Danger Room (Wired)

Let’s Admit It: The U.S. Is at War in Yemen, Too

After years of sending drones and commandos into Pakistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week finally admitted the obvious: The US is “fighting a war” there. But American robots and special forces aren’t just targeting militants in Pakistan. They’re doing the same — with increasing frequency and increasing lethality — in Yemen. The latest drone attack happened early Wednesday in the Yemeni town of Azzan, killing nine people. It’s the 23rd strike in Yemen so far this year, according to the Long War Journal. In Pakistan, there have been only 22.

Surely, if America is at war in Pakistan, it’s at war in Yemen, too. And it’s time for the Obama administration to admit it.

For all the handwringing about the undeclared, drone-led war in Pakistan, it’s quietly been eclipsed. Yemen is the real center of the America’s shadow wars in 2012. After the US killed al-Qaida second in command Abu Yahya al-Libi earlier this month, Pakistan is actually running out of significant terrorists to strike. Yemen, by contrast, is a target-rich environment — and that’s why the drones are busier there these days.

The White House has declared al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen is to be the biggest terror threat to Americans today. The campaign to neutralize that threat is far-reaching — involving commandos, cruise missiles, and, of course, drone aircraft. It is also, according to some experts on the region, completely backfiring. Since the US ramped up its operations in Yemen in 2009, the ranks of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, have swelled from 300 fighters to more than 1,000.

The congressional foreign relations committees have had some briefings on the military and intelligence efforts in Yemen, Danger Room is told. But there’s been scant discussion in public of the campaign’s goals, or a way for measuring whether those goals have been reached. Outside of the classified arena, there’s little sense of what our Yemen operations cost, nor of what the costs would be if they were discontinued. It’s an odd situation, notes Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, since “it’s accurate to say we are ‘at war in Yemen.’”

“What should be accompanied with any (even unofficial) declaration of war is a clearly articulated strategy of what America’s strategic objectives in that country are, a cogent strategy for how current US policies will lead to that outcome, how US airstrikes are coordinated with other elements of power, and how much it might cost and when we might expect that to occur,” Zenko tells Danger Room. “Unfortunately, none of that has happened.”

There is no definitive accounting of America’s operations in Yemen and the region that surrounds it. But some details of the secretive missions have been leaked to the press. Here’s what we know.

The US has two separate drone campaigns underway in Yemen — one is run by the CIA, the other by the military’s Joint Special Operations Command. Some of the drones’ targets are authorized by President Obama himself. Some just happen to look or act like perceived threats. According to the tally assembled by the Long War Journal, only nine of the 155 people killed in Yemen by US drones this year have been civilians; no innocents were among the 81 slain in 2011. But it’s hard to know how much to trust those statistics. One of those killed in 2011 was Abd al-Rahman al-Awlaki, a 16 year-old American citizen whose father was a notorious al-Qaida propagandist. And the White House “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,” the New York Times reports. Perhaps Awlaki met that threshold.

The twin drone operations are only one facet of American efforts in Yemen, however. According to the Los Angeles Times, a contingent of at least 20 US special operations troops stationed inside the country are using “satellite imagery… eavesdropping systems and other technical means to help pinpoint targets” for the Yemeni military. Pieces from American-made BGM-109D Tomahawk cruise missiles and BLU97 A/B cluster bomblets have been photographed in the town of al-Majala, where 35 women and children were allegedly killed in a December 2009 strike. (The Yemeni journalist who documented the attack is now in prison, supposedly for abetting terrorists.) In neighboring Djibouti, eight American F-15Es jets are flying missions from the US outpost known as Camp Lemonnier; the Pentagon just handed out a $62 million contract to maintain the base. According to the investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, who has spent extensive time in the region, Djibouti is where “much of the coordination for Yemen ops” takes place.

For all of that firepower, there’s something rather obvious missing: a sense of how and why we’re fighting there. Yes, terrorists based there have tried to attack Americans — tried and repeatedly failed. And yes, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed by Congress right after 9/11, gives the military wide latitude to chase al-Qaida adherents around the globe. But there’s no articulated rationale for why these unsuccessful militants in Yemen warrant this particular military response. No sense of what victory looks like.

“I don’t believe that the US has a Yemen policy,” Princeton University scholar Gregoy Johnsen recently told Foreign Policy magazine. “What the US has is a counterterrorism strategy that it applies to Yemen.”

In this case, however, countering terror also carries the risk of participating in a civil war. The local al-Qaida group “is joined at the hip” with an insurgency largely focused on toppling the local government, one US official told the Washington Post. Take on the wannabe terrorists, and you may be wind up fighting the area’s insurgents, as well.

“In an effort to destroy the threat coming out of Yemen, the US is getting sucked further into the quicksand of a conflict it doesn’t understand and one in which its very presence tilts the tables against the US,” Johnsen wrote.

Katherine Zimmerman, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, doesn’t believe all this fighting adds up to the US being at war in Yemen, although she admits it’s “understandable” why others might hold that view. She sees the difference between the Pakistan war and the Yemen conflict as one of partnership, and intent. “It’s slightly different because of the local cooperation. The effort in FATA [Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas] are more heavily driven by Americans,” Zimmerman tells Danger Room. “In Yemen, we’re essentially acting as a stop gap until Yemenis can take full responsibility. We’ve got a very willing partner in Yemen. We’re working on making it an able partner.”

Of course, Yemen is only one part of an even larger regional conflict. The US maintains additional drone bases, not far away in the Seychelles and Ethiopia. The American Navy keeps around 30 warships in the nearby Indian Ocean, mostly to help fight local pirates. A pair of Lewis and Clark-class supply ships, possibly used as seaborne military camps for Special Forces, have been spotted in the region of late. At least one Somali terrorist was held by American commandos aboard the USS Boxer for weeks.

Over in nearby Somalia, just across the Gulf of Aden, America has backed proxies from the Kenyan army to a “butcher” warlord to take on the local terror group, al-Shabab. But American forces have become directly involved, too. US destroyers have launched missiles and fired their guns at terrorist targets. Members of SEAL Team 6 have dropped in to rescue hostages. Then of course, there are the drones. Perhaps, by Panetta’s standards, this means the US is “at war” in Somalia, as well.

Undeclared wars are dangerous wars. Questions about goals and resources can go unanswered, when there’s no  need to convince the people or the Congress of their merits. No one knows how undeclared wars end, or even when they’re won, because no one measures the progress of wars fought in the shadows. The only way they end is when the US decides to simply walk away — as with the 80s-era shadow war the US helped wage in Afghanistan. Looked like a great success for a decade; not so much on 9/11.

Of course, missions can drift and resources can vanish in a declared war; just look at Iraq. But when a fight is kept in the shadows by design, the chances for shenanigans and miscalculations rise. At least we have some sense of when and where resources were misspent in our open war in Afghanistan of today; in our secret campaign in Pakistan, there’s almost none.

The president doesn’t need to address a joint session of Congress every time he dispatches a warship or a handful of military advisers, naturally. But this fight in Yemen isn’t a disconnected, sporadic series of strikes. It’s wide-ranging and it’s multi-pronged. It’s costing lives while building up the ranks of our enemies. It’s war. And it’s time our Commander in Chief came out and said it.

If this war is worth waging, it’s worth waging openly. And it’s worth having a strategy with a clearly defined, achievable goal. Does anyone know what that is in Yemen? Is it the end of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula? The containment of AQAP? A functional Yemeni government that can fight AQAP without U.S. aid? We’ve gotten so used to fighting in the shadows for so long, we barely even ask our leadership what victory looks like.