Obama followed through on his promise. He had
increased the pace of operations in Yemen, using the famed JSOC units to
coordinate a series of deadly strikes against AQAP (part of a global, Obama-overseen
expansion in drone strikes). Those operations continued throughout the next
year. The war in Yemen had come
But what has that war actually
accomplished? In this week's public discussion of the latest underwear bomb, U.S.
officials have estimated that AQAP has more
than a thousand fighters in Yemen. Can we reasonably call our
counterterrorism efforts there a success if the
terrorist organization there has tripled at the same time? To be fair, these estimates are imperfect, and there are many other factors determining the size and reach of the group. But it's hardly a high-five moment.
There are other consequences of America's efforts
in Yemen that might not bode well for our strategy and methods there. The CT (counterterrorism)
mission, as it's known, is based parltly on the belief that the U.S. must support
the ruling regime in capital city Sanaa, run for decades by Ali Abdullah Saleh and recently
succeeded by a protege, Abdo Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi. That regime is so
unpopular it sparked more than a year of Arab Spring protests in every major city
in the country.
AQAP has moved into this gap. An aggressive
new group, Ansar al-Sharia, has taken
over some areas in the south and fought Yemeni security forces. There is some disagreement among analysts about
whether this new group is a part of AQAP. But, by
co-opting at least some of Ansar al-Sharia's message, AQAP could benefit by
transitioning from an isolated terror group to a part of the larger, southern
secessionist movement, against which the Yemeni government has been struggling since the country's
unification in 1990.
The current chaos and legal
anarchy in Yemen -- some areas of the country fly al-Qaeda's flag, not the
Yemeni government's -- has created
space for the terror group to innovate new weapons.
From this perspective, it's difficult to conclude that the counterterrorism mission in Yemen is
succeeding. Sure, "bad guys" are being killed off by the dozen,
elders in the countryside insist a lot of innocent civilians are being
killed as well. And the morality of drone strikes is still far from crystal
The challenge in Yemen is, ultimately, a
political one: an illegitimate government struggling with multiple resistance
and rebellion movements, in addition to a terrorist movement slowly making
inroads into one of them. That's probably not a challenge that can be ultimately solved by sending in
JSOC and firing a bunch of drones into the desert; it is a challenge that
requires a comprehensive political, economic, and social framework for
addressing the many facets of the problem. Of course, the U.S. also has diplomats in Yemen, and many policy and economic analysts back in Washington are working tirelessly on the country's problems. But the point is that terrorist-killing drones are not the answer.