Just before President Barack Obama spoke on Tuesday, Jan. 5, of widening the war against agents of terrorism: “Time and again, we've learned that quickly piecing together information and taking swift action is critical to staying one step ahead of a nimble adversary" – the top U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, ordered a major overhaul of intelligence-gathering and distribution in that country.
He rated the present system "only marginally relevant to the overall strategy" because of the dearth of information from the field. Flynn recommended a shift from collecting data supporting the targeting of insurgents to digging for insights into the political, economic and cultural realities of the populations supporting the insurgency.
“Lethal targeting alone will not help US and allied forces win in Afghanistan," Flynn wrote in a published report.
Michael F. Scheuer, a former CIA employee who returned to the agency in September 2001 to serve as Special Advisor to the head of the CIA's Bin Laden Unit up until November 2004, commented in a recent CNN interview: The US "killed some of the al-Qaeda leaders and every dead al-Qaeda leader is a success. But all we have is a body count. …We now have al-Qaeda – the main al-Qaeda – in the Pakistan and Afghanistan theaters. We have a full-fledged wing in Yemen. We have a full-fledged wing in Iraq, a full-fledged wing in North Africa and a nascent wing in Somalia. But we don't know how they can be less threatening to us."
Both these experts, Maj. Gen. Flynn and Michael Scheuer, point up the inadequacies of US intelligence in its four main fronts against al-Qaeda – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, finding them not only ineffective, but tactically incorrect, which is why they are not producing the desired results.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources add that these shortcomings are not the sole province of US intelligence but shared by the military as well. If combat units are short of accurate intelligence and unacquainted with conditions on the ground, how can their officers chart effective operations for military advances or train indigenous forces to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban?
This inadequacy has already come to the fore in Yemen.
Al Qaeda is gratified with the Yemeni response to Petraeus
Last Saturday, Jan. 2, US CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus landed in Sanaa for a long conversation with Yemeni President Abdullah Ali Salah. It ended with Salah promising to send several hundred soldiers to intercept an al-Qaeda force sighted by US drones approaching the capital from the east. He kept his promise the same day. Sanaa later reported a big battle took place between the two forces, whereas in fact, there was no more than a scattered exchange of fire.
The fastest reaction came from al Qaeda on Sunday, Jan. 3.
Six trucks loaded with weapons, explosives and ammunition, including mortar shells, RPG rockets, hand grenades and land mines, suddenly rolled through Sanaa from nowhere, a demonstration of strength which made a laughing-stock of Yemen's military and intelligence services.
The laden trucks passed through all the Yemeni military checkpoints guarding the capital. Yemeni forces only gave chase after the rogue convoy was inside the city and then lost it long enough for the trucks to be unloaded and the arms handed out to al Qaeda fighters in Sanaa.
The first assumption was that al Qaeda had stormed the capital to seize central government buildings, the presidential palace and Western embassies. The embassies were promptly shut down, reopening the next day. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terror sources report that this was not the intention. Al-Qaeda's show of muscle was intended to demonstrate who was running the show in Yemen – and it was not General Petraeus.
Those sources do not believe al Qaeda in Yemen has any plans to overthrow the Salah regime. It is satisfied with their give-and-take relationship of the last decade since the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor. The jihadists were strengthened in their hands-off decision and gratified by the Yemeni government's comment on the Petraeus visit and reaction to his promise of increased US military support.
Al-Qaeda doesn't even fear US arms shipments
Sunday, Jan. 3, Yemen's foreign minister, chief of national security and interior minister issued a joint statement dismissing the al Qaeda threat to their country as "exaggerated" and playing down prospects of close cooperation with the United States in fighting Islamic militants.
“Yemen has its own short-term and long-term schemes for tackling terrorists anywhere in the republic which call for nothing more than intelligence and information-sharing with other countries,” the officials stressed.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, al Qaeda has no problem with the delivery of the US weapons systems, including helicopters and drones, promised by Gen. Petraeus for the Yemeni army.
The jihadists strategists figure it will take the Yemeni military a long time to master their use and eventually, the new hardware will fall into their hands or those of local tribes sympathetic to al Qaeda.
Given Maj. Gen. Flynn's estimates of the shortcomings of US intelligence in Afghanistan, how can it be expected to get a handle on Yemen, which is even more complicated and whose location at the southern tip of Arabia bounded by two seas makes it a strategic prize.
Central government has never asserted full control over this desolate land which covers over half a million square kilometers. Hundreds of tribal chiefs and tens of thousands of clan leaders, who form the wealthy and class of influence in Yemen, rule the roost. The upper echelons of the Yemeni military and intelligence services and the junior officer corps are structured along tribal and clan lines; their allegiances shift as constantly as the desert sands.
It is therefore hard to see how the United States can go into Yemen in a big way. And if it does engage in such a venture, it is likely to lead to the same unsatisfactory outcome as America's campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan.