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The Predictable al-Qaeda Advance in Yemen
Al-Qaeda has taken over a major airport and an oil terminal in Yemen. This was predictable, and as odious as it is to say, “I told you so,” I’ll say it, because the point needs making. Anyone with common sense could see this coming, so anyone who says “We had no idea this would happen” has no excuse:
AQAP will be the beneficiary. The focus of our policy in Yemen for years has been counter-terrorism. If AQAP isn’t a real threat, why were we involved there at all? If it is, how could a policy guaranteed to benefit AQAP possibly be in our interest?
The Saudis have succeeded in doing huge damage, but restoring nothing like order. We’re not just hapless bystanders. We’re heavily involved in this:
The U.S. military has begun daily aerial-refueling tanker flights to support the Saudi-led coalition that is intervening in Yemen’s civil war, the latest sign of growing American involvement in the new Middle East conflict.
A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker flew the first mission Tuesday night, providing fuel for a Saudi-owned F-15 Eagle and an F-16 Fighting Falcon operated by the United Arab Emirates air force, Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday. …
The Pentagon also has approved limited logistical and intelligence support as well as some weapons shipments for the Saudi-led air campaign that is striking at Iran-backed militants in the troubled Arab country.
CENTCOM has assigned about a dozen U.S. service members to a “fusion center” to work alongside Saudis and other allied militaries from the Gulf Cooperation Council and coordinate the limited U.S. support.
How could it possibly serve US interests to pursue a policy that allows al-Qaeda to gain ground? Because that is indeed what we’re doing:
Created through a merger between Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda in 2009, AQAP has long been perceived as a threat by the United States. In 2013, State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki described AQAP as “one of the foremost national security challenges faced by the US.” With the support of the Yemeni government, the US has maintained a military and intelligence service presence in the country for more than a decade. Since 2011 a joint operation between the two has launched 88 drone strikes against AQAP, killing more than 482 people.
But now both the Sunni tribes and AQAP, traditionally opposed to the government, suddenly find themselves in a de facto alliance with forces led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the US.
Advanced insanity. We’re doing this with no formal debate or Congressional oversight. Would any normal American back a policy that puts us in a tacit alliance with al-Qaeda? How have we managed to learn absolutely nothing from any of the foreign policy disasters of the past decade?
Photo Credit: Saeed Al-Batati@saeedalBatati After years of relentless drones strikes, #Qaeda in Yemen appears stronger and more defiant. #Yemen, via VicePublished in General
Since you link this article to your last one – Please explain how your idea of an arms embargo against our ally would have stopped this.
Saudi is backing the government of Yemen. We support Saudi.
The Houthi rebels are allied with AQAP and seem to be winning at this time.
Your idea of an arms embargo against our ally, Saudi Arabia, would have prevented this outcome how?
Oh, 1 KC-135 and 12 members in a CENTCOM fusion cell is not “heavy involvement”.
Involvement, sure – When we start dropping bombs – I’ll concede the term “heavy involvement” until then it is just breathy hyperbole and unhelpful.
The Houthis are not allied with AQAP.
Which is why supporting any military action against the Houthis has the significant side effect of making AQAP relatively stronger and more secure.
Which is an ironic place for the Saudi State to be, seeing that it’s threatened by both AQAP and the Houthis, and extremely regrettable for the US which could probably get along just fine with the Houthis without the Saudi connection.
What makes you think the Houthis are allied with al Qaeda?
The reason we should not support this is that it is creating chaos. We have overwhelming evidence now that this kind of chaos brings groups like ISIS and al Qaeda to power. This is displacing of millions of people and spreading disease and starvation. Water has become inaccessible. To do this in an environment where AQAP is operating in the open and recruiting is madness.
We are dropping bombs. We’re providing the weapons and the intelligence. And while the Saudis may be our allies, friends don’t let friends facilitate al-Qaeda’s rise. Their stated goals can’t be achieved without ground forces, and no one will provide them.
Sorry Z – but the article and quote provided by Claire refute this. It is not a formal alliance, but a de-facto one.
