Is America actually winning its fourth-generation war against al-Qaeda? US officials frequently state that the organization is “on the run,” but al-Qaeda never planned to hold ground as a fighting force. It “runs” to strategic locations in order to survive long enough to disseminate its version of global Islamic revolution. To spread al-Qaeda be killed, and America and its allies are happy to oblige.
al-Qaeda’s pool of recruits, financial network, and freedom of movement have eroded since its heyday in the late 1990’s. Yet its strategy entailed a severe military response, and successful infection of multiple states and continents creates the impression of a dividing amoeba.
US General David Petraeus claims to have halted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, except few believe him and many question where al-Qaeda went. While its leadership in Pakistan has suffered extensive damage, the network remains operational regionally and internationally. Somalia, where Washington relies on drones and an insufficient AU proxy force, has overtaken Afghanistan as an al-Qaeda sanctuary. North Africa’s infant militarization is evolving.
And Yemen, al-Qaeda’s most potent sanctuary according to some US officials, displays a woeful counterinsurgency.
Inadvertently highlighting al-Qaeda’s grand strategy during a recent series of leaks to The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, a senior U.S. official familiar with the CIA’s activity explained, "We see al-Qaeda as having suffered major losses, unable to replenish ranks and recover at a pace that would keep them on offense.” But the official added that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIM) is, "on the upswing. The relative concern ratios are changing. We're more concerned now about AQAP than we were before."
This argument, used to justify the US military’s expanding role in Yemen, can be flipped as an example of why America’s war against al-Qaeda is failing. US military supremacy will always ensure that al-Qaeda’s ranks - leaders, commanders, and foot soldiers - suffer countless losses. But as long as its ideology spreads, not necessarily among the majority of Arabs and Muslims so much as vulnerable states, al-Qaeda isn’t “running.” And chasing it through every conflict zone isn’t the means of defeating it.
Yet a second Obama official told The Washington Post that "a ramp-up over a period of months” is headed for Yemen. "We are looking to draw on all of the capabilities at our disposal," the official said, attributing the new campaign to “improving US intelligence in Yemen” and “new options for carrying out strikes.”
The reports by themselves emphasize media and propaganda gaps in US counterinsurgency. A unified message is pivotal to both the insurgent and counterinsurgent’s success, but America and Yemen's messages remain out of sync. One is trying to bring war while the other denies it. A Yemeni Foreign Ministry spokesman had already criticized an earlier New York Times report detailing several botched US raids, along with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s displeasure.
“The Yemeni government has been exerting continuous efforts to deny any military involvement by the U.S in all secret operations against al-Qaeda group in Yemen,” the spokesman said. “Now we can say that the U.S. must hold responsibility for what has been reported by The New York Times.”
Realizing how damaging the latest reports were in the streets and on the Internet, Yemeni officials wasted another two days denying The Washington Post’s reporting. One senior official rejected the idea of drones being deployed to the country despite evidence to the contrary, adding, “The situation in Yemen is different than in Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is still under control."
But US General James Mattis, the man who replaced General David Petraeus at Central Command (CENTCOM) - and now oversees Yemen - testified otherwise last month. Saying that Saleh has been pushed “to the breaking point” by an array of crises, Mattis warned that Yemen’s president, “has managed these crises through negotiation and by co-opting his opponents, but there are signs his ability to exert control is waning.”
Mattis’s thinking partially explains why US activity is rising, but also puts Washington in sharp conflict with Sana'a going forward. One Yemeni official responded, “the press leaks published in US and Western media exaggerate the size of Al-Qaeda and the danger that it poses to Yemen's stability and security.” Saleh visibly fears a public backlash towards US operations that would threaten relations between Yemenis and with Washington. Why have US officials chosen such a tactless message to deliver - and why haven’t US leaders condemned these leaks? Does the individual harm of a US soldier supersede damage to US strategy in an entire country?
America’s only message is that it comes for al-Qaeda, driving home cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s own message that Yemen is the next Afghanistan. Even those Yemenis who reject al-Qaeda’s ideology oppose a wider war. Washington's message is interfering with Yemen’s and must be aligned.
While counter-terrorism is fairly easy to disguise as counterinsurgency through inter-agencies, “long-term” security partnerships, and humanitarian aid, Yemen’s ground conditions reveal why few Yemenis would believe the unpopular Saleh government. US officials invariably gravitate towards the security aspect of Yemen, while US training and equipping of Yemeni forces is common knowledge. The New York Times didn’t break any story because the information went public the day after each US operation. Four strikes conducted since December 2009 have yielded scores of civilian casualties, tribal tensions, and escalating violence.
