Editor's Note: Daniel R. DePetris is the Senior Associate Editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Security Analysis. He is currently a research intern with the American Enterprise Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy division.
By Daniel R. DePetris - Special to CNN
Just two weeks into Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s young tenure as Yemen’s president, he is confronted with a serious string of military setbacks against the country’s active and ever-powerful al Qaeda affiliate in the southern desert. The VP-turned-President was well aware of how difficult his new job would be, particularly against the terrorists who have been expanding their territorial control over the past year as the former government was trying to salvage its regime. But even last Sunday’s attack was grisly for al Qaeda, which has typically resorted to small arms fire and ambushes against Yemeni soldiers.
The assault was not especially sophisticated in tactical terms, but the damages have nevertheless shaken Yemen’s fractured military to its core. The exact details of the attack have been fluctuating over the past couple of days, but Yemeni military officials have reported that a band of Islamic militants from the southern city of Zinjibar snuck behind the army’s front lines when most of its soldiers were asleep in their tents.
When they were finally in place, al Qaeda’s fighters unleashed a torrent of automatic weapons fire straight into the sleeping quarters of the troops, all of whom were caught unaware in the middle of their sleep. The unit was effectively under siege by the gunmen, heavily outmanned and underequipped to repel the attackers on their own. Reinforcements were called, but arrived too late to do much damage to the militants before they succeeded in killing dozens upon dozens of soldiers. The final damage was 185 dead and 55 troops captured (to be used as bargaining chips later on), with the militants losing only 32 of their own.
Yemen’s military establishment is in utter shock. How could the soldiers be so outgunned and outmanned by a bunch of terrorists who would normally be too disorganized to do such an effective job? Why were reinforcements sent too little, too late? Were their any Yemenis in uniform that colluded with the militants? And if so, what does that say about Yemen’s armed forces, even after tens of millions of dollars in U.S. funding and a growing U.S. commitment with training and equipping? These are all questions that need to be answered by President Hadi if he has any chance at taking the fight to the enemy in the south, which he has strongly pledged he would do before, during, and after his swearing-in ceremony.
How quickly Hadi can assemble a competent, trustworthy, and merit-based counterterrorism team around him will determine the future credibility of his administration on the one issue that the United States cares most about.
Obama administration officials thousands of miles away have grasped how significant the latest al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attack was, both in terms of its effectiveness operationally as well as the attacks second-order effects, such as the dwindling morale of and confidence of Yemen’s soldiers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately issued a brief statement after the AQAP ambush, expressing her condolences and redoubling America’s effort to aid and assist Yemen’s army so a similar incident in the future can be countered before an entire base gets overrun.
While U.S. assistance is undoubedbly vital, what President Hadi and his government need more than anything else is a recalibrated and reorganized Yemeni officer corps - commanders that will gain the trust of their men in uniform and units that will work with Yemen’s powerful tribal communities in their anti-AQ effort rather than trying to thwart them.
Those commanders who are not qualified, or who were promoted by the previous regime on the basis of family loyalty rather than merit, should be offered a generous retirement package to convince them to leave. Commanders and fellow soldiers who are caught trying to subvert the system through corrupt practices need to be terminated. The Yemeni Government, even with a new president for the first time in three decades, cannot expect their troops in the field to risk their lives for a system that turns a blind eye to corruption in ranks of the senior military leadership.
A proposal by John Brennan, President Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser, to bypass the commanders and pay soldiers directly is a positive start to the process of deconstructing - and then reconstructing –the Yemeni armed forces. If unable to convince Saleh’s son and nephew to leave, both Washington and Sana’a would be best served by keeping a watchful eye on them. Yemen’s leaders cannot begin to chip away at al Qaeda without everyone being on the same team, looking at the same objective. Accountability is a prerequisite step in order to ensure that al Qaeda, rather than money and prestige, is the central focus.
Transforming the Yemeni armed forces from an internally divided, tribally-based collection of militias into a modern military machine will not happen in a few days, or even a few years. Hadi, after all, has only been in office since February 25. Much of the previous regime is still operating, albeit with its leader Saleh now debating where to retire. Yemen will remain a troubled country for a very long time, and even the United States will have its limits in poking and prodding their Yemeni partners to reform for the good of their country. Yet promoting military protocol, while not widely talked about in the counterterrorism fight, has the potential to make the job of al Qaeda far more difficult. And it may just pull the armed forces together at a moment when Yemeni society is still unsure of which direction their revolution will take.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Daniel R. DePetris.