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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Drone Strikes In Yemen Should Be More Controlled, Professor Says
Drone Strikes In Yemen Should Be More Controlled, Professor Says
By Valerie Insinna



The United States should pull back on the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles in Yemen, said a Georgetown University professor who recently traveled to the nation to interview local leaders on the hot-button issue. 

The Yemeni public does not support the United States' use of UAVs, Christopher Swift, adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University,
 said during an Oct. 9 panel discussion at the Center for National Policy, a Washington, D.C., think tank. However, his research found that the Yemeni public is willing to accommodate drone use if the United States minimizes civilian causalities, does not overuse force and targets only al-Qaida leadership.

There is currently a shift in Yemen from drone attacks that target a particular individual to attacks that are “based upon generalize patterns of what we believe are militant characteristics and militant behavior," he said.

Swift advocated a decrease in these “signature strikes,” saying they add to Yemeni concerns about civilian casualties and the United States impeding on their nation’s sovereignty.

He likened signature strikes to convicting a murderer based on circumstantial evidence: The public may not view the sentence as convincing or legitimate. In fact, it is even more important to ensure that a target is a known terrorist because there is no chance for due process, leaving the public feeling disenfranchised when civilians are killed.

"There is no trial,” he said. “The target, who may or may not be a militant, doesn't exactly have the chance to say, "Wait guys, don't drone me, I'm actually the guy from the next village over.'"

Swift conducted his research by interviewing 40 Yemeni tribal and religious leaders from 14 of the country’s 21 provinces during late May to early June.

Peter Bergen, director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation, agreed that signature strikes should be cut back.

He believes those numbers have already decreased in Pakistan after a March 2011 airstrike in North Waziristan killed as many as 40 people, including tribal leaders. However, because the United States government does not disclose information on drone attacks, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between signature strikes and a strike against an individual target.

“When it comes to individual strikes, whether they’re signature or not, I think … you can only infer it by the number of casualties, essentially, because signature strikes tend to kill more people,” Bergen said.

Swift said competing narratives in the United States on UAV use — that it makes it easier for al-Qaida to recruit Yemeni youth or that it helps to stand up an effective Yemeni government — have no relation to what’s happening on the ground.

The rise of al-Qaida is “not driven by driven by ideology or religion,” he said. “It's not even driven by the notion of global jihad. It's driven by economic desperation."

Drones allow the military to extend its reach, but what’s missing is on-the-ground intelligence about how al-Qaida is relating to local populations in Yemen.

“Right now in Yemen, we don’t have a good granular view of what maps, what tribal structures, what regions are the places where al-Qaida’s got a lot of reach,” Swift said. “We’ve got a general view from 12,000 feet long, but the fact is, you can’t fight this kind of war by remote control.”

Additionally, the United States should also contemplate legal options for the nonproliferation of UAVs, he said. One possible step would be the expansion of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a voluntary partnership of 34 countries that bans the export of missiles and drones with a range of more than 300 kilometers.

"If you could move a regime like that from a voluntary regime to a binding regime, like the nuclear nonproliferation regime, then international law has some answers” on how to address proliferation, he said.

Photo Credit: Defense Department

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