Yemen is the first challenge for Donald Trump’s Middle East

In January 28, U.S Navy SEALS carried out an operation against an al-Qaeda compound in southwestern Yemen with the coordination of U.A.E elite forces. But what could have been the new administration’s first triumph against terrorism, eventually triggered much controversy in the U.S with media reports claiming its rather haphazard planning and indicating that Yemen would withdraw its permission for U.S anti-terror ground missions as a response to the attack. Although the latter proved to be wrong with Yemeni and American officials claiming that Yemen did not issue an utter suspension on American ground operations but rather opted for their “reassessment”, the civilian casualties incurred by the raid and the death of an American commando reveal that indeed something went terribly wrong.

The operation purported in collecting valuable intelligence that would facilitate American understanding towards the actions and intentions of the terrorist group but also in the detention of Yemeni tribal leaders collaborating with al-Qaeda. As such, it could compensate much of the American intelligence deficits induced by the ongoing civil war in Yemen and, at the same time, signify the re-intensification of counterterrorism operations which have been downsized during the last two years of the Obama term.

Planned for months, decided overnight

Despite the fact that it was President Trump to authorize the green-light for the mission, according to Pentagon and the White House, the compound in southwestern Yemen had been long ago identified as a target – fact denied by former Obama administration officials. Other sources suggest that, after months of circumstantial consideration, Obama officials concluded that the raid should not been given a go-ahead before the President’s 20 January departure, as available intelligence was doubtfully reliable and “on-the-ground surveillance of the compound was minimal, at best”. In a probably more under-the-surface reading, there might be a second reason for the outgoing President’s choice to defer the decision to Mr. Trump; that is, to avoid the association of his term’s end with the bitter sentiments of the public a potential failure of the mission could instigate.

But no matter if the new or the old administration’s version of events holds truth, the question that naturally emerges here is twofold: first, whether anything remarkable changed in the interim period between the new President’s inauguration day and the 28th of January that led Mr. Trump to give his approval to the raid; and second, how can such a carefully planned operation cause the death of civilians.

And to both questions, the answers provided so far are, at least, problematic. First and foremost, itself the fact that conflicting information derive from various sources necessitates a fog of obscurity. As such, according to U.S military officials, the “operation went ahead without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations” and, as a result, “the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists”. On the contrary, Pentagon and the White House deny such statements arguing that the attack was based on sufficient intelligence and had the requisite legal approvals. Second, what is probably equally telling of the indistinct character of the operation, is exactly the fact that although such decisions are customarily taken in the Situation Room, the last raid was decided over a dinner in the White House between President Trump and his top security advisors.

Sloppiness favors the terrorists

Provided the classified nature of such operations, it is indeed difficult to conclude irrefutable findings, let alone to judge how well-planned the January 28 operation had been in terms of available intelligence information. At the same time however, there is a lesson to be learned and this is the very fact that such life-or-death operations can be proven counter-effective if they, deliberately or inadvertently, circumvent their local dimension. To wit, President Trump’s projected travel ban for Yemenis and citizens of another six Muslim countries has already revitalized anti-American sentiments in the Arab world, which the direct presence of American soldiers in the ground and the death of non-combatant civilians can further intensify. Most importantly, as the International Crisis Group aptly illustrates, an alienated local opinion upon the intentions and practices of the U.S can, by extension, translate into an enlarged recruiting pool for AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) insofar it gives al-Qaeda militants the opportunity to portray their actions as a defense of all Muslims.

Whether President Trump will seek a resurgence of the American entanglement in the Yemeni war, remains to be seen. But as the observations above imply, if any new counter-terrorism operations are about to happen, then these should be at least the by-product of exhaustive review which will attach singular importance to the local denominator. This, in turn, calls for an increased attention in view of the ongoing discussion in the U.S on whether more decision power should be delegated to lower-level officials so that the military can react at full throttle.

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