The US has formally acknowledged it has boots on the ground (mainly Special Operations Forces – SOF) in Yemen to assist United Arab Emirates (UAE) Special Forces battle militants associated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
US personnel has been in the country for about two weeks, supporting Yemeni and UAE forces that are fighting militants near the southeastern port city of Mukalla, which was seized by militants last year. The US Navy has moved the ships with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit close to Yemen’s coast. The United States has conducted four strikes against al-Qaeda militants since April 23.
The US had previously withdrawn all of its ground troops from Yemen after the ouster of President Hadi by the Shi’ite Houthis in early 2015 to return in April-May 2016. Washington has been backing the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in its campaign against the Houthi rebels with air resupply operations, intelligence and logistics support since the Arab coalition intervened in the conflict in 2015. The chaos caused by the war allowed the al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen to build strength in the country’s south.
The government of Yemen and the Houthis are parties to a cease-fire brokered by the UN earlier this year. But fighting has stalled the peace agreement. If the cease-fire fully breaks down, ushering in a return to full-scale warfare, US troops will be closer to the fight.
It is widely believed that the US-supported Saudi war in Yemen has been a disaster.
It has provided al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with the ability to consolidate and increase its territory just as US involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Libya enabled the rise and expansion of the Islamic State (IS).
The US deployment in Yemen is just the latest in a growing number of small US deployments across the world, getting America mired in yet another conflict. The US DoD says it’s a small deployment. But the deployments in Iraq were also small after the withdrawal in December 2011. Now the US has 5,000 ground troops amassed there to carry out different missions, including the preparations to liberate Mosul from IS.
US Special Operations forces have been quietly deployed around the world since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to shore up US allies embroiled in different conflicts. Formally, the mission is to «train, advise and assist». SOF activities have been an extension of US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
US SOF have been already deployed to 135 nations, according to Ken McGraw, a spokesman for Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
That’s roughly 70% of the countries on the planet. Every day, in fact, America’s most elite troops are carrying out missions in 80 to 90 nations. Each day, according to Special Operations Command (SOCOM) commander General Joseph Votel, approximately 11,000 special operators are deployed or stationed outside the United States with many more on standby, ready to respond in the event of an overseas crisis.
The geographic expansion of US SOF operations and, correspondingly, political influence is breathtaking. For instance, in 2010, special operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, compared with about 60 at the beginning of 2009. In 2011, the number reached 120.
Instead of large deployments of troops, US Special Operations forces embed with local militaries to help bolster their capabilities and often accompany them on missions that serve the interests of the United States.
SOF prefer to operate in the shadows while its personnel and missions expand globally to little notice or attention. The activities are closely intertwined with foreign policy and the boundary line is blur. In one particular blurring of boundaries, Special Operations liaison officers (SOLOs) are embedded in at least 14 key US embassies to assist in advising the special forces of various allied nations. According to Nick Turse, an American investigative journalist, SOF are already operating in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Poland, Peru, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The SOLO program is poised to expand to 40 countries by 2019.
SOCOM has also forged close ties with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, among other outfits.
Talking about the most recent deployment, Yemen is not the only one. On April 25, President Obama outlined plans to bolster US SOF in Syria, raising their number to as many as 300 troops in a move he said was needed to keep pressure on the Islamic State.
Elite US commandos are now in position in Iraq ready to raid against the so-called Islamic State just as top special operations general has recently taken office as the head of the Central Command to take charge of the US Central command Islamic State fight.
According to plans, SOF will take an active part in anti-IS operations in Libya.
The Air Force is preparing to move a special operations squadron of 10 CV-22 Ospreys to a base in Japan, where they will be on the frontlines of the United States’ mounting standoff with China and North Korea. The first three tilt-rotor aircraft are expected to arrive at Yokota Air Base, just west of Tokyo, in the second half of 2017, with another seven arriving by 2021, according to officials at the Pentagon.
It’s not only preparing for or being engaged in combat operations. Over the last decade the forces have been more frequently assigned long-term missions meant to train and build local security forces around the world, acting as an important foreign policy tool.
Many countries view sending SOF on far away missions as throwing US military weight around. It is also viewed as an example of the United States acting outside the law to pursue its own interest. For instance, the US SOF raid to eliminate Osama bin Laden in 2011 seriously spoiled the bilateral relations with Pakistan. To be effective, such operations need the cooperation and participation of governments. That’s where the problem of sovereignty and public opinion comes to the fore.
SOF may wrongly identify targets and inflict civil losses as well. Moreover, the deaths of civilian bystanders and the very fact of US armed forces conducting operations on the territory of other states, in most cases without their governments consent, fuels anti-US sentiments in the countries in which targeted killing operations have taken place.
According to the UN Charter, the use of force is legitimate only if undertaken in self-defense or authorized by the United Nations. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress passed a few days after 9/11 allows the President to use force against groups and countries that had supported the attacks. Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya – the countries where SOF operations are intensive – are not on the list. Besides, even if successful, the US «raids foreign policy» does not gain ground in global counter-terrorist efforts. With terrorist leaders eliminated by SOF, other persons step in to do the job willing to commit new resonant terrorist acts to prove their efficiency. Extremist groups have leaders waiting in the wings to take over. The «targets» are likely to scatter across the so called «arc of instability» in North Africa and the Middle East and regroup in more remote regions.
SOF operations do not fix problems, but that’s what President Obama gives priority to. The administration is counting on SOF’s stepped-up operations over the next year to turn around largely negative public opinion of its track record against Islamic State.
Neither the Yemeni government, not the United Nations has asked America to take action. The President’s decision to intervene militarily in one more conflicts is a brazen violation of international and domestic law. Mr Obama is playing with fire. The desire to improve his public image by military ventures abroad is fraught with grave implications. As history shows, «limited interventions» have a big chance to turn into large-scale wars. Remember Vietnam?