If there were any doubts about the budding alliance between US President Barack Obama and his newly-inaugurated counterpart in Yemen, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, the Yemeni president dispelled them in his first official visit to the United States over the weekend.
In a scheduled talk at the Atlantic Council and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., followed by a joint interview with the Washington Post and Foreign Policy magazine, Hadi delved into the details of a classified US drone program that is reported to have killed hundreds of Al-Qa’ida loyalists and a growing list of civilians since last year, when the international terrorist organization’s Yemen franchise, Al-Qa’da in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), seized control of a southern province amid Yemen’s Arab Spring-inspired anti-government uprisings.
“Every operation, before taking place, they [the US government] take permission from the [Yemeni] president,” Hadi said in an apparent attempt to show that Yemen is not, as is often-depicted, subservient to the American superpower, but rather an active participant in the decision-making process.
In another remark, President Hadi claimed that “drones have zero margin of error, if you know exactly what target you are aiming at.”
The website globalvoicesonline.org catalogued some Yemenis’ reactions on Twitter. Mohammed Al-Amrani tweeted that there was “no need for WikiLeaks on Hadi's case,” alluding to the 2010 WikiLeaks cable in which former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told US General David Petraeus, at that time commander of American forces in the Middle East, that ‘We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.’”
Atiaf Alwazir asked President Hadi, “How precise were these missiles that hit a hospital, a pharmacy & a #civilian home?”
Those who had heard about the speech, including tribal Sheikh Al-Hasan Abkr from Al- Jawf governorate northeast of Sana’a told The Media Line that Hadi’s remarks reflected “badly on him and badly on his position” as president. “Everyone will be upset,” he said.
The US-Yemeni relationship has hinged on the shared goal of defeating various militant jihadist organizations in the Arabian Peninsula state for years. The October 2000 Al-Qa’ida bombing of the American naval destroyer USS Cole in a southern Yemen port laid the foundations of the anti-Al-Qa’ida military alliance, which would strengthen in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. Indeed, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out its first-ever drone strike outside a declared war zone in autumn 2002, killing a suspect in the USS Cole attack along with five associates traveling in a vehicle east of the capital.
A decade later, remote-controlled drone strikes now represent the centerpiece of a US-Yemeni strategy aimed at crushing AQAP, the global terrorist organization’s affiliate identified as the most likely to attack the US homeland after its failed Christmas Day bombing in 2009, when a Nigerian member tried to detonate his undergarments on a Detroit-bound airliner. The near-successful plot mobilized hundreds of millions of dollars in counter-terrorism aid to train Yemeni forces to tackle AQAP themselves.
By mid-2011, however, Yemen’s Arab Spring-inspired uprisings had plunged the country into chaos bordering on civil war and Washington was forced to suspend all military cooperation. AQAP exploited the situation, seizing several cities in the southern Abyan province in an initially successful bid to build an Islamic state.
A Yemeni official told The Media Line that President Hadi’s controversial remarks in Washington should be seen in the context of a larger strategy: “Drones are just one part of the equation,” he said.
In June, only four months into his presidency, Hadi deployed an army of ground troops who swiftly wrested control of Abyan from Al-Qa’ida.
Nonetheless, many Yemenis don’t view the conflict in strategic military terms. It appears that for them, each missile fired from an American drone further alienates the new president from his people. As Alwazir tweeted, “some local papers expressed worries about Hadi's visit to #US w/Qs of sovereignty & independence. not good for his #legitimacy #Yemen #US.”
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