Fourth generation warfare (4GW) is a struggle of ideas. Those actors who most clearly organize and disseminate their ideas possess a qualitative advantage over their opponents, allowing weaker opponents to fight on equal terms. Superior militaries have been defeated because they weren’t able to control their message; an asymmetric force’s message of resistance often feeds on the unshakable label of imperialism.
Richard Nixon withdrew in embarrassment from Vietnam because Washington failed to dominate the war’s narrative. George H. W. Bush experienced success in Iraq due to a unified international voice and, to his credit, attempted to speak to Somalis during Operation Restore Hope. His successor then crossed America’s message in the months prior to the Battle of Mogadishu. Both battles were highly publicized on CNN, with opposing results. Iraq’s second invasion narrowly avoided rock bottom only when the Pentagon started to communicate with Iraq’s many audiences, and mixed signals to Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis contribute to mission drift in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration's reaction to the Arab revolutions depends on the effectiveness of its communications. While NATO’s handling of Libya’s revolution drew sharp criticism from their own governments and peoples, and justifiably so, a relatively unified voice towards the revolutionaries (both military and non-military support) and Muammar Gaddafi assisted in maintaining a cohesive opposition after The Colonel’s flight. Conversely, U.S. policy in Yemen is spiraling downward because the administration lost control of America’s message.
No amount of rhetorical support for Yemen’s revolutionaries can change their impression that President Barack Obama’s administration is protecting Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime.
The latest shooting in Sana’a served as the U.S. media’s under-card to the death of Anwar al-Awlaki’s son, Abderrahman. Observing thousands of protesters gear up with gasmasks and no oppositional protection, dozens of media personnel followed their march into the city center only to be drowned out by “bigger” news: several “top” leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had been eliminated in a series of drone strikes. Ibrahim Mohammad Al Banna, “media chief” of AQAP, and Sarhan al-Qussa'a, cousin of AQAP military chief Fahd al-Qussa'a, were among the dead.
Another “media chief” of AQAP, gone; Al-Awlaki was only a contributor to Inspire magazine. A Yemeni official similarly labeled al Banna as one of AQAP’s “most dangerous operatives.” He will be replaced.
Saturday’s coincidental events weren’t coordinated in a vacuum, but U.S. strikes seem to happen around the weekend, when protesters and Saleh’s activities often peak. Indirectly, the West is accused of sanctioning Saleh’s violence through the GCC initiative and the UNSC's looming resolution, both of which grant Saleh’s family immunity for their human rights abuses. One might think that the UN’s potential amnesty of murder warrants more coverage than the death of a propagandist - especially since protesters accuse the international community of encouraging violence - but Western governments and media have other priorities.
Saturday’s result is 9-24 dead militants and over a dozen dead protesters, with 300 wounded, according to Mohammed al-Qubati, director of the field hospital at Change Square.
Washington is speaking to five distinct audiences in Yemen: Saleh’s regime, the political opposition, Yemen's civil movement, Riyadh and the American people. Of these five channels only two are open, to the Saudis and Americans. Despite non-stop negotiations and meetings with Saleh’s officials, the besieged strongman is largely deaf to the Obama administration. He listens only on occasion - sharing the language of AQAP - and responds by alternating threats and false promises. Saleh directly accused Obama of plotting Yemen’s revolution in March, before the GCC initiative was introduced, and now condemns the proposal as a foreign coup. Yemen’s political opposition was easily led on by Saleh and Washington, leaving the popular revolutionaries to fend for themselves in darkness.
The overwhelming belief amongst Yemen’s revolutionaries is that Washington places al-Qaeda above human rights - that Washington is so bent on counterterrorism (CT) that it's causing terror. Meanwhile relations with Riyadh are running smoothly, corrupting Yemen’s political transition through the GCC and maneuvering around Saleh’s regime. The CIA’s new drone base reportedly lies somewhere along the Yemeni-Saudi border, a “gift” from the King. One defense official told the Associated Press, "The Saudis are making their information available to the Americans. Both them and the Americans are broadening their cooperation without direct Yemeni involvement."
Generally satisfied that AQAP is “on the run” from the Predators, Americans as a whole remain indifferent to alienating Yemen’s people. Destroying AQAP could take years of up-tempo operations, far too long to let Saleh remain in power, but this is little concern to a country suffering its own crisis. Drones are preferred over ground armies, even if “on shore” and “off shore” operations provoke in relatively equal measure. U.S. media is quick to remind Americans that AQAP has, “taken over several cities in the south, raising fears that they could establish a permanent stronghold,” without mentioning that Saleh encouraged Abyan’s takeover.
The narrative has morphed into “yielding results,” as “human assets on the ground directly provide actionable intelligence to U.S. commanders rather than relying entirely on Yemen's security agencies...”
A lack of international (particularly U.S.) communication inside Yemen has served Saleh’s purposes throughout a 10-month revolution. With the Obama administration making no sincere effort to contact Yemen’s civil movement, the U.S. narrative has remained centered around AQAP rather than military support for Saleh’s regime. This storyline is now bypassed through claims of unilateralism, but the reality is that any U.S. involvement in the country keeps Saleh alive. Washington’s need for a puppet against AQAP, whether Saleh or his vice president, outweighs Yemen’s democratic uprising.
Regime officials, as they usually do, also took credit for the strikes, then blamed the JMP for collaborating with al-Qaeda’s bombing of an oil pipeline. The perpetrators were reported as al-Awlaki’s tribesmen or AQAP, depending on the source, but Saleh welcomes either option as an excuse to slander the JMP. The only time he isn’t accusing Yemen’s opposition of “sabotage” is when he promises to sign the GCC initiative. The JMP, not Saleh, is delaying its implementation in his oddly-colored world.
Killing Abderrahman could work in Saleh’s favor like every other aspect of U.S. policy; he’ll take any excuse for retaliation. Anonymous tribal elders are responsible for much of the info coming out of Shabwa, and local accounts describe an angry scene after four other member were caught in the strikes. Several papers surfaced in the aftermath of al-Awlaki’s death, arguing that AQAP is barely plugged into Yemen’s tribes, but that is no excuse to agitate them.
U.S. policy is running on the fumes of technological superiority. Although killing AQAP’s leadership and rows of fighters is an achievable goal in the long-term, relations with Yemen's people are being sacrificed in the process. The Obama administration's strategy takes Saleh’s existence for granted; the Pentagon and CIA have a vested interest in keeping his regime alive for as long as possible. U.S. officials such as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta insist that any future government will also cooperate against AQAP, a statement that rubs off as American imperialism.
Maybe Washington only seeks to win battles, because Yemen’s political and diplomatic war is being lost with each blood-stained day.