What is a Successful U.S. Counterterrorism Policy in Yemen?

March 27, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Journalists, pundits, experts, and everyone in between have been mercilessly pounding White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest for his refusal to admit that the U.S. counterterrorism model has failed in Yemen.  At the start of the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State group nearly seven months ago, President Obama touted Yemen and Somalia as “models” for how he would conduct operations against the Islamic State group, which he defined under the guise of a counterterror operation.  “This [counterterrorism] strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” the President explained to the nation in September.

A few months ago, I wrote that the president might not have chosen his words carefully enough in that speech, which led to a seemingly and presently misguided, misleading, and most extremely, disingenuous purview.  As I wrote, the president “was likely pointing to a successful (successful being used subjectively) campaign that, through the use of drones, has taken out tens to hundreds of high value terrorists and militants.  I do not think the president meant to infer that the ‘successful’ counterterror campaign has contributed to strengthened security as a whole to these countries.”

In a tense exchange between ABC’s White House correspondent Jonathan Karl and Earnest at a briefing this week, which has garnered widespread criticism regarding a delusional administration and its view of the world, Karl relentlessly pressed Earnest on the administration’s stance regarding Yemen being viewed as a “successful model” for counterterrorism.  “[T]he White House does continue to believe that a successful counter-terrorism strategy is one that will build up the capacity of the central government to have local fighters on the ground to take the fight to extremists in their own country,” Earnest stated.

After significant pushback, Earnest doubled down and expounded upon his prior statement and attempted to clarify the administration’s position and strategy on counterterrorism:

“[W]hat the United States considers to be our strategy when confronting the effort to try to mitigate the threat that is posed by extremists is to prevent them from establishing a safe haven. And certainly in a chaotic, dangerous situation like in Yemen, what the United States will do and has done is work to try to support the central government, build up the capacity of local fighters, and use our own technological and military capabilities to apply pressure on the extremists there.

Look — I — there’s no doubt that we would like to see a functioning central government in Yemen — we don’t see that right now — and that is why we are supportive of the U.N.-led process to try to put an end to the violence and instability.”

The next day, Earnest, in an appearance on MSNBC, continued to clarify his statements on the matter and actually offered a much better response, albeit, not an ideal:

“[W]e need to separate out two things here – the measure of the U.S. policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government – that’s a separate enterprise.  And the goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there.  The goal of U.S. policy in Yemen is to make sure that Yemen cannot be a safe haven that extremists can use to attack the West and to attack the United States.  And that involves trying to build up the capacity of the government to help us in that fight.  And there is no doubt that we would prefer a situation where there is a stable government where there is a place where U.S. personnel could operate inside of Yemen to coordinate directly with Yemeni security forces to take the fight to these extremists, but the fact is, even though U.S. personnel is no longer in Yemen, the United States continues to have the capacity and resources and reach to be able to take strikes when necessary against extremists that are operating inside Yemen.”

Earnest makes a few important distinctions in these statements that do help explain the narrative that Yemen should be a model for successful counterterrorism operations.  If the policy is simply to defend the homeland against plots and actors who want to do harm, the policy has succeeded, though, not without a few lucky breaks e.g. the underwear bomber’s underwear bomb malfunctioning and a tip that led security personnel to bombs inside printing cartridges.

Clearly, Yemen’s non-existent central government has thrust the nation into the burgeoning “failed state” category. But is this the fault of the U.S. or its counterterror strategy there?  The Gulf Cooperation Council plan, backed by a United Nations Security Council Resolution, to construct a new government following the Arab Spring protests had stalled.

More broadly, however, the U.S. had failed to build up security forces to defend against the Houthi insurgency, which was vastly underestimated.  Even the president’s point person for counterterrorism in Yemen criticized the efforts.  “This ‘[counterterrorism] concept’ – the solution that some people champion where the main or whole effort is drone strikes and special operations raids – is a fantasy,” Captain Robert A. Newson, who formerly commanded Special Operations Command Forward in Yemen and was charged with implementing the president’s counterterrorism strategy told West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

Obviously, claims to the effect of success stories related to Yemen do not hold much water.  While, after wading through the weeds, the administration’s point becomes clearer – their idea of a successful counterterrorism model: one that empowers local partners, allows the U.S. to gather intelligence, and strike, when necessary, to prevent attacks on the West or the homeland – it still remains somewhat misguided as a whole.