Counterterrorism Calculus in Yemen Shortchanging Political Solutions

Diplomat, area expert and CT whizz-kid Mr. Pred Ator, Jr. seen here enjoying a lemonade on a sunny day. -- Paul Mutter

Diplomat, area expert and CT whizz-kid Mr. Pred Ator, Jr. seen here enjoying a lemonade on a sunny day. — Paul Mutter

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

The Washington Post, stating what ought to be obvious about the US “secret war” in Yemen, In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda:

Since January, as many as 21 missile attacks have targeted suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen, reflecting a sharp shift in a secret war carried out by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command that had focused on Pakistan.

But as in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where U.S. drone strikes have significantly weakened al-Qaeda’s capabilities, an unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population.

The evidence of radicalization emerged in more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen where U.S. strikes have targeted suspected militants. They described a strong shift in sentiment toward militants affiliated with the transnational network’s most active wing, al-Qaeda in the ­Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Presumably, the CIA would disagree that this sort of approach is undermining US counterterrorism efforts — even though it is said that it deeply disturbs the White House when “errors” like this occur:

On December 17 [2009], the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested.

Or rather, we believe it deeply disturbs the White House, since as the Daily Kos diarist Jesselyn Radack notes, the White House “can neither confirm nor deny” the air war in Yemen and invokes a black ops non-disclosure rule to keep the books closed.

But the US is not “involved in some domestic conflict,” of course. Why? Because President Obama himself said so:

“We’re not in Yemen to get involved in some domestic conflict. We’re going to continue to stay focused on threats to the homeland—that’s where the real priority is.”

This distinction is patently absurd — and, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce noted, awfully like what JFK talked up in cabinet meetings about Vietnam. What is going in Yemen is first and foremost a domestic conflict, and by taking a side in that conflict — alongside the Saudi-backed government in Sana’a, against AQAP and the Ansar al-Shariah — we have involved ourselves in a domestic conflict — perhaps even deeper than the CIA will admit. I would be inclined to just dismiss this statement as a “he kept us out of war” promise in campaign mode, if it weren’t for the fact that so many reports out of Yemen — including leaked State Department cables — illustrate that the US really is so fixated on al Qaeda it seems to disregard any suggestions that its air war is destabilizing the country, and that all the “collateral damage” is helping anti-government Islamists in southern Yemen make greater inroads towards Sana’a, and more willing to cut deals with al Qaeda cells “in order to place themselves in a better bargaining position with the central government.” Some of those likely involved in the US war effort seem to understand this, but the present policy does not seem to reflect their qualifiers on the composition of the anti-government forces. These qualifiers are not unlike the distinction between the Taliban and the original al Qaeda organization — i.e., that the Taliban emerged independently in the 1990s from al Qaeda and Mullah Omar ran his own war effort while maintaining a special relationship with bin Laden’s lieutenants and, in particular, the “55th Arab Brigade” that fought against the Northern Alliance, which, while linked to al Qaeda, was a distinct entity.

Yemen watcher Gregory Johnsen notes that AQAP, formerly the refuge of several dozen hardline Saudi clerics and thugs, has greatly expanded to take in hundreds of members from neighboring Somalia, and more importantly, many Yemenis as well. The now Yemeni-heavy AQAP would therefore have several units composed of foreign fighters and sympathetic Yemenis — in effect, “international brigades”1— serving among (loosely) aligned anti-government tribal militias in Yemen like the Ansar al-Shariah. But even so, AQAP is not the same as Ansar al-Shariah, a view seemingly accepted even by members of the Beltway’s inner circle of counterterrorism:

“While AQAP has grown in strength over the last year, many of its supporters are tribal militants or part-time supporters who collaborate with AQAP for self-serving, personal interests rather than affinity with al-Qaeda’s global ideology,” [National Security Council spokesman Tommy] Vietor said. “The portion of hard-core, committed AQAP members is relatively small.”

The danger in this reading, therefore, is that the US’ actions, by generating sympathy for AQAP, will blur the line between mainly tribal actors (especially Ansar al-Shariah) and AQAP by popularizing the latter among Yemeni Islamists — which could help AQAP build up its networks and resources to the point where it actually does succeed in one of its plots against US targets… or, against “softer” Saudi ones. And then the chips would be down for whichever administration is sitting in the White House at the time.

But the main American diplomatic concern — one shared by the Yemeni military, whose air force does not have the capacity to carry out “signature strikes” — is apparently that the US not be too closely associated with the drone strikes. The secondary concern, that there are underlying ethnic and economic tensions in Yemen which require addressing to keep the country from turning into another Afghanistan, is simply secondary. In part, this is because the central Yemeni government, despite its dependence on US largesse, really has no desire to help US observers go around the country to better report back to Washington on the civil strife. All the practical issues — and there are many — of doing so aside, the central government really has no real desire to enable this because such a survey of the country would probably make it very clear just how divided society is and how many tribes are so resentful towards the government in Sana’a (the US’s limited historical interest in Yemen certainly helps keep things in the dark). Given the choice of adding more drones to the aerial armada or recruiting civil society monitors, the White House is, from its past record, certainly going to choose the tech over the people because identifying the larger problems does not immediately produce deliverables — i.e., the AQAP body count. That fixation, Johnsen believes, is helping to blur distinctions between AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah.

The head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center (CTC), one of the key behind-the-scenes players in all this (only those “in the loop” know his name) — embodies these discrepancies quite well, it seems: “We’re killing these sons of bitches2 faster than they can grow them,” he reportedly said in 2011 regarding the “signature strikes” program implemented in Pakistan and now practiced in Yemen (and possibly Somalia too) under the designation “terrorist-attack-disruption strikes” (TADS). And yet the “sons of bitches” quote comes from a man who has also reportedly conceded to his close associates that “this is not a war you’re going to be able to kill your way out of.”

Unfortunately, it appears to be precisely what the US is trying to do in Yemen.

Note: We’ll follow this post with a detailed breakdown of the forthcoming PBS Frontline documentary on Yemen from one of our contributors.

1To be clear, my analogy is based on seeing a similarity in an order of battle — foreign fighters in units fighting alongside a homeland “liberation” movement — not that the “original” al Qaeda is somehow running the show with AQAP, or Ansar al-Shariah.

2It’s not clear if he meant actual militants, or any male capable of bearing arms in the target zone, since the White House’s casualty assessments rely on the assumption that all males capable of bearing arms in the target zone are “militants” unless proven otherwise.