War on Terror Update 2: Yemen, Libya, and Collateral Damage

Not long ago, Yemen was cited as an example of successful U.S. counterterrorism policy. President Obama described our engagement there, relying pretty much entirely on the use of drones in cooperation with the Yemeni government, as a model for future counterterrorism operations, specifically against ISIS.

Unfortunately, our counterterrorism partner, the Yemeni government, has collapsed. Several years after the beginning of the Arab Spring uprisings, I think it’s fair to say it was further evidence of inadequate intelligence and analysis capabilities regarding the Middle East. The rise of Houthi rebels to seize the capital, Sanaa, has been compared to the rise of ISIS in Iraq.

The security situation in Yemen has deteriorated so drastically that the U.S. had to close its embassy there (U.S. embassy staff will be operating out of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, for the time being), and other Gulf states are moving their embassies to the city of Aden, where Yemen’s deposed president is currently residing after escaping house arrest in Sanaa.

Meanwhile, Libya, the other supposed example of a successful Western intervention in the Middle East or North Africa, has descended into civil war. Two rival governments are battling for control of the country, and ISIS militants have been popping up and doing things like executing 21 Egyptian Copts in the country.

In my last post, I talked a little about the idea of collateral damage, specifically the fact that Kayla Mueller was collateral damage in a war she could not control. Last month, a U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed a thirteen-year-old boy, Mohammed Toiman al-Jahmi. Al-Jahmi’s father and older brother had already been killed in a previous drone strike. Both the Obama administration and The New York Times reporting on al-Jahmi’s death essentially called him a terrorist and member of al Qaeda, although as Glenn Greenwald observes in the linked article above, it’s not really clear what that would mean for a child that young even if it was true (which there is no definitive proof for.) What is clear is that al-Jahmi will never receive the attention or accolades, or be the subject of such widespread mourning as Mueller, which is ironic because he is precisely the sort of person she would have mourned for and the kind of victim she would have worked to call attention to.

The term collateral damage itself is something that has always made me uncomfortable.

This kind of terminology distances and dehumanizes the actual human beings who are victims of U.S. policy. It makes them an abstraction that can essentially be ignored. Meanwhile, the media and policymakers spill gallons of ink painting detailed portraits of American/Western victims of violence. Either all of the innocent civilians killed in our wars deserve this kind of consideration, or none of them do. Personally, I believe the former. While the deaths of Western humanitarians like Mueller are tragic, they are no more so than the deaths of children like al-Jahmi, and there are far more victims of our wars who look like him than like her.


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