June 9, 2011

U.S. Military Strikes Target Yemen’s Revolution

The latest exposure of U.S. military operations in Yemen has generally been interpreted through one of two lenses: the Obama administration’s “active” response or a debate around the legality of drones. Both perspectives obscure the reality of unilateral military operations inside Yemen, as is often the case in the Western media.

These strikes demonstrate the weaknesses in U.S. policy, not the strength of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The idea that air-strikes represent engagement on the White House’s part qualifies as dark humor. Initial silence and ongoing bias towards Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime stemmed from prior military escalation, which increased the trust gap between Saleh, Yemenis and Washington. An imbalanced strategy allowed AQAP to expand since 2009, when U.S. military operations kicked into high gear, and throughout Yemen’s revolution after Saleh enabled a takeover of the south. The lack of alternatives to Saleh, conceded by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, jammed a unilateral political response and UN sanctions, as U.S. Special Forces had trained the murderous Republican Guard now unleashed on Yemeni protesters.

Far from an active response, U.S. military escalation results from political inaction before and during Yemen’s five-month revolution.

Legality, on the other hand, is tossed around to avoid the real debate: results on the ground. The reason for this diversion is simple: targeted strikes won’t degrade AQAP. Abu Ali al-Arithi, the mid-level AQAP commander terminated by drone last Friday, will surely be replaced. Meanwhile the laws of counterinsurgency are flagrantly violated in Yemen’s political, information and social spheres. With governance subverted beneath counter-terrorism, millions of Yemenis have been spooked to kill one replaceable commander, which also cost at least four civilian lives. Although U.S. officials limited their response to The New York Times’ report, they remain eager to boast of military success when no such progress exists.

The damage wouldn’t be so severe if these strikes were conducted within a wider political and economic strategy that supported Yemen’s revolution. Both the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and youth coalitions have pledged to combat AQAP once Saleh and his regime are washed away. Yet an opaque process has eliminated any possibility of transparency. While U.S. officials refuse to speculate on Saleh’s health, his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) continues to promise a return. New rallies planned in Sana’a appear designed to provoke fresh conflict with the pro-democracy movement.

U.S. obstruction on the political front, combined with unilateral military operations to “exploit” Yemen’s power vacuum, have produced a wholly unworkable strategy to promote democracy, stabilize the country and ultimately eliminate AQAP.

As of this moment Obama administration officials remain tuned out off Yemen’s political front, reinforcing how little Washington understands of full-spectrum fourth-generation warfare (4GW). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only briefly waded into the conflict during a press conference in Abu Dhabi, dropping the standard U.S. line on Yemen amid a detailed conversation on Libya and Syria. Squeezing in one paragraph between the other two revolutions, Clinton remarked, “We continue to urge all sides to honor the ceasefire, and we support an immediate, orderly, and peaceful transition consistent with Yemen’s constitution.”

“I think it’s clear that we have worked very closely with our partners in the Gulf and others to try to bring about a peaceful transition.”

Such a statement routinely deflects legitimate criticism of U.S. policy in Yemen; State spokesman issued a verbatim copy on Wednesday. With Clinton detailed to Yemen on Thursday, the State Department skipped its revolution entirely. White House spokesman Jay Carney similarly responded with a brief reaction to U.S. military operations.

“It’s a very important part of our counterterrorism effort,” he explained. “We’ve made clear -- we have not in any way been secretive about it, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is an important threat to the United States and to our interests around the world. And we have worked very closely with the Yemeni government to go after al Qaeda, because of the threat that it represents. It’s a very -- it’s a serious issue.”

This loaded statement is difficult to break down, as rhetorically intended. Although U.S. officials express a constant fear of AQAP, U.S. policy has been notoriously secretive in Yemen, making under-the-table deals with Saleh that eventually flipped back on Washington. Startling is the fact that Carney would even mention Yemen’s collapsing president, given that he is widely accused of manipulating AQAP to coerce military aid and political protection from Washington. In the end drones will only create new problems in the absence of political direction, which Washington continues to lack.

Carney makes no mention of the political situation in Yemen, containing its revolution within a military context. Neither does CIA Director Leon Panetta, who testified on Thursday that AQAP represents an "immediate threat" to the U.S. homeland. He also admitted on Thursday, “We are continuing to work with those individuals in their government to try to go after AQAP. And we are continuing to receive cooperation from them.”

So much for the temporary halt to U.S. counter-terrorism support, which was no more than futile propaganda to whitewash America’s bias towards Saleh. Praising his regime won’t help either.

The U.S. narrative, far from political, remains overtly militaristic, fueling Yemenis’ rampant distrust of Washington. U.S. policy already stands neck deep in the mud after supporting Saleh and now a power transfer negotiated through the Gulf Cooperation Council, moves that bled the last of America’s credibility. While Clinton and other U.S. officials busy themselves speaking in the name of Yemen’s revolutionaries, the streets have largely rejected the GCC’s proposal as a foreign tool. Washington sees this initiative a “clear way forward” to circumvent the streets and ramp up counter-terrorism operations.

In supporting the GCC’s proxy proposal, largely authored by U.S. and Saudi diplomats, the Obama administration is obstructing a transition by clinging to an agreement no side accepts in full. The White House and Pentagon have “clearly worked very closely with our partners in the Gulf" - to suppress Yemen’s revolution.

Many Yemenis see the GCC as nothing more than a foreign plot, and possess little understanding of what it entails after repeated rewrites. Rather than illuminate these details, the White House is pressing forward in a vain effort to ignore them. Except it cannot run from the countless negative perceptions that have consumed the GCC’s proposal. Often considered the “U.S.-Saudi initiative” in Yemen’s streets, many revolutionaries view Saleh’s absence as political vagary at best, a foreign conspiracy at worst.

As for constitutional legitimacy, Clinton raises the argument in favor of Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi. Yemenis speak of constitutionalism as well, only out of fear that the GPC will usurp power, possibly through a military coup led by Saleh's son. U.S. diplomacy is speaking an alien language to Yemenis.

Despite assurances of an “immediate transition” through al-Hadi, day six of the “post-Saleh” regime is already passing through a foreign-induced power vacuum. Washington is lucky that Mohammad al-Mutawakkil, a leading JMP official, kept the GCC transfer open for an unspecified date. The JMP is keen to secure power through its own mechanism rather than risk losing influence in a popular transition council. However al-Mutawakkil warned that the JMP is out of time and credibility, and will back the revolutionaries’ transition's council if isolated from the streets.

Without accompanying political support for Yemen’s pro-democracy movement, U.S. missiles are interpreted not as an attack on AQAP but the revolution itself.

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