Is Yemen Becoming Vietnam, Circa 1963?
May 25, 2012
U.S. military aircraft hammered enemy targets, and small numbers of American
troops provided training and operational advice to allied forces. That was
Vietnam in the early 1960s, but it also describes Yemen today as the Obama
administration steps up counter-terrorism efforts against al Qaeda's most
The administration responded to months of al Qaeda victories over Yemeni
security forces by stepping up air strikes on the extremist group and
sending "small numbers of trainers," as one Pentagon spokesman put it, to
the Middle East nation.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based cell is known,
responded with a suicide bombing in the nation's capital city that killed
nearly 100 people and injured another 220. In a separate attack, three U.S.
contractors helping train Yemen's coast guard were killed Monday when
militants attacked the car in which they were traveling. Such AQAP attacks
make the terror group much more of a threat to Yemen's leaders, threatening
to draw Washington deeper into a conflict that in many ways is an internal
Obama administration officials "are trying very hard to limit this to a
counter-terrorism operation and to not get into counter-insurgency against
Yemen's host of internal problems," says former CIA official Bruce Riedel,
now with the Brookings Institution.
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"The problem is that will be a hard line to walk because the host government
doesn't want us there to just deal with our probelm--they want us to also
deal with their problems," he says. "This is Vietnam in 1963. The important
thing is to not get sucked into Vietnam 1965."
That is when the U.S. involvement ramped up substantially, with the start of
the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign followed by President Lyndon
Johnson raising U.S. force levels to 60,000.
While U.S. officials and experts say Washington is far from becoming that
involved in Yemen, Riedel says "that's exactly what al Qaeda would like: The
U.S. involved in another quagmire in the Middle East." Pentagon press
secretary George Little told reporters Tuesday U.S. military "trainers" are
on Yemeni soil "to support the government of Yemen's efforts to pursue
terrorists in their own country."
"And we believe that that's a reflection of our shared commitment to thwart
AQAP and its attempts to attack not just Yemenis, but also Americans, as
well as other U.S. and Yemeni partners and allies," Little said. "Our focus
is on train, advise, assist, and on deepening our counterterrorism
cooperation with Yemen."
U.S.-backed Yemeni President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi will press Washington to
do more--even target his enemies in areas his military no longer controls
that are not al Qaeda members.
"The administration just has to say, 'No, we're not going to go that far,'"
Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a former National Security Council official, says a
further escalation of the U.S. military presence in Yemen is unlikely.
"The U.S. really can't further expand this from a geopolitical perspective,"
"Nelson says. "In the end, this will have to be a Yemeni solution."
Riedel agrees, saying "the senior people that President Obama has working on
this are very allergic to getting involved in another prolonged Afghanistan-
or Iraq-type counter-insurgency operation."
That begs the question: Will U.S. air strikes and support for Yemeni ground
forces be enough to defeat AQAP, which U.S. intelligence officials contend
is the most lethal part of al Qaeda? Indeed, the group has been connected to
attempts to bring down American or U.S.-bound aircraft, including the recent
"underwear bomber" plot that was thwarted by Western intelligence services
and their allies in Saudi Arabia.
"That depends on a lot of factors going on inside Yemen," says Katherine
Zimmerman, an American Enterprise Institute analyst who follows the country
closely. "U.S. interests, narrowly defined, are defeating AQAP or preventing
an attack on the homeland. That will have to be balanced against Yemen's
economic and social challenges."
Zimmerman says it remains "unclear" whether Yemeni ground forces alone can
defeat al Qaeda and an internal insurgency fighting against the central
Other experts, however, are more upbeat.
"It can work and it is working," says Nelson. "Yemen really is, I think, a
blueprint for counter-terrorism for the future.
Riedel, too, sees a path to a U.S. victory: "Carefully targeted
counter-terrorism missions to deteriorate the top AQAP leadership can be
In many ways, Washington is waging a war against the clock.
"The problem for the U.S. is this really is a race against time," says
Riedel. "We've been lucky because AQAP has gotten a bomb on a plane twice.
... This is a race to see if they can pull off a strike on the U.S. homeland
or if we can take out AQAP's top leadership."
U.S. officials say they have used missile strikes from drone aircraft to
take out a number of top AQAP leaders in recent years, strikes that likely
will continue for some time.
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Experts agree Washington's Yemen strategy must take a long view, providing
the Middle Eastern nation with economic, development and political aid.
To help spawn a functional, al Qaeda-free Yemen, "the U.S. will have to take
on some of the larger issues there: a weak central government, no viable
economy," says Nelson. "This is what's so important for the U.S. We can't
just invest in the stability of these countries only when there is a terror
threat. If we abandon Yemen, we should not be surprised some additional
extremist activity is going thrive." How long might that take? "Twenty or 40
years," he says.
Pursuing that lofty goal wouldn't be cheap. Washington has sent billions in
aid dollars to Yemen since the terror attacks opf 9/11 to enhance the
average Yemeni's freshwater, health care, agriculture and education access.
"But we're broke," says Riedel. "That's why we have to press the Saudis to
do more. "It's their backyard.
But that comes with a price, he adds. "The Yemenis resent t he hell out of
the Saudis. But, as much as we might want to, we alone can't put the Yemeni
Humpty Dumpty back together again."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News &
World Report. You can contact him at jbennett_at_usnews.com or follow him on
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Received on Fri May 25 2012 - 09:07:52 EDT