Anyone needing further evidence that the “bombshell” New York Times report on Yemen, while containing traces of truth, is mainly a shot of propaganda should read its latest spin. This report was probably loaded in the second barrel the whole time. Sort of like poison torture, where the antidote is administered after each bite.
Now the biggest “news” is that al-Qaeda militants quartered in Pakistan could be shifting into Yemen to exploit the security vacuum. In typical doublespeak, the Times reports in the same paragraph that U.S. officials “are divided” on a connection between the events. How thoughtful, they felt the need to warn the American people just in case. Humorless jokes aside, a real strategic shift between Pakistan and Yemen falls on Washington’s futile support of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work.
One Pentagon official also denied speculation that Saleh’s elite (and U.S.-trained) counter-terrorism units, in order to induce AQAP’s “chaos,” staged an intentional withdrawal in Abyan governorate. A senior military officer with “access to classified intelligence reports” rejected these suspicions on Monday: “This is a reflection of the turmoil in the country, not some political decision to stop.”
Whatever the truth, neither Saleh nor the Pentagon have any credibility in Yemen when speaking of AQAP. Voids in the political and information realms generated these conspiracies; Defense Secretary Robert Gates is personally responsible after issuing several one-sided comments that appeared to mimic Saleh’s threats of civil war. And if AQAP’s advance really is “a reflection of turmoil” and defecting soldiers, not some sinister plot, Saleh and Washington still have no one to blame except themselves. One cannot blame bad governance and poor counterinsurgency on the insurgent.
Among other grievances, Yemen’s opposition accuses Saleh of employing a special tear gas on them, which they claim was provided by America and European states for use against AQAP.
After mentioning increasing terror “chatter,” and the 75 Special Forces trainers and support personnel operating in Yemen, the NYT drops its final bomb. Vividly demonstrating how little Washington understands of Yemen and fourth-generation warfare, United States Central Command has, “dusted off plans to resume air-strikes against top Qaeda targets if the United States receives solid intelligence about the location of senior militants.”
Imagine U.S. strikes going over Saleh’s head during a revolution. Why not send C-130s to dump gasoline while they’re at it?
For now the use of air-strikes exists as a contingency, an automatic response inside the Pentagon. However, the forthcoming excuse that “nothing has been decided” once again ignores the principles of fourth-generation warfare. Military thoughts continue to dominate Washington’s mind in the full-spectrum world of counterinsurgency. People, including Yemenis, are going to read this report and immediately form negative impressions of U.S. policy, shocked that Washington is even considering such a flammable option to put out a fire. Their reaction will further pressure the White House to ditch Saleh.
Of course U.S. air-strikes, carried out under Saleh’s cover, ground to a halt in May after an errant strike killed Jaber al-Shabwani, deputy governor of Maarib province. A tribal revolt ensued, the result of one-sided counterinsurgency. Overall an estimated 200 civilians were killed in four air-strikes during 2010, compared to 30-50 militants. And the Pentagon and CIA thought it had solid intelligence. These actions clearly failed to limit AQAP’s growth while simultaneously triggering fresh anti-American sentiment.
Anwar al-Awlaki, one of AQAP’s spiritual leaders and its Western mouthpiece, is also listed in the report as a possible target. Killing him during Yemen’s revolution would be suicidal, turning al-Awlaki into a martyr and playing right into AQAP’s hands. He definitely reads the NYT - hence this report is a gold-mine for the group.
In sum, Saleh and Washington’s problems are being dumped on Yemeni protesters as excuses to delay or water down their revolution. And while the Obama administration insists that U.S. counter-terrorism is "bigger than one man,” the NYT reports that CIA operatives within the country are frantically identifying low-level officers to ensure mission continuity. This is why the White House’s claim to have seen the light, as propagated by the NYT, feels so dark.
They aren’t simply spouting propaganda, but naive propaganda that damages U.S. policy. The Obama administration and New York Times should give the truth a try. They can start with Saleh's ongoing crackdown on Tuesday.