No act of government calls for greater debate and deliberation than the decision to commit the country to war. The recent civil war in Syria sparked a national conversation in the United States about the direction of American foreign policy, and rightly so. But Syria was not the only civil war preoccupying the administration. While orchestrating the drawdown in Afghanistan and openly contemplating intervening in Syria, the president appears to have secretly inserted the United States in Yemen's civil war.
Today, US forces conduct operations alongside the Yemeni army as it battles a domestic insurgency. The troubling details of some of those operations were revealed Tuesday, in a major report by Human Rights Watch on the scope of US military strikes in Yemen. The picture that emerges is grim: the president is waging a secret war in Yemen, and it's time for him to come clean.
Administration officials have long assured the public that America's involvement in Yemen was extremely circumscribed, and for good reason. According to a leading account of the inner workings of the administration, the president was resolute in targeting members of al-Qaida's affiliate group in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a decision that his lawyers concluded Congress had clearly authorized following 11 September 2001.
But expanding the target set to include AQAP's rebel forces threatening the Yemeni government was a wholly different matter.
We're pursuing a focused counter-terrorism campaign in Yemen designed to prevent and deter terrorist plots that directly threaten US interests at home and abroad … We have not, and will not, get involved in a broader counter-insurgency effort. That would not serve our long-term interests and runs counter to the desires of the Yemeni government and its people.
In August 2012, John Brennan, then the White House counter-terrorism tsar, assured an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations that although the US would continue to aid and build Yemen's counter-insurgency capacity, "we're not involved in working with the Yemeni government in terms of direct action or lethal action as part of that insurgency."
Tuesday's report by Human Rights Watch calls those claims into question. According to the group's investigators on the ground:
Some if not many of those killed by the United States outside AQAP's core membership may have been fighters in the domestic insurgency against the Yemeni government.
In one of six cases specifically reviewed, the president of a Yemeni thinktank, Abaad Studies and Research Center, states that a lieutenant colonel in the Yemeni military, the target of a lethal US strike in November 2012, was killed "for working not in favor of extremist groups but against the current regime". He was allegedly killed, in other words, for his role in Yemen's civil war – not because he was a threat to US national security.
The report also references the New York Times story that some US strikes apparently killed militants wearing suicide vests as they were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. The report also covers US involvement alongside the Yemeni army in large-scale counter-insurgency operations. Human Rights Watch alleges, for example, that a "combination of Yemeni troops, pro-government militias, and US and allegedly Saudi airstrikes routed" AQAP insurgents from the Abyan province in June 2012. The report suggests similar operations occurred in the central city of Radaa that same year.
In 2012, United States remotely piloted aircraft and other air strikes intensified as the United States supported actions by Yemeni ground forces to dislodge militants from their positions in the south of the country.
And in August 2013, a highly-regarded source that tracks US strikes in Yemen, the Long War Journal, reported on a "trend" since spring 2012 whereby the US has targeted "not only senior AQAP operatives who pose a direct threat to the US, but also low-level fighters and local commanders who are battling the Yemeni government". This is contrary, as the Journal notes, to US officials' claims that "drones are targeting only those AQAP leaders and operatives who pose a direct threat to the US homeland, and not those fighting AQAP's local insurgency against the Yemeni government."
The administration's decision to become directly involved in militarily defeating the insurgency in Yemen may be sound policy; or it may not. Right or wrong, it is not for President Obama alone to decide. When the question whether to involve the US militarily in Libya's and Syria's civil wars arose, the president addressed the country explaining his rationale and legal authority, and Congress debated.
Democracy, at a bare minimum, means leaders inform and listen to the public before committing the nation to war. A national discussion on Yemen is waiting.