Report: Feds set to launch drone campaign against Al Qaeda in ... Yemen?

Big news, and yet not remotely surprising if you read that NYT rundown two weeks ago of the “shadow war” now being run by the Pentagon and CIA in upwards of a dozen countries. We don’t have the money or the manpower for more big-picture operations like Afghanistan, so what to do about far-flung failed states where jihadis are looking to set up shop? The answer, per counterterror honcho John Brennan as quoted in that Times piece: Use a “scalpel,” not a “hammer.” Here comes the scalpel:

In the past two years, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin, an escalating campaign of CIA drone strikes against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the Tribal areas of Pakistan has killed more than 600 militants. Now the Obama Administration is planning a similar offensive against al Qaeda in Yemen. “They’re not feeling the same heat – not yet anyway,” one official said.

The result, according to former counter terrorism official Matt Leavitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is that al Qaeda in Yemen – or AQAP as it is called – is a direct threat to the U.S…

U.S. Navy ships have launched at least three cruise missile attacks against al Qaeda in Yemen, but it has not yet been hammered by drone strikes day in and day out and that, says one U.S. official, “has to change.”

Not only are they a direct threat — that’s where Anwar al-Aulaqi is based, and that’s where Abdulmutallab was launched on his bid to take down Flight 253 — but according to this mini-bombshell today from WaPo, U.S. officials now consider them a more deadly enemy than the Al Qaeda nucleus that’s left in the Pakistani tribal areas. Partly that’s because AQ veterans have been flooding into Yemen for months, and partly it’s because drones in Pakistan have ground AQ down to a rump, which makes the strategy in Yemen going forward a fait accompli. Using drones is dicey since sometimes civilians are mistakenly targeted (in fact, a U.S. cruise missile attack in Yemen three months ago killed a deputy provincial governor), but counterterror officials will risk the popular backlash from that if it means destroying terror cells in the process — and that’s precisely what it’s meant in Pakistan. When push comes to shove, no American politician will sit by while a new Tarnak Farms springs up in Yemen or Somalia or wherever else. After 9/11, the cost of inaction is too high.

But wait. Why use drones if we’re already using cruise missiles? Well, again — we’re looking for a scalpel, not a hammer:

An airstrike on a suspected gathering of al-Qaeda operatives in Marib province on May 25 involved a cruise missile launched from a U.S. naval vessel. Among those killed was the deputy governor in the province, who was reportedly seeking to persuade the militants to give up their arms. The human rights group Amnesty International later said it found evidence that U.S. cluster munitions were used in the attack.

Proponents of expanding the CIA’s role argue that years of flying armed drones over Pakistan have given the agency expertise in identifying targets and delivering pinpoint strikes. The agency’s attacks also leave fewer telltale signs.

“You’re not going to find bomb parts with USA markings on them,” the senior U.S. official said. Even so, the official said, the administration is considering sending CIA drones to the Arabian Peninsula “not because they require the deniability but because they desire the capability.”

Deniability is almost pointless since the U.S. will be blamed anyway, but there’s an important legal nuance to using drones too. A prescient detail from that NYT piece published 10 days ago:

American officials cited strained resources for decisions about some of the Yemen strikes. With the C.I.A.’s armed drones tied up with the bombing campaign in Pakistan, the officials said, cruise missiles were all that was available at the time. Drones are favored by the White House for clandestine strikes because they can linger over targets for hours or days before unleashing Hellfire missiles, reducing the risk that women, children or other noncombatants will fall victim.

The Yemen operation has raised a broader question: who should be running the shadow war? White House officials are debating whether the C.I.A. should take over the Yemen campaign as a “covert action,” which would allow the United States to carry out operations even without the approval of Yemen’s government. By law, covert action programs require presidential authorization and formal notification to the Congressional intelligence committees. No such requirements apply to the military’s so-called Special Access Programs, like the Yemen strikes.

If the CIA gets a bead on Aulaqi, covert status lets them act even if they think the Yemenis would object. Which sounds great, except that one key reason they might object is that a particular operation will cause such a backlash that it’ll destabilize the already fragile government, which would be … very, very bad. (If all this sounds familiar, it’s because precisely the same arguments have been kicked back and forth for years vis-a-vis Pakistan.) Fortunately, there’s reason to believe that Yemen’s fragility is somewhat exaggerated, which I guess is why the feds think a drone campaign is worth the risk. Exit question: Isn’t this the terrorist version of whack-a-mole?