You have to wonder whether the White House has a good grip on the global terrorism fight considering a number of strategic missteps, judgments and statements it has made during the last few years.
There was the total pullout from Iraq, the “al-Qaeda on the run” claim, the mishandling of Syria, the dismissal of Islamic State as a “JV” team — and the latest foreign policy bumble, Yemen, which just last September President Obama claimed was a counterterrorism success story.
After closing the U.S. embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in February, late last week Washington decided to pull 100 or so U.S. military advisers out of the country, bugling an even further retreat from this terror hot spot.
Some success story.
Admittedly, it has to be pretty bad in Yemen when the world’s most talented, capable and toughest special operations forces are getting the heck out of Dodge — on orders from above, of course.
The loss of the U.S. special forces presence means they won’t be able to help (what is left of) the Yemeni military/security forces and perhaps, more importantly, won’t be able to gather valuable intelligence on what is happening on the ground.
Now, we won’t be totally deaf, dumb and blind in Yemen due to the use of drone strikes and the ability to collect information from other U.S. intelligence assets and partnerships. But we’ll have fewer first-hand accounts from American sources.
Good intel is critical to “early warning” as well as to policy development and execution.
Yemen is obviously a public relations disaster for Team Obama, but the real question is: Why is the deteriorating situation in Yemen important to American interests more broadly?
First, it’s another strategic distraction for Washington policymakers in an increasingly unstable international environment. Think about it: Iraq-Syria, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, Iran nuclear talks, Afghanistan, Russia-Ukraine, etc.
That’s quite a to-do list.
Next, Yemen is the Middle East’s newest “Great Game,” pitting rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran against one another in a proxy bout involving the Riyadh-backed, Sunni Yemeni central government and the Tehran-backed, Shia Houthi rebels.
Plus, without a central government, Yemen is basically a failed state, providing lots of room for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State for planning, training and operations.
AQAP is reportedly targeting Western commercial aviation with “new wave” bombs while an Islamic State group in Yemen — Sanaa Province — recently attacked Shiite mosques in the capital, killing more than 100 people, according to news accounts.
While there’s no love lost between the ascendant (Shia) Houthi rebels and (Sunni) terrorist Islamic State and (Sunni) AQAP, a civil war in Yemen — like we’ve seen in Syria—can prove very beneficial for growing terror groups.
Lastly: location, location, location. Yemen borders the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which are important sea lanes, including for U.S. warships. It’s not a place where you’d like to see Iranian influence increase.
In fairness, this is tough stuff.
But the latest developments in Yemen call into stark question the Obama administration’s policies and performance in dealing with a violent Islamist extremist problem that only seems to be getting worse.
- Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
Originally appeared in the Boston Herald