Because you said it. From the article you quoted.
We, as in the US, are not dropping bombs, Saudis are. Just like when Japan supported us in Iraq, they were not dropping bombs just by their freeing up American assets to do so.
The Houthis aren’t Sunni.
All – Z and Claire. My mistake – I misread your quote. Mea Culpa.
OK – now that I got my head wrapped around this – I am still wondering how an arms embargo against our ally will enable the Government of Yemen to retake their territory (which would bring them into conflict with AQAP at that time.)
For years, people were focused on AQAP and oblivious to the Houthis.
They were surprised by the Houthis. It may be common sense, but there’s not a lot of brilliance involved in then saying AQAP would benefit from action against the Houthis. That’s Biden-level thought.
Perhaps we should encourage the Saudis to expand their target list to include more AQAP targets.
However, doing nothing won’t help. The only benefit of limiting ourselves to an arms embargo/blockade would be if we then had the guts to flatten Iran when they breached it. But, clearly we will not punish Iran for any violation of international law.
We have to realize that there are a whole lot of people in Yemen who need killing. Even if we could blockade, they might not kill each other fast enough. Go RSAF!
Unfortunately Congress seems to have taken some political lessons from the Iraq wars.
I honestly can’t see that the US has any other options right now.
Yes, I think in the long run this will be pretty awful.
But apart from not supporting the Saudis, what does the US do? Letting the Saudis fall would be even more immediately disastrous.
Was it a mistake to back the Sauds in the first place? Possibly. (And that’s probably a foundational question about a whole approach to foreign policy.) But too late to fix that now.
Easy thing to do.
Frankly I’m still somewhat surprised that there are so many Shia in Yemen. I mean – who knew? Until the Houthis erupted I certainly didn’t.
Go RSAF? In a military operation that’s facilitating the empowerment of AQAP? AQAP is a huge threat to the U.S. and Western Europe. What happens when AQAP joins forces with the Sunni tribes in Marib, Shabwa, and Hadramout? We’ll have cesspool run by jihadi troglodytes for decades to come–and one that’s repeatedly proven its keen interest in killing Americans.
We’re allies with the Saudis for exactly one reason: They’re sitting on a significant portion of the world’s energy reserves. Beyond that, they’re loathsome exporters of one of the most twisted and nihilistic species of Islamism on the planet–we really needn’t feel a moral obligation to rush to their aid, especially since they weren’t invaded. They’ve got no plan here and no means to achieve their stated goals. They surely won’t be sending their kids in to do what would really be needed to achieve that, that’s for sure. Their appeals to the Pakistanis and Egyptians to send their ground troops have (understandably) been met with a polite, “Thanks, but there’s nothing you could pay us to do that.”
Without ground troops, they can’t uproot the Houthis. And if we must get involved in this, it would make much more sense to support the Houthis–they, after all, have the motivation to fight al Qaeda.
Policy depends on the man ruling the military. President Obama has made it pretty clear that he does not feel the need to get involved.
Another president might ask whether the Saudi rulers are capable & whether they are willing to fight in Yemen to victory; then he would ask what America could to do scare them into doing so; then he would set about doing that, with as much congressional support as you can buy by offering the spectacle of American will being imposed worldwide without American lives being committed to the slaughter.
Well, it would be most disastrous to the House of Saud. Scare these people into taking their defense more seriously. It has to get worse before they are willing to obey necessity.
The Saudi alliance is a disaster of America’s making; America can start fixing it whenever the man who rules the military so decides.
They’re kind of only arguably Shi’a. They’re much closer to Sunnis than any other kind.
Incapable. Utterly incapable of winning that war. The worlds’ superpowers have not been capable of doing this without bloody, long-term occupations (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya [I don’t think it’ll last]…) – how is Saudi going to do it?
Easily promised, impossible to deliver. Or at least I can’t think of an instance when it really worked out that way.
Plus, even if Congress believed him (unlikely), they wouldn’t reward him with agreement.
