On August 8, the US Administration’s chief counter terrorism advisor John Brennan discussed U.S. policy toward Yemen in a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC. Brennan focused particularly on the security situation, the political transition, and the economic recovery program in the country. Though an expert on terrorism, he spoke mainly about the non-military U.S. aid provided to Yemen and downplayed the effects of the American drone program in the country.
A number of Brennan’s statements caused much fury among Yemeni activists and observers. Will Picard, director of the Yemen Peace Project, critically assessed Brennan’s statements:
I almost choked when Brennan said the following (quoted also by Gregory Johnsen):
“Contrary to the conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits of AQAP.”
Well, Mr. Brennan, there’s a reason why that wisdom is conventional. I have no idea–literally none–how Brennan arrived at his conclusion. There has, to my knowledge, been no polling done on the subject recently. Mr. Brennan doesn’t talk to ordinary Yemenis when he goes over there, and neither do the embassy staff. But I do, and I can tell you that Yemeni public opinion about America and American policies has never been lower than is is right now. Go ask a Yemeni if you don’t believe me. Yemenis I’ve talked to recently about this topic include intellectuals, activists, western-educated scholars, shop-keepers, bus drivers, students, and unemployed college graduates. They all believe that US CT efforts are killing innocent civilians on a regular basis, that the US has never stopped supporting ‘Ali Saleh, and that John Brennan and Ambassador Feierstein are essentially operating as imperial viceroys of the country.
In his talk, Brennan attempted to present U.S. policy toward Yemen in a new light. To counter assumptions that American aid in Yemen is overly militarized, Brennan began listing a number of the United States’ political, humanitarian, and development initiatives in the country.
Spencer Ackerman, writer for Wired Magazine’s National Security blog Danger Room, believes that with this approach the United States is increasingly being pulled into a civil war. Comparing American policy toward Yemen with policies toward Iraq and Afghanistan, Ackerman concludes in his blog post that although the United States is not – at least officially – at war in Yemen, the approaches it has taken inside the country are very similar to the other two campaigns.
Does this sound familiar? The U.S. fears al-Qaida filling the security vacuum in a distant, unfamiliar country with a weak government. While the U.S. carries out lethal strikes there to pursue the terrorists, senior officials intone that the greater part of their aid isn’t military, it’s economic development, better health care, improved schools and opportunities for the locals to flourish and the government to improve. Corruption, however, remains a big problem — and in case you were wondering, no, none of this expansive aid package means the U.S. is embroiling itself in a foreign civil war.
That’s how John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, describes what the U.S. is doing in Yemen. If you put the U.S. approaches to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan into a blender, the frothing mixture that emerged would be Yemen policy. Brennan didn’t come close to conceding that the U.S. is at war in Yemen during a Wednesday talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Rather, Brennan took pains to describe President Obama’s approach to Yemen as a giant development effort — although it’s the type of economic improvement initiative that involves robots of death circling overhead. […]
But that left Brennan open to a different charge: that by focusing on things like access to water and women’s empowerment, the U.S. was slowly getting itself embroiled deeper into a civil war in a nation it doesn’t understand and most Americans can’t find on a map. After all, Brennan conceded, most of AQAP is Yemeni, unlike al-Qaida branches in other countries; and a sizable amount of its efforts are devoted not to attacking the U.S. but overthrowing the government in Sana’a. […]
It’s possible that the Yemeni government — which, as Brennan said, has had some success reclaiming territory in the south from AQAP — will get sufficiently capable under U.S. military tutelage. But it’s also possible that Yemen’s counterinsurgency efforts will proceed unevenly, creating pressure for the U.S. to draw itself in deeper, having made expansive promises about mitigating seemingly intractable problems about water, healthcare and economic development. That’s exactly what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where wars undertaken for discrete objectives bloated into lengthy, expensive nation-building efforts. And at least in those interventions, the U.S. admitted it was at war.
By contrast, John Bennet, national security and foreign policy expert for U.S. News & World Report, recognizes the similarities between U.S. Yemen Policy and the Administration’s approaches in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but warns against assuming that Yemen is like Iraq or Afghanistan:
But make no mistake, Yemen is not Afghanistan, nor Iraq. At least not yet. Here are three reasons why:
Small Footprint. The U.S. footprint in Iraq at its peak was around 170,000 troops, and 101,000 in Afghanistan. Throw in tens of thousands of private contractors and the total American footprint rivaled the population of a medium-sized U.S. city.
U.S. officials have acknowledged at least one small team of 20 U.S. commandos is in Yemen working with indigenous forces and officials with training, intelligence, and surveillance. Speculation within national security circles is rampant that more American special operations forces and intelligence personnel likely are there, as well–but nothing rivaling the massive Iraq and Afghanistan deployments.
The U.S. has relied largely on “targeted strikes” to take out AQAP leaders and operatives in Yemen using missiles fired from drone aircraft. Brennan was opaque about those strikes on Wednesday, acknowledging “targeted strikes” are part of the U.S. approach to Yemen, but later saying with a chuckle that some unnamed nation is responsible for drone attacks there.
Civil War. Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan before 9/11 not to rule that nation but to plot and prepare for terrorist attacks on the United States and its allies. And the terrorist organization established a presence in Iraq only after U.S. troops ousted Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.
Al Qaeda’s main cell in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region features few Afghans and Pakistanis, Brennan said. But AQAP is made up mostly of Yemenis. While they have tried to attack the United States, the al Qaeda affiliate’s main goal, Brennan said, “is to overthrown the government in Sanaa,” Yemen’s capital.
AQAP has been clashing with Yemeni security forces for years, claiming ample territory in southern Yemen earlier this year in a series of high-profile attacks. Al Qaeda forces even “fly their flag” to show they, not the central government, control specific parts of the Middle East nation, Brennan said. “That Yemen did not devolve into an all-out civil war is a testament to the courage, determination, and resilience of the Yemeni people,” he said.
Saudi Arabia. Foreign policy experts have said the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were plagued by myriad problems due in large part to efforts by those nations’ neighbors to thwart America’s goals. Syria and Iran meddled in Iraq for years, allowing al Qaeda fighters to cross their borders into Iraq and interfering in Iraqi politics. Pakistan and Iran have frustrated U.S. officials with similar actions in Afghanistan.
But in Washington’s Yemen toolbox lies an important, influential and wealthy ally: Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda was formed in part because of Osama bin Laden’s gripes about how the Saudi royal family ruled his native country. AQAP gains in Yemen, Saudi officials worry, could stoke political unrest at home.
And the Saudis are writing big checks to keep that from happening.