Once hailed by US President Barack Obama as a model for fighting extremism, the US counterterrorism strategy in Yemen has all but collapsed as the country descends into chaos, according to US and Yemeni officials.
Operations against militants have been scaled back dramatically amid the fall of the US-backed government and the evacuation of US personnel.
What had been consistent pressure on Yemen’s dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate has been relieved, the officials said, and a safe haven exists for the development of an offshoot of the Islamic State group, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
It is a swift and striking transformation for an antiterror campaign Obama heralded just six months ago as the template for efforts to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The shift has left Obama open to criticism that he failed to anticipate the risks of a light footprint strategy that aims to put fragile governments and beleaguered local security forces, not the US military, at the forefront.
Former US ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine said that even the most optimistic regional experts did not share Obama’s view 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 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.”
Since September last year, Shiite Houthi rebels linked to Iran have ousted Yemeni president Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi and dissolved the parliament.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has been affiliated with some of the most serious attempted attacks in the US since Sept. 11, 2001, has sought to exploit the chaos.
Last month, the US shuttered its embassy in the capital, Sana’a, then withdrew the rest of its military personnel from Yemen over the weekend.
Since Obama took office, the US has poured millions of dollars into efforts to stabilize Yemen’s government and boost its security forces. Under Hadi, US-trained Yemeni troops were mounting regular raids to kill and capture al-Qaeda militants, punctuated by occasional CIA drone strikes aimed at senior figures.
The strategy has been guided by the central tenets of Obama’s philosophy for fighting extremists overseas: targeting extremists from the air, bolstering the capacity of foreign governments and avoiding putting large numbers of US military personnel on the ground in dangerous countries.
“It is the model that we’re going to have to work with, because the alternative would be massive US deployments in perpetuity, which would create its own blowback and cause probably more problems than it would potentially solve,” Obama said in January as the situation in Yemen deteriorated.
Now, virtually all of the Yemeni troops that had worked with the US are engaged on one side or another of a three-pronged political struggle between the remnants of the Hadi government, supporters of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Houthi faction, US officials say.
The officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak by name about sensitive intelligence assessments.
CIA drone strikes would continue, the officials said, but there would be fewer of them.
The agency’s ability to collect intelligence on the ground in Yemen, while not completely gone, is much diminished.
There have been just four US drone strikes reported in Yemen this year, according to Long War Journal, a Web site that tracks the attacks. That is about half the pace that last year resulted in 23 strikes over 12 months.
What is less clear is whether AQAP will be able to take advantage of the situation to renew its active plotting against Western aviation.
The group has successfully put three bombs on US-bound jets, none of which exploded.
In 2012, the CIA, along with British and Saudi intelligence services, used a double agent to obtain a new design by AQAP’s master bombmaker of a device made to slip past airport security.
On Capitol Hill, there was bipartisan concern about the intelligence gap that could be created by the tumult in Yemen and the withdrawal of US personnel.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday that the US was continuing to coordinate with elements of Hadi’s embattled government, which has been pushed to the port city of Aden in Yemen’s far southern end.
“The United States continues to have assets and resources in the region that will allow us to take steps where necessary to continue to apply significant pressure to extremist targets and to keep the American people safe,” Earnest said.
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