While President Trump likes to blame many of his woes upon the inaction of his predecessor, in one area of policy they are joined at the hip. Like Barack Obama, Trump seems addicted to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks to target terrorists. He buys the message that upstream actions stop future terrorist strikes in the United States.
The recent surge in attacks in Yemen (where more than twice the number of attacks occurred in two days than in all of 2016) shows that Trump arguably has more enthusiastically adopted Obama’s policy and strategy. Given his traditional attempts to criticize all that went before him, this is one area where he is in violent agreement with Obama.
The former president’s development of the so-called “disposition matrix” (sometimes referred to as the “kill matrix”) had all the hallmarks of a lawyer’s approach to warfare–starchy and rigid. It followed a pathway: Develop intelligence on the targets, determine their precise location, evaluate all options to strike or capture individuals, decide what to do and then execute.
While such a procedural approach has its advantages over the somewhat laissez-faire approach adopted in the latter stages of the George W. Bush administration, no doubt some of the conversations chaired by Obama were turgid and hardly dynamic. One can only imagine the number of times a specific point was gone over with a fine toothcomb before an authorization was given.
By contrast, Trump’s decision-making approach reflects a different style–that of a businessman who surrounds himself with people he trusts to make decisions. He is much more prepared to delegate, authoring the designation that Yemen, for example, is an active conflict zone, even though American regular forces are not based on the ground and no one has declared war on the government of Yemen. A short-form sequence of this type occurred in January when Trump, while out of the White House and the surrounds of the advice of the National Security Council (NSC), authorized an operation in Yemen by US Navy Seals.
Reports on the outcome of that mission vary. When 14 Al Qaeda terrorists were killed, rumors rapidly began to circulate that civilians were caught in the cross-fire. Commentaries appearing in open sources now suggest that in the chaos of the operation 25 civilians died – 11 of which were children.
The White House immediately, and somewhat defensively, claimed it was a great success. They have also made the case that, as one Navy Seal died, no one should doubt that the outcome was a huge treasure-trove of actionable intelligence. The ferocity of their defense of the raid has been so fierce that the White House press spokesman even ventured to suggest that anyone who doubted its value should apologize to the widow of the Navy Seal who died and be defined as unpatriotic.
Indeed, some media speculation has suggested that the recent laptop computer ban on incoming flights to the United States was instigated becauseof what happened when the Seals struck their target in the Yakla region of Bayda province in Yemen. Time will tell if these theories have any basis in fact.
The truth is that Trump received a simple set of options when he was briefed on the proposed attack. Use air strikes to destroy the target area or send in the Seals to see what they might also be able to recover on the ground. For a newly installed president, the prize of valuable intelligence and insight into Al Qaeda operations on the ground in Yemen – when other intelligence sources are scarce because of the poor security situation on the ground – was too good to miss.
While Trump’s decision-making may lack some of the formality of Obama’s somewhat academic and highly discursive approach, the end game is the same. In Somalia, Afghanistan and in Yemen, American drones are killing its enemies. On the surface, that is a success story. In Yemen in recent months, the Al Qaeda leadership–already under severe pressure–has taken a beating. Since January 1, nearly 100 drone, cruise missile and air strikes have taken place in a narrow corridor in Yemen. They focus on the co-located provinces of Marib, Shabwah, Abyan and Bayda. All of the strikes—confirmed by the Department of Defense— have involved the targeted killing of Al Qaeda members in ones, twos or threes, and often on the road, on a motorcycle or in a car.
Many of these strikes have been authorized without the hassle of convening the NSC, something Obama was minded to do. His legal mind wanted to consult a range of opinions. Trump has authorized the military to get on with the job, subject to the usual targeting criteria that is designed to minimize civilian casualties. If the analysis and reporting on independent think tanks like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism are to be believed, the emphasis on only killing terrorists has remained intact, despite the change in leadership style.
