THE CONTROVERSIAL Jan. 29 attack by U.S. forces on a rural township in Yemen exemplifies the failed U.S. policy in the region.
In the first military raid carried out by the Trump administration, one U.S. soldier and at least 25 civilians were killed in the attack on the village of al-Ghayil in central Yemen, including nine children under the age of 13. Among these was 8-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, who was shot in her family’s house. Other civilians killed included visitors whose family has been active in U.N.-mediated de-escalation committees, working to quell violence in the region.
Some leaders of al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) also lived in al-Ghayil. AQAP has taken advantage of Yemen’s multi-sided civil war to find refuge in remote areas. AQAP maintains an uneasy relationship with local tribes, many of whom abhor al Qaeda’s violent excesses and reactionary interpretation of Islam but respect AQAP’s ability to fight common enemies.
When Navy SEALs found themselves under fire, they called in airstrikes. The barrage hit houses where families slept, killing people and livestock. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens was also killed.
President Trump initially blamed his own generals and former President Obama for the botched raid. Then, in his first address to Congress, Trump pivoted, describing it as “a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence.” Owen’s widow was present; Trump referred to her multiple times in his address. Owen’s father refused to meet with the president and asked for an investigation into his son’s death.
Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda? It’s an odd question, I know, but it reared its ugly head as I read about the new reports from Amnesty International and Humans Rights Watch on U.S. drone strikes. The scapegoating mechanism is a very precise instrument that accrues enormous benefits to the scapegoater. By accusing their scapegoat of wrongdoing, a scapegoater ingeniously hides from the reality of their own guilt. Now here’s the weird thing: a scapegoat does not have to be innocent to function as a scapegoat. Scapegoats can be evil, nasty, ruthless, amoral sons-of-bitches and still function perfectly well as a scapegoat. Which is why I ask the question: Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda to hide from its own guilt?
With that in mind, I invite you to read these few excerpts that raised the question for me, with key phrases in boldface:
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By now most of the world knows the royal family in England is celebrating the birth of little baby George Alexander Louis. The commentators panted as they caught the first glimpses of the magic baby, about everything from the infant's apparent ability to withstand a media onslaught to the ever-so-newsworthy fact that his father drove the family home with his own two hands.
Meanwhile in Iraq, several hundred prisoners of the infamous Abu Ghraib facility escaped, many of whom were known or suspected members of Al Qaeda. Considering the attention given to the few dozen detainees still held in Guantánamo Bay, it seems reasonable to think that such a breakout would arrest the headlines around the globe.
But instead, we stayed focused for the most part on baby George. I remarked about this to my friend, sharing my concern about the apparent distortion of priorities. He suggested that it simply is a sign of cultural fatigue, or even resignation. Sometimes, after all, these stories that have international importance seem so big, so abstract, and so far away that it is hard to wrap our minds around them. It’s easier instead to set our attention on something more hopeful — albeit remarkably more superficial — that won’t keep us awake at night.
Vietnam vet and author Terry McDermott sees parallels between the B-52 bombings of Cambodia and the drone strikes in Pakistan.
"Simply put: American technology — B-52s then, drones now — makes it far too easy to unleash holy hell on our enemies. We live in an age when American might can overwhelm the defenses of entire countries with barely a drop of American blood spent. It is, in a way, too easy. Because there is so little risk, there is no political cost to be paid for the drone wars."
But he asks:
"We've been trying to attack Al Qaeda with missiles, bombs and drones for 25 years now. Shouldn't we at some time stop and ask ourselves: What's the point? As good as we've become at killing people, the larger problem persists. … That larger problem is that we cannot kill our way to victory in the war on terror."
In the wake of the death of Al Qaeda’s #2 leader Monday, BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner wonders if the movement can survive the continued attrition of its leaders by targeted drone strikes. He concludes that:
"In the long term, perhaps the most serious threat to al-Qaeda lies not so much in the unseen death from the air through drone strikes but in an eventual evaporation of its cause.
Last year's mass democratic movement, dubbed by some the "Arab Spring" or "Arab Awakening", completely bypassed al-Qaeda, which had always insisted that violent jihad was the best and only path to just government.
With the recent departure of Western forces from Iraq and the imminent withdrawal of international combat forces from Afghanistan, the global jihadist movement will be deprived of a significant recruiting tool.
But it would be foolish to believe that the movement is finished."
Peter Bergen, a director of the New America Foundation, writes: “The president who won the Nobel Peace Prize less than nine months after his inauguration has turned out to be one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades.”
And he adds up the evidence of the past four years:
"Mr. Obama decimated Al Qaeda’s leadership. He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in Al Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden."
These actions, allegedly against the “threat of terrorism,” are reminiscent of the so-called Reagan Doctrine against the “threat of communism” in the early-to-mid 1980s. We’re still paying the price for the use of covert operations to attack insurgents, while supporting repressive and corrupt governments in that era. The Mujaheddin who were armed and trained to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan are now the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighting the U.S. occupation. The price of the last four years is yet to be seen, but history suggests it will be substantial.