Gregory Johnsenchronicles the disturbing “drift” with respect to the Obama administration’s targeting criteria in Yemen, and the potential for an exceedingly costly, yet unproductive, escalation within that theater. What were once a narrowly defined set of targeting requirements – focused, sharply, on operatives of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - have now become a broader, if circular, rubric:
…[A]s this piece from Greg Miller has it, some “elasticity” has been introduced into the targeting. [...]
…officials said the campaign is now also aimed at wiping out a layer of lower-ranking operatives through strikes that can be justified because of threats they pose to the mix of U.S. Embassy workers, military trainers, intelligence operatives and contractors scattered across Yemen.”
In other words, the US has inserted, trainers, operatives and contractors into Yemen in an effort to erode the threat presented by AQAP, but those trainers, operatives and contractors attract attacks from Yemenis who are upset with a foreign military presence (no matter how small) on their land. And then when these trainers, operatives and contractors come under attack as they have recently in Aden and Hudaydah the US feels the need to respond and so it widens the target list even further – which then drives even more people into the arms of AQAP.
As suggested by Johnsen, the mission is drifting toward a circle of self-perpetuating, self-justifying futility. This pattern is not new, however. The same rationale has been used to justify the prolonged engagement in the Af/Pak region.
Accompanying any discussion of a pull-back of US forces from the Af-Pak region arewarnings that the withdrawal of our troops will destabilize Pakistan, and that we must continue to press the military campaign in order to contain the militant groups operating in that locale. Missing from that analysis – as with the analysis of the Yemen campaign and, in large part, the Iraq war before it – is an acknowledgement that our presence alone, and the use of military strikes in connection therewith, is itself a radicalizing, militarizing and motivating factor. For example, Pakistan has been destabilized, not made more secure, by our Afghan campaign, so it is dubious to conclude that our continued presence in its current form will serve to ameliorate a problem that it has only exacerbated to date.
Johnsen’s conclusion is worth heeding:
I have argued for several years now that the US needs to draw as narrow of a circle as possible when it comes to targeting AQAP in Yemen. I worried then as I do now, that any expansion of targeting in Yemen would find the US in a war that it could never kill its way out of. And indeed that, I fear, is what is taking place right now. In an effort to destroy the threat coming out of Yemen, the US is getting sucked further into the quicksand of a conflict it doesn’t understand and one in which its very presence tilts the tables against the US.
Perhaps a surge instead?