It is interesting to speculate what is behind the surge in attacks. With Yemen already suffering from a cataclysmic civil war, the obvious suggestion is that air strikes are designed to hound Al Qaeda’s leadership and prevent them from exploiting the security vacuum that exists as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi-led coalition forces slug it out for supremacy. Another possibility is that ahead of his trip to the Saudi capital where he laid out his ideas for a multinational coalition against Islamic extremists,
Trump wanted to lay down a marker. He wanted to show that his deeds match his words. Lawless Yemen is an ideal place to do that and also earn kudos from his Saudi hosts. Here again exists a difference in style and substance. Whereas Obama’s attitude to the Saudi-led air campaign waxed and waned in sync with headlines about air strikes that had killed civilians, Trump’s approach appears far more pragmatic.
The Yemen situation is complex, and the idea of basing regular US forces on the ground is a political non-starter. Few Republicans want to be drawn into what might become another military abyss like Afghanistan and Iraq–especially one with the complex overtones of Iran in the background. Memories of Iran’s malign and manipulative influences in in Iraq and Syria are vivid.
But given that Al Qaeda is clearly struggling, it is important not to give them time and space to regroup, where the outcome is inevitably more military action and more blood and treasure expended. Targeted air strikes supplemented by Special Forces action – when “pocket-litter” can be collected from targets – are the building blocks of a military strategy.
Yemen’s pitiful political and economic situation is a problem and creates a classic locale for terror sanctuaries. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has exploited this to its advantage. Reaching out from the Middle East to coordinate attacks in Paris–which saw cartoonists die in the Charlie Hebdo attack, and several attempts to bring down aircraft by developing increasingly innovative approaches to building explosive devices to be smuggled on planes–is evidence of that.
Today, Yemen is suffering a massive hangover from the Arab Spring. Before this social movement swept across the Middle East, Yemen was relatively secure. From 2009 until 2011, attacks by people linked to Al Qaeda inside the country averaged around 10 a month. In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring in December 2010, the rate of attacks edged up from 2011 to 2012 to just over 16 a month.
This was just a warning sign of what was to come. Unlike Syria, where the impact of the Arab Spring was almost immediate, the situation in Yemen took a little longer to unravel. From 2013 to 2014, the rate of attacks linked to terrorism went up by 320 percent. The average monthly rate of attacks grew to 52.
After a brief pause as Saudi-led coalition air strikes had an initial impact, the rate of attacks fell back to about 40 a month, but the rate has rapidly increased over the past 18 months to nearly 90 a month. The 114 attacks in June 2017 were a record.
This rate suggests that the worst is yet to come. Ten of the past 18 months until June 2017 saw attack levels surpass the previous high in May 2013 as Yemen began to feel the impact of the Arab Spring.
As the security situation deteriorated, the position of the United Nations-backed government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi became perilous. Confined to operating out of a small part of Aden–Yemen’s second largest city–his control of the country rapidly disappeared.
One devastating result was that government workers remained unpaid, creating deplorable conditions. Unattended sewage and water treatment plants caused a major cholera outbreak in April 2017. Such was the scale of this outbreak that it spread to 21 of Yemen’s 22 provinces and claimed the lives of at least 1,614 people–many of them children.
This total, and the nearly 270,000 infected, are more than the total number of cases reported to the World Health Organization in 2016. It is a humanitarian disaster unfolding daily.
Some that survive the ravages of disease succumb to hunger, as starvation is not far away for many in the community. In such situations, Al Qaeda, with its emphasis on protecting civilians, can gain traction on the ground. They provide a form of governance that people desperate for security will crave.
Ironically, as the security and overall food situation declines, so do Al Qaeda’s actions and narrative to gain supporters on the ground. The insecurity that Al Qaeda creates helps them win over the population. That creates support which inevitably gives Al Qaeda a greater footprint and leads to more attacks that create further insecurity.
It is a vicious circle that is very difficult to break. With little hope of political progress, the situation in Yemen looks increasingly grave. That can only mean that air strikes will have to continue, prolonging the misery for Yemenis who wish to seek an end to the chaos.
Yemen’s problems provide an important insight into the nature of the global threat we now face. While the combination of air strikes and Special Forces operations provide an ability to contain a situation, they alone do not solve it. That requires political will. Sadly, that is a commodity in short supply in a country being used, like Afghanistan before it, as a play thing for the two regional superpowers—Iran and Saudi-Arabia.