The unintended consequences of the war on AQAP

The war on terror waged by Western governments in Yemen has not only failed to achieve its goals, but has in fact strengthened the exact groups it hoped to defeat. A recent piece in Foreign Policy by Jack Watling and Namir Shabibi explains why military training and financial incentives provided to Yemen’s government by the US and the UK to defeat al-Qaeda have brought about disastrous unintended consequences. In the eight years that Western governments have provided military training to troops in Yemen, al-Qaeda has expanded its territory and increased its membership. For a year up until last month, AQAP ruled a mini-state in Yemen’s port city of Mukalla. Local officials estimate the group earned $2 million a day from taxes on fuel and goods, illustrating both AQAP's financial success and the utter failure by Western governments to defeat the militant group.

But the counter-terrorism push by Washington and London was not always a failure. The early years of the fight against AQAP, from 2001 to 2005, were so successful that the two governments considered the group defeated and cut back significantly on aid to Yemen. Shortly thereafter, 23 senior militants escaped from a Yemeni prison, renewing the al-Qaeda threat and the aid money.

The response set the worst possible precedent. It effectively tied millions of dollars in aid — and the corresponding support for President Saleh — not to al Qaeda’s elimination, but to its continued presence. From that moment, Yemeni efforts to confront the insurgency lost their previous vigor.

The strategy of direct military assistance presented its own challenges. Upon the creation of Western-trained Yemeni anti-terrorism units, the amount of operations against al-Qaeda notably decreased. This was in part due to an unwillingness of Yemeni troops to interfere in tribal areas, but also represented the troops' understanding that, if their aim was achieved and al-Qaeda was defeated, their unit would no longer be needed.

Independent efforts by Western governments to defeat AQAP, such as drone strikes, have also had unintended consequences. The numerous civilian deaths resulting from drone attacks roused anger among average Yemenis, facilitating recruitment by al-Qaeda. Ultimately, all of these efforts to defeat AQAP were a waste of time, money, and lives, and should serve as a lesson for any future attempts to defeat the group.