February 15, 2012

Washington's War in Yemen Backfires

An excellent overview of the failures of U.S. policy in Yemen, by The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, but this report needed to be published last August/September. Scahill's investigation corresponds with The Trench's coverage of Zinjibar:
The Obama administration was very slow to agitate for Saleh’s departure from power, in large part because of counterterrorism concerns. On January 28, Saleh arrived in New York, ostensibly for medical treatment, eliciting charges from his opponents that the United States was protecting him from the wrath of his people. For years, Saleh allowed the United States to regularly strike against AQAP in Yemen, and US Special Operations forces built up the specialized units, run by Saleh’s family members, that were widely seen as US surrogates. Saleh’s government actively conspired with US officials to cover up the US role in Yemen, at times publicly taking credit for US bombings. Even as demonstrations grew against the Saleh regime, US officials praised his government’s cooperation. “I can say today the counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure,” Brennan declared in September.

But US counterterrorism policy is extremely unpopular in Yemen. Whether a new government would continue the same type of counterterrorism relationship Saleh had with Washington is very much in question. In a series of interviews, Mohammed Qahtan and other leaders of the main opposition group, the Islah Party, sharply criticized US airstrikes in Yemen and the targeted killing of terrorism suspects, saying that they should have been put on trial in Yemen. Qahtan, the leader of Islah’s Muslim Brotherhood faction, charged that under Saleh, “The Yemeni government behaved in the war on terror as a contractor for the US,” adding that if Islah and its allies take control of the country, “we will not be contractors for the US, implementing what they want according to the money we receive. Our slogan is, ‘We are partners, not contractors.’”

The past several months have opened a window onto the emerging US counterterrorism approach post-Saleh. When the political crisis began to deepen in Yemen late last year, the Obama administration decided to pull out most of the US military personnel in Yemen, including those training Yemen’s counterterrorism forces. “They have left because of the security situation,” Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Saleh’s foreign minister, told me at his office in Sanaa. “Certainly, I think if they do not return and the counterterrorism units are not provided with the necessary ammunition and equipment, it will have an impact” on counterterrorism operations. Now the United States is doubling down on its use of air power and drones, which are swiftly becoming the primary focus of Washington’s counterterrorism operations.

By last summer, the Obama administration had begun construction on a secret air base on the Arabian peninsula, closer than its base in Djibouti, that could serve as a launching pad for expanded drone strikes in Yemen. The September drone strike that killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly launched from that new base, which analysts suspect is either in Saudi Arabia or Oman, both of which border Yemen. While the United States is largely absent on the ground now in Yemen, it continues coordination with Yemeni intelligence on counterterrorism operations. In late January the United States carried out a series of airstrikes in Abyan, and, according to Sumali, US forces conducted at least two other strikes around Zinjibar that “targeted Al Qaeda leaders who are on the US terrorist black list,” though he adds, “I did not coordinate directly in these attacks.” According to Sumali, US helicopters have—on several occasions—flown in supplies for the 25th Mechanized. The Americans have also provided real-time intelligence, obtained by drones, to Yemeni forces in Abyan. “It has been an active partnership. The Americans help primarily with logistics and intelligence,” Sumali says. “Then we pound the positions with artillery or airstrikes.”

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