Another fissure in US counterinsurgency has also surfaced with a nasty headline: Yemen ignores rights in fighting insurgents. Amnesty International released a report claiming the US military's quest for al-Qaeda is stifling freedoms, which, given the circumstances, Yemenis are inclined to believe.
"There are many people who have been arrested and jailed as a result of American demands," says Khaled al-Anisi, the executive director of the Yemen-based National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms. "Because this security cooperation is beneficial to the Americans, they ignore the human rights situation in the country."
All of these events are developing in front of a backdrop of political uncertainty, with the Houthis’ status in the north and southern secessionists remaining unresolved. Both the government, through friendly tribes, and the Houthis and have mutually violated their agreement for months, fighting even as they negotiate in Qatar. Although the two sides may stick to their agreements this time, Saleh faces difficult demands in releasing rebel prisoners and fulfilling humanitarian promises.
Meanwhile secessionists have no intention of giving up on self-determination, rejecting extremist ideology while accusing the government of manipulating al-Qaeda to justify military operations. Ali Salem al Baid, a prominent Germany-based southern Yemeni leader and former vice president, alleged of recent battles around Lawdar, “The military campaign in Lawdar is aimed against our people’s resistance in the south.” He called the government’s war against al-Qaeda, “an attempt to cover up the massacres committed against our people,” and was joined by other exiled leaders who accused the government of sending al-Qaeda militants to conceal its suppression of the “peaceful movement of the southern people.”
Though their testimony is jaded by political beliefs, they fall in line with Amnesty International’s study - and hold Washington every bit as responsible as Yemen.
US officials appear proud of their expanding war, but the evidence suggests that they should reconsider their definition of progress. Does America want to eliminate the cause of al-Qaeda or keep it running? Pressing harder while Yemen’s multitude of issues remain outstanding could generate more al-Qaeda recruits than can be eliminated. Yemen poses an advanced form of counterinsurgency and yet US strategy is stuck in basic counter-terrorism, masked with trace elements of COIN.
Thus US strategy must flip from counter-terrorism into counterinsurgency. Officials should speak frequently of non-military affairs and rarely on military issues. al-Qaeda isn’t scared of threats, only average Yemenis. President Barack Obama mentions Yemen sparingly, usually to reaffirm his commitment to defeating al-Qaeda. The script must be flipped so that US officials, mainly State officials, and Yemeni authorities regularly highlight the benefits of US humanitarian aid.
This requires sufficient aid to combat Yemen’s estimated 40% unemployment.
It’s true that development assistance has increased under Obama, from $5 million in 2008 to $11 million in 2009 to $35 million in 2010. But military spending also exploded from $67 million to over $155 million: upgraded Hueys, Russian MI-17 helicopters, hummers, combat radio systems, and night-vision goggles. The US government should experiment with allocating equal funds to non-military operations. Splitting $200 million down the middle could transform Yemen’s strategy by creating a change in impressions and mentality.
America should promote a theme of demilitarization at all times. Given that Obama officials confirmed al-Awlaki is being “actively hunted down,” they seem to believe eliminating him would achieve a great victory. Al-Awlaki is considered AQAP’s motor, but killing him would validate his message and turn him into a martyr. Surely US officials would rather take al-Awlaki alive, but they must resist the urge to kill when he doesn't come quietly. And Yemeni forces must lead any operation into his tribe’s territory.
al-Awlaki's endgame should be a courtroom, not a grave. His father, a prominent Yemeni politician, has repeatedly warned against the collateral of killing his son and advocates legal means instead.
Most importantly, if Washington’s “ramp up” isn’t deterred by the current media backlash, its military focus must be exceeded by promoting a dialogue between Saleh, the Houthis, and southern secessionists. al-Qaeda is exploiting both conflicts to spawn its own; these disputes must be tempered in order to neutralize al-Qaeda’s strategy. Negotiations between dissident groups must assume the core of US policy, to be flipped in front of military operations.
Yemen’s overall trend fits into Obama’s failure to win over the Muslim world. His decisions toward Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, and Yemen, in addition to the thoughts of his officials, have resonated militarily rather than diplomatically. Even if al-Qaeda sustains damage under heavier military pressure, failure to address Yemen’s diverse roots of conflict will produce a strategic victory in al-Qaeda’s grand scheme.
Demilitarization, not militarization, is the remedy.