With a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan “irreversible” according to NATO, the Pentagon and CIA’s focus is increasingly concentrated on Yemen, where diplomatic or political solutions are impossible anytime soon.
From the US perspective, Yemen is the center of gravity in their battle to subdue Al Qaeda-linked jihadist cells that plan to attack the US. There is a kernel of truth to the claim. For example, the so-called “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, began his December 2009 mission in Yemen. Printer cartridges equipped with bombs were sent in 2010 from Yemen. And the US-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a CIA drone last September, actively counseled many jihadists there.
But the long-term futility of US counterterrorism operations in Yemen was underscored on May 21 when a suicide bombing killed hundreds in Sana, the 2,500 year old capital, “stunning the country’s beleaguered government and delivering a stark setback to the American counterterrorism campaign,” according to the New York Times.
The bombing was in retaliation for the escalation of US military intervention, including at least twenty US Special Forces advisers assisting an offensive in southern Yemen. US forces were driven out of Yemen last year when a popular movement toppled the long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, only to return in recent weeks. At least eighteen US drone strikes have been reported just since March.
Under the guise of a secret war against Al Qaeda, the US continues to intervene in an ongoing ethnic civil war in Yemen, a conflict that cannot possibly be “won” by a foreign military power. While professing no other aim but counterterrorism, the US funds and advises a shaky new Sunni regime that is pitted militarily against northern Shiite tribes and southern secessionists. (See Jeremy Scahill, “The Dangerous US Game in Yemen”)
According to the Congressional Research Service, Al Qaeda is launching “a wide scale domestic insurgency” and transforming itself from an Al Qaeda affiliate to a “more Taliban-like movement as well,” known as Ansar al Sharia. One of the leaders of Ansar al Sharia is Tariq al Zahab, brother of the widow of the slain Anwar al-Awlaki.
In the wake of the civil war, 150,000 people have become refugees from a single southern province, Abyan, since May 2011, according to the United Nations. This sectarian civil war threatens to reverberate across regional boundaries because Saudi Arabia worries that the insurrection on its southern flank will spread to include minority Shiite tribes in the eastern provinces of their royal kingdom.
The taxpayer cost of the Yemen war is almost as secret as the US military role. For FY 2013, the White House is asking for $72.6 million in State Department funding. But there are at least seventeen separate aid channels for Yemen involving multiple federal agencies. Total US foreign aid to Yemen from FY 2009-2011 averaged $185.3 million a year.