This article was originally published on May 23, 2012 and appeared at The Nation on June 1, 2012.
With a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan “irreversible," according to NATO, the Pentagon and CIA’s military focus will concentrate on Yemen, where diplomatic or political solutions seem impossible anytime soon.
From the official US perspective, Yemen is the center of gravity in their battle to subdue Al Qaeda-linked jihadist cells with plans to attack the US. There is a kernel of truth to the claim. For example: the so-called “underwear bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, began his December 2009 mission in Yemen; bombs concealed within printer cartridges inside larger packages were shipped from there in October 2010; and the US-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki – killed by a CIA drone last September – actively counseled many jihadists.
Despite tactical delaying actions, the long-term futility of counterterrorism was underscored last week when a suicide bombing killed at least 112 people and injured hundreds more in Sana, the 2,500-year-old capital of Yemen, “stunning the country’s beleaguered government and delivering a stark setback to the American counterterrorism campaign,” according to the New York Times. (May 22, 2012)
The bombing was in retaliation against the escalation of US military intervention, included at least 20 US Special Forces advisers assisting an offensive in southern Yemen. The US forces had been driven out of Yemen last year when a popular movement toppled the long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, only to return in recent weeks. At least 18 US drone strikes have been reported just since March. (Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2012)
Beneath the secret war against Al Qaeda, in reality the US continues to intervene in an ongoing ethnic civil war in Yemen itself, a conflict that cannot possibly be “won” by a foreign military power. While professing no other aim but counterterrorism, the US is funding and advising a shaky new Sunni regime, one pitted militarily against northern Shiite tribes and southern secessionists. (For more, please see Jeremy Scahill’s “The Dangerous US Game in Yemen,” The Nation, March 31, 2011)
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Al Qaeda is launching “a wide-scale domestic insurgency,” and transforming itself from an AQ-affiliate to a “more Taliban-like movement as well,” known as Ansar al Sharia, which took credit for the Sana blast. One of the leaders of Ansar al Sharia is Tariq al Zahab, brother of the widow of the slain Anwar al-Awlaki. (CRS, p. 5)
According to the United Nations, in the wake of the civil war, 150,000 people have become refugees from a single southern province, Abyan, since May 2011. (CRS, p. 5)
This sectarian civil war threatens to reverberate across regional boundaries because Saudi Arabia worries that the insurrection on its southern flank will spread to include minority Shiite tribes in the eastern provinces of its royal kingdom.
The taxpayer cost of the Yemen war is almost as secret as the US military role. For FY2013, the White House is asking for $72.6 million in State Department funding. But there are at least 17 separate aid channels for Yemen, involving multiple DC agencies. Total US foreign aid to Yemen from FY2009-2011 averaged $185.3 million.
As for military appropriations, the Pentagon’s Section 1206 “train and assist” budget is the main source of overt Yemen assistance. Under President Bush, Yemen received $30.3 million in Section 1206 money, while in the past two fiscal years Yemen obtained $221.8 million. Yemen, as of FY2010, was the world’s largest recipient of 1206 funds, ahead of runner-up Pakistan. These sums do not include US budgeting for special operations or drone strikes.
Measured in direct funding, Yemen will become another billion-dollar war this year. The country has a population of 24 million, less than California.
Obama is trying to prevent the inexorable slide into another quagmire requiring either retreat or direct military intervention. Last year, he admonished a Pentagon general for describing the military role in Yemen as a “campaign,” and insisted the US is not technically at war there. (Newsweek, February 12, 2011) Last week at the NATO summit, the president said, “there’s no doubt that in a country that’s still poor, that is still unstable, it is attracting a lot of folks that previously might have been in” Pakistan’s tribal areas. (New York Times, May 22, 2012) It was an astonishing suggestion: in the long war thus far, the US has provoked the birth of Al Qaeda in Iraq, helped them take root in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, pushed them from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal areas, and now to Yemen (not to mention their multiple cells in other countries). There seems little intellectual or political capacity to understand that counterterrorism only relocates and inspires new terrorism.
Congress has done nothing so far to constrain the growing escalation in Yemen, suggesting that Congress only reacts to American casualties and headlines. During Yemen’s Arab Spring upheaval against the US-backed Saleh regime in 2010-2011, most US aid for training had to be frozen. When it resumed, the Congress instructed that the funds be used only for counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “and its affiliates,” an unenforceable proviso. One January 2010 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had already concluded it was, “likely that US counterterrorism assistance has been diverted for use in the government’s war against the Houthis in the north and that this temptation will persist.” (“Following the Money in Yemen and Lebanon,” SCFR report, January 5, 2010)
In summary, no one can know if the Pentagon and CIA can suppress terrorism and contain civil war while the National Security Council promotes a three-step “Yemen Strategic Plan” of crushing Al Qaeda, investing in economic aid and a global effort at stabilization.
It's doubtful whether the Long War can continue without US ground troops, but that is the only alternative that can be imagined in the national security mindset. RAND historian Seth Jones, like many defense intellectuals, emphasizes that we are in a "Long War" that "will be measured in decades." (Seth Jones, Hunting in the Shadows, p. 443)
Such dim and naroow views means there is no light at the end of the tunnel, which is why we are going down the rabbit hole in Yemen.