In his speech Wednesday night, President Obama laid out in somewhat unclear terms the planned U.S. campaign to combat the Islamic State, a murderous terrorist organization that has gained strength in the midst of political chaos in Iraq and Syria. U.S. action in Iraq will involve sustained targeted air strikes combined with ground offensives by the Iraqi army and Kurdish militias already fighting the Islamic State. In Syria, the challenge is thornier, with the United States leaning on a constellation of Sunni Arab allies to help reverse the Islamic State's gains.
Here's how Obama framed it in the speech:
This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out [the Islamic State] wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.
The reference to Yemen and Somalia is curious. One wonders how many Americans were even aware that their country was still technically fighting wars in these two countries -- the legacy of America's post-9/11 war on al-Qaeda and its militant affiliates.
One also wonders how Obama could say that American involvement there has been clearly "successful," or moreover imply that the missions are near complete. "Very few people who are not part of the administration consider either of those cases a success," writes the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman. "Less subjectively, neither has finished, years later, and it is unclear what success in Yemen and Somalia even is."
In Yemen, the most impoverished state in the Arab world, the United States is still trying to snuff out al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a branch of the terror group that has proven capable of orchestrating plots that directly threaten the United States. In December 2009, the "underwear bomber", trained in AQAP camps, almost managed to detonate an explosive device while sitting in a plane on a Detroit tarmac. Letter bombs that could have exploded in flight, sent from Yemen, were intercepted en route to the United States.
With the tacit support of the Yemeni government, the Obama administration stepped up targeted drone strikes on AQAP militants and commanders. The attacks, couched in a hazy legality, have led some critics to accuse the United States of committing war crimes.
Peter Bergen, of the New America Foundation, summed up the U.S. drone program earlier this year:
Such strikes do not target known militants but rather people who are displaying the behaviors of suspected militants. Such signature strikes were reportedly governed by stricter rules in Yemen than in Pakistan, though, and were given a different name: TADS, or Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes.
As of [mid-April], U.S. drone and air strikes have killed an estimated 753 to 965 people in Yemen, of whom the large majority were militants, but at least 81 were civilians, according to the New America Foundation study.
The drone strikes allow the United States to pin back AQAP, but not defeat it. As with the Taliban operating in Pakistan's tribal areas, prominent AQAP commanders may be killed, but hydra-like, they get replaced. Nor do reports of U.S. drones killing civilians and ending wedding parties win Washington hearts and minds.
On Thursday, the United States killed five AQAP militants in its first drone strike in Yemen since Aug. 17. The United States has launched at least 17 drone strikes in Yemen this year, according to the Long War Journal.
Meanwhile, Somalia remains the global euphemism for a failed state. American efforts, in conjunction with a number of African states, chased the al-Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabab from the capital of Mogadishu and have allowed for the formation of a somewhat stable central government for the first time in nearly two decades.
But al-Shabab's capacity to launch its own attacks has not diminished, with the group responsible for bombings and hideous terror raids in neighboring Kenya. The United States confirmed killing Ahmed Godane, the group's leader, in an airstrike last week. But the group soon reaffirmed its allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and hardly looks a spent force. Yemeni and Somali fighters are also present among the jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
In neither Somalia nor Yemen does the threat to American security interests appear close to being neutralized. U.S. actions have perhaps hemmed in militant groups, but the lack of genuine political solutions on the ground mean their sources of support and strength remain. Obama, in his speech, said the goal was to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State. These two other cases don't offer much cause for confidence, writes Al Jazeera America's Tony Karon:
[The Yemen/Somalia] comparison underscores the message that "ultimately" is the operative word in Obama’s promise to "ultimately destroy" the [Islamic State]. In both Yemen and Somalia, America’s enemy remains very much intact and active, and the U.S. approach has thus far succeeded in managing and containing the threat, but not in destroying it.
It's not welcome news for those seeking a swift, comprehensive American military response in Syria.