President Obama’s speech on terrorism today overlooked the important fact that the central pillar of our counter-terrorism policy in Yemen is failing badly. American drone strikes there have always been very limited in number and even in impact — success against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) resulted in large part from the actions of the Yemeni Security Forces. But those forces—our partners in preventing AQAP from acquiring room to plan and conduct the next transnational attack—are crumbling fast. Air strikes will not be sufficient to contain AQAP without competent Yemeni soldiers who can raid AQAP cell hideouts, conduct counter-terrorism operations, and fight ground battles against the AQAP-affiliated insurgents.
Unfortunately, the Yemeni Armed Forces are suffering from a mounting wave of brigade-level mutinies in several of Yemen’s most important combat theaters. No fewer than eight brigades have mutinied since Yemen’s President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi gave the armed forces a major overhaul on April 10. Worse still, since Hadi took office on February 21, 2012, twenty brigades have rebelled, along with the Air Force Police, the Political Security Organization, and the staff at various air bases.
Before we get caught up once again in the drone debate or the Guantanamo Bay media spiral, perhaps we should consider an equally if not more important question: How can we build capacity in Yemen so that the military is better able to cope with our enemies on the ground in their operating environment – in other words, in places like the Yemeni governorates of Ma’rib, al Bayda, and Abyan? All of those governorates, incidentally, have experienced at least one brigade mutiny in the past month. How can we prevent brigades fighting at the front against AQAP from bucking orders? How can we improve professionalism across the board to counter the Yemeni army’s rampant corruption, strong patronage networks, and poor leadership? If these questions are not answered sufficiently, Yemeni counter-terrorism policy in Yemen will fail, no matter how we rework our drone and detainee policies.
For more information on Yemen’s military insurrection, see Sasha Gordon’s forthcoming piece “Mutiny in the Yemeni Military.”