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.