Tonight, in his highly anticipated speech announcing a strategy to address the Islamic State and the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, President Obama will compare his plans to what the United States has been doing in Somalia and Yemen to address al-Qaeda affiliates and violent jihadi groups in those places over the past several years. (See the excerpts here.)
How does that bode for the president’s strategy? Not terribly, but not that well.
On the upside, the U.S. has been involved in Yemen and Somalia for years now at relatively low financial cost (on the scale of hundreds of millions or single-digit billions) and with zero American soldiers or civilians lost. And there have been real victories: The U.S. has repeatedly killed top leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, and al-Shabaab, which is based in Somalia. Indeed, just last week, a U.S. drone killed one of the co-founders of al-Shabaab, Ahmed Godane, who had helped turn the organization into one with a more transnational Islamist ideology and closer ties to al-Qaeda. Drone strikes have been one leg of the U.S. counterterrorism stool in Somalia and Yemen — the other two have been limited involvement by U.S. intelligence and special forces operators (in Somalia, at least) and financial, logistical, and intelligence support for local governments, mostly in counterterrorism and security capabilities. (The U.S. also has supported a multinational peacekeeping force in Somalia.)
So the strategy in those two places has come at a low cost. Here’s the downside: The returns have been low, too.
We’ve killed a whole lot of terrorists, but haven’t destroyed or even significantly degraded terrorist capabilities of the key groups in either country, and both countries are almost as unstable as they were, say, five years ago. Al-Shabaab has carried out two highly effective attacks against Western-affiliated targets in East Africa, though it hasn’t shown any ability to hit the U.S. homeland, since we got more heavily involved there; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was, before the Syria situation arose, considered the al-Qaeda affiliate with perhaps the best operational ability to hit the United States, and helped out terrorists like the Christmas Day bomber’s attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner in 2009.
And there’s some reason to believe we’re going to have an even tougher time in Iraq than in Somalia and Yemen: Both have alternately corrupt or almost powerless and insecure governments, but both governments are more or less friendly to the West and committed to the same kind of War on Terror that the U.S. is. In Iraq, the national government, for the foreseeable future, is going to have a sectarian, pro-Shia mission, too, and seek support of various kinds from Shia militias and the Iranian government. There are plenty of problems with our partners in Yemen and Somalia, but we don’t face that kind of issue. On the flip side, Iraq is a vastly richer country than Yemen and Somalia, so if we do get a good government there, it might be more effective than the Somali or Yemeni governments have been in fighting terrorists.
There are plenty more wrinkles, but the president’s strategy is not a grand one, nor a proven one.