We’re beginning to wonder after his foray into Yemen whether President Obama read David Kilcullen’s latest book, The Accidental Guerrilla. Deploying US special forces at Yemen’s request, a seemingly reasonable decision, is plagued by many of the symptoms described by Kilcullen.
Add to this fact that he criticized Obama’s handling of Afghanistan in November and opposes the drone surge, and we’re beginning to question if Kilcullen has lost a few places at the war table. But back to Yemen.
The Houthis rebellion won’t be recounted here, only that it's robust and rooted in government oppression, which Yemen naturally denies. Regardless of the truth of Iranian influence, Yemen’s insurgency is domestic rather than foreign.
Yemen's stats give a general indication of its vulnerability to Islamic militarization: population estimated at nearly 24 million, with a median age of 16.7 years, literacy at 50%, 35% unemployment, 40% poverty. And that’s only what can be counted.
At the same time al-Qaeda poses a clear threat of foreign infection, as Kilcullen would say in his book. Yemen's complexities - an internal conflict exploited by like-minded global jihadists - necessitate a comprehensive political strategy in order to successfully minimize spread of the virus.
This doesn’t seem to be happening. Along with arms, ammunition, and information, America gives Yemen 30$ million in aid annually. More was spent on the last five days of military operations.
As many media outlets reported on December 14th, President Obama approved the deployment of Special-Ops and the US Air Force inside Yemen, along with increased information and hardware. Immediately fireballs lit up the sky as America initiated its air campaign, eager to shock and awe.
Kilcullen warned precisely against this, opting for low-key small unit raids.
Over the next several days 34 al-Qaeda members were reportedly killed, a huge propaganda victory for Yemen, and militarily significant to destroy an force that concentrated. As planned, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, "Yemen, “should be commended for actions against Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda poses a serious threat to Yemeni, U.S. and regional interests.”
Already Yemen was denying American military forces are operating in the country. This disjointed strategy was good for an initial bang - and that could be it. The death-toll rose to 120 and included many civilians, sparking anger in both the Houthis and the local population.
“The US air force perpetrated an appalling massacre against citizens in the north of Yemen as it launched air raids on various populated areas, markets, refugee camps and villages along with Saudi warplanes," a statement from the fighters read.
"The savage crime committed by the US air force shows the real face of the United States. It cancels out much touted American claims of human rights protection, promotion of freedoms of citizens as well as democracy."
Residents of Abyan, the site of one bombing raid, said that there was no al-Qaeda training camp in the area. Abbas al-Assal, a local human rights activist who was at the scene, said 64 people were killed, including 23 children and 17 women.
"The government wants to show the world that it is serious in pursuing al-Qaeda elements and that the south of Yemen is a refuge for al-Qaeda,” al-Assal told the Associated Press by telephone. “That is not true at all.”
Not true either. Mohammed Hazran, Abyan's deputy governor, said that 10 al-Qaeda suspects were killed in the attack, including Mohammed Saleh al-Kazemi, a Saudi who had resided in the country since fighting in Afghanistan. But that leaves a lot of room for civilian casualties.
A provincial security official said, "grave mistakes occurred in the operation due to failures of information, which led to a large number of civilian deaths."
Undeterred, White House officials leaked a report to justify the strikes, saying one of the bombed sites was being used to plan, "an imminent attack against a U.S. asset was being planned."
Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't, but this attitude is exactly what Kilcullen warns against - valuing US security above the localized conflict and its participants. Priorities arranged as such often decrease US security in the long-term rather than boost it. A JSOC raid might have worked just as well without spawning five new terrorist plots.
Four days after the initial raids, America launched another series of air-strikes on an “al-Qaeda” sanctuary near Bakazam. Houthis are saying over 60 civilians were killed. Propaganda is certainly at work, but multiple sources are lowering al-Qaeda deaths and raising those of civilians.
If nothing else, America was unprepared for propaganda warfare, having no one on the actual ground, and needs to get working. At worst, Obama just bombed a bunch of al-Qaeda members, Houthi rebels (who didn't care about America yesterday and hate it today), local males, women, and children.
Those who’ve read Kilcullen’s book should easily spot a pattern. Provoked by al-Qaeda, America responded with overwhelming force, generating anti-bodies in the Houthi rebellion and supporting population - accidental guerrillas.
Houthis know US assistance pervades Yemen’s security forces, but the current military intervention is now visible at the international level. Any more air-raids should be deeply considered before approval.
More disturbingly, American officials said this past summer marked al-Qaeda's systematic immigration to Somalia and Yemen, having intercepted their communications and even tracking some. As the military speaks of “squirters” in the field, these are “international squirters” fleeing not a building but a country.
Unfortunately, like drones, Obama’s solution appears to be picking them off one by one. Counter-terrorism will prove ineffective in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and other conflicts where counterinsurgency and nation-building are necessary. These fire-shows suggest Obama has yet to develop a global strategy to defeat Islamic militants when formulating his “AfPak” strategy.
It's back to killing.
In response to recent events, Sunni al-Qaeda has once again successfully infected a host country and provoked a harsh US response that could alienate the local, though by no means accidental, Shia Houthi guerrillas.
Instead of driving them apart, the combined Yemen-Saudi-US force has integrated the two groups.
Hussein Shobokshi, a columnist for Asharq Al-Wasat newspaper, told Al Jazeera, "Ideologically they are very different, however, in a very Machiavellian way they have decided that joining forces would definitely increase the effectiveness of the military campaign against the Yemeni government.”
In contrast to Iraq, and to an extent Somalia, where al-Qaeda was a foreign body, bin Laden grew his network in Afghanistan and Yemen. Expelling it will be more complex, and America’s biggest opportunity will probably be a self-inflicted wound by al-Qaeda.
Take these current attacks, which could cause a backlash if they’re equally blamed America's for war-mongering. Or a spike anti-American sentiment may be inevitable.
Furthermore, al-Qaeda's total destruction is neutralized by Yemen’s natural instability and the Houthi’s local roots. A comprehensive regional strategy - better counterinsurgency - is required even if al-Qaeda is terminated to the last cell.
Yemen’s instability requires an international effort.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon are all suspected of influencing the conflict, in addition to America. Truly digging at its core requires West Asia to coordinate at the political level, then implement a counterinsurgency operation to pacify the Houthis and its local support, and eliminate al-Qaeda.
Obviously in the event Iran and Saudi Arabia are waging a proxy war in Yemen, and America sides with the latter, then an international conference will be difficult to organize. The prospect is low.
Thus Yemen must deduce its own strategy in conjunction with its allies, America and Saudi Arabia in particular. Again a political plan must be created before action, and the will summoned to carry it out. The Houthis only say they want a redress in grievances, not regional autonomy or independence.
This could change, but they should be engaged if their goals aren't Pan-Islamic. Civil programs are both cheaper and more effective than cruise missiles and troopers. Human rights, political representation, economic opportunity, and cultural perseverance are the means to forge true stability and a barrier against extremist groups like al-Qaeda.
Counter-terrorism would underscore the complete process.
Right now America’s treatment remains overwhelming force, threatening to spread the virus inside and outside Yemen.