by Eric Martin
On Friday, President Obama authorized the use of military strikes in Yemen targeting al-Qaeda operatives active in that nation. My reactions on this action are mixed (more below). Gregory Johnsen at Waq al-Waq provides a nice summation, and the blog he co-authors is an invaluable resource on all things Yemen (at least for English speaking novices).
First to no one's surprise, news that the US was involved - and possibly even carried out the attack - is not playing well in the Yemeni press. And as this news seeps further down into the consciousness of the country it is only going to get worse.
I understand the celebrations that are going on in certain parts of the intelligence and military community because of some of the individuals killed in the raid, but I would point out that the primary target of the raid, Qasim al-Raymi, escaped. (This is not the "deputy commander," but rather the "Military" or "Field" commander, at least if one wants to adhere to AQAP's own ranking system.)
It is debatable whether the civilian casualties could have been justified if the US and Yemeni governments had killed al-Raymi - I would still argue they wouldn't and that it is a self-defeating strategy that expands rather than limits the al-Qaeda threat in Yemen, but I do concede there is a debate here - but I don't think the casualties can be justified if al-Raymi escaped.
If you launch something like this, you had better kill al-Raymi. If you don't, no matter who else you kill, the operation is a failure. And particularly so when many of the dead are women and children.
There is already a slew of pictures of dead children, mangled infants and corpses on jihadi forums. This is not something the Obama Administration wants to see underlined with a "Made in the USA" caption.
As I have said at two different events in Washington during the past two weeks there is "no magic missile answer" to the current al-Qaeda problem in Yemen. Al-Qaeda is too entrenched and too strong to be decapitated like it was back in November 2002.
The raid this week may very well end up being a tactical success (although I still have my doubts about that) and a strategic failure. I have fewer doubts that al-Qaeda will be able to turn this operation to its rhetorical advantage, greatly offsetting the losses it may have suffered, particularly when al-Raymi escaped.
If this was the opening salvo to the US' war against al-Qaeda then it is not a good start. (Already the US is coming much too late to the party, the problem should have been dealt with back in 2006 and 2007 not to mention 2004 and 2005, before lapsed vigilance by the US and Yemeni governments allowed al-Qaeda to rebuild itself up from the ashes of a previous defeat. I should also mention that this analysis is, unsurprisingly, not shared by US officials who were intimately involved in US policy towards Yemen from 2004-06, as one told me at a recent event, which I am constrained from talking about further. But I still hold, again not surprisingly, that my analysis is solid.)
The US has been losing the war against al-Qaeda in Yemen fairly steadily since 2006 - not that it really noticed until 2009 - but if I were running the war I would have done a lot more prep work and development work to make sure that I had successfully undermined al-Qaeda before carrying out an operation like this. Otherwise, it is much too easy for al-Qaeda to replace recruits and expand its network to easily offset the losses it suffered this week.
If the US casts the net too wide and gives too broad a definition to who is al-Qaeda in Yemen it will end up fighting many more individuals then it can ever successfully defeat.
That last paragraph contains an important admonition. Yemen is currently involved in an overlapping insurgency/civil war with religious, political and economic dimensions. al-Qaeda is seeking to expand/consolidate its position in that nation by appealing to certain factions (sound familiar?). Because of the civil war dynamic, and the potential propaganda boon to al-Qaeda/Yemeni public backlash, the US government should take great care to isolate and target al-Qaeda to the extent necessary, while minimizing civilian casualties and casualties taken by participants in Yemen's domestic wars that are not inextricably linked to al-Qaeda.
Airstrikes can be a valuable counterterrorism tool under certain strict criteria. As Johnsen mentioned, they were used to great success earlier in the decade. However, as Johnsen notes, the high quality intelligence, careful discernment and other prep work this go around seem to be lacking. Those lapses should be corrected yesterday. Unless care is taken to put the surgical in what should be surgical strikes, we could end up stoking the flames we are seeking to dampen. And the last thing the United States needs is to get involved as an active participant in yet another Muslim country's civil war.