Yemen, that hotbed of Islamist militant activity where the United States has been conducting both traditional air strikes and drone attacks in hopes of containing the local Al Qaeda affiliate, wants to cut out the middle-man. President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi told police cadets on Thursday he had formally requested drones of his own, perhaps a response to domestic anger at the constant American military presence, the move intended to demonstrate a greater national autonomy in counter-terrorism efforts.
But the real issue here has to be the imminent possibility that the U.S. could distribute its drone technology (and habits) to Middle Eastern proxies whose own precarious security climates mean Islamist militants might quite easily get their hands on them. Lest we forget, Iran was able to snag an American drone in its own airspace; how hard could it be for the considerably less stable Yemen to lose track of one? The distribution of drone responsibilities abroad would certainly be consistent with President Obama’s pained promises to rein in the scope of the American national security state in the wake of outrage at civilian deaths from drone strikes on one hand, and the NSA surveillance programs revealed by self-styled whistleblower Edward Snowden on the other.
That will be a difficult balancing act for the Obama administration to pull off in its final three years: ceding some terror-fighting responsibilities to young, quasi-democratic partners abroad without compromising the major gains made since 2009. Veterans of past conflicts in the region often warn about the danger of arming any one faction, and we haven’t heard a formal response to the request for drone technology from the Pentagon or Obama White House as of yet, but the acquisition of drones by smaller powers looks to be an eventual inevitability, either as part of a U.S. effort is to disentangle itself from the day-to-day responsibility of being a neighborhood terrorism watchdog — or as bad luck, pure and simple.