As he laid out his plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State insurgency, President Barack Obama told the nation Wednesday night that he planned to pursue the extremists who have seized much of Syria and Iraq just as the U.S. has done “successfully” in Yemen and Somalia. For those familiar with the ongoing collapse of those two states, Obama set a low bar.
But the comparison, analysts said, was revealing of Obama’s true intentions for combating the Islamic State threat: a low-commitment operation that would neutralize — but likely not eliminate — the armed group.
“These are cases where the U.S. certainly hasn’t destroyed Al-Qaeda [affiliates], but we have contained them. That’s probably what he’s looking for in Iraq and Syria,” said David Newton, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and Iraq and an ex–deputy chief of mission in Syria.
At the same time, framing his strategy in Iraq along the same contours as the continuing campaigns in Somalia and Yemen makes a lot of sense for Obama. After more than a decade of expensive, high-commitment wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, cost-effective, targeted airstrikes in Somalia and Yemen are much more palatable to a war-weary American public.
Since the U.S. became involved in Yemen and Somalia during the early days of George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, no American soldiers have been killed in the line of duty in either of those countries. And taxpayers have invested relatively little — something on the order of hundreds of millions — compared with the trillions of dollars Washington has sunk into Iraq and Afghanistan.
But holding up Yemen and Somalia as success stories struck some observers as questionable. Analysts believe the threat to the U.S. has been managed somewhat in these countries, in large part because of covert U.S. operations. But threats persist, particularly from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen. The 2009 underwear bomber was perhaps the closest call, but murmurs in extremist circles of another credible plot against the U.S. spurred Washington to close its embassy in Yemen last year.
Shortly before Obama addressed the nation, the National Counterterrorism Center deputy director, Nicholas Rasmussen, acknowledged that AQAP remained “the Al-Qaeda affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States” (whereas the Islamic State’s “ability to carry out complex, significant attacks in the West is currently limited,” he said). If Yemen is a success story, critics wondered, why is that still the case?
The question is whether the U.S. strategy in these countries has amounted to anything more than a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. The U.S. has taken out a number of high-profile commanders of Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, but leadership of the groups seems to constantly regenerate, and the fighters carry on as if nothing has changed.
Just last week the U.S. confirmed it killed Ahmed Godane, the leader of Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabab in Somalia — a victory Obama heralded in the first few lines of his speech on Wednesday. But Godane was immediately replaced this week, and the new leader, Ahmed Omar Abu Ubaidah, promptly renewed his predecessor’s oath to Al-Qaeda central.
There’s also mixed evidence about whether these campaigns have led to better outcomes for Yemen and Somalia themselves, as both remain highly volatile, or for Washington’s image abroad. There has been major blowback against U.S. drone policy in Yemen, where strikes have occasionally incurred civilian casualties. In one infamous incident in December 2013, a U.S. drone allegedly fired on a wedding party, killing 12 people.
Needless to say, applying this strategy will be considerably more complex in the case of the Islamic State insurgency, which is at the center of a regional power struggle waged in the power vacuum left by two crumbling regimes.
In Somalia and Yemen, the U.S. has enjoyed the backing of the local governments, however fragile or corrupt they may be, as well as the ground support of their security forces.
That won't be the case in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has condemned in advance any U.S.-led strike that isn’t coordinated with Damascus — a tough ask, given that Washington and its allies have been calling for Assad to resign for years now. The U.S. and its allies, meanwhile, haven’t yet identified a viable partner on the ground in Syria who could take over — let alone govern — territory that is cleared of insurgents. Obama has called on Congress to boost aid to the ill-defined moderate rebels, but they are currently the weakest faction on the ground in Syria.
Even in Iraq, the less complicated of the two arenas, there are doubts that the newly formed Iraqi government won’t revert to its sectarian ways, which alienated the country’s Sunni populace and laid fertile ground for the Islamic State takeover. Rolling back Islamic State fighters by striking from above is just the first step; appeasing the Sunni residents who are wary of the Shia-led government in Baghdad is as important.
Clearly, there are no easy answers to the crises in Iraq and Syria. Writing in international affairs magazine The National Interest, Peter Harris noted that in referring to Yemen and Somalia, the president was at least staying true to his hands-off approach to the Middle East. “In short, Obama offered his audience a theme of continuity and reassurance, not dramatic change or knee-jerk reaction,” Harris said.
Given his aversion to sending troops back to Iraq, however, many feel Obama has few other options.
“It’s all a question of what’s doable," said Newton. “And in these situations, victory is not doable.”