June 18, 2012

AQAP Counterstrikes U.S.-Yemeni Offensive In South Yemen

Last week, after months of hard fighting against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni and U.S. governments jointly announced the recapture of Zinjibar and Jaʿār. 

This information was confirmed by AQAP itself, which left messages to apologize for any transgressions and promise a return. Specifically, local journalist Nasser Arraybee quoted another journalist (Abdul Razaq Al Jamal) who claims that AQAP's commander in Abyan governorate is reverting his base into the mountainous terrain. As PBS recently reported from inside Abyan, AQAP established relative security in the urban territory that it has seized since Yemen's revolution began in January 2011. Abu Hamzah Jalal Beledi goes so far as to break down his budget - an alleged $2 million - and the financial burden of maintaining public services in Zinjibar and Jaʿār. AQAP's local commander then vowed to concentrate their funds on stopping the Yemeni government's advances and targeting "the Americans." 

Some of AQAP's posturing is easy to see through as the group retreats from its possessions. Yemeni and U.S. forces have landed numerous blows over the past months and an aura of strength must be projected as the group switches up its tactics. However the conflict's factors do not match the exuberance (however cautious) of Yemeni and U.S. officials who are eager to promote new military gains. For starters, AQAP assumed a large amount of risk by holding entire towns under its control; unless an insurgency has reached a widespread presence, undermining the government's authority is often easier than governing. Although AQAP's ambushes have inflicted a significant amount of damage on Yemeni forces, the group is also foolish to openly challenge a conventional army. The guerrilla warfare that Jalal Beledi promised offers a more logical course of action. 

Arrabyee cites the warning of an anonymous cleric: "If the Yemeni government and America think they defeated Al Qaeda today, then they are wrong. They will only turn to  guerrilla wars, at which they are very good, and this will cost Yemen a lot of time and money and everything." 

The Trench predicted that AQAP would fall back from its urban positions and switch to its established tactics in order to counter its territorial and perceptual losses. Such writings had been scribbled across every wall in Abyan. During an early March warning, Jalal Beledi ordered the government to stand down or suffer attacks outside of the battle zone. Rumors of AQAP-rigged car bombs and suicide bombers floated around Sana'a for months before someone detonated himself in the middle of a military parade, killing at least 96 soldiers. Now, mere days after overseeing Zinjibar's "fall," AQAP has claimed the assassination of Major General Salim Ali Qatn and injected new uncertainty into the southern campaign. General Qatn was one of the first military appointments made by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who succeeded Ali Abdullah Saleh through a UN-approved referendum.

His loss represents a huge psychological blow, stakes out a propaganda goldmine for AQAP and verifies that the battle for Abyan's lasting stability has only begun. 

This entire episode (spanning a year from May 2011) marks a loss for U.S. policy, as the contested cities and governorates will remain low-intensity battlegrounds for years to come. Furthermore, the reasons for Zinjibar and Jaar's temporary fall are directly related to Saleh's misrule and his U.S. support. The Obama administration is praising Hadi - and U.S. operations - for correcting past errors and no involved actors are willing to expose this coverup. Media reports still allege that AQAP "took advantage of a security vacuum last year during a popular uprising against Yemen's longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to seize large swaths of territory in the strategic south." They generally neglect to report that Saleh withdrew his personal, U.S.-funded units from the area and repositioned them against Yemen's revolutionaries. They ignore the fact that Saleh intentionally destabilized the south and marginalized tribal leadership as a means of exploiting Washington's support, a tactic that worked until the Obama administration used the cover of revolution to exchange him for Hadi. 

Saleh and his family continue to undermine Hadi's authority in Sana'a, immunity clause in hand. Western capitals infrequently threaten to levy sanctions against them but, seeking control over justice, have yet to follow through. 

Conveniently forgetful of Washington's support past for Saleh, the Obama administration is riding high on the docile Hadi and his counterterrorism drive. This narrative is also establishing the conditions of future failure. By minimizing or ignoring the hostility accumulating against U.S. policy, the administration is creeping deeper into a conflict with no end in sight. Qatn's assassination was immediately repackaged into propaganda: "The United States will continue to support President Hadi and those who carry on the efforts of Major General al-Qatan as they work to realize a brighter and more prosperous future for the Yemeni people." 

This type of overreaction feeds straight into AQAP's asymmetric traps. A large quantity of time and resources is necessary to generate permanent stability in Abyan and other governorates, and unpopular drones strikes will fill the security vacuum until then. The hegemony over Hadi poses its own dilemma going forward, and anti-American sentiments are unlikely to heal as a result. 

Sadly, the future of Yemen appears bleak when viewed under the current shadow of U.S. policy.

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