Branding Yemen as “the next Afghanistan” was fashionable before US air-strikes in December 2009, and they officially marked the outbreak of war. Some US officials and pundits go so far as to warn that Yemen’s external threat has overtaken Afghanistan and Pakistan, prompting the immediate question: why is a mass of US troops deployed in the wrong theater of operations?
But while Washington breathlessly hypes the semi-failed state to justify an ever-expanding war against al-Qaeda, a real threat emanates from the group as it evolves into the next square on al-Qaeda’s chessboard. War has commenced.
Now the battlefield is taking shape.
“We are preparing to implement the first steps of the Aden-Abyan Army to defend the nation and its religion.... and free this land of crusaders and their apostate agents," said Qassim al-Rimi, military chief of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in a message posted online. "This army is in its early stages.”
And in Sana’a, America’s newly appointed ambassador greeted the headquarters of the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate, where Gerald Feierstein reaffirmed the Obama administration's burgeoning proxy war. Formerly the deputy chief of the US mission in Pakistan, Feierstein told his audience, “We will undertake the activities that are necessary to provide that support. We will continue to train and equip Yemen’s counter-terrorism forces to eliminate the immediate threat that AQAP poses to our collective security.”
To be clear (clarity is sorely lacking in US counterinsurgency), Yemen isn’t “the next Afghanistan” anymore than the other battlefields in al-Qaeda’s global theater. “The next Afghanistan” represents the ideal conditions that attract al-Qaeda to a state, failed or in the process of failing, always capitalizing on the same weaknesses - political, economic, social. So no matter where al-Qaeda fights its war the battlefield will stay relatively unchanged from Afghanistan.
al-Qaeda’s virus-like cycle has three standard stages. After taking refuge and reproducing it provokes Western intervention, in Yemen’s case failed Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to inflame the local populace, spawning a third stage of protracted warfare to exhaust America’s resources and international credibility. Comparing his group to the Taliban and al-Shabab, al-Rimi bluntly stated that AQAP is conducting a "war of attrition to widen the front with the enemy in order to weaken it.”
“The next Afghanistan” is truly reflected by the sequence in which Yemen events are unfolding. While the initial phase of the Afghan war delivered an overwhelming tactical victory, ill-advised planning and short-sighted goals led America to eight years of strategic stalemate. The beginning of Yemen’s insurgency, a crucial period in counterinsurgency, has gone so terrible that the infant strategy is already under revision.
But no signs of improvements exist on the horizon.
The initial phase of the US campaign has gotten off to a counterproductive start. Though the US military already had its hands in Yemen, America officially declared war in December 2009 with a series of internationally publicized air-strikes. Billed as a raving success that eliminated multiple al-Qaeda operatives, their deaths were later retracted and replaced with scores of civilians. Air-strikes also failed to stop Abdulmutallab, AQAP's first volley. It should be noted that al-Rimi was supposedly killed in one of these strikes only to emerge and come under fire again. Yemeni officials finally confirmed his death in January 2010, meaning more false information or someone with a detailed al-Qaeda script is commanding through his name.
Furthermore, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi recently told Al-Hayat that US air-strikes "resulted in nothing," claiming that President Ali Abdullah Saleh canceled additional strikes after December. An errant strike in May disproves this account, but the resulting fallout out between Washington and Sana’a stuck a lid on a boiling pot, leaving even less margin for error in the future.
Unsuccessful air-strikes haven’t permanently canceled future operations, but they have forced Washington’s resources into training Yemen’s security forces and supplying them with high-tech hardware. US officials argue that training local forces is preferable in counterinsurgency, a partial truth that often backfires when supplying troops of an unpopular and corrupt government. Nor can they substitute for air-strikes in the desolate, often hostile terrain that al-Qaeda operates from.
Rooting al-Qaeda out of its rural positions simply isn’t a military matter, yet America is repeating the frequent mistake of disproportionate military force.
That hasn’t stopped Washington from trying to hide this fact. The New York Times recently reported that the Pentagon drew up a muscled initiative eventually toned down by the State Department. Feierstein claimed that Washington “recognizes that security cooperation alone will not achieve the goal of defeating violent extremism,” telling journalists, “We also need to take on the longer-term effort of building a more hopeful future for all Yemeni people, one without the despair and political discord in which extremism takes root.”
Feierstein clearly came prepared with the list of grievances submitted by opponents of US policy in Yemen. A national dialogue between the government, northern Houthi tribe, and the Southern Secessionists, corruption and economic reforms - these are “all essential steps to ensuring a more secure future for Yemen.”
Unfortunately, as often the case, Washington doesn’t put its money where its mouth is. So far America has committed a total of $150 million in humanitarian and economic aid, compared to $150 million in military assistance in 2010 alone. Another $1.2 billion in military funds is under development in the State Department’s policy. Christopher Boucek, an associate with the Carnegie Middle East Program, labeled current US policy as “backwards - it will actually increase the threat of terrorism out of Yemen.” Washington must apply an equal balance, perhaps even 50-50 - an unthinkable ratio.
For now, like Afghanistan, America has rolled out a counterinsurgency in name only. Counter-terrorism reigns supreme, a process that, when applied to insurgency, creates more “terrorists.”
Said al-Qirb, "Yemen is not getting its fair share of international aid. We hope this will change. If it does not change, the problem will persist because terrorism always takes advantage of people's living and economic conditions and drives people to complain against governments and against the international order in general.”
The effects are already manifesting. AQAP attacks are growing in sophistication and brazenness, releasing a kill list of Yemeni officials and targeting small troop units on desolate ground, avoiding direct confrontation in urban environments. al-Rimi ominously warned that AQAP has, "so far kept its main cards up its sleeve, and would only use them according to the changing circumstances." Possessing an estimated 200-400 fighters, AQAP’s lack of manpower is supplemented by spirit (AQAP swears loyalty to its own leaders, not Osama bin Laden, and operates in autonomy) and a relatively friendly population.
Years of political and economic marginalziation have ground down Yemeni society - nearly 50% of respondents in a recent poll don’t care about politics, with the primary reason being government opposition. al-Qaeda’s name has also been used to suppress secessionists in the south, possibly the most grievous offense in US policy.
Now America’s botched operations, coupled with the looming war in general, is fulfilling the rest of AQAP’s needs. US military activity has justified Yemen as “the new Afghanistan” to regional fighters, giving foreign and local recruits ample time to flock to AQAP before the insurgency builds up steam. Helpless in the face of “al-Qaeda is on the run,” the Obama administration has no choice but to give AQAP exactly what it wants - importing a war - playing directly into al-Qaeda’s short and long-term goals.
All signs point to a long insurgency. Yemen’s struggles are decades in the making and will likely take decades to resolve, and Washington’s initial counterproductivity is adding years to the insurgency’s time-line. al-Qaeda has positioned itself right where it wants to be, actively growing in multiple failed states that all include US Special Forces or combat troops, mutually supporting each other and undermining Washington’s claims of success. As America slips deeper into entrapment, al-Qaeda’s global strategy is unfolding as planned.
In light of Afghanistan’s current dilemma, US officials offer a strange sight as they avow their new war in Yemen. They should be perfectly aware of the outcome.