Behind Drone Issue in Yemen, a Struggle to Control Covert Ops
WASHINGTON - The drone war that has been anticipated in Yemen for the last few months has been delayed by the failure of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) to generate usable intelligence on al Qaeda there.
That failure has given the CIA a new argument for wresting control of the drone war in Yemen from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) which now controls the drone assets in the country. But some key administration officials are resisting a CIA takeover of the war in Yemen, as reported by the Washington Post Nov. 7.
The struggle between the CIA's operations directorate and SOF officials over management of a drone war in Yemen has been a driving force in pushing the war against al Qaeda and affiliated organisations into many more countries - along with President Barack Obama's eagerness to show that he is doing more than his predecessor on terrorism.
Both the CIA covert operations directorate and SOF brass regard the outcome in Yemen as the key to the larger struggle over control of a series of covert wars that the Obama administration approved in principle last year.
The CIA directorate and the two major figures in the Iraq- Afghanistan wars, Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, lobbied Obama in 2009 to expand covert operations against al Qaeda to a dozen countries in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia.
In spring 2009, McChrystal, then director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, persuaded the White House to give U.S. combatant commanders wider latitude to carry out covert military operations against al Qaeda or other organisations deemed to be terrorists, according to a May 25 report by Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic.
Based on the Obama decision, on Sep. 30, 2009, Petraeus issued an order creating a Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force to plan and execute covert intelligence gathering in support of later covert military operations throughout the CENTCOM area.
The Petraeus order was followed within weeks by an influx of surveillance equipment and as many as 100 SOF trainers, as well as additional CIA personnel in Yemen, according to the Post Nov. 7 report.
With the support of McChrystal and Petraeus, who was then still CENTCOM chief, JSOC was given control of the covert operation in Yemen.
But JSOC stumbled badly and failed to generate usable intelligence on al Qaeda targets, as the Post reported Nov. 7.
On Dec. 17, less than three months after the Petraeus order, a cruise missile was launched against what was supposed to have been an al Qaeda training camp in Abyan province in south Yemen.
But the strike, which was supposed to have been attributed to Yemen's tiny air force, was based on faulty intelligence. The Yemeni parliament found that it had killed 41 members of two families, including 17 women and 23 children. It was known almost immediately to have been a U.S. strike.
By all accounts, it was major political gift to AQAP, which has its sights set on toppling the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. AQAP seized on videos of the carnage to step up its attack on Saleh as a U.S. stooge.
Al Qaeda has also been able to justify targeting the United States as revenge for the Dec. 17 attack. In June and July, the AQAP announced that it was planning a "catastrophe for the enemies of God" in response to the Abyan attack, according to Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton doctoral candidate who has done research in Yemen.
That may have been a reference to the two parcels from Yemen to an address in Chicago intercepted Oct. 29, one of which was discovered to have "explosive material".
On May 27, another cruise missile strike killed a popular deputy province chief who was apparently mediating between the Yemeni government and al Qaeda officials. Local tribesmen retaliated by attacking an oil pipeline in the vicinity.
After that strike, the CIA went on the offensive to get the administration to take control of the drones away from the SOF. A series of articles in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press in mid- to late August cited unnamed officials referring to the possibility of CIA drone operations in Yemen.
Col. Pat Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East with operational experience in Yemen, told IPS the CIA had benefitted from JSOC stumbling.
"The agency has taken advantage of every criticism of the performance of the SOF as an argument to regain control over covert operations," said Lang.
"The competition between the military clandestine services and the CIA is greater than ever before," Lang told IPS.
But according to U.S. officials quoted in Sunday's Post, ever since the errant late May strike, U.S. drones have been present in the skies over Yemen searching for AQAP targets. The Post reported that the drones are still under the control of JSOC, operating under the overall command of the chief of the Central Command.
The Post article quoted a "senior Obama administration official" as hinting strongly that the CIA's operations branch is lobbying the White House hard for control over the drones in Yemen but not convincing some key officials.
"There are a lot of people who are really feeling good about what they're doing in certain parts of the world," said the official. That was an apparent reference to the drone war in Pakistan, which is run by the CIA's operations directorate.
"But that doesn't mean that, oh, if you'll just let us do this over here, you're going to have a different picture or different results" than the past in Yemen, the official said, clearly referring to the lack of actionable intelligence.
The report suggests that key officials now realise that neither JSOC nor the CIA is going to be able to obtain actionable intelligence on al Qaeda under present circumstances.
Former DIA intelligence officer Lang agrees. He believes the Yemeni Intelligence Service, which is a "very effective secret police force" with "considerable penetration capability", is not fully sharing the intelligence it has on al Qaeda with U.S. officials.
"I'm sure Saleh is concerned about AQAP," Lang said, "but he can't allow himself to be seen as serving the United States." And Saleh may figure that AQAP has penetrated his intelligence service as well, according to Lang.
For the time being, it appears the drone war in Yemen is abeyance. But powerful bureaucratic forces will be continuing to make the case that they can justify the beginning of drone strikes there.
AQAP leaders are hoping to see the U.S. use more military force in Yemen, according to Johnsen. "They would like nothing better than for the U.S. to invade Yemen," Johnsen told IPS. "The more they can show active U.S. intervention, the better it is for them."
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.