December 19, 2010

Increased attacks on Yemen-based al-Qa'idah targets

Site of a December 17, 2009 U.S. air strike against al-Qa'idah training camp
(referenced in released cable below)

Click for larger image BLU-97 submunition found at the site. The 6-inch long explosive device
with a shaped charge can be carried by air and sea delivered missiles.

The United States appears to have increased its attacks on al-Qa'idah targets in Pakistan and Yemen. I am often critical of President Barack Obama for his policies in Afghanistan. While I agree that we must, as the President says, "dismantle, disrupt and defeat" al-Qa'idah, I do not believe that Afghanistan is the best venue to accomplish that objective. Al-Qa'idah has all but quit Afghanistan and moved to Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia. They are in the process of being defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, while still posing a threat in, and from, Yemen and Somalia.

The President has yet to explain how taking on the Afghan Taliban fits into a "dismantle, disrupt and defeat al-Qa'idah" strategy. I do not accept assertions that if the Taliban are successful in re-establishing themselves as the government, it will result in the return of al-Qa'idah to the country. That remote possibility can be deterred with the simple threat that if the Taliban allows al-Qa'idah to return, so will overwhelming, crippling, devastating, terrifying - you pick the adjective - American air strikes.

That said, I applaud the President for his continued use of drone-launched missile strikes against al-Qa'idah and other militant groups in Pakistan. The number of strikes since Obama took office in January 2009 has increased substantially; there have been over 100 strikes this year alone. On December 17, three American missile attacks reportedly killed 54 militants. This is effective use of American technology with minimal risk to American lives.

And in Yemen...

Earlier this month, President Obama stated, "Where al-Qa'idah and its allies attempt to establish a foothold, whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere, they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships." This effort has been ongoing for at least a year. Owing to the recent unauthorized release of classified U.S. State Department cables, the scope of the "pressure and partnerships" is clear. American military forces are launching missile strikes into Yemen against the al-Qa'idah-affiliated group known as al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Initial American strikes were conducted using sea-launched cruise missiles, accurate, but not accurate as air-delivered precision guided munitions (PGM). Apparently (accordind to the released cables), later attacks have employed the more accurate PGM's.

The latest attacks in Yemen were on December 16 against two al-Qa'idah targets: a suspected training camp north of Sana' and a location where "an imminent attack against a U.S. asset was being planned." Although local media in Yemen attributed the attacks to the Yemen Air Force, they were in fact launched by American forces.

More illuminating information on the effort in Yemen can be found in the Wikileaks archives, Here are some excerpts.

- From a Secret Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals Embassy Sanaa cable (SANAA 001669), September 15, 2009:

2. (S/NF) In a September 6 meeting with Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, President Saleh insisted that Yemen's national territory is available for unilateral counter terrorism (CT) operations by the U.S. ... Saleh repeatedly requested more funds and equipment to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while at the same time placing responsibility for any future AQAP attacks on the shoulders of the USG now that it enjoys unfettered access to Yemeni airspace, coastal waters and land. ...

- From a Secret Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals Embassy Sanaa cable (SANAA 002251), December 21, 2009:

1. (S/NF) SUMMARY. The ROYG views the December 17 CT operations as a success and a benefit to Yemeni national interests, and appears not overly concerned about unauthorized leaks regarding the U.S. role and negative media attention to civilian deaths. ROYG officials continue to publicly maintain that the operation was conducted entirely by its forces, acknowledging U.S. support strictly in terms of intelligence sharing. Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi told the Ambassador on December 20 that any evidence of greater U.S. involvement, such as fragments of U.S. munitions found at the sites - could be explained away as equipment purchased from the U.S. While the ROYG has touted the operation as a victory in terms of the number of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) members killed or captured, it hasn’t yet decided how, or even if, it should begin to modify its public messaging to address criticism over collateral damage, or the likelihood that the extent of U.S. involvement may become impossible to deny. END SUMMARY.

