No ‘Winning’ In Yemen with Brennan

By James Gundun – Washington, D.C.

On Thursday, February 7th, a relatively quiet affair will unfold at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington DC.

His path to the top finally cleared by marital scandal, John Brennan is set to assume the CIA’s Directorship after what should be a smooth confirmation before the Senate Select Committee On Intelligence. President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism coordinator has been lauded as a tireless model of integrity, portrayed by the U.S. media as one of the President’s closest advisers, and delivers the cost-efficient counterterrorism favored by the majority of Congress. Some Senators promise hard questioning – particularly in regards to torture policies, foiled terror plots and the constitutional legality of killing U.S. citizens in foreign countries – but Brennan and the Obama administration expect minimal objections to his promotion.

“There’s no indication of any trouble,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Monday.

Accordingly, few Senators are likely to challenge Brennan too deeply on the future of U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s remaining networks (dubbed al-Qaeda 2.0), and this outcome is especially probable in a country where Brennan’s unpopularity rivals al-Qaeda’s. Never mind that his confirmation hearing is scheduled to revolve around the targeted assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, whose case just resurfaced in the form of a Justice Department “white paper” that backs the use of lethal force. This topic, although highly relevant in general, skims right over al-Awlaki’s Yemeni homeland and conceals the many gaps that prevent U.S. policy from establishing sustainable relations with its people.

This attention deficit will similarly disregard Brennan’s personal approval in Yemen, a reckless way of overseeing an expanding “small” war that was never formally declared by Congress. The systematic bombing of Yemeni territory and any resulting civilian casualties – Brennan estimates few – have been attributed to his hands, and Yemenis rightfully expect the worst from his future actions. Speaking to The New York Times in August 2011, Brennan defended the accelerated use of drones by claiming, “for more than a year, due to our discretion and precision, the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq.”

If this statement was accurate, and independence evidence suggests otherwise, the argument still functions as a temporal loophole in Yemen. Dozens of civilians (including women and children) were killed by the administration’s initial Tomahawk and drone strikes following the attempted Christmas bombing in December 2009, christening the front against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in disastrous fashion. Amnesty International later published evidence of U.S. cluster bombs and their lethal bomblets, and the Yemeni journalist investigating this event was jailed indefinitely under pressure from the Obama administration.

Brennan has repeatedly argued that U.S. counter-terror operations succeed when the U.S. “supports good governance that addresses people’s basic needs, when we stand up for universal human rights.”

Human rights didn’t make the agenda on October 14th, 2011, when al-Awlaki’s 16-year old son Abdulrahman (a U.S. citizen with no proven involvement in terrorism) was assassinated following his father’s execution on September 30th. Abdulrahman’s death has never been fully acknowledged, investigated or explained beyond an “outrageous mistake.” More civilian casualties would follow up to the present, including one high-profile bombing of a bus in Rada’a, and many Yemenis question the veracity of official statements announcing the deaths of “suspected militants.” The New York Times recently published an account of the August 2012 strike that killed Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a cleric that denounced terrorism only to be bombed when AQAP came looking for him.

Suffering from a total lack of credibility, the latest uptick in Yemen’s drone strikes has created the impression that Brennan is padding his stats before confirmation, a charge he that surely denies but cannot erase. In coordination with Brennan’s hearing, Yemenis are organizing a Twitter protest – #NoDrones – to express their advice and ignored feelings to the Obama administration.

Furthermore, Brennan played an integral role in negotiating David Petraeus’s secret arrangement with dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, which opened Yemen’s skies to drones under corrupt and obscure terms. The unstable interchange between Saleh and the Obama administration manufactured numerous coverups (Saleh infamously promised Petraeus that he would take credit for U.S. air strikes, but exploited the collateral when things went wrong) and a “secret” drone base along the Yemeni-Saudi border, and seeded the ground for political hegemony during Yemen’s revolution. Brennan was later deployed to assist the equally unpopular Gerald Feierstein, Obama’s ambassador in Sana’a, in orchestrating the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) power-sharing agreement between Saleh’s ruling party and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP).

This agreement, among other injustices, offered immunity to Saleh for the very crimes committed jointly with the Obama administration.

Perhaps worst of all is Brennan’s public and egotistical indifference to these issues, as this attitude suggests a continuation of the present course. At first the Obama administration’s counterterrorism team would ignore the rancor bubbling up from inaccurate drone strikes and local resentment, whether in Yemen or Pakistan. Following the triumphant killing of Osama bin Laden, the administration elected to take the offensive and began a media rollout of its legal argument for targeted assassinations, led by Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder. During this phase Brennan rejected a cautionary letter authored by Yemenis and foreign observers, demonstrating his inflexibility by arguing that drone strikes don’t cause as much hostility as believed.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in August 2012, “we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP.”

Accompanying this statement were outlandish claims of a relationship that few Yemenis would recognize. Of course Brennan would never speak of his own role in the undermining of Yemen’s revolution, and won’t touch Abdulrahman al-Awlaki’s death. He appears to have convinced himself that U.S. policy fully addresses Yemen’s non-military needs, and supports the Yemeni people in their quest for political representation and universal rights. Flatly denied is the “suggestion that our policy toward Yemen is dominated by our security and counterterrorism efforts.” Nor does Brennan acknowledge the widespread negativity directed towards Riyadh, Washington’s partner in crime in Yemen.

“Whenever I go out to Yemen, I invariably will go to Saudi Arabia, sometimes before and as well as after my visits there, because what the Saudis and the Yemenis want to do is to make sure that we’re working this together.”

As a result, the Obama administration’s public stance towards Yemen’s people gives the impression that the White House is viewing an alternate reality, or else weighs political and military access with Yemen’s transitional government above local sentiments. Left over is the pervasive feeling that U.S. economic support increased as a counterbalance to political interference and military operations; up to this point Brennan and the Obama administration remain unresponsive to Yemen’s revolutionaries, activists, tribal authorities, common citizens and whole political blocs. Brennan and U.S. commanders of Special Forces go so far as to claim that “great progress” has been made in Yemen, and that “the corner” is finally being turned against AQAP.

Several questions immediately leap to mind, questions that won’t be asked at the Senate’s confirmation hearing. First, what happens if transitional President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi follows through on his public intention not to run for president in 2014? Will the U.S. lose operational access due to a less cooperative government, strong-arm this new government into submission or fly over its head? Will Hadi remain in power at the urging of Washington and Riyadh, and would another cooperative government pose the same threat to democracy as relations with Saleh’s regime?

More to the point, how can the solution to a problem be as problematic as the problem itself Brennan represents the antithesis of democracy in Yemen and offers an ideal villain for AQAP’s propaganda – so how can his image or strategies defeat al-Qaeda’s ideology?

– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst. His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @RealistChannel.

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