Yemen’s Field of Scarecrows

By James Gundun – Washington

Anwar al-Awlaki’s death will only bring more misery to Yemenis.

He was everything that Osama bin Laden envisioned. A U.S.-born Muslim with roots in Yemen, home to an American puppet and Saudi hegemony, Anwar al-Awlaki would increasingly challenge America’s might on his path to joining al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The charismatic cleric became a jihadist bridge to West, from Internet sermons to video and AQAP’s colorful Inspire magazine, branding al-Awlaki as a primary threat to the U.S. homeland. He would ultimately pursue bin Laden’s strategic goal of luring the U.S. military into a hostile environment, in order to deprave it economically and morally.

The first objective was partially successful; given how little U.S. policy has accomplished in Yemen, al-Awlaki’s death is worth hundreds of millions in military and economic assistance. A ground force was unnecessary and Washington had already run low on resources when AQAP became an active priority in 2009, aborting the trillion dollar campaign of Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead Yemen became the central testing ground for whether cheaper, “off-shore” counterterrorism (aerial operations, U.S. Special Forces and CIA intelligence) can stand alone. A modest budget was inherently built into Yemen’s widening front.

However al-Awlaki did help fulfill bin Laden’s objective of alienating a Muslim populace from America. Yemen’s revolutionaries are no terrorists and don’t despise America because of her freedom – but because the U.S. government is standing in the way of their own.

“The death of al-Awlaki marks another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates,” President Barack Obama promptly declared on Friday morning. “Furthermore, this success is a tribute to our intelligence community, and to the efforts of Yemen and its security forces, who have worked closely with the United States over the course of several years.”

Friday was the first time that Obama mentioned Yemen in months (not counting a few passing remarks at the UN’s General Assembly), and he made sure to keep quiet about its nine-month revolution against Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime. Instead Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and lower level officials focused on al-Awlaki’s role as AQAP’s “leader of external operations,” a questionable claim, and the success of joint operations with the Yemeni government, another question mark. A valid debate over civil liberties was amplified to downplay whether supporting Saleh’s regime is legal; his U.S.-trained counterterrorism units, the Republican Guard and Central Security Organization, are currently killing protesters with impunity. This public strategy has been applied before and after Yemen’s revolution began in January, inhibiting genuine regime change.

“Al-Qaeda remains a threat,” White House press secretary Jay Carney insisted. “While this is an important milestone, it is not the end of AQAP.”

The end of AQAP starts with the end of Saleh’s government, not any al-Qaeda leader, commander, cleric or foot soldier. Progress in U.S. counterterrorism efforts contradicts separate claims that the group has expanded its ranks and increased its threat during the same period. Saleh also stands accused of funding proxy “jihadists” and allowing AQAP room to grow, all to dupe the West into military and economic funding that he then misappropriates. The strongman functions as an ideal recruiting magnet for AQAP, a deeply unpopular American stooge who oppresses Muslims for personal gain.

Yemen’s National Council of the Peaceful Revolutionary Forces (NCPRF) recently warned, “The incapable and failed regime of Sana’a is surviving only on the claim that they are countering the threat of terrorism in the region.”

The Obama administration has yet to publicly accept this realization, pushing forward with its quest to arrange a “peacefully and orderly transition” to a friendly “unity” council. Despite Saleh’s political resistance and violent outbursts, the White House maintains its vigorous support the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) generous “30/60” initiative. Orchestrated between Saleh’s regime, Yemen’s unpopular political opposition, U.S. and Saudi officials, the deal offers Saleh and his family immunity for their crimes, allocates additional time to resign and schedules a presidential election too soon for Yemen’s protesters to organize. The GCC’s proposal was also repeatedly amended by Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and UN officials, to the point that no one is clear on its terms.

Yemen’s revolutionaries widely reject the initiative as a false exit, one that Saleh himself refuses to take it. He prefers to remain in power until an election is held at an indefinite point in the future.

U.S. officials only attempted to cut their way through Yemen’s political jungle when confronted. Amid praise for the government’s cooperation and a defense of extrajudicial killings, Carney argued that al-Awlaki’s death is, “separate from President Saleh and our view about him; that has not changed. We continue to call on him to abide by the commitments he’s made to begin the transfer of power immediately, as stipulated in the GCC agreement. And that hasn’t changed.”

Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s spokeswoman, issued a similar logic that journalists found difficult to follow. The administration has left Yemen to press secretaries and counterterrorism officials, draining the life out of U.S. diplomacy, and Nuland has been tasked for many of the administration’s recent statements. Locked into a typed response, the spokeswoman retraced a GCC “roadmap” that has been bombarded by Saleh’s duplicity. As al-Awlaki’s death followed fresh claims that he’s the only reliable ally against AQAP – a primal excuse to remain in power – one reporter remarked that Saleh “states very clearly that he’s not going anywhere… So how do you react to that?”

Nuland replied, “The first step in our reading of the GCC proposal is that he sign it, that he – and in signing it, that he make clear that he will relinquish power. Then it speaks of a process of agreeing on a roadmap in which there would be new elections, which presumably would bring a fresh set of folks into power.”

GCC rhetoric, of course, is how U.S. officials must respond. What else can they say after six months of unflinching support – that Saleh no longer needs to sign? The initiative is a stalling mechanism by design, so demanding that he agree plays into his scheme. Although U.S. policy on Saleh was framed as a main message, Carney and Nuland spent the majority of their briefings highlighting al-Awlaki’s threat and U.S. counterterrorism operations. The administration’s political message is easily drowned out in al-Awlaki’s blur, hyped to the point that many Americans only hear that he’s a terrorist, and that counterterrorism operations must continue.

In a few days al-Awlaki will disappear from U.S. headlines and consciousness, and all that will remain is tacit support for Saleh’s regime.

al-Alwaki was never popular or relevant amongst Yemen’s revolutionaries, but his blood has now splattered their cause. Having stuck with Saleh throughout his own “off-shore” rampage to locate the cleric, the administration sacrificed hundreds of Yemenis as they continued to march for freedom. U.S. air-strikes have also killed an undetermined number of civilians hunting AQAP cells in the southern governorates. More will follow their cruel end after al-Awlaki’s raid immediately descended into political theater, choreographed as much as chaos can be. Whether the U.S. tracked him for three weeks, three months or two years, Saleh was aware that a strike would occur soon. Both U.S. and Yemeni officials confirmed a joint-intelligence operation and CIA operators coordinated with Yemeni officials during the raid. One U.S. intelligence official added, “Allowing us to go on the property and get fingerprint analysis was a nice gesture of cooperation by the Yemeni government.”

President Obama promised during Admiral Michael Mullen’s farewell ceremony, “Working with Yemen and our other allies and partners, we will be determined, we will be deliberate, we will be relentless, we will be resolute in our commitment to destroy terrorist networks that aim to kill Americans.”

Saleh knew that al-Awlaki’s death, contrary to losing one of his pawns, would entrench his support from Washington, and duly returned to Sana’a to reap his spoils. The cleric’s termination builds on months of “increased cooperation” – new air-strikes often followed Saleh’s latest offense – and the shadowy battle for Zinjibar, orchestrated like a video game. Yemeni forces would prematurely "reclaim" the city on the eve of 9/11, garnering mutual praise from Yemeni and U.S. officials. al-Awlaki’s importance to AQAP was exaggerated to blunt the onslaught of civil rights activists, but he now serves as “proof” that Saleh is needed to eliminate the rest of AQAP, obstructing Yemen’s revolution in the process.

U.S. personnel still need to trace AQAP chief Nasir Abdel Karim al-Wuhayshi, along with bomb-maker Khalid Ibrahim Ahmed al-Asiri (U.S. officials tentatively claimed his death as well). AQAP will replace al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, the editor of Inspire, offering new scarecrows for Saleh to manipulate. Of greater consequence, al-Awlaki’s bargaining chip shrinks in comparison to a “secret” CIA base located on the country’s outskirts, somewhere near the Saudi border. Yemen is also of vital geopolitical importance to the U.S., connected to Saudi Arabia, Somalia and China’s spheres of influence. Saleh himself has become a scarecrow to the West, a menacing puppet that is much weaker than he appears.

“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains a dangerous – though weakened – terrorist organization,” President Obama concluded upon al-Awlaki’s demise. “And going forward, we will remain vigilant against any threats to the United States, or our allies and partners. But make no mistake: This is further proof that al Qaeda and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world.”

Proof that only friendly dictators will continue to enjoy their safe havens.

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

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