Report

Trump’s Ramped-Up Bombing in Yemen Signals More Aggressive Use of Military

Air raids in Yemen reflect broader trend as new administration opts for more military action against Islamist militants.

A US airman (C) stands near F-15C fighter planes on the tarmac as part of the combat search and rescue exercise "Cope Taufan" in Butterworth, some 330 kilometres northwest of Kuala Lumpur on June 15, 2014. The US Air Force and the Royal Malaysian Air Force participated in exercise Cope Taufan 14 to improve combined readiness and cooperation between the two countries.    AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN        (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A US airman (C) stands near F-15C fighter planes on the tarmac as part of the combat search and rescue exercise "Cope Taufan" in Butterworth, some 330 kilometres northwest of Kuala Lumpur on June 15, 2014. The US Air Force and the Royal Malaysian Air Force participated in exercise Cope Taufan 14 to improve combined readiness and cooperation between the two countries. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)

After a week of punishing airstrikes loosed on al Qaeda in Yemen that saw 40 targets go up in flames and smoke, American pilots took a breather the past two nights, watching the dust settle.

The weeklong blitz in Yemen eclipsed the annual bombing total for any year during Obama’s presidency. Under the previous administration, approval for strikes came only after slow-moving policy discussions, with senior officials required to sign off on any action. The Trump administration has proven much quicker at green-lighting attacks.

More broadly, the expanded bombing in Yemen signals a more aggressive use of military force by the Trump administration against Islamist militants, from Syria to Afghanistan. The White House already has approved the deployment of Marines and special operations forces to Syria and a large-scale commando raid in Yemen. On Thursday, a top commander suggested more troops are headed to Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump’s readiness to order military action stands in contrast to the previous administration. When Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice ran the policymaking process, “stuff moved like molasses through the National Security Council,” much to the frustration of military planners at U.S. Central Command, a former senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy. The interagency discussions allowed plans to languish for weeks while debates swirled over when and how to act.

Throughout 2016, the Pentagon continually briefed the White House on ways to get more aggressive with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, as they watched the group gain strength in their Yemeni strongholds. Those strikes didn’t happen, “but just because the clock ran out,” the official said.

The Obama administration handed over plans for a stepped-up campaign to the incoming Trump team in January. There has been an immediate change in the tempo of operations. This reflects the new administration’s apparent preference for prompt military action over policy deliberations, and a more dominant role for the military in decision-making.

That’s due in part to the stripped-down staffs at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, where dozens of key posts remain empty or held on a temporary basis by more junior civil servants. Those empty desks have allowed commanders to secure a prompt green light for military operations in Yemen, former officials said.

“By default, everything is going to be quicker from flash to bang than it was during the Obama presidency,” another former Pentagon official said. 

But bolder military action without a clear diplomatic plan can bring unintended consequences. Focusing narrowly on the military objective of counterterrorism strikes without a strategy to resolve the stalemated Yemeni civil war — and address Saudi and Iranian involvement there — will do little to bring stability to the country, or solve the underlying ethnic and religious tensions that have allowed al Qaeda’s branch there to flourish, experts said.

While the Islamic State has dominated public discussion of terrorism, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has gained strength and territory by exploiting the chaos and sectarianism of the country’s 2-year-old civil war, which pits supporters of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, against Houthi rebels supported by Iran.

The apparent urgency of the latest round of strikes underscores how concerned senior military and intelligence officers are about the threat of AQAP carrying out attacks in the West.

The Yemeni branch of al Qaeda “is stronger than it has ever been,” according to a report last month from the International Crisis Group. AQAP has thrived on the civil war, taking advantage of wartime smuggling, a growing security vacuum, and sectarian fears between the Shiite Houthis and the Sunni supporters of Hadi, it said.

The group “remains a potent and dangerous enemy,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name. “Internal turmoil in Yemen has not distracted AQAP from its longstanding interest in attacking the West.”

The challenge for the new administration is trying to counter AQAP even as the devilishly complicated civil war rages amid a growing humanitarian crisis.

The Obama administration tried to help broker a peace settlement in Yemen but got nowhere, as both sides in the conflict appeared to be gambling on winning on the battlefield. Much of the policy discussions in the Obama White House on Yemen were consumed by questions about humanitarian relief, former officials said.

The debates frustrated some military planners who felt that gains had to be made in the counterterrorism fight before more humanitarian aid could begin to flow into the country. But opening up a wider bombing campaign against AQAP while ignoring what one Pentagon official called Saudi Arabia’s “incompetently run and tragic campaign against the Houthis” carries its own set of risks.

More airstrikes, which could cause more civilian casualties, may fuel the resentment of local groups that have forged alliances of convenience with AQAP or other armed groups and harden grievances that have fed the violence.

In a sign the administration could be ready to bolster support for the Saudi-led war effort, the State Department has approved the sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh, officials said. The White House has yet to make a final decision on the sale. The proposal, first reported by the Washington Post, would reverse the previous administration’s policy that had suspended the sales amid concerns about a rising civilian death toll from coalition air raids.

If the new administration further expands the U.S. military’s role, including bolstering assistance to Saudi Arabia’s coalition, which has faced widespread condemnation for its bombing of civilian targets, analysts and former officials said it could find itself drawn into a quagmire.

“This is not a place where we can have a glorious little war. If we have a war in Yemen, it will be nasty and it will be bloody,” a former Pentagon official said.

The latest round of U.S. strikes was presaged by a Jan. 29 assault by a Navy SEAL team fighting alongside commandos from the United Arab Emirates on an AQAP compound, during which a furious counterattack by the terrorist group left one SEAL dead, several injured, and led to claims of multiple civilians killed. The Pentagon says it is investigating the reports of civilian casualties. While the raid picked up valuable intelligence on the group, Defense officials have said they’re still poring over the data, and it has not yet informed their operations in any significant way.

The precision airstrikes have taken out several key AQAP leaders, including former Guantánamo Bay detainee Yasir al-Silmi, who was repatriated to Yemen in 2009. The pace of the attacks also indicate that they had been in the works for some time. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters last week, “This goes to a plan and a thought process that is developed over many months that goes well back into last year where our commanders on the ground began to develop this proposal to do this.”

The United States has some help on the ground as well. One major blow for AQAP came last April, when government troops and forces from the United Arab Emirates pushed the militants out of the port city of Mukalla. The group had been making millions of dollars a month controlling the port and taxing citizens.

Since then, Emirati commandos have taken the lead in the counterterrorism effort in the country. Forces backed by the United Arab Emirates have pushed forward along the coastline, where they have taken control of the Balhaf natural gas facility. Experts say they could eventually move north in an attempt to push AQAP from areas it controls.

That would start to roll back some of the gains AQAP has made since the war began, gains fueled by Saudi Arabia’s intervention. The Saudi-led coalition’s “almost single-minded focus” on defeating the Houthi rebels has been a boon to AQAP, which has gotten its hands on weapons supplied by the Saudi coalition and cash from robbing banks, the International Crisis Group’s report said.

Photo credit: MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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