President Obama wants to use Yemen as a model for U.S. action in Iraq. As simple as that sounds — drone strikes and advisers from the Special Forces — it’s a flawed and dangerous idea that is bound to make things worse. Here’s why:
1. Yemen ≠ Iraq
Both Yemen and Iraq are located in the Middle East and each lists Arabic as its official language, but that’s where the similarities end. Modern Iraq was formed in the wake of World War I when Britain and France divided up much of the Middle East in a colonial land grab from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. With the exception of Aden, Yemen largely avoided colonialism. Its borders were formed naturally or in negotiations with its neighbors, not by British bureaucrats. Historically, Yemen has also been free of the Shia/Sunni divide that the British exacerbated in Iraq by installing a Sunni over an increasingly Shia population.
Then there is the terrain. Yemen is a rough, mountainous country with towering cliffs and dizzying switchbacks. Iraq is a desert. What the U.S. is trying in one is not transportable to the other.
2. AQAP ≠ ISIS
AQAP lives in the hills and the mountains of rural Yemen. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is controlling towns and administering cities in northern and western Iraq. Even given the rural nature of AQAP’s base in Yemen, the U.S. has often struggled to hit the right targets, mistakenly killing government officials, destroying bedouin villages, and striking wedding convoys. What will happen in Iraq, where ISIS is an urban phenomenon, mixing and mingling with the civilian population?
Plus, there is a legal question. The U.S. is carrying out its strikes in Yemen under the authority of a 60-word sentence written two days after Sept. 11. But that sentence only applies to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and ISIS is neither. Similarly, the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq does not permit strikes on ISIS. This means that if President Obama wants to strike ISIS, he would either need to fall back on his Article II powers — a position he often criticized the Bush administration for taking — or he needs to go to Congress. But he can’t simply go it alone.
3. Drones: Striking ≠ Uprooting
In Yemen the U.S. has been attempting to keep AQAP back on its heels, essentially striking the organization in the hopes of containing it. But for all the drone strikes, AQAP continues to grow. In Iraq, the U.S. would be trying to uproot ISIS and expel it from the cities it controls. Drones that aren’t completely capable of the former certainly can’t do the latter.
4. Partners: Hadi ≠ Maliki
On Friday, Obama described Yemeni President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi as a “committed partner” in the war against al-Qaeda. One could quibble with his choice of adjectives; “compliant” might have been a better choice. But even with all the freedom Hadi has given the U.S. in Yemen, it has still not been able to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda.
Things will be more challenging in Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi president, distrusts Obama, who is already looking for a more “committed partner.” But if attempts to replace Maliki don’t work, the U.S. will be stuck with a partner who is simultaneously playing it off against Iran while using U.S. forces to kill his Sunni enemies.
5. The Yemen Model Doesn’t Work in Yemen
But perhaps the best reason not to export the Yemen model to Iraq is that the Yemen model doesn’t even work in Yemen. When the Obama administration started bombing Yemen shortly before Christmas in 2009, al-Qaeda numbered about 200–300. Today, after four and a half years of drone strikes, al-Qaeda is several times that number.
In his West Point Speech last month Obama said U.S. actions “should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.” In Yemen, the U.S. has failed that simple test.