The Obama administration’s strategy against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as articulated by White House counterterrorism czar John Brennan, is to assure that it is “destroyed and is eliminated.” In January 2010, Brennan warned: “We’ve seen over the past several years in Yemen is increasing strengthening of Al Qaida forces in Yemen. There are several hundred Al Qaida members there.”
In response, then-commander of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, developed a comprehensive strategy, which he termed Preventive Counterinsurgency Operations: “Our efforts not only help develop key security forces in Yemen, they also contribute to the overall effort to help Yemen deal with challenges that could become much more significant if not dealt with early on.”
Shortly thereafter, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin, emphasized: “The Obama administration has made the issue of radicalization a centerpiece of its concern, and we are eager to ensure that whatever policies we pursue do not result in one terrorist being taken off the street while ten more are galvanized to take action.”
At the time, there had been a total of four U.S. airstrikes in Yemen. Since then, the U.S. military and CIA have conducted between forty-five and one hundred additional airstrikes against suspected AQAP members, both prominent and anonymous.
Last month, in a speech at the New York Police Department, Brennan stated that AQAP’s ranks had swelled to “more than a thousand members in Yemen.” By Brennan’s own accounts, since the implementation of Patraeus’s strategy, as well as an exponential increase in naval and air strikes, AQAP has more than tripled in size.
Obviously, Yemen faces a number of challenges on its own: sustained political turmoil that deposed the former president and installed the nascent Hadi regime; armed insurgent groups that seek independence from the central government; and a worsening humanitarian crisis (with the UN humanitarian response plan funded at only 20 percent). Nevertheless, AQAP’s expansion should throw serious doubt on the efficacy of the Obama administration’s current strategy, and on the logic of dropping even more bombs and deploying more special operations forces.