May 9, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Global Ground Fight Against Terrorism

• On May 6, the U.S. Defense Department confirmed that a small number of U.S. military personnel were once again on the ground in Yemen 

• The mission, which began approximately two weeks ago, is to assist UAE troops combating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula around Mukalla

• As counterterrorism challenges exceed the capabilities of air-based strategies, the U.S. is increasing its use of small teams on the ground operating in both combat and advisory roles

• With terrorist groups taking advantage of security vacuums wherever they exist, the list of locations U.S. personnel are or will likely soon be deployed is growing and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.


After more than a year and a half absence, the U.S. military is back on the ground in Yemen. On May 6, the U.S. Defense Department stated that a small team of personnel is in Yemen assisting forces from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that are pressuring al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in its stronghold of Mukalla. AQAP—al-Qaeda’s most capable affiliate—has taken full advantage of the U.S. absence, making significant territorial gains in the chaos of Yemen’s ongoing civil war. The U.S. military personnel—who were not further identified—have been in Yemen for approximately two weeks. The contingent was reported to be small in number and is not acting in a combat role. As seen in Iraq, however, the definition of ‘combat role’ is a distinction that tends to be lost in the amorphous combat zones in which the U.S. increasingly finds itself engaged.

While recent U.S. counterterrorism strategy has attempted to limit the U.S. footprint through the use of airstrikes, the depth and breadth of terrorism challenges far exceeds the capabilities of what is simply one of many tactics. The use of Special Operations Forces (SOF), with their relative 'small footprint', is nothing new when it comes to training and advising foreign partners, or even acting directly when needed. What is new is the sheer number of countries in which the U.S. has been forced to rely on small groups of SOF personnel to reverse trends that are far larger than any advisory team—however elite—can address. The partners U.S. forces must work with tend to be relatively weak, and the challenges they face enormous—from Iraq to Yemen, Afghanistan to SyriaTunisia to Somalia

Prior to Yemen’s civil war, the U.S. military had maintained a presence in the country for years, helping the Yemeni government contain AQAP with targeted air strikes in addition to training and advising Yemeni forces. The collapse of the al-Hadi government and the subsequent conflict with the Houthis, however, forced the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Though unable to maintain a presence, the U.S. provided the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen with extensive intelligence and logistical support. For much of the conflict, however, the major powers involved—including Saudi Arabia—have largely relegated AQAP to secondary importance, allowing the group to thrive in the vacuum of the civil war. This has been particularly troubling for the U.S., as AQAP’s proven ability to use Yemen as a staging grounds for strikes against the West has always been the prime concern. The reintroduction of U.S. personnel—even as the political situation remains a mess—is a sign of that unease.

Fighting terrorism through airstrikes from 20,000 feet has failed to deliver lasting results in terms of stability because the tactic was never designed to do so. Training and advising local forces provides somewhat more lasting results, though such efforts are also not meant to change a country's path. The best that can be hoped for with the current approach is to mitigate the worst terrorist threats and buy time for political, economic, and societal reforms that heretofore have not been realized. As the challenges grow while the feasible responses remain quite limited, the U.S. will increasingly find itself buying time with serious costs.


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