Cruise Missiles and Yemeni Neighborhoods

“The US is planning retaliatory strikes in Yemen against al-Qaida over its attempt to blow up a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day.  American officials […] warn that finding those responsible is unlikely to be swift and say that identifying other ‘high-value’ al-Qaida targets for retaliatory attack would also be a priority.” – The Guardian (U.K.), 12/30/2009

As U.S. officials are quoted mulling cruise-missile strikes on Yemen, it should be noted that the Yemeni government, such as it is, has already been fighting the hard slog – on the ground, rooting out Al Qaeda in Yemeni neighborhoods and villages.

Below is an interesting 7 minutes of film fresh from Yemen,  just posted to youTube today:  a moment-by-moment video documenting the Arhab raid by the Yemeni Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) on an Al-Qaeda-in-the-Arabian-Peninsula (AQAP) safe-house, on 17 December, the same day as a coordinated U.S. cruise missile attack on another site.

The raid resulted in at least three  dead, including purportedly at least one former Guantanamo detainee, and 19 AQAP suspects taken into custody.  At 3 minutes into the 7-minute video, you see a quick zoom-and-pan showing the tactical forces surrounding the safe-house, followed by their stealthy advance. I have a hunch some bloody scenes are deleted.

The American public has been re-learning Yemen’s unfamiliar name in the past few days; its profile in the United States rose and fell quickly when the U.S.S. Cole was attacked on a port visit there in 2000. A reported visit to Yemen by “The Nigerian,” Northwest Airlines terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab during preparations for his attack has attracted the spotlight of official Washington.

What’s next? As I noted, even prior to the Christmas event the Obama Administration had recently been employing aerial drones and cruise missile attacks against suspected Al Qaeda sites in Yemen, including the one just a week before the Christmas Day airliner attack. The use of cruise missiles attracted little notice; I noted it in a post on Twitter when news surfaced in Washington on Dec.19, and got several raised-eyebrow messages back like this one, from an IC person who uses a protected account: “@lewisshepherd: Cruise missiles? That’s really old school.”

I’ll just make an observation, oversimplified for a point that deserves more explication than a blogpost allows. In this particular circumstance and set of conditions, you can either lob cruise missiles from afar, with little effect – or you can get serious and engage militarily on the ground. If you’re not willing to do the latter, there may be little point in doing the former.

Half measures do not make for good counter-terrorist policy. We learned that lesson before. Read  Chapter 4 of the 9/11 Commission Report.

The 1990s featured U.S. foreign/military policy focused on low-risk, arms-length employment of military and paramilitary force in support of diplomacy. The Clinton Administration defaulted to pinpointed use of aerial-bombing without the deployment of ground forces during the Serbian campaign, and in repeated engagement of Al Qaeda sites in Afghanistan, Yemen and Sudan during the late 1990s. That approach stands in stark contrast to the large-scale boots-on-the-ground wars after 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The 9/11 Commission Report makes clear that in 1999 and up through September 2001, “Cruise missiles were and would remain the only military option on the table” (p. 137). There was argument about, but no appetite for, boots on the ground.

Often you don’t get to choose your best option – choices are thrust upon you. Sometimes you think you’ve made a choice, as the depressing Chapters 4 and 5 of the 9/11 Commission Report demonstrate, only to find that your chosen course of action merely postponed the inevitable.

As a reminder, the Bush Administration’s approach in Iraq and Afghanistan was replete with episodes like the Yemeni CTU raid, at scale – but they were American forces leading the combat.  We appear to be moving into a new era (back to the future?) of hands-off cruise-missile responses and “strategically chosen retaliatory strikes,” so here’s a link demonstrating the difference – “The Surge: The Untold Story,” demonstrating in now-surprisingly nostalgic video form how the U.S. won the Iraq surge of 2008 by “fighting for each neighborhood.”  

Here’s hoping we are not forced to return and fight for Yemeni neighborhoods in the coming decade.

Note: I first noted the above video on the insightful Waq al-Waq blog, one of the best nongovernmental western sources for Yemeni coverage. You might want to check it out, as its coverage and domain expertise will come in handy in coming weeks as “Yemen” is a trending topic in U.S. news sources… for at least a little while.

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4 Responses

  1. There’s a third alternative to _just_ cruise missiles or full-bore invasion: working hand-in-hand with Yemenis. that’s what has been done so far in past few ops, and just might work


  2. i’m most worried at the lack of historical perspective in the administration and the media commentators. We seem to spiral in and out of these crises wihtout ever doign a fundamental questioning of why history repeats itself in our Middle East relations.


  3. Why has no one really made the connection with Iran yet anyway? this all started in the ’78 “revolution”


  4. I say, Bombs away!


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