US involvement in Yemen edging toward 'clandestine war'

Obama has promised to step up the fight against the militants after last week’s bomb plot aboard cargo planes that originated in Yemen.

Hasan Jamali/AP
Yemeni soldiers take a break during exercises Wednesday Nov. 3, in Dar al-Hajr, Yemen, a mountain valley west of the capital Sanaa. Will US troops join the Yemeni fight against Al Qaeda?

President Obama is pledging stepped-up military and economic cooperation with Yemen in response to last week’s foiled terrorist operation aboard cargo planes that originated in the country.

Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries and home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

An initial response to Mr. Obama’s promise to step up the fight against Yemen’s Islamist militants may have come Tuesday, when an oil pipeline running through a militant stronghold in Yemen was blown up.

The pipeline attack was a reminder that the two-track approach for fighting Islamist terrorists in their strongholds – covert military and intelligence operations and “hearts and minds” development programs to reach the public and deny terrorists their havens – faces a steep climb to success in Yemen.

Some regional analysts are already calling Yemen Obama’s “next Afghanistan,” a weak state where anti-Western extremists have been able to take root. But a comparison to Obama’s approach for the militant havens of Pakistan’s northwest may be more apt.

No one expects large numbers of US troops to be deployed in Yemen. Instead, the administration is quietly discussing ramping up covert operations by the Central Intelligence Agency – adding special-operations units and strikes by unmanned drones to what some analysts already call a “clandestine war.” At the same time, the president is talking publicly about increased assistance to Yemen to build up its institutions and reach a poor population.

But some Yemen specialists worry that Obama’s talk of ramping up development assistance will remain just that – talk – while what they call a “militarization” of US relations with Yemen continues unabated.

“If there only were a genuine two-track approach to Yemen: That would be a good thing, but unfortunately, whatever economic aid and attempts to persuade the Yemeni public there have been have been dwarfed by the money and attention going to military options,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert and doctoral candidate at Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies.

Obama laid out his two-track approach to Yemen, though without the details, in his brief White House statement Friday where he discussed the suspicious packages from Yemen.

“Going forward, we will continue to strengthen our cooperation with the Yemeni government to disrupt plotting by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and to destroy this Al Qaeda affiliate,” Obama said. “We’ll also continue our efforts to strengthen a more stable, secure, and prosperous Yemen so that terrorist groups do not have the time and space they need to plan attacks from within its borders.”

Obama has spoken at least twice by telephone with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh since the terror operation unraveled last Friday. Publicly, US officials paint a picture of a Yemeni government making promising strides against terrorist organizations like AQAP but lacking the means to defeat them and thus requiring US help.

“For consecutive years we [in the Obama administration] have significantly ramped up our attention to Yemen and our support from a bilateral standpoint, security standpoint, and development standpoint,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on Tuesday. “Yemen is focused on the threat posed by Al Qaeda, and we will continue to work with Yemen, continue to build up its capabilities so that it can continue to take aggressive action.”

But behind the scenes, the administration is hearing the opinion of a growing number of military and intelligence officials that President Saleh may be losing his grip on the country. And concern is growing that he appears unable to handle an Al Qaeda affiliate apparently growing in sophistication and bent on striking the West.

The United States already has special forces in Yemen, in part to train Yemeni forces in counterterrorism functions and in part for intelligence purposes. The White House is considering expanding US operations in Yemen by a much broader use of unmanned drones or shifting command of Special Operations units to the CIA.

Such a shift would put the Yemen counterterrorism campaign more tightly under White House control. The advantage of such a move, officials say, would be to allow for operations more like those in Pakistan. There missile strikes by CIA-operated drones – against suspected terrorist targets, based on intelligence passed to the president – have proliferated in recent months.

But an increase in covert operations such as drone strikes also risks “mistakes,” some say. Exhibit A: the recent strike on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that killed three Pakistani soldiers – and worsened already-tense US-Pakistan relations.

Such “mistakes” have already occurred in Yemen, says Mr. Johnsen of Princeton, with the effect of strengthening AQAP and boosting its recruiting efforts.

“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been around since 2006, but their argument that Yemen was under Western attack and that therefore it was a Muslim’s duty to strike back wasn’t really catching on,” he says.

But then, he says, “word spread” about a number of supposedly covert missile strikes – one in late 2009 that killed a number of women and children, and another in May of this year that killed a government official. “Al Qaeda has been able to say, ‘We’ve been telling you Yemen is under Western military attack,’ ” Johnsen says. “And it has been catching on.”

Saleh has shown in the past that he does not take kindly to unpopular US operations in his country, on several occasions responding by suspending security and counterterrorism training programs. But he may have no choice, some say, but to accept what Obama calls a strengthened US role in his country.

Any US role in Yemen will have to have some military component, Johnsen says. But, he adds, if it is not counterbalanced by more than lip service to the development and public-outreach side of the equation, “the US may be walking into a bit of a trap.”

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