November 16, 2010

Gates Fits Silencer on Yemen's War

Maybe he thought he could squeeze by through a technicality.

Today at a press conference organized by The Wall Street Journal, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates employed his usual doublespeak to circumvent the pressures surrounding Yemen. Gates has reportedly set a “red line” for President Barack Obama in regards to Iran, then publicly rebuked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the same threat. He’s praised the withdrawal from Iraq while hinting at an extension to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and blueprinting US bases. Reaffirmed July 2011 in Afghanistan while downplaying its significance.

And in Yemen, where US operations continue to escalate, Gates claims, “We don’t need another war.”

Instead, he believes America’s best bet to neutralize al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is cooperation with, and the arming of, Yemeni forces. This may be true, but it doesn’t negate the reality that America has launched a war in Yemen. A small war still counts as war.

And this one is growing.

Gates hadn’t spoken randomly at The WSJ’s press briefing - he came specifically to challenge its latest report documenting the newest phase in US operations. According to one senior official in the Obama administration, limited U.S. intelligence experience in Yemen has created "a window of vulnerability" that Washington is "working fast to address.” With current measures such as training Yemeni counter-terrorist units and providing them with technology (and drones) still insufficient, the next logical step is underway: forward operating bases (FOB).

The possibility of US forces entering Yemeni combat zones remains a key fear of the Yemeni people and President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose low popularity becomes all the more combustible when mixed with anti-American sentiment. Gates tried to impress upon his audience, “Our biggest tools particularly with respect to Yemen are the partnership capacity of the Yemenis themselves and enabling them to go after these guys.”

But who sharpens these tools? US Special Forces and CIA, of course.

The WSJ reports, “In the rush to build up capabilities, the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies are moving in equipment and personnel from other areas, and over the past year have expanded the size of teams in the U.S. analyzing intelligence on AQAP. The emphasis now is on expanding the number of intelligence operatives and analysts in the field.”

Although the plan remains in its formative stage and continues to be shopped around Washington for approval, US operations are already moving in this direction. Supporters of establishing FOBs claim they would expand the Yemeni government’s control into contested tribal territory while Special-Ops and CIA “advisers” could “get out of the capital region and into the field.”

The general idea is for specialized Yemeni commando units to work closer with US “hunter-killer” teams, a prospect still resisted by the Yemeni government. But considering America’s rapid expansion and the possibility of future AQAP attacks, which Washington uses to further leverage Saleh, it may be only a matter of time before these FOBs are operating under CIA/Special-Forces guidance. From there they can quietly transition to direct participation.

Ultimately these bases are designed to gather intelligence to call in Yemeni and US air-strikes, further solidifying America’s military role in the country. No, this isn't another war.

Despite the interchange between a “small war” and counterinsurgency, US policy fails to embody a true COIN operation. America has many ways of killing al-Qaeda fighters (when they find them), but few means of preventing future recruits. With pure counter-terrorism representing the bulk of operations, al-Qaeda is likely to increase its numbers and support in the absence of non-military operations. Unfortunately no long-term strategy is being set to combat AQAP’s ideology when this should be the first area established.

Perhaps Obama and the State Department intend to fill the political/economic/social void once US military operations are up to speed, yet this wouldn't excuse the lack of publicity given to non-military operations. The likelier scenario is that no holistic framework exists.

Day after day Yemenis read of US threats, never their own lives improving. They hear US officials praise Saleh and wonder why. For instance, elite counter-terrorism units trained by US Special Forces are mostly commanded by his sons and nephews, increasing the specter of autocracy. Sources in Yemen, according to The WSJ, also claim that Washington has lost track of how many units are actually fighting AQAP because Saleh hasn't confirmed where they’re deployed.

Concerns are mounting that personnel has been deployed to counter Houthi rebels in the north and secessionists in the south, a claim the secessionists in particular would verify. Washington has given no attention, relatively speaking, to Saleh’s weak political support and Yemen’s economic crisis, only revealing concerns in private where they do little to soothe the average Yemeni or educate Americans.

The most they get is Gates’s acknowledgment that Saleh faces "a tribal management challenge he has to deal with.” As if America doesn't.

America has yet to formulate a message that would compel Yemenis to oppose AQAP. Some believe, including various government officials, that Washington has cooked up the group to justify military expansion, or at the minimum exaggerates its threat. Others simply fear becoming the next Afghanistan. For now America only offers weapons and the inevitable discord they spawn. Yemen has enough of that.

Most reports of Yemen include a buried line mentioning something about the “debate within the Obama administration and Pentagon about how best to ramp up the fight against AQAP.” These lines appear cheap throwaways designed to give the impression of caution. Reality does the talking.

"The truth,” Gates claims, “is what we have seen is as we've brought pressure on al Qaeda in (Pakistan's) North Waziristan, the terrorist movement has metastasized in many ways. So now we see them in Somalia, Yemen and North Africa, in the Maghreb."

The truth is that al-Qaeda spread to Somalia, Yemen, and North Africa before 2007, when America’s drone campaign began in earnest, and has since amplified its regional operations to undermine the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Several commanders in Somalia were killed in 2008 and 2009, before Waziristan was flushed out, only to be replaced. al-Qaeda is “running” to failed states in order to fulfill its grand strategy of provoking US intervention within the Muslim world. And Washington, preoccupied with immediate attacks and long-term imperialism, is falling into al-Qaeda’s trap.

Either Obama is driving the American war machine or he can’t stop it.

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