Monday, January 30, 2017

American Soldier Killed in Yemen; Why?

Strange news from Yemen:
One American commando was killed and three others were wounded in a fierce firefight early Sunday with Qaeda militants in central Yemen, the military said on Sunday. It was the first counterterrorism operation authorized by President Trump since he took office, and the commando was the first United States service member to die in the yearslong shadow war against Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate.

Members of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 carried out the surprise dawn attack, and the military said that about 14 Qaeda fighters were killed during a nearly hourlong battle. A Qaeda leader — a brother-in-law of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric and top Qaeda leader in Yemen, who died in a drone strike in 2011 — was believed to have been killed. . . .

The military’s Joint Special Operations Command had been planning the mission for months, according to three senior American officials. Obama administration aides had deliberated extensively over the proposed operation, weighing the value of any information that might be recovered against the risk to the Special Operations forces plunging into hostile territory. But administration officials ultimately opted to hand the decision on the mission to their successors.
There is a civil war in Yemen, in which the U.S. has no particular stake. The two sides are the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, which we and most of the world recognized as legitimate, and the Houthi rebels who rose up against him, ousted him from the capital and seized much of the country. The Houthis practice a Shiite-related brand of Islam that the Saudis consider heretical, and they believe (or claim to believe) that the Houthis are Iranian proxies bent on weakening Sunni Islam through a sort of encirclement strategy. Most neutral observers say is nonsense, and that Yemen's war is over entirely Yemeni concerns.

But anyway Saudi Arabia has intervened in the war, and their repeated bombing raids have weakened the Houthi side and kept them from winning the war and establishing order, besides killing hundreds of civilians and generally wrecking the country. The Saudis get their bombs from the U.S., which may also be sharing satellite data with them for targeting purposes; this has drawn the ire of anti-war activists who think the U.S. has no business supporting the Saudis' useless, deadly bombing campaign.

The power vacuum in Yemen has allowed both al Qaeda and the Islamic State to establish footholds in the country, zones where their armed followers are the effective government. This raid reveals that the U.S. is actively fighting those radical factions. I suppose that is natural, since we are fighting them everywhere else, and we have long considered al Qaeda in Yemen one of our bitterest enemies. But the obvious solution to the problem they present is to help the strongest faction in Yemen (the Houthis) win the civil war, which we could probably achieve just by getting the Saudis to step back. So once again we are intervening to put out fires spread by our own habits of arson.

War begets more war. Terrorists thrive on violence and instability, and the best way to combat them is to help create stability. That means accepting de facto governments even when we don't like them very much. We must stop believing we can solve all political problems with more violence.

4 comments:

David said...

As usual, I would disagree with some of the language in your post. First, your argument is not so much against war or violence, as against American and American-sponsored war and violence. That would be fair enough in itself. But a withdrawal of American and Saudi interference is not in itself going to bring either Houthi victory or peace. For any side to win in Yemen is going to involve a lot of violence in itself. And, FWIW, I'm skeptical that the Houthis are actually strong enough to control the whole country--a more likely result would be an armed truce and partition--which, of course, may be the best we can hope for. But al-Qaeda and ISIS types can do very well in such circumstances (as in Afghanistan before 2001).

Second, no, the war is not purely about Yemeni concerns. Nothing is ever so simple. Like it or not, Iran and Saudi see themselves as rivals for regional hegemony, and this rivalry is inextricable from their respective Shi'ite and Sunni identities, whether outsiders think those identities are important or not. My own reading seems to indicate the Iranians have probably given the Houthis some help--not nearly as much as the Saudis have done against them, but that's not going to matter to the way the Saudis are going to feel about it. The Saudis aren't going to give up their analysis of the situation, no matter how wrong an outsider thinks it is. (The basic issue is, you'd have to convince the Saudis that doing nothing to prevent a Shi'ite victory in Yemen is in their interest--and probably long term, there's nothing about a Houthi victory in Yemen that's going to threaten them. But there are going to be plenty of folks in the Saudi government who would be enraged by the idea of sitting and waiting, and will lose all respect for a ruler who adopts such a policy.)

John said...

If everything you say is correct, which it may well be, then what is our course of action? What hope is there that Yemen will ever be at peace again?

David said...

It is easy for me to say, but I think there may be something to be said for letting them have their war. Mainly, I don't think there's any policy we can realistically adopt that will reliably short-circuit this war. And most policy options might end by making things worse. The hope would probably be for an eventual armed truce.

I think we also probably have to continue taking out ISIS and Qaeda types. I think this kind of action probably doesn't much affect the likelihood of general war or peace in Yemen either way.

The only open question is our support of Saudi Arabia. As I've said before, I think our support of them in Yemen is a kind of consolation prize to the Saudis for the nuclear deal with Iran and for our not preventing an Iranian success in propping up Bashar al-Assad. To the Saudis, all these issues are linked.

G. Verloren said...

These sorts of issues get very murky, very quickly.

People make entire careers devoting their whole lives to understanding these intensely complicated situations, and even they can't really predict what's going to happen. I therefor try to withold judgement, because there's just so much I don't know.