Throughout their revolution Yemenis have demanded greater attention from the international community and Western media. Seemingly left behind or forgotten in the wider revolutionary wave sweeping across the region, their country ranks at the bottom of Google traffic and American cable news exposure. This relative blackout was no fluke but a byproduct of Washington's unstable connection to Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's disposed president and fair-weather U.S. ally. By keeping its focus elsewhere - or on Yemen's counterterrorism - the Obama administration gave journalists little information to report and obscured the temporary collapse of U.S. policy from public view.
Yemen's brownout has since eased with the ascension of Saleh's 17-year vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, whom Western and Gulf powers are eager to promote as a reformer. With his UN-sponsored promotion came a U.S.-supported offensive in the southern governorates, designed to reverse the momentum that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) built during Saleh's crackdown on the revolution, and a corresponding whitewash of the Obama administration's prior support for a brutal strongman. As if trapped in shadow, Yemen has become jammed in a disorienting paradox where the country is increasingly but shallowly profiled in the Western media. The scope of U.S. operations is also being exposed piece by piece amid a cycle of drone strikes and disrupted terror plots, only for these missions to lead into the unknown.
"We have operations there," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta vaguely explained in May. "The Yemenese have actually been very cooperative in the operations that we have conducted there. We will continue to work with them to go after the enemies that threaten the United States."
Pancetta claims that America isn't engaged in combat in Yemen because U.S. forces aren't fighting on the ground or against the government. A model of Washington "new" style of warfare - Special Forces, drones and Naval firepower waging "non-wars" in hostile territory and without the approval of Congress - Yemen's network of U.S. military and intelligence assets is no secret to nationals or foreigners. However the operations themselves remain hazy and dangerously open-ended. Activities conducted by the rising Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the CIA's Special Activities unit can be deployed without Congressional approval, limited public opposition and on a cheaper scale, extending their field life and disregarding outside observations.
Rather than directly fight a war, current U.S. strategy is copying al-Qaeda's strategy by multiplying the strength of a local force. Problematically, American policy is both highly unpopular amongst the revolutionary parties and contributing to AQAP's appeal in southern Yemen. Aides of Hadi and even U.S. officials have admitted so by contorting Saleh's own argument: AQAP is expanding and must be stopped at all costs.
“While AQAP has grown in strength over the last year," argues Tommy Vietor, spokesman for Obama's National Security Council, "many of its supporters are tribal militants or part-time supporters who collaborate with AQAP for self-serving, personal interests rather than affinity with al-Qaeda’s global ideology. The portion of hard-core, committed AQAP members is relatively small.”
Never mind that Saleh's misrule, his crackdown on the revolution and U.S. military operations enabled AQAP to seize a large amount of territory, several cities and arms caches.
Yemen isn't rolling down Vietnam's slippery slope because U.S. operations don't need to reach such extremes, but many lesser dangers pose a relatively similar threat. The "lighter" style of warfare promoted by the Obama administration still leaves a heavy footprint on the ground and in the air, with U.S. officials and AQAP figures both vowing to escalate their campaigns and trap Yemenis in the middle. Government operations have displaced hundreds of thousands of people, exacerbating a preexisting humanitarian crisis, while U.S. and government airstrikes generate as much terror as AQAP's presence. Two weeks ago gunmen finally located a convoy of U.S. personnel in the western port of al-Hudayda, injuring one "counterterrorism expert" in the neck. Government officials said they were assisting the Yemeni coast guard, not the army's fight in the south, and further claim that “no Americans are fighting on the side of the Yemenis."
Instead some 60 Special Forces members are directing the south's offensive from al-Annad air base in nearby Lahj.
While the future of U.S. counterterrorism is masked behind the shadows of Special Forces, every attack is now part of the same vicious cycle of asymmetric warfare. A newly-arrived Spanish security official was kidnapped in Sana'a "by al-Qaida suspects" after the U.S. trainer had been shot. The next day, a suicide bomber bearing the uniform of Saleh's own Central Security Organization detonated himself during a parade near the presidential palace. AQAP is actively hunting for Western trainers and spooking Sana'a in response to escalating U.S. operations in the south, shifting back to its more familiar tactics of urban bombings and kidnappings. Although the battles for Zinjibar and Jaar are steadily progressing in the government's short-term favor, the war for Yemen's lasting stability will take an excessively high toll on the country.
The general consensus amongst Yemenis has warned the Obama administration to avoid turning their country into the next Afghanistan. Many also believe that America is getting away with murder; after supporting Saleh's corrupt regime, Western and Gulf powers froze the revolutionaries and other political blocs out of a UN-sponsored power-sharing agreement. A vast web of human rights abuses, some committed with the help of U.S. arms, was then swept under the rug with Saleh's immunity clause. The majority of Yemenis reject al-Qaeda's presence, and those who do join the south's militancy often do so out of resentment against their government and U.S. airstrikes.
Yemenis naturally want to fight AQAP on their terms because only Yemenis have been killed in America's intensifying war. They oppose the use of drones in favor of tribal partnerships with the government, viewing this established mechanism as a sustainable alternative to U.S. counterterrorism. Tribal expert and activist Nadwa Dawsari-Johnson counts herself among the many Yemenis who believe that Hadi can put enough political distance between Saleh's regime to free up 2014’s presidential election (when the UN's transitional period expires). She's also a friend of Nobel Laureate Tawakel Karman, who just remarked from Doha that she "can't believe that (the U.S.) didn't know of Saleh's connection with al Qaeda. Now with Hadi, we are confident he will stop al Qaeda."
At the same time, the Obama administration must be extremely careful not to cast Hadi as an American puppet and alienate the people needed to uproot AQAP. Instead of shadowing the skies with drones, Johnson recommends fostering the economic and social stability that would allow Yemen's well-armed and disciplined tribal network to eliminate al-Qaeda's influence: "The failure of Western policymakers to recognize this and to work with tribes has limited Western efforts to resist al-Qaeda." AQAP only fears a tribal backlash, according to one member who spoke with Frontline's Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, and Washington cannot repeat its errors in the Pakistani tribal areas.
The Obama administration does have a counterterrorism strategy in Yemen - it is simply unsustainable, immoral and poorly communicated to the Yemeni and American people. White House press releases assure incredulous revolutionaries that "there should be no question in anyone’s mind that the United States is committed to standing side-by-side with the Yemeni people." Other statements are growing even bolder now that Hadi has been installed with minimal opposition: "The United States has enjoyed a long and fruitful history of cooperation with Yemen’s security and military institution." These statements openly imply a friendly and productive relationship with Saleh's incompetent regime. Meanwhile the State Department's annual human rights report called out the abuses of his personal security units without mentioning their U.S. funding.
Perhaps Obama's officials are eager to promote him as the brain of Yemeni policy because America is sinking into a conflict with no established time-line or understanding of the environment. “We are not going to war with Yemen," he supposedly told Pentagon and CIA officials in January 2010, but a long war had already begun.