In his book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman examines two significant dates that led to the ‘flattening’ of the world. The first is 11/9 with the destruction and collapse of the Berlin Wall, which arguably symbolised the beginning of a freer, flatter, and more democratic world. The second date is 9/11, with the attacks on the World Trade Center, Twin Towers, and Pentagon; the world entered a new era defined by ‘The War on Terror’. Personally, I would not recommend reading The Word is Flat for several different reasons, however the intention of this post is not to critique Tom Friedman, but rather the evolution of warfare and the impact that the use of drones has had specifically on Yemen.
Warfare was once an extremely emotional and painful exercise for both sides involved. However, this is no longer the case, as the nature of warfare has completely changed due to technological advances. The use of drones has now made waging war a physically and emotionally painless task. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are aircrafts that can either fly autonomously following a pre-programmed mission, or they are controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground. Although there are several different types of drones, they are essentially used for two reasons; firstly for surveillance purposes, and secondly armed with missiles and bombs with the intent of killing ‘potential threats’. Drones were first used in Yemen under the Bush administration, however they have been used extensively, and more so by the Obama administration.
The US and Israel are the two most important manufacturers of military drones; Israel was the first country to develop military drone technology after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Israel manufactures a wide range of drones, including the Heron TP Eitan which is worth an estimated $35 million. Similarly, the US manufactures one of the best know UAVs – Reaper, which is estimated to be worth $30 million per unit.
The US military justifies the use of drones based on a number of different issues – first and foremost surveillance and consequential attacks on areas that are considered to be harbouring terrorists is claimed to be in the best interest of US security. Hence the US spends a substantial amount of money purchasing drones as part of its counter-terrorism strategy. Although drones might seem expensive, it is considered much cheaper than deploying troops. Consequentially there are less deaths on the side of the US due to the fact that less troops (or no troops at all) are deployed.
Furthermore, drone technology is said to be extremely advanced and considered to be extremely precise, supposedly resulting in less collateral damage as potential threats can be specifically targeted. However tragic events have proven that this is most definitely not the case. Recently, a wedding convoy in my hometown of Radaa in the central province of al-Baydah in Yemen was hit by a drone, killing 12 wedding guests.
“Whatever we do, they will never look at us as human beings,” said Dahabiya, the elderly mother of one victim, a cousin of the groom, who left a wife and six children. “We end up with wounds they cannot see.”
The above quote confirms that drone warfare has led to the dehumanisation of the victims of drone attacks. Those that control and deploy missiles are clearly desensitised and immune to the death and destruction that they are responsible for. So much so that the control of drones has been comparable to playing a video game. Not only do drones take lives, but they leave behind ruined infrastructure that is often beyond repair in communities that are already in a state of absolute poverty. Yemen has been hit with more than 100 drone/missile strikes since 2002, killing more than 500 people, the majority women and children. Those that survive often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), living in constant fear of the when the next strike might occur.
Recently I came across a campaign by Repreive UK and The Foundation for Fundamental Rights that aims to raise awareness about civilian causalities due to drone strikes. A giant portrait of a child facing upward in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan was placed on the ground. The aim of the campaign is to highlight that those that die due to drone strikes are not nameless dots on a grainy landscape, but human beings.
Yemen is considered to be a breeding ground for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as well as other terrorist organisations such as Ansar al Sharia. The irony of drone attacks is that as a ‘counter-terrorism’ strategy, they are in fact highly counter-productive, due to the fact that they increase feelings of animosity towards the US. Stricken by poverty, and with no direct way of retaliating, survivors of drone attacks might be more inclined to join a terrorist organisation. Particularly following the collapse of the Saleh regime in Yemen, with virtually no law and order whatsoever, groups such as AQAP have risen to the occasion and are taking control of towns and villages; they repair roads, distribute food, restore electricity, as well as create their own sharia councils. Hence it is unsurprising that groups such as AQAP have gained popularity and do not bother the average Yemeni as much as American drones do, arguably leading to more instability and terror threats throughout the West as a result.
But drone strikes do not only put American citizens at risk indirectly; in 2011, drone attacks in Yemen directly killed three American citizens within the space of one month; Anwar Al Awlaki, his 16 year old son Abdulrahman Al Awlaki, and American Pakistani Samir Khan, none of whom were ever convicted of any crimes. Hence we must ask ourselves, who are drones really benefiting other than the manufacturers? The losers in this scenario are not only the innocent civilians that die from drone strikes, but the devastated communities that they leave behind. Not only is the destruction caused by drones tragic, but it is also counter-productive because terror begets terror.
Jeremy Scahill: U.S. Has Ignited Islamist Uprising in Impoverished, Divided Yemen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Asa0mT180UY
Deena Abdo (Dubai Campus)