US involvement in Yemen edging toward clandestine war

Published on The Christian Science Monitor, by Howard LaFranchi, Nov. 3, 2010.

… Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries and home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

An initial response to Mr. Obama’s promise to step up the fight against Yemen’s Islamist militants may have come Tuesday, when an oil pipeline running through a militant stronghold in Yemen was blown up.

Five reasons it will be hard for Yemen to ‘destroy’ Al Qaeda franchise.  

The pipeline attack was a reminder that the two-track approach for fighting Islamist terrorists in their strongholds – covert military and intelligence operations and “hearts and minds” development programs to reach the public and deny terrorists their havens – faces a steep climb to success in Yemen.

Some regional analysts are already calling Yemen Obama’s “next Afghanistan,” a weak state where anti-Western extremists have been able to take root. But a comparison to Obama’s approach for the militant havens of Pakistan’s northwest may be more apt.

No one expects large numbers of US troops to be deployed in Yemen. Instead, the administration is quietly discussing ramping up covert operations by the Central Intelligence Agency – adding special-operations units and strikes by unmanned drones to what some analysts already call a “clandestine war.” At the same time, the president is talking publicly about increased assistance to Yemen to build up its institutions and reach a poor population.

But some Yemen specialists worry that Obama’s talk of ramping up development assistance will remain just that – talk – while what they call a “militarization” of US relations with Yemen continues unabated … //

… “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been around since 2006, but their argument that Yemen was under Western attack and that therefore it was a Muslim’s duty to strike back wasn’t really catching on,” he says.

But then, he says, “word spread” about a number of supposedly covert missile strikes – one in late 2009 that killed a number of women and children, and another in May of this year that killed a government official. “Al Qaeda has been able to say, ‘We’ve been telling you Yemen is under Western military attack,’ ” Johnsen says. “And it has been catching on.”

Saleh has shown in the past that he does not take kindly to unpopular US operations in his country, on several occasions responding by suspending security and counterterrorism training programs. But he may have no choice, some say, but to accept what Obama calls a strengthened US role in his country.

Any US role in Yemen will have to have some military component, Johnsen says. But, he adds, if it is not counterbalanced by more than lip service to the development and public-outreach side of the equation, “the US may be walking into a bit of a trap.” (full text).

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