Hopefully U.S. officials will demonstrate a greater understanding of low-intensity conflict 100 years from now.
With the tide of war seemingly turning for the better in Somalia and Yemen, two long-standing sources of concern for Washington, the National Defense Industrial Association’s 24th Annual Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict Symposium provided a fitting venue to tout the effectiveness of U.S. counter-terrorism. Anchoring the event were two heavyweights of America's Special Forces - Navy Adm. William H. McRaven of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and Michael A. Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict - who reviewed the “innovative, low-cost approaches” being rolled out by the Obama administration.
This hybrid strategy of "small American footprints” and "building partner capacity" is widely praised by U.S. General Carter Ham, commander of AFRICOM, as the future of America's global counter-terrorism operations, and is currently being unveiled around Mali.
One assumes that the Pentagon expects eventual success against the militant alliance dug into northern Mali, given that Sheehan sees "good results" in Somalia and Yemen. Recent developments in Mogadishu are admittedly significant and, if nurtured, could present a genuine opportunity to decelerate the country's vicious mixture of clan warfare, insurgency, terrorism and foreign intervention. As for the evolution of U.S. policy, the aftermath of Black Hawk Down would necessitate adaption and serve as the mother of invention. Proxies needed to be applied instead of U.S. ground troops, inside and outside Somalia, and within the multilateral framework demanded by multinational insurgencies.
Once Ethiopia's U.S.-supported invasion failed to pacify the country on their terms, the African Union finally took over and scaled up its mission with Western financing.
Three years of hard fighting, punctuated by U.S. drone strikes and Special Forces raids, have now driven al-Shabaab out of its urban bases and into a weakened state. Despite numerous outstanding political issues, such as clan representation and the territorial status of southernly Jubaland, a new government is in the process of jumping from transitional to legitimate. Of course America's (and the European Union's) "small footprint" has been stamped on Somalia for years: Special Forces on the ground, CIA manning Mogadishu's "secret" interrogation center, PMCs training Somali soldiers, flotillas along the coast and drone bases at its corners.
This network also comes with the "small" price of Ethiopia and Uganda's heavy assistance, reinforcing the non-democratic elements of partner building. However these issues have escaped the American majority and pose no real threat to Somalia's portfolio, hence the general success.
Equally unconcerning to the majority of Americans (but no less frightening) is an opposing scenario across the Gulf of Aden. Here Shehaan appears to be even more bullish about the prospects of U.S. special operations, using phrases that few Yemenis outside the government would apply to their country's situation. For years they have watched U.S. policy in Yemen revolve single-mindedly around the presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and seen the group's influence expand over the same period of time. Yet the Assistant Secretary of Defense claims that, after several years of interrupted operations, U.S. Special Forces and intelligence personnel have finally helped Yemen's government “turned the corner" against AQAP.
“A year ago in Yemen," Sheehan told his receptive audience, "al-Qaida had taken over vast swaths of territory... and was really threatening the state in Yemen, and also threatening to re-establish some capabilities that were very problematic. Over the past year, we’ve made great progress in Yemen.”
Denying the progress of intergovernmental relations between Washington and Sana'a is impossible. Until this past year, U.S. policy remained hitched to the corrupt and duplicitous behavior of strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who traded drone strikes for U.S. favoritism and shared intelligence only when his interests needed protecting (or his enemies needed bombing). He was even known to utilize local jihadists for his own ends, paying them or arresting (and later releasing) them in order to create artificial instability and secure U.S. funds/weapons. The Obama administration managed to replace Saleh with his vice president, Abd Mansur Rabbo Hadi, in response to a nation-wide revolution, and U.S. operations have smoothed since he assumed command in February 2012.
The time between December 2009 and 2012 verged on calamity though, and Washington's “partner building” would have failed spectacularly if continued under Saleh's regime. The Obama administration, in the end, lucked out during Yemen's revolution, but a sustainable partnership with its people remains absent.
What McRaven and Sheehan didn't explain to their audiences is how U.S. policy contributed to AQAP's influence in the jihadist world and its local support with Yemen's tribes, brought on by unaccountable military operations in their lands. The Obama administration would ramp up vertically in response to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed bombing on Christmas 2009 and never look back. From the civilians killed by initial cruise missiles and drone strikes to Ma'rib's deputy governor Jabar al shabwani, to Anwar al-Awlaki's 16-year old son and younger civilians, the administration has struck with impunity during its hunt for AQAP leadership. All of these strikes were enabled by a secret agreement between Saleh and former CIA Director David Petraeus, then commander of CENTCOM, who passed along the arrangement to his nominated replacement, John Brennan.
Amid Yemen's revolution, construction of a drone base along the Saudi border was also reportedly accelerated from two years to eight months.
McRaven says that all U.S. Special Forces are invited by foreign governments and don't operate without their permission - except this process can error militarily and trample over democracy along the way. The outbreak of Yemen's revolution would compel Saleh to distort the situation with AQAP, creating a false analogy that now serves as the driving rationale of U.S. policy. Beyond leveraging access to Yemen's air-space in return for political protection, Saleh relocated some of his U.S.-trained "counter-terrorism" forces to kill protesters and ordered others to stand down, which enabled AQAP's takeover of "vast swaths of territory" in Yemen's south.
Now the two governments must take back the same territory that they just lost due to incompetence, short-sightedness and greed.
While greater cooperation with Yemen's government has been attained in the aftermath of Saleh's resignation, U.S. policy has also reached the depths of unpopularity with Yemeni civilians, activists and tribes. How much these factors offset military achievements is difficult to gauge, but the chain reaction is visibly evident. Yemenis universally cringed as President Barack Obama promoted a public enemy to bomb their country. They reject foreign interference from Washington and nearby Riyadh, as does, coincidentally, AQAP. It's true that America is leaving smaller footprints in Muslim countries, only these boots are still relatively large and obtrusive, and they cannot defeat al-Qaeda's ideology without the help of Yemen's people. The Pentagon's argument is thus circular: U.S. counterterrorism is both poison and cure, but ultimately perpetual rather than remedial.
A recipe for low-intensity conflict in Yemen.