This is a terribly difficult issue, and I honestly don’t know what to do since all possible outcomes seem to range from terrible to tragic.
However, I think there is a case to be made to help the Saudis. Yes, the Saudis are an odious lot, but we benefit from a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia.
First, AQAP is going to benefit from the situation in Yemen no matter what. If the Saudi military campaign continues, AQAP benefits from further destabilization of the country. However, even if the Saudi military campaign ends, there is still a civil war that will create the chaotic conditions that will allow AQAP to operate. Additionally, any advance of the Houthis provides a powerful recruiting tool for AQAP since it will be viewed as Shia apostates dominating a Sunni majority Yemen.
Secondly, the best chance we have to defeat AQAP is a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia. Saudi created the problem, and they have the intelligence capabilities that will be needed to eventually compromise AQAP. Like ctlaw said, we should perhaps encourage Saudi Arabia to expand its target list in this campaign.
I think the worst-case scenario is the development of a Saudi nuclear weapon due to its slow encirclement by Iran, Iranian proxies, or Iranian allies. A nuclear arms race in the region strikes me as the most dangerous outcome for US national security, and I fear that the only way to avoid that eventuality is to help the Saudis fight the rise of Shia states. By helping the Saudis, we maintain at least some influence over their behavior.
Of course, Claire has made the case that this campaign is more likely to result in the destruction of Saudi Arabia itself than in the successful return of Hadi and the Sunnis to power in Yemen. Perhaps, but at some point Saudi Arabia needs to confront the Shia encirclement, and this seems to be the moment they have chosen to do so.
I’m not inclined to support either side. As I noted, my preference would be to encourage the Saudis to also attack AQAP.
I am reasonably aware of the relationship between the House of Saud and Wahhabism. I am also in favor of laying down the law to them to stop encouraging Sunni radicalism. Frankly, after 9/11 we should have told the Saudis to knock it off and given them a list of a few thousand Wahhabis (including several princes and princesses) who we expected to be dead within the next few days.
That being said, one huge impediment to that is the radical Shiites. Telling the Saudis to concentrate on AQAP and ignore the Shiites seems to risk repeating what happened in Yemen but on a much larger scale.
Thus, I believe we need to encourage the Saudis to go after both Sunni and Shia radicals.
All bad actors.
Claire seems to take the stance that because there is so much turmoil and death we have a dog in this hunt. I am not at all sure. I note in the beginning of the piece that the Saudis have managed to create the Yemeni AF with their own planes. Isn’t that just peachy.
Saudis seems to have the penchant of creating mercenaries to fight their wars no matter where you look. We have been Saudi mercenaries in several past episodes, Dessert Storm being one. In all these fights what is glaringly missing is actual Saudi combat. They have almost a built-in abhorance to actually fighting for themselves. So we are “faced” with all the strange situations that is the Mideast.
But the whole Mideast is one large cauldron of contradiction. Indeed, rather than try to make a case for shia vs sunni, which would support our own demands for neat, orderly situations, what we ought to be seeing is that none of this is readily in that category. Rather, it is tribe vs tribe. Sometimes it is sunni vs shia, sometimes not. But it is all Arab killing Arab. And no matter what one says, there is an overwrought emotion attached to all this. ?Why do we even want to be involved in all this.
I do not like the way you answer here. You ignore the fact that superpowers were fighting each other in some of these conflicts; you treat what has been done as what could be done, which is hilarious, but not quite right; you ignore the difference between what barbarians are willing to do & what sweet, soft Americans are willing to do.
This is not to say that I have any faith in the House of Saud.
Well, before the president has to ask Congressional support in the form of a vote, there are all sorts of things he can do to show that he knows his job. & these things, being to do with diplomacy, can be publicized enough to move public opinion.
There is always a hawkish part of Congress. I am not sure that it cannot be won over, especially if the president offers the Congress sometyhing in return.
It has been claimed that the fall of Saudi would be terrible for us. I am not sure why. As someone here has noted, our “alliance” with Ssaudi is purely one of expedience. They export oil. We (and the West in general) need oil. But what is also notable is that ALL the actors in this furball want to export oil. They need the money! So perhaps we should just let them sort it out amongst themselves; we will buy from the last man standing.
