Followers of the Shi'ite Houthi group wave their weapons as they gather near the group's camp in Sana'a, September 10, 2014

September 11, 2014

Don't Replicate the Failure of Yemen

Originally published in The Weekly Standard
Followers of the Shi'ite Houthi group wave their weapons as they gather near the group's camp in Sana'a, September 10, 2014. Yemeni soldiers traded gunfire with Shi'ite Muslim rebels near a military base one day prior. (Reuters)

In an address Wednesday night to the nation, President Obama held up America’s strategy in Yemen as a model for the counterterrorism strategy he intends to pursue in Iraq and Syria. By doing so, he committed to a strategy of targeting terrorists from the air and supporting local security forces in their counterterrorism fight. But the disconnect between the picture of success in Yemen and the realities on the ground is stark. If the strategy in Iraq works as well as it has in Yemen, we can be sure that the Islamic State will retain safe-havens, plan and conduct terror operations against Americans, and regain ground as the local security forces crumble. That is what is actually happening in Yemen now.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is nowhere near defeat. Its leader, Nasser al Wahayshi, became al Qaeda’s general manager in August 2013, in fact. Its threats caused the closure of over 20 U.S. diplomatic posts across the Middle East and North Africa at that time. Its bombmaker, Ibrahim al Asiri, was behind a threat to U.S. airlines just over six months ago. AQAP is still trying to kill Americans and continues to probe U.S. security protocols for a chance to do so. A successful counterterrorism strategy would have deprived AQAP of the capabilities to operationalize such plots.  The strategy we have actually pursued in Yemen is allowing AQAP to continue probing to find our weaknesses.  It’s hard to call that success.

AQAP’s safe havens in Yemen are critical to its strength. These remain, and have grown in areas, despite the efforts of partnered Yemeni forces on which the Obama strategy relies. AQAP has concentrated recent efforts on controlling parts of Yemen’s eastern Hadramawt governorate, where government forces are scarce. Insurgents briefly, but publicly, held ground along a strategic corridor that would give the group easy transit to more important populated Yemeni areas. Two weeks ago, AQAP detonated four car bombs in two days targeting Yemeni military sites in al Qatan in Hadramawt and Azzan in neighboring Shabwah governorate. AQAP typically fields a single car bomb and had not shown the ability to coordinate attacks like this previously.  The attack in Shabwah came in an area that Yemeni forces had supposedly already cleared.

Success on the ground has indeed proved fleeting in Yemen. The core challenge to a lasting victory against AQAP’s insurgent forces is that Yemeni forces are not trained in counterinsurgency and are not prosecuting a counterinsurgency campaign. More often than not,Yemeni battlefield “victories” occur when AQAP’s fighters simply retreat instead of fighting. The Yemeni forces cannot cut them off or pursue them, and so the insurgents reconsolidate and either launch counterattacks or wait for the Yemeni security forces to leave, as they almost invariably do. Two almost identical Yemeni military campaigns, two years apart, to clear the same areas of south Yemen is a sign that a counterinsurgency campaign is failing.

But success from the sky against AQAP is an idea that won’t seem to go away. American airstrikes have killed several key AQAP leaders and members, but the pay-off has been limited. AQAP, like al Qaeda groups elsewhere, is resilient to leadership losses. AQAP attempted to bring a bomb to the U.S. in late spring 2012, even after a September 2011 U.S. strike killed Anwar al Awlaki, the so-called leader of the group’s external operations. The English-language magazine he had built into a dangerous recruiting tool regained its strength within seven months of his death.  It is almost impossible to remove individuals from the battlefield fast enough to have a lasting effect on a resilient terrorist organization. That’s a lesson that the U.S. should have learned in Iraq, as counterterror maestro General Stanley McChrystal has noted in his memoir.

The success of the president’s strategy depends on local partners as substitutes for American boots on the ground. It sounds good in theory, but is failing in practice. Yemen is a willing partner; it is not a sufficiently capable partner. Yemen is in the process of reforming its security sector, essentially attempting to institute a professional line of command-and-control in forces that have entrenched patronage networks. Units have refused to obey orders and they have repeatedly thrown commanders out of their bases. Most units only received the most basic training. And AQAP is not Yemen’s only security concern—the armed, Shi’a al Houthi movement has also seized territory from the state and al Houthi supporters are congregating in the capital. Yemen does not have the security resources to address the threat from both AQAP and the al Houthis at once.  Previous al Houthi wars, in fact, were one of the main reasons why Yemen did not fight al Qaeda seriously at all before 2010.

There is no easy answer to what the strategy to fight al Qaeda, or the Islamic State, should be. But replicating a strategy now failing in Yemen, against the much more lethal and dangerous groups in Iraq and Syria, is certainly not it.