2. (S/NF) In a December 20 meeting with the Ambassador, Deputy Prime Minister for Security and Defense Rashad al-Alimi said that the ROYG, including President Saleh himself, views the December 17 CT operations in Abyan and Arhab as a success, despite negative press reports (septel) and leaks to the U.S. press regarding a U.S. role in the operation. Alimi said he was joined by other ROYG officials in their positive view of the operation against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a desire for continued collaboration on CT operations. Referring to an internal ROYG meeting chaired by President Saleh on December 19, Alimi assured the Ambassador that Saleh wants these operations against AQAP to continue “non-stop until we eradicate this disease.”

3. (S/NF) Alimi told the Ambassador that Saleh was undisturbed by press reports citing U.S. officials asserting American involvement in the operations, saying that the ROYG “must maintain the status quo” with regard to the official denial of U.S. involvement in order to ensure additional “positive operations” against AQAP. Alimi seemed more concerned with the political opposition and Southern Movement’s use of the Abyan operation as an example of the government’s heavy-handed response to groups the ROYG deems a threat. The Ambassador cautioned Alimi that the ROYG may need to nuance its position regarding U.S. involvement in the event more evidence surfaces, complicating its ability to adhere to the official line that ROYG forces conducted the operations independently. Alimi appeared confident that any evidence of greater U.S. involvement, such as U.S. munitions found at the sites - could be explained away as equipment purchased from the U.S. However, Alimi informed the Ambassador that senior ROYG officials continue to the discuss media strategy and the public posture of the ROYG.

5. (S/NF) Given that local and international media will continue to look for evidence of a U.S. role in the December 17 strikes against AQAP, the ROYG must think seriously about its public posture and whether its strict adherence to assertions that the strikes were unilateral will undermine public support for legitimate and urgently needed CT operations, should evidence to the contrary surface. Thus far, the ROYG has deployed influential local leaders to the affected area in Abyan to explain the need for the strikes in an effort to quell potential unrest; however, it has not attempted to provide any context for the civilian casualties, which might help to counter overblown claims of ROYG disregard for the local population ) in this particular case, southerners.

- From a Secret Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals Embassy Sanaa cable (SANAA 000004), January 4, 2010:

1. (S/NF) SUMMARY: Commander of the U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus congratulated President Saleh on recent successful operations against AQAP, and informed him that U.S. security assistance to the ROYG would increase to USD 150 million in 2010, including USD 45 million to equip and train a CT-focused aviation regiment under the Yemeni Special Operations Forces. Saleh requested that the U.S. provide 12 armed helicopters and train and equip three new Republican Guard brigades. Saleh rejected the General's proposal to have USG personnel armed with direct-feed intelligence present inside the area of CT operations, but agreed to have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory ready to engage AQAP targets should actionable intelligence become available. END SUMMARY.

5. (S/NF) President Obama has approved providing U.S. intelligence in support of ROYG ground operations against AQAP targets, General Petraeus informed Saleh. Saleh reacted coolly, however, to the General's proposal to place USG personnel inside the area of operations armed with real-time, direct feed intelligence from U.S. ISR platforms overhead. "You cannot enter the operations area and you must stay in the joint operations center," Saleh responded. Any U.S. casualties in strikes against AQAP would harm future efforts, Saleh asserted. Saleh did not have any objection, however, to General Petraeus' proposal to move away from the use of cruise missiles and instead have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory, "out of sight," and engage AQAP targets when actionable intelligence became available. Saleh lamented the use of cruise missiles that are "not very accurate" and welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs instead. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just "lied" by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG.

Bottom line

I applaud the President's decision to use American military power in this manner. This is how we need to deal with al-Qa'idah in general and AQAP in particular, including radical American-born cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi. AQAP has been complicit in the Fort Hood shootings, the attempt to bring down an airliner bound for Detroit last Christmas, and the recent attempt to down two airliners with explosive devices hidden in printer cartridges.

I will repeat my earlier advice to the President: You cannot reason with these people, you can not negotiate with them. You have to hunt them down and kill them. What you are doing in Yemen is an excellent start.