Welcome to the vale of tears.
America has an interest in proving to Iran & the House of Saud that they should stop terrorism against America.
I cannot believe you cannot see how absolutely wrong you are. Mercenaries are people who get paid for services they may or may not render, to do with war. America got nothing but the reputation that it is so incompetent, even beating a tyrant in the field strengthens that tyrant’s power!
America has propped up the House of Saud without ever seriously thinking, can it defend itself. It is time to put it to the test. America has to make them an offer they could not refuse…
Welcome to the vale of tears.
There are more people than Arabs in the Middle East. Tribes have something to do with it, but not that much. Hussein was not a man of tribe, nor are the Ayatollahs. The House of Saud has nothing to do with any tribe except the House of Saud & it relies far more on the sect of Wahab than on tribes.
The fact that it is not merely a religious fight is somewhat helpful to Americans. There is not much proof that any tyrant there is really or urgently suicidal, much less that their underlings share such passions. This makes them reasonable, in that they usually prefer life to death, the deaths of their enemies to their own…
Because it would strengthen Iran by default, & now, Russia, because of oi. These are not dispositive reasons, to speak like the lawyers, but they are indicative.
No, it is the fruit of a diseased imagination.
There is no real reason to believe there will be a last man standing to sell nor that the chaos would be over soon nor that other powers would stay out just because America is staying out of the region.
Titus – mercenaries are any who gain advantage by fighting for another. MOST of the time it is cash. But there are other reasons, too. WE gained Saudi oil, pumped in excess of OPEC limits to keep oil prices down. For that we put OUR fighting men and women where the Saudis should have had THEIR fighting men and women.
Titus – ?What is your support for Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Chechnya being fights between the superpowers.
By that logic, every allied advantage always makes for mercenaries. In fact, by that logic, alliance, as opposed to mercenary work, would be next to non-existent! This is really shabby stuff. Anyway, do you mean the oil was delivered gratis to the US? Or that the entire buying world bought at cheaper prices? Or what do you mean?
But I am unpersuaded that Mr Bush went to war in 1990 for the sake of the Saudis. If that is transparently obvious to you, please explain.
I said some. Not C., for example, nor I. But A., certainly. Or do you mean 2001? Not 1979? It’s one out of two there. As for V.–you do not think this was a US-vs. Communism war? Soviets were not the main backer of the Vietnamese, Chinese were, but still, they were allied with the Soviets until they weren’t!
Sorry, Titus. Your comment that any alliance makes for mercenaries is silly. Kuwait was a risk to Saudi, not to us. Our participation in that war was overwhelming; the “others” involved were mostly small players, to give window dressing for a “coalition”. Certainly the Saudis, who were MOST at risk, had little real combat, nor even troops.
In Vietnam there were some Chinese advisors (my platoon killed one near the Z) but mostly it was a North vs South fight. Certainly there were communist arms, but that hardly makes it a “superpower conflict”. Same with Afghanistan, then and now. ?Are you now going to claim that it was really US vs USSR in the Arab-Israeli Wars.
I must say, and I don’t mean to be insulting, that I find much of what you say to be “book-strong” but it fails where the rubber meets the road. So your attack on Zafar’s comment that it takes large and long commitment to defeat insurgencies becomes one of those narrowly argued themes that really has no bearing on what he said. It ends up being much like the author’s arguments in July 1914 that Russia started WWI, based on the details of timing of some events in that period. It, however, neglects the whole slew of occurances that caused the situation that was present in 1914. You, too, often seem to argue with blinders on things, hewing to a technical definition of limited scope. Perhaps some of that comes from English not being your first language. Perhaps from too much immersion in academia. Still, I find you seem to often argue to some small technical point, leaving me to smile and move on.
