Katherine Zimmerman is a research fellow and the al-Qaeda team leader for the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.
President Obama says the United States is looking to its Yemen policy as a model for what to do in Iraq and Syria. But what the president labels the “Yemen model” has not been as successful as the White House claims; indeed, it is in danger of collapse. Attempting to replicate it in much more challenging conditions in Iraq and Syria will almost certainly fail.
A little background: The United States partners with the government of Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which remains the most imminent direct al-Qaeda threat to the U.S. homeland. AQAP’s top leadership includes Osama bin Laden’s former secretary, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, now reportedly al-Qaeda’s general manager; former Guantanamo detainee Ibrahim al Rubaish; and its innovative bombmaker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who continues to target the United States and U.S. airlines.
The Obama administration defines its objectives in Yemen narrowly as preventing an AQAP attack on U.S. interests abroad and at home. These objectives have shaped a counterterrorism strategy that relies on a partnership with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to fight AQAP in Yemen without using U.S. combat troops. The model is one of limited U.S. training and advisory support to help a local partner keep a terror threat in check.
U.S. military assistance provides troop-transport capabilities to increase the Yemeni military’s operational range; U.S. military personnel train and advise local troops, providing crucial logistics and intelligence support for Yemeni counterterrorism operations. U.S. airstrikes targeting AQAP’s leaders and mid-level commanders involved in plots against U.S. interests act as a stopgap to supplement Yemen’s capabilities and degrade the leadership network driving external threats.
The appeal of the Yemen model is its low cost and limited U.S. footprint. But does the feel-good solution deliver?
In reality, no. AQAP has not stopped trying to kill Americans since its establishment in 2009. It is behind at least three attempts to strike the United States — in 2009, 2010 and 2012 — and the terror threat that closed more than 20 U.S. diplomatic posts in North Africa and the Middle East in August 2013. In 2011, a year without an attempted attack on the United States, AQAP fielded an insurgent force in southern Yemen and declared an Islamic emirate in the territory it seized. While the Yemeni military pushed back, its operations ended before it eliminated all of AQAP’s havens.
Yemen’s victories against AQAP have been tactical and likely temporary. A military offensive this spring focused on havens such as the group’s mountainous stronghold in al-Mahfad, which straddles the primary route connecting Yemen’s south to its east. Yemeni troops hoped to disrupt an AQAP line of communication and remove access to training camps there. But during a similar Yemeni operation in 2012, AQAP appeared to retreat, only to launch a counteroffensive and later regain the territory. Recent AQAP attacks in the cleared areas point to a probable repeat performance.
A key issue is that the Yemeni troops are not prepared for the fight, which began under Hadi’s predecessor. The majority of the force engaged against AQAP consists of regular army units, which do not receive direct assistance from the United States. The bulk of U.S. military aid is oriented instead toward supporting Yemeni counterterrorism operations, such as raids to detain AQAP cells and disrupt plots. But the fight in Yemen is not primarily counterterrorism; it is counterinsurgency. U.S. military aid is not wasted, but it will have limited effect as long as the main effort is a ground offensive against AQAP positions.
The assumption underlying the U.S. focus on Yemen’s counterterrorism capabilities is that AQAP is primarily a local terrorism problem — apart from a small and dangerous faction — that can be addressed over time by Yemeni forces. That assumption is false. AQAP’s shift in 2011 toward an insurgency created new military requirements that Yemen may not be able to fulfill. The slow tempo of Yemeni and U.S. counterterrorism operations has also given the AQAP faction focused on the United States space to regenerate. AQAP’s threat remains viable.
The Yemen model also carries another big risk. To succeed, it is dependent on a continued commitment from President Hadi and his government. Unfortunately, Hadi, like his predecessor, has other priorities. When former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was threatened with Arab Spring-like uprisings in 2011, he immediately redeployed government forces fighting AQAP to the capital to protect his regime. Similarly, Hadi faces a growing security threat from the Shiite Houthi movement as its fighters push south toward Sanaa, the capital. The Houthis, who receive support from Iran, have engaged the Yemeni military six times since 2004, and the government’s efforts against them will likely drain military resources from the battle against AQAP.
In short, not only is the Yemen model not working but the conditions that have delivered occasional successes in Yemen do not exist in either Iraq or Syria. A cooperating host government? A cohesive military force? A scattered and disorganized enemy? No, no and no. Ultimately, and unfortunately, the only common elements in Yemen, Iraq and Syria appear to be insufficient U.S. assistance to an unprepared force — and probable failure.
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