The Yemen War

The Yemen War

It’s not news that the United States has been actively using armed force in Yemen for some time. The Bush Administration reportedly launched a first drone strike against alleged Al Qaeda targets in the country (with the Yemeni government’s cooperation) back in 2002, and of course multiple reports have described the Obama Administration’s use of drones in the country as well (this one among the more recent). But at some level, these strikes have been pitched – and are still usually reported – as one-offs. Yemen is named as among the handful of countries, along with Somalia, that has seen the occasional use of targeted strikes against individuals engaged in active plots against America and its interests. Nothing like the Iraq War. Nothing like the Afghanistan War.

As a few others have started to point out, that characterization is getting harder to see. Today brings news that Congress is considering a $75 million package of aid to Yemen’s counterterrorism forces, including $4.7 million so Yemen can have its own set of aerial surveillance drones, $8.6 million worth of up-armored Humvees, $15 million worth of weapons, and $1.5 million for the construction of two new Yemeni “expeditionary bases” in Aden and al-Anad. While standing alone, military aid to an ally (to the extent there’s a functioning government to support) hardly a war makes, the latest aid package doesn’t stand alone. Not long after the U.S. Defense Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs stated publicly that there “is no consideration of” sending American troops to the country, the Pentagon clarified (unsurprisingly) that there were indeed some Special Forces troops on the ground in country to help support Yemeni and U.S. targeting operations. In the past few months, the United States returned additional military advisers to Yemen to support the new government, and the President issued an unusual executive order that the White House described as “authorizing sanctions to be imposed on individuals and entities who threaten the peace, security, and stability of Yemen by disrupting the political transition” now underway. As the White House press release put it: “This Executive Order will allow the United States to take action against those who seek to undermine Yemen’s transition and the Yemeni peoples’ clear desire for change.” Meantime, the pace of U.S. bombing strikes in country (reportedly coordinated with the Yemeni government) appears to be accelerating amidst an increasingly bloody, multi-faction civil war, parties to which include, among others, the new Yemeni government and one faction supported by some version of a group lately associated with (what remains of) Al Qaeda.

In May, the New York Times quoted President Obama as having insisted to internal advisors: “We are not going to war with Yemen.” It may be the case that we are not at war “with Yemen.” But it’s getting tough to argue we’re not at war in Yemen. We are in what sounds an awful lot like a traditional, territory-specific, non-international armed conflict in which the United States has intervened on one side. The characterization of a conflict as an NIAC of course has legal consequences. (Among other things, at a minimum, the applicability of Common Article 3 to U.S. and Yemeni activities there.) Maybe more important in the near term, the characterization has political consequences that democracy is probably best served by acknowledging. By articulating the strategic costs and benefits, and making the case that the one outweighs the other. By explaining how such engagement is consistent with DOD budget cuts. By at least contemplating an end game.

Put it this way. It’s one thing politically to justify the targeting of a handful of Al Qaeda members before they can blow up a U.S.-bound plane. It’s another thing to say we’re embarking upon the third post-9/11 war of the millennium. I’d like to hear the argument on the Hill this week that the latter pitch is wrong.

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