WASHINGTON — The White House counter-terrorism advisor on Wednesday staunchly defended the Obama administration's growing campaign of drone missile attacks in Yemen, pushing back against critics who say the drones cause civilian casualties and breed sympathy for the militants.
In his most explicit comments on Washington's largely hidden military and intelligence operations in Yemen, John Brennan said no evidence indicates that the drone strikes are helping recruit members for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the Yemen-based group that is Al Qaeda's most active branch.
Brennan spoke a day after U.S. drones killed 10 alleged Al Qaeda militants, including one believed to be a top bomb maker, in two separate strikes on moving vehicles, according to Yemeni officials and the country's state-run news agency.
The United States has launched 28 drone strikes in Yemen this year, up from 10 for all of last year, according to Long War Journal, a website that tracks the attacks using Yemeni and international news reports. Among those killed last year was Anwar Awlaki, an Al Qaeda commander who was born in New Mexico, as well as his 16-year-old son, who was born in Colorado.
The upsurge in drone strikes comes as the government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, a U.S. ally, appears to have gained ground in the country's civil war. With U.S. backing, Yemeni forces have dislodged Al Qaeda militants from several southern cities and towns that they had captured, including Jaar, Lawdar and Zinjibar.
"So long as AQAP seeks to implement its murderous agenda, we will be a close partner with Yemen in meeting this common threat," Brennan said at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Brennan said the drones are used only to target militants who aspire to attack the U.S. or its allies, not those who are battling to overthrow the central government in Sana. In some cases, U.S. officials provide tactical intelligence to Yemeni forces launching ground operations against militants.
Brennan said that the drone pilots, who operate the aircraft from remote ground stations, make every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
"And contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP.... In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem, they are part of the solution."
U.S. special operations forces have been advising Yemeni military units, and Washington is providing $337 million in aid to Yemen this year, the largest American aid package ever disbursed to the impoverished nation.
Just under half, or $159 million, goes for military and security assistance, while $178 million is for "political transition, humanitarian assistance and development," Brennan said.
Brennan said it was important to address Yemen's deep-seated poverty, water shortages and political instability. But he did not say when or under what conditions the U.S. would end its targeted-killing campaign.
No U.S. official had publicly confirmed the drone strikes, which are conducted by the CIA and by U.S. special forces in Yemen. Brennan said existence of the strikes had been declassified, however, allowing him to discuss them.
Brennan said the drone strikes are "conducted in concert" with Hadi's government. That's in contrast to Pakistan, where the CIA does not inform the government before drone strikes in the country's northwest tribal belt, a source of bitter contention between Washington and Islamabad.
But Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton scholar and author of a forthcoming book about Yemen, says it's doubtful that Yemenis make distinctions about whether people are dying at the hands of the U.S. or the U.S.-backed Yemeni government.
"The U.S. strategy runs the risk of driving more people into the arms of Al Qaeda," Johnsen said.
Brennan disagreed. "In fact, we see the opposite: Our Yemeni partners are more eager to work with us," he said.