Written By: Jeb Boone*
Article Date: Oct 24, 2010 - 5:13:00 PM
In the past few months major media outlets in the US have begun reporting on Obama’s “shadow” war in Yemen. Underpaid researchers in dark basement offices have probably been spending their nights scouring the internet for evidence of drone, cruise missile, or specter gunship attacks in the most remote parts of Yemen. The director of Yemen’s security forces, General Yahya Muhammad Saleh, is now denying he ever said to CNN in an interview last Wednesday that he was open to US strikes in Yemen after CNN reported as such. Phrases like “secret mission” are being used by the New York Times to describe an American drone strike on May 25th against suspected al-Qaeda militants in Marib. This particular super-duper-secret drone strike wound up killing the deputy governor of Marib province, Sheikh Jaber al-Shabwani, along with a number of his relatives. Sheikh al-Shabwani was often praised by the Yemeni government for his diligent work in dissuading a great number of young men from joining al-Qaeda and focusing their attention on bettering their own villages and communities.
In retaliation for the death of Sheikh al-Shabwani and his relatives, members of his tribe attacked a government operated oil pipeline using a bulldozer. No one was harmed in the attack; it was intended to hit the Yemeni government in their wallet by hindering oil production. To diffuse the situation, the Yemeni government paid Sheikh al-Shabwani’s tribe blood money, in accordance with tribal customs, and an agreement was reached that no more attacks would be carried out against Yemen’s oil infrastructure.
This drone strike is only the most recent US strike in Yemen. Amnesty International made a big stink about a US cruise missile strike last December in the Yemeni province of Abyan, killing 14 suspected al-Qaeda militants and 41 local residents, including 14 women and 21 children. English words were found written on bomb fragments and unexploded ordinance at the scene of the super secret attack. These fragments were identified as being parts of a US made Tomahawk cruise missile, a weapon not found in Yemen’s Cold War era arsenal.
I find myself beginning to wonder the same thing about the Obama administration as I did about the Bush administration: are they that stupid? There is absolutely no question that US strikes in late 2009 and 2010 have been counterproductive in the fight against AQAP in Yemen. The cruise missile strike in December may have killed 14 members of al-Qaeda but undoubtedly more than 14 people may be more inclined to take up arms against Yemen and her American ally to avenge the death of 41 people that were not associated with terrorist groups. However, I don’t intend to call for world peace and slam American foreign policy in Yemen as barbaric. Setting aside naïve idealisms, Obama’s war in Yemen is simply not a smart way to go about fighting AQAP.
President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor John O’ Brennan has assured Americans that the policy for fighting terrorism in the current administration will be to use “the scalpel” instead of the Bush era “hammer”. Nevertheless, in an age where someone can upload a picture of a cruise missile fragment with “US Navy” painted on its side to Facebook from his cell phone, tag all of his friends, and write “America bombed my village!” as its caption, what’s the difference?
Not everything Obama is doing in Yemen is a bad idea. His multipronged counterterrorism doctrine is the best America has seen so far. Indeed, a “multigenerational” fight against terrorism is the only real way to beat AQAP. Along with the super secret missile strikes, the administration has sent super secret commando units to train Yemeni security forces. I was discussing this matter with a Yemeni cab driver on my ride home the other night and he agreed that training the Yemeni military in counterterrorism strategies is a good idea, “But maybe you shouldn’t send US soldiers here to do it,” he also stated. I tend to agree with his sentiment. If it were only a matter of training Yemeni soldiers to combat AQAP, I would support it 100%. However, Yemenis, like most people, would rather not have a “secret” foreign military presence operating within their borders. To have American boots on the ground is to bolster al-Qaeda’s argument that the US intends to colonize the Muslim world. Most people are aware that such a notion is ridiculous but it brings up another problem that encourages terrorism in Yemen: lack of access to education.
Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the World Bank, Yemen’s adult literacy rate is 61%. This figure has risen from 55% in 2004 but the increase can be attributed mainly to a push for education in urban areas. In rural Yemen, AQAP’s stronghold, literacy and education is absolutely abysmal. The fight against terrorism in Yemen must begin with an effort to alleviate the lack of access to education and poverty, especially in the countryside. New US ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein seems to appreciate the concept of the “multipronged” approach to combating terrorism. In his confirmation hearing testimony, Ambassador Feierstein articulated this belief stating, “Over the long term, however, the antidote for extremism will need more than security operations; it will rely on the development of credible and transparent national institutions that can deliver the political, economic, and social progress that people seek.” It seems that Mr. Feierstein is saying all the right things. It isn’t just rhetoric, either. He has a real chance to put such words into action considering the Obama administration’s pledge to provide USD 106.6 million in aid to Yemen in 2011, almost double that of 2010. To put it bluntly, Ambassador Feierstein understands that when people have something to live for, they are far less likely to blow themselves up.
Don’t mistake my meaning, in no way do I think the fight against AQAP can be won with candy canes and rainbows. When dealing with crazed, suicidal madmen bent on totally annihilating the Western world, having a sit in a Berkley just won’t get the job done. Mr. Feierstein seems to be aware of this as well. If there is good intelligence concerning the location of al-Awlaki or al-Wahayshi, the US, or preferably Yemeni security forces, should act on it. There are times when the use of force is needed. More importantly, however, most of the time, the use of force is most certainly not needed. I’m sure President Obama is more aware of this than I am and his presidency is being defined by a conflict between what he knows is right and what is politically viable. Currently, actions that are politically viable seem to be winning the fight against actions that are reasonable. “Surgical” strikes in the Yemeni countryside are only surgical in an 18th century understanding of the term, using antiquated anatomical superstitions complimented by a lack of anesthesia.
I hope that the next time a piece of intelligence comes across the president’s desk concerning AQAP militants in the Yemeni countryside Mr. Obama remembers that anything dropped in Yemen that goes “boom” isn’t going to be secret. I may not read about it on CNN but my cab driver will probably ask me about it on my way home from work.
Jeb Boone is the managing editor of the Yemen Observer and alumni of Georgia State University’s Middle East Institute.
• Who spoiled the new invention in Yemen?
• High five for Yemen’s democratic spirit
• Condemning North Korea is not enough
• Yemeni Political Monte Carlo Calculations!
• The G20 smile summit Seoul 2010