The last two weeks have yielded some amazing developments in the fight against extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), historically a skeptical partner at best, has gone on the offensive against the Taliban inside its own country. The most notable development was the capture of Taliban deputy commander Mullah Baradar, but the ISI has also reportedly wrapped up nearly half of the Quetta Shura, a leadership council for the group. While it is unclear whether these arrests will turn the tide of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the case has strong implications for another theater in our fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates: Yemen.
In the wake of the failed Christmas Day bombing perpetrated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the United States has increasingly turned its attention to Yemen. With no support for military deployments to the area, the main thrust of U.S. strategy has been a high-value targeting (HVT) campaign against group leadership. The problem is that history has shown that simply eliminating insurgent or terrorist commanders does not automatically lead to victory. For example, who can forget the “Iraqi deck of cards” that became the primary metric for U.S. “success” after the fall of Saddam Hussein? My research of 20 different HVT campaigns since 1945 identifies three key lessons for the United States to improve its chances of success in Yemen: local forces have a better chance of success than outside forces, HVT campaigns can’t succeed in a vacuum, and understanding the dynamics of the enemy is essential.
On all three points, the Pakistan case can be instructive. Consistent U.S. pressure has galvanized the Pakistanis to take a more aggressive stance against the Taliban. Getting local forces on board is one of the larger obstacles facing us in Yemen. The United States’ intelligence collection capability in Yemen is limited, meaning that the Yemenis will be key in helping to identify and locate the targets. And this in itself is extremely problematic. How can we have success in Yemen when AQAP only ranks third on the Saleh government’s priority list behind the Huthi insurgents and southern separatists?
Our earlier efforts in Pakistan—which relied almost exclusively on one-off drone strikes against HVTs—also highlight the need for greater engagement in Yemen. While drone strikes have been quite effective in eliminating insurgent and terrorist leaders from the battlefield, they are sporadic and don’t garner the follow-on intelligence necessary to maintain sustained pressure on the group. So, within weeks of the drone strike that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud last August, his brother Hekimullah had taken over and led a number of attacks within Pakistan. We run the same risk in Yemen, where we have been burned in the past. The Al Qaeda franchise there was weakened by the successful U.S. drone strike against then-leader Qaed Salim al-Harithi in 2002 and the arrests of other top figures. But the effort was not sustained over time and the group, buoyed by a prison break in 2006, has reconstituted itself.
Finally, the Pakistan case demonstrates that in order to succeed, having a good understanding of enemy dynamics is mandatory. Without detailed knowledge of the terrorist network—which we aren’t getting in this case because we’re not capturing group commanders to gain intelligence—it’s difficult to determine which are the key nodes to go after and who will step in if key players are removed. The reason that Baitullah Mehsud was able to emerge as the head of the Pakistani Taliban was because his predecessor was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2004.
In order to have a lasting impact against AQAP, the United States will have to do much more than just carry out or support raids and attacks against group commanders. Remote strikes and targeted raids need to be combined with broader operations, both military and non-military, to achieve maximum effectiveness. This means that, in order to succeed in Yemen, we will have to expand our efforts there and convince the Yemeni government to focus its attention on AQAP. Until that happens, we will simply be treading water with no hope of durable success.