The New York Times today reports on the Obama Administration’s worldwide secret war. Along with our public wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are engaged in warfare in a “shadow war against Al Qaeda and its allies.”

In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists…

While the stealth war began in the Bush administration, it has expanded under President Obama, who rose to prominence in part for his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Virtually none of the newly aggressive steps undertaken by the United States government have been publicly acknowledged. In contrast with the troop buildup in Afghanistan, which came after months of robust debate, for example, the American military campaign in Yemen began without notice in December and has never been officially confirmed…

Instead of “the hammer,” in the words of John O. Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, America will rely on the “scalpel.” In a speech in May, Mr. Brennan, an architect of the White House strategy, used this analogy while pledging a “multigenerational” campaign against Al Qaeda and its extremist affiliates.

Leading this effort is Michael Vickers, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict & Interdependent Capabilities who was appointed by President Bush. “President Obama announced on February 26, 2009, that Mr. Vickers would continue to serve as ASD (SO/LIC&IC).”

So what makes Vickers such an adept leader for our efforts internationally?

Vickers, a former Green Beret and CIA operative, was the principal strategist for the biggest covert program in CIA history: the paramilitary operation that drove the Soviet army out of Afghanistan in the 1980s…
Today, as the top Pentagon adviser on counterterrorism strategy, Vickers exudes the same assurance about defeating terrorist groups as he did as a 31-year-old CIA paramilitary officer assigned to Afghanistan, where he convinced superiors that with the right strategy and weapons, the ragtag Afghan insurgents could win.

When first appointed he described his office’s plan this way:

Today Vickers’s plan to build a global counterterrorist network is no less ambitious. The plan is focused on a list of 20 “high-priority” countries, with Pakistan posing a central preoccupation for Vickers, who said al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the country’s western tribal areas are a serious threat to the United States. The list also includes Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia and Iran, and Vickers hints that some European countries could be on it. Beyond that, the plan covers another 29 “priority” countries, as well as “other countries” that Vickers does not name.

From today’s report, it sounds as if not much has changed under the current administration. A former colleague of Vickers described him to the Washington Post this way “He tends to think like a gangster…” and one has to say the description sounds horribly appropriate when we look at his record in Yemen so far.

First, the December attack – which we discussed here and here:

A Navy ship offshore had fired the weapon in the attack, a cruise missile loaded with cluster bombs…

An inquiry by the Yemeni Parliament found that the strike had killed at least 41 members of two families living near the makeshift Qaeda camp. Three more civilians were killed and nine were wounded four days later when they stepped on unexploded munitions from the strike, the inquiry found.

(Remember that the US has not signed the international convention against cluster bombs though we claim to only use “good” ones)

Then in May:

At first, the news from Yemen on May 25 sounded like a modest victory in the campaign against terrorists: an airstrike had hit a group suspected of being operatives for Al Qaeda in the remote desert of Marib Province, birthplace of the legendary queen of Sheba.

But the strike, it turned out, had also killed the province’s deputy governor, a respected local leader who Yemeni officials said had been trying to talk Qaeda members into giving up their fight.

At the same time that the Obama administration is amping up military involvement in Yemen, it is lowballing funding for social development while internal corruption in the Sanaa government we support,

tensions over the unification with potentially oil rich South Yemen against their wishes and an uprising in the North by tribal Houthis create a chaotic situation in which already poor conditions for many Yemenis worsen:

Mohsen Noman is a building constructor with four children. He finds it hard to get a job and has been looking to work for two months in vain. He said that he cannot afford to support his children as prices increase rapidly.

He participated in a protest in Taiz governorate with thousands of other people feeling the same.

On Thursday the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) organized a protest in which thousands of people participated demanding the state to stop what they called the policy of causing poverty and hunger against the people…Among the protests were soldiers, governmental employees and people from parties other than the JMP.The JMP distributed a statement among the protesters that they refuse the commodities price hikes…

… Abdulhafedh Al-Faqhih, the chairman of the executive authority in the JMP’s branch in Taiz… that people keep asking about the reason behind the 50 percent increase in electricity and water bills and cooking gas prices.

40 per cent of Yemen’s children suffer from malnutrition and 50 per cent of them are born underweight” and Unicef is reporting that children in Yemen are “increasingly vulnerable.”

Just a few days ago, the BBC reported that:

According to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) a third of the country – more than seven million people – struggle daily to afford enough food to lead a healthy and productive life. Some 2.7 million are classified as severely food insecure, spending more than 30% of their meagre income on bread alone.

The UN’s first humanitarian aid appeal for Yemen remains, in the words of a recent statement from the White House, “woefully under-funded”, receiving by the middle of the year less than a third of its required $187m (£118m).

In June, the WFP was forced to halve rations it provides to some of the 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), driven from their homes by war in north Yemen. Rations were also cut to 17,000 Somali refugees living in Kharaz camp in south Yemen, who are entirely dependent on food aid.

Despite a recent donation from the US of nearly $13m in cash and food to support its IDP operation, the WFP warns that a $55m shortfall in the second half of 2010 will mean 90% of its planned 3.1 million monthly beneficiaries will be without critical food and nutrition support. They include wasting children, pregnant mothers, school girls and severely food insecure people.

Meanwhile, US funding for weapons and war in Yemen increases:

Between FY 2002 and 2009, less than 52 percent of Yemen’s overall aid package was allocated to security over nonsecurity programs. President Obama’s FY 2010 enacted budget, on the other hand, prioritizes security assistance to the tune of 66 percent, allocating over $174 million to security programs, compared to $90 million in nonsecurity programs. Although the substantial increase in humanitarian and development aid is laudable – the FY 2010 budget allocates nearly 150 percent more nonsecurity aid than does FY 2009 for example ($90 million versus $36 million) – the even sharper bulge in security assistance underscores the need for a paradigm shift in how the US seeks to promote security and stability in Yemen.

If we listened to the Yemenis, we might look for other options:

Yemenis insist that their biggest problem is not al-Qaida but the Houthi rebellion in the north as well as the ineffectiveness and corruption of the central government, rapid population growth, unemployment and the depletion of both oil and water reserves. Combined, some analysts fear these factors could lead to the ultimate failure of the Yemeni state.

But once again, we are seeing the Obama administration not only continue but expand the counterproductive policies of the Bush team:

One military official told the Washington Post that the Obama administration had given the military “more access” than former President George W. Bush. “They [the Obama administration] are talking publically much less but that are acting more. They are willing to get aggressive much more quickly.”

Videos: The first is of a young boy in Sanaa singing. The second is a youtube by a Yemeni based in the UK advocating for the independence of South Yemen, a good example of one of the many forces in play in Yemen which makes the country a chaotic site for US meddling. The third a report on Yemeni attitudes to the one day international conference held in London this winter as part of the followup to the US strike in December. All provide some views – not definitive views – of Yemen and seemed a good way to begin exploring.