President Barack Obama has pointed to Yemen to boast that his new global anti-terror strategy was thriving.
But with Iranian-backed rebels now overrunning the U.S. ally tasked with beating back local al Qaeda affiliates, the nation at the tip of Arabian Peninsula makes a better case study in the approach’s limitations.
Yemen was the petri dish for Obama’s concept of how to fight Islamic extremists with a hybrid warfare of U.S. drone strikes, special forces and on-the-ground intelligence provided by local partners.
The theory was that, after learning the bloody lessons of protracted ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States could no longer bear the cost of inserting its large, vulnerable land armies into hostile Muslim nations.
Instead, Washington would eliminate terrorists by partnering with friendly governments and forces in regions as diverse as the Persian Gulf, the Levant and Africa in a more sustainable campaign against Islamic extremism. But the success of some of these campaigns is in question, as regional allies have proven too weak or disorganized to sustain the anti-terror actions the U.S. is looking for.
For a while, the partnership with Yemen worked. The local government in concert with the CIA and Special Forces assets on the ground, and a deadly umbrella of drone strikes, pinned down the deadliest franchise left in Osama bin Laden’s empire, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
But Yemen’s instability always threatened to derail the effort and the country’s treacherous tribal and political stew finally boiled over in January when Houthi rebels overthrew Washington’s latest partner in the capital of Sanaa, President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
“It is a strategy that depends on the domestic politics of the particular state which it is applied,” said Charles Schmitz, a specialist on Yemen at Towson University.
“The strategy will work if it has the appropriate political circumstances. If it does not have the appropriate circumstances it won’t.”
When the optimum political conditions in Yemen evaporated, the U.S. effort stumbled.
Sharply deteriorating security led to the closure of the U.S. embassy in Sanaa and the departure of U.S. special forces this week, lifting the pressure on AQAP – with alarming implications for U.S. security.
Hadi finally fled his country this week, ahead of air strikes led by Saudi Arabia with cooperation from nine other Arab and Muslim-majority countries against the Shiite Houthi rebels which, though unwilling to cooperate with the U.S. campaign, are also fighting AQAP. The U.S. is providing Saudi Arabia rhetorical support as well as logistics and intelligence, and soon airborne tanker back-up for its campaign.
But even if the operation by the Sunni powers succeeds in Yemen, there seems no easy path back to the restoration of the kind of pro-U.S. government that might make the fight against AQAP sustainable again. Yemen is on the brink of a civil war between Houthis and splintered security forces still loyal to Hadi and a political reconciliation process has ground to a halt.
There certainly remains little to justify Obama’s words in September a primetime address to the nation in which he laid out his plan for combating ISIS.
“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,” Obama said then.
He vowed to use “force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.”
Elsewhere, the president has sought to identify a select band of local partners among moderate forces in Syria for U.S. arms and training to use in the fight against ISIS.
In Iraq and Syria, the president has resisted calls from some quarters to send ground troops against the vicious terrorist entity. But he did step up U.S. military involvement in the form of air strikes to try to halt ISIS’s march across Iraq and empower Baghdad forces.
Obama’s critics argue that the events in Yemen undercut his hands off approach and leave his anti-terror strategy full of holes. They blame him for abdicating a U.S. leadership role in the Middle East that has spanned multiple presidencies.
“Leading from behind is not working. The region is on fire,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is mulling a run for president.
“The vacuum created by America’s failure to lead in the Mideast is setting in motion a calamity that could result in a bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites that we haven’t seen in a thousand years.”
His GOP colleague, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, complained that the White House was oblivious to the stakes in Yemen and had badly miscalculated.
“We have been driven out of Yemen … and yet you continue to see the White House even failing to acknowledge what has happened and the reality in Yemen on the ground right now.”
The White House, however, doesn’t accept the idea that its Yemen policy is a massive failure and maintains it will press on with drone strikes, even if critics say it lacks the intelligence that only an on-the-ground presence and local partners and security forces can offer.
“The measure of the U.S. policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“The goal of U.S. policy in Yemen is to make sure that Yemen cannot be a safe haven that extremists can use to attack the West and to attack the United States, and that involves trying to build up the capacity of the government to help us in that fight.”
A senior Obama administration official has said “there will be no military intervention by the U.S.” in Yemen. But Secretary of State John Kerry told foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman Thursday that the U.S. supports the military action and is helping with intelligence information, targeting assistance and logistical support, according to a senior State Department official.
White House critics argue, though, that the Obama administration failed to sustain the Hadi government when it became obvious that anarchy would consume the country with the Houthis on the march.
The Yemeni example, they say, shows that Obama’s anti-terrorism strategy cannot be maintained in the long term without robust and enduring diplomatic engagement to shore up allied governments – the kind of sustained effort in the Middle East that administration critics, and some worried allies, believe the administration has failed to provide and perhaps is not interested in attempting.
For years, before leaving for the CIA, John Brennan was Obama’s White House point man on Yemen and spent much of the first term sponsoring a political transition designed to restore stability. But the White House effort has been less visible since he left.
“If the U.S. was really concerned about AQAP and counter-terrorism interests in the country, they should have acted before,” said Oren Adaki, an Arab world specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“It’s pretty clear that Yemen is not a model of success.”
CNN’s Athena Jones contributed to this report.