America’s Escalating Fight in Yemen

Filed under: Air Force |

U.S. drone strikes against suspected terrorists could risk worsening violence there.

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America’s Third War
is escalating quickly in the skies over Yemen. Despite previous rebuffs
from the White House, last month the Joint Special Operations Command
(JSOC) and the CIA–which both run parallel drone campaigns in Yemen–were
granted broad authority to conduct “signature strikes” against
anonymous suspected militants, who are determined to support al-Qaeda in
the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based on the observed “patterns of suspicious behavior” from multiple intelligence sources.

A senior Obama administration official described the enlarged scope of targets as “broadening the aperture” for JSOC and CIA drones. By one estimate, there have been more drone strikes in the past month (seventeen, including two on Saturday) than in the preceding nine years, since the first strike on November 3, 2002. Meanwhile, there have been between ten and fifty other U.S. attacks on militants in Yemen using manned aircraft or naval platforms.

It is difficult to understand the scope of the campaign, as Yemeni
officials claim to conduct the vast majority of the strikes. This is
highly unlikely, however, given that many its pilots have been
intermittently on strike since January, and Yemen’s Air Force
capabilities are dismal–despite receiving $326 million
in (overt) U.S. security assistance between 2007 and 2011, when a large
chunk of military aid was suspended in response to the government’s
violent crackdown against unarmed civilian protestors. As Air Force
General Ali Abdullah Saleh Al Haymi told journalist Sharon Weinberger in March, “U.S. assistance was used to kill Yemeni people, not to kill al-Qaeda.”

Several smart pieces were recently published warning of the increased likelihood of blowback,
as AQAP will undoubtedly redouble recruiting efforts in response to the
expanded air campaign. A few additional points to consider:

First, it is not clear who are the targets of these airstrikes. Three months ago, Eric Schmitt wrote
that the Obama administration’s “two-pronged strategy calls for the
United States and Yemen to work together to kill or capture about two
dozen of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous operatives, who are focused on
attacking America and its interests.” Less than two months later, John
Brennan, the senior White House counterterrorism adviser, stated that AQAP has “more than a thousand members”–a big leap from the aforementioned twenty-four. He continued by framing
the U.S. mission and goal: “We’re not going to rest until Al Qaida the
organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Yemen, Africa and other areas.”

This statement–among others–raises a few red flags. If the goal is to
kill or capture (let’s be honest, to kill) only twenty-four AQAP
militants, shouldn’t the JSOC and CIA campaigns be nearly finished?
There are over 950 more suspected militants to target and kill–assuming
there are no additional recruits–if we are to destroy and eliminate
AQAP, to borrow Brennan’s words.

Second, there are several tribal groups fighting to capture
substantive autonomy from the central government of President Abd Rabuh
Mansur Hadi, who has been in power for less than three months. At the
same time, elements of AQAP are engaged in brutal insurgent attacks
against the Hadi regime. According to U.S. officials, there is no daylight
between armed militants seeking to overthrow Hadi, and terrorists
working to strike the American homeland: “AQAP’s antigovernment
insurgency and its terrorist plotting against the West are two sides of
the same coin.” Excellent reporting
by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad from southern Yemen finds that secessionist rebels
are divided between receiving weapons from Iran with strings attached,
and aligning with AQAP against the regime. One Yemeni activist tells
Abdul-Ahad: “If young men lose hope in our cause they will be looking
for an alternative. And our hopeless young men are joining al-Qaida.”

The likelihood that U.S. air power will target only those (anonymous)
individuals who aspire to attack the United States, while sparing
Yemeni rebels, is low. Perhaps more importantly, drone strikes could
ultimately unite these disparate groups behind a common banner that
opposes both the Hadi regime and its partner in crime, the United
States. It would be easy for the U.S. military and CIA to become a
Yemeni counterinsurgency air force for the Hadi regime.

Third, the average Yemeni will eventually come to resent a foreign
military that repeatedly attacks its territory. If there is one lesson
to be learned from the three hundred CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, it
is that the fervent and impassioned opposition to drones is more
pronounced where the strikes do not occur. One distinction between
Pakistan and Yemen is that, in the latter, U.S. drone strikes are
geographically distributed throughout the country. This poses a
particular difficult problem for the Obama administration, which, until
two weeks ago, claimed that drone strikes were “covert,” and thus failed
to counter the myths and misinformation proliferating in Pakistan.

Fourth, the United States has collected intelligence and targeted
individuals in Yemen since April 10, 2002 (at least), when the country
was officially designated a combat zone. Among the suite of manned and
unmanned surveillance aircraft, National Security Agency listening
facilities, and Yemeni government and tribal officials on the CIA
payroll, there should have been some early warning of AQAP’s increasing
strength, as well as a platform for in-country policies to prevent and
mitigate AQAP’s reach.

Given the marked increase in AQAP’s size, scope, and influence, the
steady accretion of U.S. intelligence collection and strike capabilities
have failed to reduce the threat of terrorist plots from Yemen. The
current eliminationist, uncompromising counterterrorism mission in Yemen
is not delivering results, but it is unlikely that the Obama
administration, in alliance with the Hadi regime, will change course
anytime soon. In the words of President Hadi, the “hunting of terrorists is irreversible.”

This article originally appeared
an Atlantic partner site.

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