December 24, 2009

10,000 Miles Apart

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley must have been humoring the crowd when he claimed, "we have no direct role in what's happening along the border," denying US involvement in Yemen's internal war.

As President Obama triumphantly spirits away to Hawaii, health bill in hand, a less certain strategy is playing out in Yemen. Officials once again claim over 30 al-Qaeda members have been killed in an air-strike, this time in Shabwa province east of the capital, Sanaa.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim preacher linked to Major Nidal Malik Hasan, is said to be among the dead. Hasan killed 13 people at Fort Hood army base in Texas.

AFP news agency quoted the security official as saying Saudis and Iranians had been at the meeting and that, "We are still unsure if two of the top leaders have been killed or not... One of them is the Saudi al-Qaeda member Nasser al-Wahayshi."

al-Wahayshi is reportedly Yemen commander in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). His Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shehr, is also suspected of being present during the strike.

A short while later an unnamed Yemeni official told Reuters, "Anwar al-Awlaki is suspected to be dead.” Several other al-Qaeda operatives are thought to be have killed too. Of course this is what they told us last time.

Already, “Local sources have said that the casualties from this strike was seven people only," Mohammed al-Qadhi, a correspondent in Yemen for Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper, told Al Jazeera. "All of those are from al-Qaeda, according to local sources, but the government reports say there are more than 30.”

If al-Awlaki is actually dead then Obama just made himself a bunch of new Republican friends. The cost may be civil disturbances, but that won’t be initially visible, just like his Navy SEAL rescue off the Somali coast. If al-Shabab hadn't committed a strategic blunder it would be taking over even more territory now. Yemen is a dangerous place for al-Qaeda and America to be.

Obama better get something for its dollar, to be real. He injected over 70$ million in military aid into Yemen during 2009, two and a half times US AID's economic assistance, and the figure stands to inflate. The American press is predictably wild for Obama's newest front in the "War on Terror," but even a mildly competent counterinsurgent would keep economic aid in pace, possibly help rebuild any collateral damage.

If Obama expects to kill as many leaders and cells as he can, get out before the heat is too high, and watch Yemen sail on its merry way, he should consider keeping the bombers at Diego Garcia on standby. He’ll need them and the JSOC in a few years.

As for al-Awlaki’s fate and tales of new civilian casualties, time will tell soon enough. From a strategic position though, al-Qaeda committed a strategic, not just a tactical failure, by gathering in large groups at a time of red alert. Now al-Qaeda's Yemen head might be cut off.

But the question remains, will it grow back?

[Apparently al-Awlaki doesn't need to be replaced just yet. His relatives say he's alive, though propaganda could be at work. Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi and his deputy Saeed al-Shihri's fates remain unknown, as Yemen security forces are having a difficult time entering the area. Nevertheless, these strikes are rarely precise as advertised.]

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