Skip to main content

US needs to end its secretive drone campaign in Yemen, experts say

Biden administration can put an end to counterterrorism war in Yemen by repealing the 2001 Authorisation for Use of Military Force
Yemeni men walk past a mural depicting a US drone and reading " Why did you kill my family" on 13 December 2013 in the capital Sanaa.
Yemeni men walk past a mural that reads: " Why did you kill my family", on 13 December 2013 in the capital Sanaa (AFP)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

The Biden administration needs to end its secretive counterterrorism campaign in Yemen if it wants to end "forever wars" in the Middle East that have failed to root out al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants, policy experts have said.

Since 2002, Yemen has become a battlefield for expanded US drone operations as a part of Washington's global "war on terrorism".

More than two decades after its inception, little is known about the US's goals in Yemen and how extensive its operations there have been.

There is no comprehensive count of civilian deaths because of the difficulty of confirming identities and the allegiances of those killed. But according to rights groups, US drone strikes have targeted wedding processions and funerals.

David Sterman, a senior policy analyst at the New America think tank, said in an assessment released earlier this week that the US needed to end its counterterrorism operations in Yemen.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Sterman stated that the US could do so in a number of ways, including repealing the 2001 Authorisation for Use of Military Force Act (AUMF), releasing a public assessment of US strikes in Yemen, and abandoning the framework of "sustainable counterterrorism".

"Rather than embracing endlessness under the name 'sustainable counterterrorism' or chasing the mirage that the United States can defeat AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], the United States should build a full policy platform to end its endless wars," Sterman said.

"The counterterrorism war in Yemen holds severe risks for American democracy and the moral underpinnings of American warfare precisely because of the radical asymmetry between the violence the US carries out or is capable of carrying out in Yemen, and the violence AQAP is capable of carrying out against Americans."

The utility of drone strikes

According to reports, the US has carried out at least 336 drone strikes on Yemen since 3 November 2002, killing at least 1,000 people.

Former US President George W Bush oversaw fewer than 50 drone strikes across the Middle East during his tenure, but the programme shifted gears under President Barack Obama.

According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), at least 563 strikes, largely by drones, were carried out during Obama's two terms in countries including Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.

When Donald Trump became president, he further escalated drone operations and also ditched accountability and transparency measures.

The Trump administration revoked a policy set by his predecessor requiring US intelligence officials to publish the number of civilians killed in drone strikes outside of war zones.

Biden must repeal 2001 war authorisation act if he wants to end 'forever wars', experts say
Read More »

The US military has acknowledged a total of 13 total civilian deaths in Yemen from the actions of American forces, while the investigative group Airwars has found that the number is likely between 77-156.

"If there were to be more investigation, if we were to learn more about the US counterterrorism war in Yemen publicly, especially about the civilian casualties, frankly, I think there would be much more conversation in the United States amongst policymakers about ending the counterterrorism war," Alex Stark, senior researcher for the political reform programme at New America, said during a virtual panel on Yemen on Tuesday.

"We also know comparatively little from the research side about the utility of drone strikes in a broader framework of counterterrorism."

US lawmakers have sought information from the administration on this, and have also demanded that the military do more to investigate these claims of civilian casualties.

Last month, Senators Chris Murphy and Elizabeth Warren wrote a letter, seen exclusively by Middle East Eye, that called on the Pentagon to probe civilian deaths in Yemen.

The Biden administration has been the centre of a major scandal following a series of investigative reports by The New York Times, which released a trove of Pentagon documents that revealed "deeply flawed intelligence" was used to conduct air strikes, resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

In January, an independent study conducted by the Rand Corporation found the Department of Defense was not properly organised or equipped to address civilian casualties caused by the US.

The same day the report was released, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin announced new measures that would prioritise preventing civilian harm, including developing "more standardised" civilian harm reporting and data management processes.

Ending 2001 AUMF

Like Sterman's conclusion, many policy experts and lawmakers alike have said that US President Joe Biden needs to end the 2001 AUMF in order to fulfil his promise of ending forever wars.

The AUMF was passed just a week after 11 September 2001 and gave Bush the authority to wage war and use "appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines" were involved in the attacks.

The open-ended and broad nature of the AUMF has allowed successive presidents to wage war against a number of groups, including al-Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, and the Islamic State (IS).

The 2001 AUMF was used by the Obama administration to kill former al-Qaeda propagandist and US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011. It has been applied in countries including Afghanistan; Iraq; Syria; Libya; Somalia; and Yemen.

So far, there have been efforts in Congress, supported by the White House, that would end other military authorisations like the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs. Biden has not yet commented on whether he would end the 2001 AUMF. However, his administration has hinted that it would be open to reworking the authorisation.

"While the Biden administration has suggested that it might be willing to reform the AUMF, it has not put forward a specific plan to do so, and Congress remains split on the issue," Sterman said in his assessment.

"Tellingly, the administration continues to invoke the AUMF, including to justify strikes in Somalia over the summer of 2021." 

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.