- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Yemen’s descent into political chaos makes it the latest Mideast nation too dangerous for U.S. officials to operate in — a development intelligence sources say will dangerously limit America’s ability to track and target al Qaeda and other extremist terror movements in the region.

While some Obama administration critics see the military triumphs of Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels in Yemen as a victory by the region’s Shiite powerhouse, Iran, others say the more dangerous fallout will be the loss of real-time intelligence and on-the-ground assets following the withdrawal of U.S. special forces from a Yemeni air base that has long played a key role in the battle against Sunni extremist al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Yemen is the home base of the Sunni terrorist group, which U.S. intelligence officials have described as the most likely among jihadi organizations around the world to “attempt transnational attacks against the United States.”

SEE ALSO: Yemen’s president flees country by sea amid rebel advance

Despite the value of the base, the administration ordered the pullout of all U.S. forces from Yemen’s Al Anad air base on March 20 after AQAP forces and aligned tribal fighters briefly took control of the nearby city of Houta.

While military and intelligence officials are mum on the role the base has played in hundreds of drone strikes carried out against AQAP operatives during recent years, the sudden American pullout underscores the extent to which the administration’s counterterrorism strategy has collapsed in the region.

A year ago, President Obama pointed to Yemen as a model for his strategy and a success story in the counterterrorism fight.

Now the nation fits into a pattern in which the administration has similarly withdrawn officials from Syria and Libya — two other nations that have degenerated into breeding grounds for groups like AQAP and the Islamic State.

While sources told The Washington Times on Tuesday that there remains a clandestine and active U.S. intelligence presence in all three nations, analysts and former officials described the situation as dire.

“U.S. counterterrorism efforts right now are in serious jeopardy because of the situations in Libya, Yemen and Syria and the absence of any kind of a serious U.S. presence, particularly a military presence, on the ground,” said Seth G. Jones, the director of the RAND Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy Center.

‘Lower level of knowledge’

Former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, who writes an occasional opinion column for The Washington Times, said the closure of U.S. embassies and removal of U.S. personnel is making it far more difficult for Washington to engage with local populations in each country — a key underpinning of the Obama administration’s overall counterterrorism strategy.

When the American “footprint on the ground goes away, we just have a lower level of knowledge of the situation,” Mr. Hayden told lawmakers during a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing on Tuesday. He added that, “We appear to be a nation in retreat when we take these kinds of steps.”

One intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, rejected the idea that U.S. military and intelligence assets have suddenly lost the capability to direct drone strikes or launch major operations against terrorists because of the pullout from Yemen.

At the Pentagon, however, officials suggested that the decision to pull U.S. forces from the Al Anad air base could be devastating.

“Certainly, repositioning our forces out of Yemen will make our fight against AQAP more difficult,” said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren. “There is no question about that.”

Operations against the group had already scaled back dramatically following the fall of Yemen’s American-backed government early this year. U.S. and Yemeni officials say what had been consistent pressure on AQAP has since eased — and that a safe haven now exists for the development of an offshoot of the Syria- and Iraq-based Islamic State.

A recent report by the Congressional Research Service, citing State Department figures, found that the Obama administration had committed more than $890 million in assistance to Yemen between 2012 and the start of this year — with U.S. military assistance focused on bolstering the nation’s surveillance drone capabilities and training its armed forces.

The administration argues that the U.S. had no choice but to rely on local partners in the terror fight if it wanted to avoid sending in American ground troops at a time when President Obama was vowing to wind down U.S. military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the administration’s approach has come under intensified scrutiny since September, when Iran-linked Shiite Muslim militants in Yemen — known as the Houthi rebels — threatened to take over the nation’s capital to protest the failure to implement a power-sharing political agreement.

In January, under intense pressure from the rebels, Yemeni President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi dissolved the nation’s parliament. The months since have seen AQAP, which has been affiliated with some of the most serious attempted attacks on the U.S. since 9/11, push to exploit the chaos.

Washington shuttered its embassy in Sanaa last month.

Yemen’s embattled President Hadi on Tuesday asked the U.N. Security Council to authorize a military intervention in support of his government even as the Houthi forces continue to advance into Yemen’s Sunni south. President Hadi said in a letter to the council obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press that he had also asked members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League to immediately provide “all means necessary, including military intervention to protect Yemen and its people from the continuing Houthi aggression.”

Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that even the most optimistic regional experts did not share President Obama’s view in the fall that the Yemen campaign was a model of success.

“It was being defined in terms of what we were doing to develop local forces and use drones and counter the immediate and real security threat,” said Mrs. Bodine, now director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. “But what we hadn’t done, certainly had not done visibly enough, was get at the economic and governance issues that were driving the problem.”

Jacqueline Klimas and Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide