Center for Strategic Communication

White House Counterterrorism advisor John Brennan and President Obama visit FEMA headquarters in 2009. Photo: FEMA

Does this sound familiar? The U.S. fears al-Qaida filling the security vacuum in a distant, unfamiliar country with a weak government. While the U.S. carries out lethal strikes there to pursue the terrorists, senior officials intone that the greater part of their aid isn’t military, it’s economic development, better health care, improved schools and opportunities for the locals to flourish and the government to improve. Corruption, however, remains a big problem — and in case you were wondering, no, none of this expansive aid package means the U.S. is embroiling itself in a foreign civil war.

That’s how John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, describes what the U.S. is doing in Yemen. If you put the U.S. approaches to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan into a blender, the frothing mixture that emerged would be Yemen policy. Brennan didn’t come close to conceding that the U.S. is at war in Yemen during a Wednesday talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Rather, Brennan took pains to describe President Obama’s approach to Yemen as a giant development effort — although it’s the type of economic improvement initiative that involves robots of death circling overhead.

Brennan said the numbers tell the tale. U.S. assistance to Yemen this year is more than $337 million. More than half of that, $178 million, is for “political transition, humanitarian assistance and development.” That includes “helping to strengthen governance and institutions on which Yemen’s long term progress depends.” The money will “expand essential services, improve efficiency, combat corruption and increase accountability.” There’s even $110 million, routed mostly through the United Nations, to provide “food vouchers, safe drinking water and basic health services.” For good measure, the U.S. will “empower women,” a frequent promise in Iraq and Afghanistan. In response to a question, Brennan launched into a wonky discourse about Yemenis’ difficulties in accessing clean water.

Brennan gave less emphasis to the reason that the U.S. is bothering with Yemen in the first place: al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist offshoot that has tried to bomb the U.S. through bombs packed in printer cartridges and into the underwear of an operative on an airplane. The “targeted strikes,” as Brennan called them, don’t seem to be alienating Yemenis, he assured. “Targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem,” Brennan said, “they’re part of the solution.”

You wouldn’t know from that presentation that the U.S. has two separate programs that keep armed drones above Yemen — at least one of which killed 10 suspected militants on Tuesday. Nor would you know that Brennan manages the process by which those suspected militants get marked for death. Nor did Brennan discuss the $112 million in aid to Yemen’s military, allowing them to purchase everything from ammunition to night-vision glasses. He framed his speech instead around refuting a June open letter from academics fretting that aid to Yemen is overly militarized.

But that left Brennan open to a different charge: that by focusing on things like access to water and women’s empowerment, the U.S. was slowly getting itself embroiled deeper into a civil war in a nation it doesn’t understand and most Americans can’t find on a map. After all, Brennan conceded, most of AQAP is Yemeni, unlike al-Qaida branches in other countries; and a sizable amount of its efforts are devoted not to attacking the U.S. but overthrowing the government in Sana’a.

“While we have aided the Yemeni government in building the capacity to deal with an AQAP insurgency that exists on the ground there, we’re not involved in working with the Yemeni government in terms of direct action or legal action as part of that insurgency,” Brennan said.

There’s reason to doubt that, as the U.S. has expanded its kill list. But take Brennan at his word for a second.

It’s possible that the Yemeni government — which, as Brennan said, has had some success reclaiming territory in the south from AQAP — will get sufficiently capable under U.S. military tutelage. But it’s also possible that Yemen’s counterinsurgency efforts will proceed unevenly, creating pressure for the U.S. to draw itself in deeper, having made expansive promises about mitigating seemingly intractable problems about water, healthcare and economic development. That’s exactly what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where wars undertaken for discrete objectives bloated into lengthy, expensive nation-building efforts. And at least in those interventions, the U.S. admitted it was at war.