Anyone who reads Middle East Perspectives is aware of my critical view of President Obama's policies on the nuclear issue in Iran, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think he is making some serious errors in his prosecution of the wars and his constant willingness to ignore the fact that Iran is not interested in serious negotiations that will end its quest to develop a nuclear weapon.
That said, he has made some excellent decisions about attacking al-Qa'idah wherever we find them. I wrote an earlier piece in support of the President's decision not only to continue but escalate the Bush-era drone-launched missile attacks against al-Qa'idah targets in Pakistan (A sound Obama policy - missile strikes in Pakistan). On December 18, the President ordered air-launched cruise missile strikes against two al-Qa'idah targets in Yemen.
The strike was conducted in cooperation with the Yemeni government. This in itself is interesting. Up until just recently, the Yemeni government has had little interest in confronting al-Qa'idah, almost to the point of complicity. (See my 2008 article, Yemen - state sponsor of terrorism?). However, once it became clear that the new influx of al-Qa'idah militants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were a threat to one of the most corrupt governments on the planet, President 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih decided that action was necessary.
The change of heart is a repeat of what happened in Saudi Arabia. Prior to 2004, the Saudi government turned a blind eye to the al-Qa'idah presence in the Kingdom - remember that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. After a few lethal jihadist attacks on foreign workers and more importantly, the Kingdom's oil infrastructure, Saudi security forces more than decimated al-Qa'idah, forcing the surviving members to flee to Yemen. Now it's Yemen's turn to take on the jihadists. Whereas Saudi security forces are very capable, Yemeni security forces are not - thus the request for American assistance.
The two targets hit by American missiles were described as a suspected al-Qa'idah training camp north of Sana' and a "location where an imminent attack against a U.S. asset was being planned." Unfortunately, one of the intended victims, al-Qa'idah in Yemen commander Qasm al-Raymi (above), escaped. One has to wonder whether the targets were identified by Yemeni intelligence, or by U.S. intelligence. Yemeni intelligence has not been reliable, especially when it comes to al-Qa'idah. These targets are located in areas that are virtually under al-Qa'idah control and the Yemeni military is loath to operate.
The choice of weapon is also interesting. Air launched cruise missiles - like the one pictured above - are much larger and lethal than the smaller Hellfire missiles carried on CIA and USAF unmanned aerial vehicles. The smaller Hellfires were used at least once in Yemen in a CIA operation to kill al-Qa'idah leaders in late 2002. The use of the cruise missiles, normally carried by Air Force bombers, represents a welcome escalation in the war against al-Qa'idah.
These strikes are exactly what we should be doing to attack and eliminate al-Qa'idah, wherever they are. They are not in Afghanistan, nor are they likely to return there. There are remnants in Pakistan, who are being dealt with cooperatively by Pakistani forces and targeted CIA missile attacks. The remnants that were in Saudi Arabia have either fled or are being hunted down by Saudi security forces. Survivors have fewer places to run - it used to be Yemen and Somalia. If we continue to work with the Yemenis, we can deny them safe haven there, almost forcing them to relocate to Somalia.
Somalia may well be the next front on the war against al-Qa'idah. In any case, it's not Afghanistan.