The US cannot afford a new Yemen front or rely on its president
US official spokesmen have stepped up their rhetoric against al Qaeda in Yemen but do not have the manpower resources to open another anti-terror warfront in addition to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and to a lesser degree Somalia, debkafile's Washington sources report.
This inadequacy is cloaked by the heated rhetoric, the closure of the US and British embassies in Sanaa for fear of a terrorist attack, the two governments' declared intention of establishing a police force to fight al Qaeda in Yemen and a further injection of US counter-terror funding to the Sanaa government, although the chances of its survival – or president Ali Abdullah's loyalty – are fairly low.
Yemeni "commentators" described as "productive" his talks in Sanaa Saturday, Jan. 2 with visiting Gen. David Petraeus, chief of the US Central Command, with regard to action against al Qaeda. But Washington has a problem with the Yemen president: In the ten years since al Qaeda blew up the USS Cole in Aden harbor, Salah has conducted a dual policy, on the one hand, posing as America's faithful ally in the war on the Islamist extremists, while, on the other, maintaining close back-door ties with al Qaeda in Yemen and giving them his protection.
Yemen's revolving door for captured terrorists is part of this two-faced presidential strategy and accounts for al Qaeda's mounting strength in the country. Any effort to contain this strength would be further doomed if the Obama administration were to go through with repatriating to their homeland 100 Yemeni Islamists released from Guantanamo Bay.
The US president's top counter-terror adviser John Brennan told US television audiences Sunday: "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses a serious threat" which would be exacerbated by its reinforcement.
The day after his talks with Gen. Petraeus, Salah detached troops for the provinces east of the capital to ward off al Qaeda's increasing presence there, but this was no more than a token gesture. His deals with Washington are unlikely to stand up for more than a few weeks or lead to the culling of al Qaeda strength in the country and, anyway, he has no military strength to spare from his other warfronts.
The Obama administration, facing mounting public criticism of the security lapses which led up to the failed attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas day, is picking its way through this minefield in response to American fears and demands for a tough hand against the terrorists.
In the last of his three speeches on the subject on Saturday, Jan. 2, President Obama fingered al Qaeda in Yemen as the authors of the attempt after its organization, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's claim of responsibility. Now, he must follow through with a form of retaliation, even though by now the Islamist terrorists' have abandoned their known hideouts and gone to ground among friendly native tribes or Yemen's lofty mountains in the south.
The threat of an attack on the US embassy in Sanaa is longstanding. Al Qaeda controls parts of four Yemen provinces, Abayan, Baida, Shabwa and Hadramout, covering nearly 200,000 sq. km, almost a third of Yemen's total area (530,000 sq. km. – slightly smaller than California). No more than a skeleton staff of two or three officers normally mans the US embassy in Sanaa, the ambassador and most of the personnel working out of well-guarded and fortified safe houses. The British embassy diplomatic staff is likewise very small.
Yemen is sunk so deep in three chaotic wars against two insurgencies and al Qaeda that the notion of a police force is risible. So too is for the US to rely on its armed forces to contain al Qaeda.
debkafile's military sources report that for months now, Yemeni armed forces have been staggering from one defeat to another against the Houthi rebels in the north, further undermined by the pullout of Saudi troops last week.
An even more menacing insurgency led by the Southern Engine movement is fighting to separate southern Yemen from the North and declare independence from the strategic Red Sea port of Aden.
Yemen claimed to have carried out two air strikes against al Qaeda hideouts in Shabwa on Dec. 17 and Dec. 24. They were in fact the work of US drones.
The latter attack, which killed 36 al Qaeda high-ups, took place <bthe day before the Detroit-bound airliner was threatened by an al Qaeda bomber.b>
The logical conclusion from this sequence of events is that American military action in Yemen had no effect on the plot to blow up an American airliner.