Bombs Away In Yemen

The New York Times reports that “the Obama Administration has intensified the American covert war in Yemen, exploiting a growing power vacuum in the country to strike at militant suspects with armed drones and fighter jets, according to American officials.”

These are strikes against al-Qaeda targets, not the insurgents trying to topple the increasingly wobbly Yemeni government.  The government used to have some troops out in the hinterlands hunting al-Qaeda, with a somewhat questionable degree of enthusiasm, but now they’ve all been pulled back to the region around the capital city of Sanaa to battle the uprising.

The Yemeni rebels are an unsavory lot, even on the sliding scale of the “Arab Spring.”  Unlike the Libyan rebellion, which contains only “flickers” of al-Qaeda according to NATO Admiral James Stavridis, the Yemeni uprising is lit by huge flashing strobe lights of al-Qaeda.  This raises the danger that strikes against al-Qaeda bigs will hit opposition fighters, or civilians, and draw the United States deeper into the Yemeni unrest.

The president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been an American ally against al-Qaeda, but not a very good president.  In fairness, he might still be learning on the job, since he’s only been in power for a brief 33 years.  He’s currently in Saudi Arabia, receiving medical treatment for complications from an acute outbreak of shrapnel.  The rebels managed to shell the presidential compound earlier this month, wounding both the president and prime minister.  A shaky cease-fire has been in effect since the president left the country.

Saleh is said to have serious burns over 40 percent of his body, so he might not be coming back any time soon.  The UK Telegraph says he came out of intensive care today after “successful surgery,” prompting “celebratory gunfire and fireworks” from Saleh supporters in the Yemeni capital.  That might not be the best way to celebrate during a shaky cease-fire.

For those who are still trying to figure out the Islamic militant rules of engagement, Saleh was praying in a mosque at the time of the attack.  A rebel rocket hit the mosque dead-on, killing 11 of his guards and wounding over 150 people, according to an ABC News report.  I was under the impression blowing up mosques was bad.

The Administration might be just as happy if Saleh stayed in Saudi Arabia, since they’ve been trying to find a way to ease him out of power and hopefully settle the rebellion down.  Diplomats and the media have been reluctant to characterize the situation as a “civil war,” although I think that’s a fair term to use when both sides are lobbing artillery shells at each other. 

The Administration strategy of trying to pick off as many al-Qaeda leaders as possible, while the Yemeni military is busy dealing with insurgents, is risky because of the danger it will intensify the conflict, but probably the best move we can make right now.  There’s a real chance al-Qaeda will effectively take over the country after Saleh falls.  Aggressively thinning their ranks is the best way to weaken their influence in a post-Saleh Yemen.

The no-longer-covert bombing campaign has enjoyed some successes.  On Friday, American pilots bagged Abu Ali al-Harithi, a midlevel al-Qaeda operative.  A strike in early May barely missed Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the top “spiritual leaders” of the terror organization. 

One of the big challenges facing U.S. forces is the possibility of warring factions in Yemen supplying false intelligence, in an effort to make the Americans bomb their rivals.  Sometimes a surplus of intelligence is worse than a shortage.  Airstrikes have been suspended for most of the past year, after poor intelligence led to some bad targeting.  Now the clock is ticking on this operation, since there’s a strong chance the post-Saleh government, whatever form it takes, will withdraw the authorization for American operations.  Hunting season in Yemen may be about to end.