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.