There’s been plenty of talk over the past weeks and months, as the official Yemeni government has lost control of more and more territory, and finally its own capital, that it wasn’t the greatest idea for President Obama to tout our counterterrorism project in Yemen as the model for the 2014–15 campaign against the Islamic State.
That comparison just started to look even worse, because said project in Yemen is, for now, over:
The Obama administration has been forced to suspend counterterrorism operations with Yemen in the aftermath of the collapse of its government, according to U.S. officials, a move that abruptly eases pressure on al-Qaeda’s most dangerous franchise.
Armed drones operated by the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command remain deployed for now over southern Yemen, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is based. But U.S. officials said that the Yemeni security services that provided much of the intelligence that sustained that U.S. air campaign are now controlled by Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, who have seized control of much of the capital.
Even before the disintegration of the government, officials say, the growing chaos in Yemen had resulted in a steady erosion in intelligence-gathering efforts against AQAP and a de facto suspension in raids by Yemeni units trained, equipped and often flown to targeted al-Qaeda compounds by U.S. forces.
“The agencies we worked with . . . are really under the thumb of the Houthis. Our ability to work with them is not there,” said a senior U.S. official closely involved in monitoring the situation. In a measure of U.S. concern over the crisis, officials also signaled for the first time a willingness to open talks with Houthi leaders, despite their suspected ties to Iran and antipathy toward the United States.
The “Yemen model,” as I noted back in September, only worked in the sense that it came at relatively low cost to the U.S. — the country and its government have not been going in the right direction for years, and that is, generally speaking, crucial to running a counterterrorism operation in said country. It’s not quite fair to say the same thing of Somalia — its has been moving in the right direction, partly because it lacks both an Islamist actor as competent as Yemen’s al-Qaeda branch and doesn’t have a strong insurgency with outside support like the Houthi rebels that just took over Yemen’s capital. (Yemen doesn’t need any more bad news but it cannot feel great o fall behind Somalia in anything.)