Oh, we’re doing something about the Saudis, all right. We’ve just let Iran out of its cage. But that’s OK. After all, Iran is the natural regional hegemon, and though they’re busy with their proxies in Iraq, the uparming of Hezbollah and their nuclear breakout, it looks as though they have time to help out the Shia on the Arabian peninsula as well.
Once the Shia consolidate their hold on Iraq, the Saudis will be surrounded on three sides by Iran and its proxies, and if the natural right to self determination of the Saudi Shia gets a little help from the Iraqi army, why the Iranians will be selling oil to make up the shortfall. No doubt that would see an especially vigorous response from the US, assuming the Iranians haven’t popped EMPs over the US or sent a containerized nuke into a few U.S. harbors by then.
To me it seems that Yemen is another clear example of Obama’s lack of foreign policy objective. Everything he does abroad he seems to handle on an ad hoc basis. Leading to a seemingly incoherent strategy.
Our ultimate interest in the Middle East I think can be summed up thusly. We want a liberal and peaceful Middle East because it will mean our safety and be conducive to trade thus ensuring our and the world’s continued prosperity.
Several factors are working against us in this respect. First there is Al Queda and ISIS, who work to create chaos by disrupting trade, aggravating all ethnic strife, and directly threatening our people through various terrorist enterprises. We also have Iran whose political ideology places them in opposition to us for cultural reasons, their local ambitions also can only be achieved by toppling and overthrowing other Middle Eastern governments. Their ultimate goal isn’t chaos but rather creating and adversarial system to our own to leverage against us and others. Finally there are our friends in the Middle East the various Sunni regimes, they are illiberal, and contentions ruled over by highly undemocratic and oppressive regimes, which willfully turn a blind eye to simmering problems so long as they are directed outwards.
Each of these issues is interconnected there is no way to try to handle one without somehow opening up an opportunity for the other to some how get out of hand. Basically we have to pick our poison by clearly prioritizing something.
Yemen is quickly becoming the second Syria where once again we will have a nation divided into three blocks for the competing factions locked in a strange and fragile balance.
The problem with the Saudi led Sunni Alliance is that while they are our ostensible ally they seem unwilling to commit to the effort of seizing control of these chaos zones. They just want to deny Iran the satisfaction of wining. In the end the real winner is Al Queda and ISIS who could only achieve state status in such a quagmire. I wonder if their hesitancy is because of their own inability or because perhaps America refuses to back them politically and publicly. Sure we give them bombs and intelligence, but maybe we should just give them the all clear to invade.
On the other hand maybe the Sunni Alliance is happy with just chaos as long as it is not Iran, in which case we should favor Iran because clearly we fear Al Queda/ISIS more. Don’t we? If we don’t then chaos is better to Iran domination, unless we can find a way to muster the Sunni’s to retake everything. But honestly not picking a side doesn’t resolve anything and waiting I think only plays into Al Queda/ISIS strategy.
Maybe Obama has picked the Iranians, and is willing to let them take over all the Middle East in exchange for crushing Al Queda. Of course if that is the strategy why do we still oppose Assad in Syria? So I assume we have no strategy, and every time a Middle Eastern country goes belly up we toss a coin.
I’ve been wondering if our recent losses and setbacks in the Middle East have been so serious that they would explain Jeb’s seemingly foolish decision to run for president. Knowing what I know about 41 and 43, Jeb’s running has made no sense to me. These are not stupid people. I’ve been guessing that Jeb was running to gain back some of the progress we had made under 41. The takeover of the Yemen airport lends some credence to that theory. The loss of the airport is about as serious as it gets in the Middle East.
So I read this article last night, and it confirmed my suspicion a little bit. Jeb may be running because things are really dangerous and getting worse by the second. He doesn’t have some masochistic desire to get beat up by the press every day. He may have a larger goal.
So before Republicans kick him to the curb, I hope they actually listen to Jeb on foreign policy.
I never believed that GW wanted to run for office. I’ve always believed he ran because Clinton had created a worldwide powder-keg-dangerous situation.
I have to wonder if Jeb is now running for the same reason. Obama has made a terrible and world war-level dangerous situation.