Is Yemen the next war?

Last month, in The Dreyfuss Report, I wrote about recent news that the United States is considering a major escalation of its military activity in Yemen, specifically giving the CIA permission to work with US Special Forces to set up “elite US hunter-killer teams” and Pakistan-style drone attacks on terrorist targets. As I wrote then: “By bungling into Yemen with a massive US covert operation, the result is guaranteed to be an intensified crisis that will collapse and split the Yemeni government and lead to a Somalia-like state of disorder.”

So it was with interest that, on Friday, December 17, I went over to the Carnegie Endowment to hear John Brennan, President Obama’s chief adviser on terrorism, talk about Yemen. Brennan, you’ll remember, was Obama’s adviser on intelligence during the 2008 campaign, having served for a quarter century in the CIA. He’s a specialist on the Middle East, political Islam, and Saudi Arabia, and between his leaving in 2005 and joining the administration in 2009, I interviewed him several times. His main point then: that the United States shouldn’t be fighting a “war” on terrorism and that the military is not the most efficient instrument to deal with a problem like Al Qaeda and its allies.

At Carnegie, Brennan—who was a CIA analyst on Yemen in the 1980s—didn’t directly discuss US covert plans for Yemen, as you’d expect.

But the tone of his comments indicated that he sees the problem in Yemen, out of which several recent terrorist plots have allegedly arisen, through a political and economic lens rather than counterterrorist and military lens. Since setting up in the White House in 2009, Brennan has visited Yemen four times, each time meeting with Yemen’s wily and mercurial President Saleh, who sits atop a volatile mix of tribal, ethnic, and religious groups in a desperately poor country that is running out of both water and oil. “President Saleh and I have had many animated conversations,” he said. Brennan noted that one-third of Yemenis are starving and that only forty percent have electricity. It is, he said, “an attractive recruiting ground for Al Qaeda.” A number of Al Qaeda types fled a crackdown in Saudi Arabia a couple of years ago, and landed in Yemen, where they “pose a serious threat to Yemen, to Saudi Arabia, and to the United States,” said Brennan.

But, at the very start of his talk, Brennan said that the watchwords for his ideas about Yemen are “cooperation” and “engagement.” The key, he said, is a “comprehensive approach to support Yemen,” bringing in regional partners such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE along with the UK, Germany, and other players who belong to an assistance group called the Friends of Yemen forum.” Brennan emphasized that dealing with Yemen as a terrorist recruiting ground “will take patience,” and that Yemen will have to resolve its twin civil conflicts—with rebellious forces in the former South Yemen and with Houthi rebels in the remote areas—and that Yemen will need vast international help to deal with its crushing economic crisis. “Development,” he stressed, “is the foundation of stability.” That’s the right message.

On the other hand, Brennan mixed in tough talk, too, saying that the terrorist threat from Yemen will get an “appropriate response.” He noted that US military and security assistance to Yemen is up sharply—eightfold in two years—besides $130 million in non-security-related aid in 2010. “Going on the offensive against Al Qaeda means exactly that.” But Brennan didn’t comment at all about the reported plan for CIA covert action, nor did he address the recent Wikileaks report that President Saleh would pretend that US air and missile strikes in Yemen were actually carried out by Yemeni forces. When I asked Brennan if drone and missile strikes were counterproductive, if they are creating more terrorists than they kill, Brennan said, “That is really the key question.” But he didn’t answer it. It’s one thing to apply military force very, very selectively against terrorist foes, but it’s something else entirely to set in motion a vastly stepped up campaign that could destabilize Yemen fatally. Let’s hope Brennan argues for caution, not excess, in dealing with this devastated nation. 

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