Foreign and Defense Policy, Terrorism

Is Obama Passing on Opportunities to Strike al Qaeda in Yemen?

The operation that tracked down Anwar al-Awlaki was a major success, but as these charts show, since 2008 the United States has carried out just 14 drone strikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.

During that same period, by contrast, the United States has carried out 258 drone strikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Which raises a question: Why so many successful strikes in Pakistan, but so few in Yemen?

In yesterday’s Washington Post, David Ignatius writes this is a conscious choice:

Despite calls by some U.S. officials for drone attacks against the training camps of AQAP and al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, neither has been targeted. That’s a deliberate policy decision—aimed partly at preventing the spread of a Taliban-style insurgency to new theaters, such as Yemen and Somalia… “We don’t want to get involved in a domestic confrontation inside Yemen or Somalia, or increase anti-U.S. sentiment” in those places.

Does the Obama administration really have accurate information about the location of AQAP training camps and safe houses, but is deliberately holding off on hitting those sites in order to avoid an “increase in anti-U.S. sentiment”? This would be a stunning strategic miscalculation—one the president would pay for dearly if AQAP were to mount a successful attack on the homeland.

But I suspect something else is at work here. Last November, the Post reported “The United States has … not fired missiles from the unmanned aircraft because it lacks solid intelligence on the insurgents’ whereabouts, senior U.S. officials said.” Clearly our intelligence has improved since then, but a disparity remains. The reason? In Pakistan, before 2008 the United States had a policy of capturing al Qaeda leaders alive, who provided us with a wealth of intelligence on al Qaeda’s operations in that country. But when the United States became aware of the danger posed by AQAP, the interrogation program had already been shut down—so we never developed the same insight into AQAP’s operations in Yemen.

Bottom line: Either we do not have the intelligence to target AQAP because we are no longer capturing the terrorists who can provide it, or we have the intelligence to target AQAP, but we are holding our fire. Either one is a damning indictment of the Obama administration.

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