In Yemen, we have launched a campaign against a group we call Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. These are the people who bombed the U.S.S. Cole back in 2000, and tried to launch a couple of attacks on airliners in 2009. Since 2009 we have launched about 35 missile strikes and killed, the Pentagon claims, more than 200 AQAP fighters.
But over that time AQAP's armed membership has grown from around 300 to more than 700 and they have gained the sympathy of thousands of people, allowing them to take over a substantial swath of southern Yemen and rule it as an Islamic state. The Washington Post is running a story today arguing that the drone strikes are backfiring, creating sympathy for Al Qaeda and allowing it to recruit more fighters faster than we can kill them.
This, in turn, has led to an anti-US backlash across the whole country, since US drones are violating the country's sovereignty but not defeating Al Qaeda.
This is my worry about drone warfare. Because it is easy, cheap, and risks no American lives, it tempts us to intervene in places where we have no business. Almost by definition it can solve no real problems -- surely if we have learned one thing from our blundering invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq it is that killing a few "terrorists," or a few thousand, does not little or nothing to help create a stable political situation. And it could easily make many problems worse. What could be more terrifying than knowing that American drones hover over your country all the time, beyond your sight, and that at any moment you might be blown up by a missile because you happen to be standing too close to some suspected terrorist? What could be more likely to make you hate and fear America?
I think we should forget about killing enemies, in either Yemen or Pakistan, and spend the money on things that might help in the long term -- like, say, scholarships for students from those countries to study in U.S. universities.