The Senate’s Blind Spot on Terrorism in Yemen
On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pressed hard on top administration officials to justify U.S. support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen, where hunger and cholera cause tremendous suffering. Senators certainly should be asking these tough questions, yet their narrow focus resulted in a missed opportunity to ask equally important questions about the opaque U.S. mission to fight terrorism in Yemen, which the Trump administration has conducted with growing intensity.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the senators’ questions focused intently on America’s ability to improve Saudi Arabia’s conduct of the war and advance a political resolution to the conflict. In that regard, the administration’s witnesses sought to demonstrate how American support encourages responsible behavior by the Saudi-led coalition that is battling Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. On an operational level, the Saudi-led coalition has implemented several procedures, consistent with American best practices, to reduce civilian casualties. For example, the Saudis have put in place a No Strike List, tightened their rules of engagement, and replaced cluster munitions with more precise alternatives, according to the Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Karem. On the diplomatic side, American support ensures that the Saudis do not pursue alternative security partnerships, which may not entail any pressure to reduce civilian casualties or move towards a political solution, as noted by Ambassador David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
Important as these issues are, the counterterrorism (CT) mission remains the primary U.S. line of effort in Yemen, where both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State maintain a strong presence. American troops are directly engaged in disrupting AQAP and the Islamic State, whereas the U.S. military provides only limited non-combat support to the Saudi-led effort to defeat the Houthis. Under the Trump administration, the United States has expanded the scale and scope of its CT mission, yet the Department of Defense has become increasingly vague about its Yemen operations and their effectiveness.
America has been conducting strikes in Yemen since the earliest days of the War on Terror. In 2002, the United States conducted its first strike in the country, targeting an Al Qaeda leader involved in the USS Cole bombing. In 2009, the campaign began in earnest, with strikes targeting Al Qaeda across the country. Last year, the air campaign expanded to include the Islamic State.
But after nearly a decade of continuous strikes, Salafi-jihadi terrorist groups still maintain safe havens and plot attacks. Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen is directly involved in the group’s global ambitions, routinely producing propaganda calling for attacks against the West. In late 2017, United States Central Command (CENTCOM) assessed that the Islamic State’s Yemen presence had doubled in size over the last year and that it uses the country as a hub to direct attacks against America and its allies.
Although senators at the hearing showed strong interest in tracking the outcomes of Saudi strikes in the country, they paid scant attention to the results of our own air campaign, which has expanded dramatically under the Trump administration. In 2017, the United States launched 131 counterterrorism strikes in Yemen, more than the previous four years combined. The United States also launched its first strikes against the Islamic State in the country. So far in 2018, American forces have conducted 25 strikes, a slightly slower tempo than last year but still on track to outpace any other year in the decade-long air campaign.
Despite these increases, the Department of Defense has become progressively more vague about America’s counterterrorism role in Yemen. Starting in 2017, CENTCOM ceased issuing press releases on the majority of American strikes in Yemen. When questioned, the command will provide the approximate number of strikes, but will not divulge further details on targets, locations, or casualties. My attempts to obtain this information through a Freedom of Information Act request have not yet been successful.
Although the long-standing CT campaign is a distinct line of effort from the Saudi-led offensive against the Houthis, the two conflicts are inextricably linked. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda thrive in the power vacuum that Iran perpetuates in Yemen and vice-versa. Salafi-jihadist terrorist groups and Iran will continue to pose an outsize threat until a political resolution to the conflict is reached.
The Yemeni war produces complex, interlinked threats that undermine American and regional security. But scrutinizing only one aspect of the conflict does little to enhance America’s role. Congress must push for greater transparency on the strikes America conducts, not just the ones it enables.
Alexandra N. Gutowski is a senior military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow her on Twitter @angutowski.