Small Wars Journal

Assessing U.S. Special Operations in Yemen

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Assessing U.S. Special Operations in Yemen

Colin McElhinny

After a full withdrawal of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel from the Yemen in early 2015, defense officials confirmed that  U.S. special operations forces (SOF) were operating in the country in May 2016. The 2015 withdrawal was precipitated by the overthrow of President Hadi’s government by a rebellion of ethnic Houthis. Since then, Yemen has become enflamed by an intervention of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces, Iranian support of Houthi Shia proxies, and the resulting chaos abetting the resurgence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The regrowth of AQAP seems to be the proximate cause for SOF’s reinsertion into Yemen, consistent with the United States’ enduring counterterrorism mission in the country.  

While the details of the current SOF mission in Yemen are few, there are several one can glean from recent press that assist in evaluation of the mission. First, Pentagon officials divulged that around a dozen special operators were deployed in April 2016. Second, SOF was being used in a “limited” capacity to advise and assist the Yemeni government and GCC coalition’s operations against AQAP in the southern city of Mukalla. Most reports have emphasized the close cooperation U.S. SOF have established with Emirati forces, a continuation of the strong defense ties the U.S. and UAE have built over the last several years elsewhere in the region. Since the Yemeni and GCC forces retook Mukalla from AQAP more easily than expected, as the insurgents fled to the countryside rather than defending the city, U.S. SOF are likely to remain in Yemen, “for the foreseeable future.” In principle, this serves as a recommitment to the counterterrorism mission the U.S. had pursued against AQAP since 2010 and a hedge against growing Islamic State regional influence. Recent USCENTCOM press releases have reconfirmed U.S. commitment to, “defeating AQAP and denying it safe haven regardless of its location.” SOF have supported the Arab coalition through providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, maritime interdiction and targeted killing operations via drone strikes. Finally, while a shaky truce has been established between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels, the broader civil war seems to remain of secondary interest to the United States

Given this information available in open-source media, one can reasonably speculate on the strategic objectives of U.S. SOF in Yemen. The SOF mission is in support of foreign internal defense and counterterrorism more broadly through an indirect approach. Since the death of Osama bin-Laden and the collapse of core Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, AQAP in Yemen has been generally regarded as the most threatening affiliate. In the near to medium-term, keeping pressure on AQAP through a sustained targeted killing campaign and supporting Arab coalition forces can constrain the time and space the group has to operate within.

While the redeployment of SOF is essentially a reversion to the mean of U.S. presence in Yemen before the civil war began in 2015, several considerations likely influenced the specific timing of the decision. Unceasing reports of major civilian causalities inflicted by the GCC coalition, especially the Saudi armed forces, possibly factored into the calculation, as SOF-enabled ISR and support could help minimize collateral damage. The GCC has deep doubts about the United States as a reliable security partner after U.S. prioritization of securing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, despite GCC concerns, and perceived failure by the United States to hold Syria accountable for its use of chemical weapons against civilians after drawing a red line publicly. , In addition, Saudi Arabia views Yemen’s instability as an existential threat to the Kingdom.  Symbolically, U.S. boots on the ground provide reassurance against perceptions of U.S. disengagement from the region, while allowing the United States to maintain a modicum of influence over the direction of GCC operations. Finally, U.S. SOF presence abets the development of GCC special operations capabilities and interoperability with U.S. forces, setting the table for more effective cooperation in the future.

What is less clear is the role this SOF mission plays in the broader counterterrorism campaign against Al Qaeda and beyond. U.S. policymakers have yet to elaborate a realistic desired end state for counterterrorism operations in Yemen, let alone the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. Defense officials have yet to persuasively clarify how targeted killing campaigns can lead to sustainable security for the nation, exhibiting a stark mismatch between the ends and ways of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Limited political appetites for larger combat forces engaging in a conflict in the Middle East and strained defense budgets have limited U.S. involvement in Yemen to only a dozen SOF forces; as such, the SOF deployment is the most politically and strategically acceptable near-term solution to AQAP. Given the lack of a clear long-term strategic framework for counterterrorism, SOF will continue to be applied to intermediate objectives in Yemen of limited strategic effect.

Ascertaining the feasibility, acceptability and suitability of SOF forces is difficult without the full operational picture and a more detailed strategy. The limited SOF deployed in coordination with regional partners reflect sustained commitment to counterterrorism as per the 2015 National Security Strategy, consistent with the “small-footprint approach” prescribed in the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. Given the string of major counterterrorism successes in Yemen before the Houthi revolution and some afterward, SOF can feasibly have an impact on advancing the mission, but to what end is unclear. Stabilizing the whole of Yemen to suffocate AQAP would be a Sisyphean task, but simply keeping pressure upon them through seizing territory and eliminating high-value targets is in the realm of the possible. Further enabling SOF are the common interests among the coalition members, as regional partners have requested U.S. support; the UAE Ambassador to the U.S., Yousef al-Otaiba, remarked, “Remember, we are fighting a common enemy.” Highlighting the successes of the U.S.-SOF enabled GCC coalition in Yemen, Michael Knights of the Washington Institute writes, “If they can maintain such pressure, they can whittle AQAP back down from a quasi-government in the Islamic State mold to a highly dangerous terrorist group that deserves ongoing scrutiny.” While not a decisive victory, it is a worthy objective.

In short, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen’s ends are unspecified, ways are seemingly inadequate, and means limited, though possibly sufficient depending on how one conceptualizes the ends. These factors in combination make it difficult to evaluate the SOF mission in Yemen. Successfully supporting the execution of direct action missions by partners will be straightforward, but, as has too often been the case in in the U.S. counterterrorism approach of the last 15 years, solely relying on SOF as a tactical cure-all is unlikely to effectuate strategic gains.

About the Author(s)

Colin McElhinny is program coordinator and research assistant in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is an M.A. candidate at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and he holds a B.S. in economics and political science from the University of Mary Washington.