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.
As for military appropriations, the Pentagon’s “train and assist” budget is the main source of overt assistance to Yemen. Under President Bush, Yemen received $30.3 million from Section 1206 of the National Defense Authorization Act. In the past two fiscal years Yemen obtained $221.8 million in 1206 money. Yemen, as of FY 2010, became the world’s largest recipient of 1206 funds, ahead of second-place Pakistan. These sums do not include US funds for special operations or drone strikes.
Yemen will become another billion-dollar war this year, measured in direct funding. The country has a population of 24 million, less than that of California.
Obama is trying to prevent the inexorable slide into another quagmire requiring direct military intervention. Last year he admonished a Pentagon general for describing the military role in Yemen as a “campaign” and insisted the US is not at war. At the recent NATO meeting, the president said “there’s no doubt that in a country that is still poor, that is still unstable, it is attracting a lot of folks that previously might have been in” Pakistan’s tribal areas. It was an astonishing remark: in the long war thus far, the US has caused the birth of Al Qaeda in Iraq, helped them take root in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, pushed them from Afghanistan to Pakistan and now to Yemen (not to mention multiple cells in other countries). There is little intellectual or political capacity to understand that counterterrorism only relocates and inspires new terrorism.
Congress has done nothing so far to constrain the runaway escalation in Yemen, suggesting that Congress only reacts to American casualties and headlines. During the popular upheaval against the US-backed Saleh regime in 2010-2011, most US aid for training had to be frozen. When it resumed, the Congress instructed that the funds be used only for counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “and its affiliates”—a meaningless proviso. One January 2010 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded “the ROYG [Republic of Yemen government] was likely diverting US counter-terrorism assistance for use in the war against the Houthis, and that temptation will persist.”
In summary, no one really knows if the Pentagon and CIA can suppress both terrorism and civil war while the National Security Council promotes a three-step “Yemen Strategic Plan” of crushing Al Qaeda, investing in economic aid and a global effort at stabilization.
It’s doubtful whether the Long War can continue without US ground troops, but that’s the only alternative that can be imagined in the national security mindset. RAND historian Seth Jones, like many defense intellectuals, emphasizes that we are in a “Long War” that “will be measured in decades.”
Such dim and narrow views mean there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, which is why we are going down the rabbit hole in Yemen.