreign policy is flourishing in Islamabad.

Worse still, the agency “is expected to work closely with Saudi Arabia to exploit its tribal ties,” developed to undermine Saleh’s patchy rule in the north. Although some tribal figures continue to take Riyadh’s handouts, Saudi Arabia may be the only foreign entity more unpopular than America. Even the powerful al-Almars, leaders of the Hashid tribe, are slowly losing their connection to Riyadh as the revolution overtakes their political ambitions. Newsweek reacted oddly to the notion of “Pakistanization,” writing in a profile of Petraeus, “Yemen, now on the verge of civil war, is hardly the ideal model for future operations, but it has been a critical proving ground.”

Thus failure has been proven and the administration’s response is to fail harder. Pakistan’s “system” and all of its mistakes are being duplicated: alienate the populace through a combination of abandonment, support for an unpopular government and unilateral militarism.

This spiral of death has brought misery upon Yemen’s people and weakened America’s national security, rather than erode AQAP. What if Saleh is then tossed out or brought to trial? What if al-Qaeda dries up? What purpose would this base serve? Such neocolonialism hollows out client states into U.S. zones of autonomy – into a base predicated on the knowledge that Saleh’s regime will crumble. However a unilateral base inside Yemen will become a liability after the revolution topples him, an immoral and militarily questionable strategy.

Perhaps the Pentagon and CIA desire their creation at any cost to America’s interests, or to the brave revolutionaries fighting for a democracy that America should be nurturing. Eventually, though, both the Yemeni people and Washington may be wondering how to conjure away a white elephant in the desert.

James Gundun is a U.S. spokesman for Yemen’s Coordinating Council for the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC). His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy.