“We’re not in Yemen to get involved in some domestic conflict. We’re going to continue to stay focused on threats to the homeland—that’s where the real priority is.” — Barack Obama
This distinction is patently absurd — and, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce noted, awfully like what JFK talked up in cabinet meetings about Vietnam. What is going on in Yemen is first and foremost a domestic conflict, and by taking a side in that conflict — alongside the Saudi-backed government in Sana’a, against AQAP and the Ansar al-Shariah — we have involved ourselves in a domestic conflict — perhaps even deeper than the CIA will admit. I would be inclined to just dismiss this statement as a “he kept us out of war” promise in campaign mode, if it weren’t for the fact that so many reports out of Yemen — including leaked State Department cables — illustrate that the US really is so fixated on al Qaeda it seems to disregard any suggestions that its air war is destabilizing the country, and that all the “collateral damage” is helping anti-government Islamists in southern Yemen make greater inroads towards Sana’a, and more willing to cut deals with al Qaeda cells “in order to place themselves in a better bargaining position with the central government.” Some of those likely involved in the US war effort seem to understand this, but the present policy does not seem to reflect their qualifiers on the composition of the anti-government forces. These qualifiers are not unlike the distinction between the Taliban and the original al Qaeda organization — i.e., that the Taliban emerged independently in the 1990s from al Qaeda and Mullah Omar ran his own war effort while maintaining a special relationship with bin Laden’s lieutenants and, in particular, the “55th Arab Brigade” that fought against the Northern Alliance, which, while linked to al Qaeda, was a distinct entity.
Yemen watcher Gregory Johnsen notes that AQAP, formerly the refuge of several dozen hardline Saudi clerics and thugs, has greatly expanded to take in hundreds of members from neighboring Somalia, and more importantly, many Yemenis as well. The now Yemeni-heavy AQAP would therefore have several units composed of foreign fighters and sympathetic Yemenis — in effect, “international brigades” — serving among (loosely) aligned anti-government tribal militias in Yemen like the Ansar al-Shariah. But even so, AQAP is not the same as Ansar al-Shariah, a view seemingly accepted even by members of the Beltway’s inner circle of counterterrorism:
“While AQAP has grown in strength over the last year, many of its supporters are tribal militants or part-time supporters who collaborate with AQAP for self-serving, personal interests rather than affinity with al-Qaeda’s global ideology,” [National Security Council spokesman Tommy] Vietor said. “The portion of hard-core, committed AQAP members is relatively small.”
The danger in this reading, therefore, is that the US’ actions, by generating sympathy for AQAP, will blur the line between mainly tribal actors (especially Ansar al-Shariah) and AQAP by popularizing the latter among Yemeni Islamists — which could help AQAP build up its networks and resources to the point where it actually does succeed in one of its plots against US targets… or, against “softer” Saudi ones. And then the chips would be down for whichever administration is sitting in the White House at the time.
But the main American diplomatic concern — one shared by the Yemeni military, whose air force does not have the capacity to carry out “signature strikes” — is apparently that the US not be too closely associated with the drone strikes. The secondary concern, that there are underlying ethnic and economic tensions in Yemen which require addressing to keep the country from turning into another Afghanistan, is simply secondary. In part, this is because the central Yemeni government, despite its dependence on US largesse, really has no desire to help US observers go around the country to better report back to Washington on the civil strife. All the practical issues — and there are many — of doing so aside, the central government really has no real desire to enable this because such a survey of the country would probably make it very clear just how divided society is and how many tribes are so resentful towards the government in Sana’a (the US’s limited historical interest in Yemen certainly helps keep things in the dark). Given the choice of adding more drones to the aerial armada or recruiting civil society monitors, the White House is, from its past record, certainly going to choose the tech over the people because identifying the larger problems does not immediately produce deliverables — i.e., the AQAP body count. That fixation, Johnsen believes, is helping to blur distinctions between AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah.