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The US in Yemen: Just Another Shadow War

Is the US ready for another shadow war? Although Yemen hardly makes headlines, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Washington is already engaging in some iffy business over there, and the Wikileaks cache has only increased the alarm of Yemen watchers

But a recent New York Times Op-Chart — States of Conflict: An Update — only found space for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan and in turn offered a distorted and incomplete picture of US counterterrorism efforts.

Here is my response to the invisible conflict in Yemen, which the Times published this week:

When conflicts are broken down by numbers, things tend to be obscured.

To what extent has United States technology and manpower been deployed in Yemen during 2010? That question is not taken up in the Op-Chart, which would have benefited from significant details like the number of United States covert actions in Yemen, the amount of dollars Washington gave Sana to train the Yemeni special operations forces, and how many Yemenis think American policy is headed in the right direction.

Yemen must not be ignored, especially as Pakistan creeps onto the list of states where the United States is launching attacks. And I would venture to guess that the policy of American surveillance and reconnaissance missions in Yemen, which Yemeni sources contend includes drone attacks, is not winning hearts and minds on the Arabian Peninsula.

A December 17, 2009 missile strike that killed dozens of civilians in southern Yemen is just but one data point in this cycle of violence (at Salon, Justin Elliott has compiled an invaluable timeline).

This ramped up US role in Yemen is more likely to exacerbate tensions rather than dampen the threat of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s these very attacks, whether Washington or Sana’a takes the heat for them, which bolster anti-American sentiment.

Yemen received over $155 million dollars in military assistance last year. On balance, that’s not a huge slice of the military expenditure pie. But what if that sort of cash was used creatively? Perhaps to further develop the coffee production industry — that might be a real opportunity in a state where over 45% live below the poverty line.

Yemen is not on the verge of collapse and should not be called a failed state. But if the US continues to advance military efforts on the Arabian Peninsula without a broader strategy then don’t be surprised if the Yemen creeps into the headlines in 2011.

Jonathan Guyer is a program associate for the Middle East Task Force of the New America Foundation and blogs at Mideast by Midwest.

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Jonathan Guyer

Jonathan Guyer