Human rights organizations and activists have called the conflict in Yemen the "Forgotten War," but the flurry of counterterrorism activity since President Trump took office has thrust it back into the headlines.
His controversial decision in January to launch the raid in the central Bayda governorate on an Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) compound, in which Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens died and nearly 30 civilians were killed, was a prelude to nearly a week of an intense campaign against Yemen's anti-Western militant forces that has claimed the lives of more civilians, including children.
While Trump appears to want to show his strength against the best organized of the al Qaeda affiliates, his counterterrorism push threatens to entangle the United States in a complex war that could have serious blowback on national security.
The Yemen war, fought by Houthi rebel forces allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, who is back by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition, has unveiled deep fissures in the country's political and social fabric.
After the Houthi takeover of Yemen's northern capital Sana'a in 2014, Hadi relocated to the southern city of Aden, allying with varied political forces hostile to the Houthi-Saleh power grab to regain his legitimate seat of power.
The coalition's entry into the conflict in 2015 intensified human suffering across the country. International humanitarian law and human rights violations abound on both sides and have caused a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, with more than 10,000 dead; between 20,000 and 40,000 wounded; hundreds of thousands displaced; and many more on the verge of famine.
Pentagon spokesperson Capt. Jeff Davis said that the strikes, conducted in coordination with the Hadi government, aimed to degrade "AQAP's ability to coordinate external terror attacks and limit their ability to use territory seized from the legitimate government of Yemen as a safe space for terror plotting." Trump has hailed such efforts as tremendously successful, with the Yakla raid uncovering a trove of intelligence to counter evolving terrorist strategies.
Amid the news, one might easily miss the type of article in the local Yemeni press that tells a vastly different interpretation of US counterterrorism efforts. A small story in the Yemen Press, an outlet affiliated with the Islah party (a Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood affiliate), describes how the U.S. airstrikes, in fact, support the Houthi-Saleh rebels.
It told of tribal fighters supporting "popular resistance forces" in regaining territory in Abyan after they witnessed rebel forces being backed by U.S. airpower. Articles in Arabi 21 and Al Shabaka tell a similar story, while others report that the strikes actually targeted Houthi fighters, in concert with the anti-Iranian shift in U.S. policy.
While accusations regarding U.S. motivations are patently untrue, the story highlights the way in which either political forces manipulate counterterrorism efforts, how they are misconstrued by the Yemeni public or both. As the United States escalates its military involvement in Yemen beyond its current support to the Saudi-led coalition, parties to the conflict will increasingly view it as taking sides in the war.
To ordinary Yemenis, a U.S. bomb that kills a friend, family or tribal member — whether or not it is dropped in the conduct of a counterterrorism operation — is still a bomb. When I asked a Yemeni friend from the country's south about the U.S. campaign against AQAP, he said, "It's stupid. The United States does not know how to differentiate between al Qaeda and normal Yemenis."
In their minds, America will be to blame and the blowback on U.S. interests may increase. The conflict has already spilled over into maritime warfare, including one attack on a Saudi vessel by an unmanned boat filled with explosives and potentially threatening Bab al-Mandab, an important global shipping lane.
Reports of a failed plot to attack a Saudi royal delegation in Malaysia also illustrate how revenge attacks do not necessarily have to take place on the target's soil. As much as the United States prides itself on intelligence and border security, increased resentment will increase the threat to — and possible attempts on — U.S. interests.
Trump has made clear his intent to take on terrorism in the Yemen theater, doubling down on military engagement in the face of public and congressional criticism of his involvement in the conflict. The political and social complexities, the human cost, and the potential backfiring of continued operations should give the White House and Congress pause.
Thankfully, the U.S. Congress has taken a few steps to understand the Trump administration's goals and consider its potential unintended consequences. Most recently, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has called a hearing to explore U.S. involvement in Yemen.
Before today, the last hearing on the issue took place in the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa in April 2015, less than a month after the coalition joined the war. Perhaps careful consideration can prevent a dangerous entanglement that could cost more U.S. and Yemeni lives.
Tarek Radwan is a nonresident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council and the advocacy director of the Arab Center for the Promotion of Human Rights.
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