With Major Operations in Iraq and Syria Ongoing, Pentagon Wants to Begin a Third Urban Campaign in Yemen

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Town near Mosul, Iraq burning during the Mosul offensive in 2016 (Mstyslav Charnov/Wikimedia Commons photo)

According to Buzzfeed, the Department of Defense continued its quest to back a new campaign to take a major port city in Yemen at a meeting last Thursday.

The assault on the Houthi-controlled city of Hodeida would be led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia but supported by U.S. military logistics and intelligence — likely aerial refueling and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) — American capabilities in demand by allies.

The meeting was requested by aid agencies who had concerns over the humanitarian impact of the operation. The Pentagon official assured that the operation would be “clean” and only take weeks.

The Trump Administration has ramped up military options in Yemen since coming to power. In January, the first American service member to die under Trump’s Administration happened during a botched raid on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants there.

The tempo has increased so much that the U.S. launched more airstrikes on AQAP targets during one week in March than it did in any single year during the Obama Administration.

But an attack on the Port of Hodeida would be targeting Houthis — Shiite rebels supported by Iran — not AQAP, significantly increasing the scope of U.S. involvement in the now two year old civil Yemeni civil war.

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Yemen territorial control map. Green = Houthis, Red = Yemeni Government, Black = al-Qaida (Yemen Conflict Maps graphic)

This escalation of military responsibility in Yemen is what is known as “mission creep” and is a sign of a lack of strategy and usually a longer than anticipated commitment.

In the civil war in Syria, what began as non-military aid turned into funding, training and intelligence, then air strikes, and now American ground troops in country.

The Trump Administration may not authorize the Hodeida operation, but it and further involvement is not out of the realm of possibility. Trump has shown an eagerness to allow the Pentagon greater freedom to wage war. Last week, Trump bragged that he had given the military “total authorization“.

One thing is certain: an American war in Yemen will not be short or “clean”. Such a fanciful idea should be seen for the foolishness it is.

Considering the decades-long-without-success American involvement in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa, we should realistically expect as much anywhere we consider increasing American military presence in the region.

If ongoing urban campaigns in Iraq and Syria are a sign of what may come, then thousands of civilian deaths, the devastation of the city, and a humanitarian disaster is a reasonable prediction.

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Five Years After Killing Bin Laden: The Failure of Decapitation Strategy

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Artwork by Surian Soosay

Exactly five years ago last Monday, United States Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden during a raid on the compound where he lived with his family in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

I remember where I was when I heard Bin Laden was dead: in the open bay, cinderblock barracks at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, during mobilization training for a deployment with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. The mood then among fellow soldiers was mostly surprise and perhaps a little incredulity — after all, there was no evidence of a body. Junior enlisted soldiers are, by nature, suspicious creatures.

It took almost ten years after the Bin Laden-directed attacks on September 11th, 2001 in the United States, but on the evening of May 2, 2011, President Barack Obama told the world during a televised address from the White House, “After a firefight, [a small team of Americans] killed Osama Bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

“Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked.”

According to President Obama himself during that very address, the killing or capture of Bin Laden was, until then, the top priority of the war against al-Qaida. But for all the resources that went into Bin Laden’s killing, did, as President Obama put it, “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaida” actually disrupt, dismantle or defeat it?

Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked. In 2011, al-Qaida’s core in Pakistan was suffering from seemingly endless drone strikes, disrupted communications, constant threat of infiltration, and the inability to meet in large groups. Killing Bin Laden did not much change the operational ability of al-Qaida’s core.

However, pre-Bin Laden raid, al-Qaida’s affiliated groups in Africa and the Middle East, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) were much less active.

Since the horrific car bombing in Algiers in 2007 that killed and wounded 180 people, AQIM attacks had essentially dropped off, with no AQIM-attributed casualties in 2008 or 2010 and only 12 in 2009. But after Bin Laden’s death, attacks saw an uptick, with casualties increasing every year, culminating in two large attacks this year using gunmen in Burkina Fasso and Ivory Coast, resulting in 100 casualties — relatively high for attacks not using explosives and a marked expansion from their Algeria-centric operations prior to Bin Laden’s death.

AQAP has seen tremendous growth in the past five years. In 2009, AQAP was estimated to have only 200-300 members, but grew to nearly 1000 in 2014. Because of the Saudi-backed war in Yemen against Iranian Houthi rebels, AQAP has been able to consolidate its power, enjoying the control of a mini-state along the Yemeni coast, much like the quasi-state under the control of Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.

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Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters in the Algerian desert. The stones spell “La ilaha ila Allah (There is no god but God)” (Voice of America photo)

Another al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as Nusra Front or Nusra), did not exist before Bin Laden’s death. But after the start of the Syrian Civil War, Nusra began operating as the official arm of al-Qaida in Syria with the blessing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then-leader of the Iraqi affiliate, AQI. Since its formation, Nusra has become one of the strongest and most organized rebel groups in Syria, second only to IS.

IS itself was once the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq and then known as AQI. During the time of the Bin Laden raid, AQI was nearly defeated. But the death of Bin Laden, the civil war in Syria, and the withdrawal of American troops combined with an extremely weak government in Iraq created ideal conditions for AQI/IS to seize control of large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria. While not affiliated with al-Qaida anymore (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has eclipsed al-Qaida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and perhaps even Bin Laden), IS is certainly more powerful than al-Qaida ever was — before or after Bin Laden.

“The US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive.”

So, if al-Qaida and global jihadism have only become stronger since the death of Bin Laden, it is fair to say that killing Bin Laden was a poor top priority for the United States in its war against al-Qaida. This does not come as a surprise to all. In 2008, Aaron Manness published a study which found that decapitation strategy is not only limited in efficacy, but may actually be counterproductive when used on religiously motivated terrorist groups, who have been found to become more violent when their leaders are killed.

One could theorize that Bin Laden would have been more useful captured alive, but the point is now moot. His death, once the top priority of the US, has done nothing to defeat al-Qaida. Indeed, al-Qaida’s greatest foe today may not even be the US, but rather IS, who is competing with (and for the moment, winning against) al-Qaida to be the world’s premiere Salafi jihadist group.

Should the US defeat either IS or al-Qaida by killing its members, the other will directly benefit. If decapitation strategy does not work, the US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive. The killing of Bin Laden was only one of hundreds of “high value targets” that have been killed in countries the US is not technically at war with — to unimpressive results. Next, the US and its partners must identify a strategy that does not benefit al-Qaida while IS is degraded or vice versa. If they do not, this 15 year old war is not likely to end any time soon.