The revelations that the Ft. Hood massacre committed by US Army Major Nidal Malik Hassan and the Christmas underwear bombing attempt by Nigerian Umar Frouk Abdulmutallab may have been inspired by the rhetoric of an expatriate American living in Yemen (Anwar al-Maliki) placed that poor country on the southern end of the Arabian peninsula in the cross-hairs of the American war on terror. Yemen, we quickly learned, is the ancestoral ground from which Usama bin Laden came, and suddenly we began to talk about yet another Hydra-head of Al Qaeda, this time Al Qaeda in Yemen.
The question is that the United States should do about the situation in Yemen. To begin with, although the discovery of radical, terrorist actions emitting from the desert country may have come as a revelation to average Americans, it was certainly no secret to the U.S. government. Even a casual recollection reveals that one of the most notable pre-9/11 terrorist attacks against the U.S. occurred in a Yemeni port (the USS Cole), and one of the first successful drone attacks against Al Qaeda occurred there when a CIA-operated Predator took out some leading members of the terrorist organization. The forbidding, barren mountains of interior Yemen have long been a “badlands” in which radicals have set up shop and have been an inviting hiding place for some time. The government of Yemen has, without many Americans noticing, been receiving military anti-terrorist training support from the US government: this past year, it received $74 million in such aid, second only to that dispensed to Pakistan. Yemen may not have been on your radar or mine, but it ceratinly has been under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam.
Given this history and the apparent rise of activism in Yemen, what is the United States to do? The first, knee jerk reaction was to ask if the American military should be sent. If one thinks the military problem of dealing with the mountainous regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan straddling the Durand Line are, to put it mildly, challenging, one should contemplate military operations in the undefined, largely uninhabited, and extremely harsh mountainous desert of Yemen. The Tora Bora is a lush and inviting landscape by comparison! Moreover, given American military overcommitment in the area generally, it is not clear where any military assets could be found. These realities, of course, have not still or even slowed down right-wing screeds against the Obama administration for alleged lack of due diligence. They have, however, quieted more analytic minds.
Right now, there is very little the United States can do about Yemen. A few more American trainers may be possible to insert, although anti-American sentiment is great in the country, so it must be very low-profile. The United States can share aerial intelligence (satellites, overflights) with the Yemeni armed forces (which we are doing), but it is probably best that any American strikes against targets in Yemen be adequately clandestine that the Yemenis themselves can claim the credit (if the attacks work). It is also probably possible to improve American intelligence abot who comes and goes to and from the country, thereby enhancing our potential ability to identify more terrorists being trained in Yemen and then dispensed to the United States (or elsewhere) to carry out their deadly missions. Beyond these kinds of actions, it is difficult to imagine other actions that would either work or not make the situation worse.
Effectiveness and productivity or counter-productivity are sobering criteria to apply to Yemen or to other future like situations (which, to the extent the United States is successful in dislodging Al Qaeda from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, are inevitable). What the United States does not know about fighting and “winning” (whatever that means) in Yemen would fill a much larger volume that what we do know. All the military “can do” attitude in the world is hard to extrapolate into a likely success of American military efforts. What such efforts would almost certainly do, however, would be to inflame more anti-Americanism by our presence, thereby effectively taking a leaf from the long-practiced Israeli playbook of taking actions that make situations worse than they already were.
Our culture is activist and has a hard time dealing with situations and conditions which we cannot “fix.” That American can fix almost anything is ingrained in our worldview, but the intractability and inscrutability of the situation in the Middle East should be creating some sense of limitson out enthusiasm and optimism. The answer to “Yemen, Anyone?” should be a polite, but firm, “No thank you.”