Monday, April 11, 2016

How the US-backed War in Yemen Strengthened Al Qaeda

An old saying holds that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". However simplistic, this basic concept can be found lurking beneath many US foreign policy decisions over the years--for example, allying with the Soviet Union against Germany in World War II, allying with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union during the 1980s, and pretty much any country where we tried to prop up a dictator or overthrow a government in the name of stopping the spread of communism. Given the negative consequences of many US foreign policy episodes, it might be a good idea to question the wisdom of this tiny phrase. But for better or worse, it still seems to hold quite a bit of sway.

Unfortunately, while this idea is still prevalent, the US seems to forget the critical corollary that goes with it. If the enemy of our enemy truly is our friend, we should be very careful to choose the right enemy in the first place. Otherwise, things can get complicated very quickly.

All of which brings us to the confusing and disastrous US-backed War in Yemen. In this conflict, the US is backing Saudi Arabia against the Houthi rebels who originally seized power in September 2014. Saudi's stated goal is to reinstall the former dictator / president of that country. But one of the problems here is that the Houthis also happen to be the preeminent enemy of Yemen's Al Qaeda branch, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Thus, if the enemy of our enemy is our friend, then Al Qaeda is the US's friend in Yemen.

If that sounds crazy to you, you may be interested to know that this isn't the first time we've seen this dynamic play out in US foreign policy. We don't even have to go back in history to find examples; we can stay within President Obama's tenure in the White House. In Syria, the most dominant rebel faction outside of ISIS is Al Qaeda's Syria branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. Thankfully, President Obama has not decided to wage an outright war to overthrow the Syrian government, but the US has been arming and supporting rebels that were fighting against the Syrian government. Here again, Al Qaeda and the US had fixated on a common enemy in Bashar al-Assad. US officials even privately acknowledged and understood this fact; early on in the Syrian conflict one of Hillary Clinton's staffers wrote to her and explicitly said, "AQ [Al Qaeda] is on our side in Syria". The policy of covertly supporting rebels against Assad proceeded anyway.

In Syria, the weakening of Assad directly coincided with the strengthening of both Syria's Al Qaeda branch and ISIS. In Yemen, the attacks on the Houthi regime have been a gift to AQAP. These outcomes are entirely predictable and counterproductive. It's also why there's no need to exaggerate or embellish at all when discussing US foreign policy. The open reality that everyone acknowledges is already bad enough. It's possible that the US has been explicitly backing ISIS or Al Qaeda in pursuit of higher foreign policy priorities, but regardless of whether that's true, the fact remains that key components of our foreign policy have been effectively helping these groups. It doesn't matter what the intent of these policies is; what matters is their effects.

Today, we're recommending a report from Reuters on AQAP's presence in Yemen that gives new insight into just how much the Yemen War has benefited the group. The report is based on numerous interviews with residents as well as quotes from the group's leaders. Like ISIS further north, AQAP appears to be transitioning from a mere insurgency to a quasi-state along Yemen's southern coast. And none of it would be possible without the US-backed war.

Here's a link to the piece:

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