U.S. military aircraft hammered enemy targets, and small numbers of American troops provided training and operational advice to allied forces. That was Vietnam in the early 1960s, but it also describes Yemen today as the Obama administration steps up counter-terrorism efforts against al Qaeda's most lethal cell.
The administration responded to months of al Qaeda victories over Yemeni security forces by stepping up air strikes on the extremist group and sending "small numbers of trainers," as one Pentagon spokesman put it, to the Middle East nation.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based cell is known, responded with a suicide bombing in the nation's capital city that killed nearly 100 people and injured another 220. In a separate attack, three U.S. contractors helping train Yemen's coast guard were killed Monday when militants attacked the car in which they were traveling. Such AQAP attacks make the terror group much more of a threat to Yemen's leaders, threatening to draw Washington deeper into a conflict that in many ways is an internal struggle.
Obama administration officials "are trying very hard to limit this to a counter-terrorism operation and to not get into counter-insurgency against Yemen's host of internal problems," says former CIA official Bruce Riedel, now with the Brookings Institution.
"The problem is that will be a hard line to walk because the host government doesn't want us there to just deal with our probelm--they want us to also deal with their problems," he says. "This is Vietnam in 1963. The important thing is to not get sucked into Vietnam 1965."
That is when the U.S. involvement ramped up substantially, with the start of the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign followed by President Lyndon Johnson raising U.S. force levels to 60,000.
While U.S. officials and experts say Washington is far from becoming that involved in Yemen, Riedel says "that's exactly what al Qaeda would like: The U.S. involved in another quagmire in the Middle East." Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters Tuesday U.S. military "trainers" are on Yemeni soil "to support the government of Yemen's efforts to pursue terrorists in their own country."
"And we believe that that's a reflection of our shared commitment to thwart AQAP and its attempts to attack not just Yemenis, but also Americans, as well as other U.S. and Yemeni partners and allies," Little said. "Our focus is on train, advise, assist, and on deepening our counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen."
U.S.-backed Yemeni President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi will press Washington to do more--even target his enemies in areas his military no longer controls that are not al Qaeda members.
"The administration just has to say, 'No, we're not going to go that far,'" Riedel says.
Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a former National Security Council official, says a further escalation of the U.S. military presence in Yemen is unlikely.
"The U.S. really can't further expand this from a geopolitical perspective," "Nelson says. "In the end, this will have to be a Yemeni solution."
Riedel agrees, saying "the senior people that President Obama has working on this are very allergic to getting involved in another prolonged Afghanistan- or Iraq-type counter-insurgency operation."
That begs the question: Will U.S. air strikes and support for Yemeni ground forces be enough to defeat AQAP, which U.S. intelligence officials contend is the most lethal part of al Qaeda? Indeed, the group has been connected to attempts to bring down American or U.S.-bound aircraft, including the recent "underwear bomber" plot that was thwarted by Western intelligence services and their allies in Saudi Arabia.
"That depends on a lot of factors going on inside Yemen," says Katherine Zimmerman, an American Enterprise Institute analyst who follows the country closely. "U.S. interests, narrowly defined, are defeating AQAP or preventing an attack on the homeland. That will have to be balanced against Yemen's economic and social challenges."
Zimmerman says it remains "unclear" whether Yemeni ground forces alone can defeat al Qaeda and an internal insurgency fighting against the central Yemeni government.
Other experts, however, are more upbeat.
"It can work and it is working," says Nelson. "Yemen really is, I think, a blueprint for counter-terrorism for the future.
Riedel, too, sees a path to a U.S. victory: "Carefully targeted counter-terrorism missions to deteriorate the top AQAP leadership can be successful."
In many ways, Washington is waging a war against the clock.
"The problem for the U.S. is this really is a race against time," says Riedel. "We've been lucky because AQAP has gotten a bomb on a plane twice. ... This is a race to see if they can pull off a strike on the U.S. homeland or if we can take out AQAP's top leadership."
U.S. officials say they have used missile strikes from drone aircraft to take out a number of top AQAP leaders in recent years, strikes that likely will continue for some time.
Experts agree Washington's Yemen strategy must take a long view, providing the Middle Eastern nation with economic, development and political aid.
To help spawn a functional, al Qaeda-free Yemen, "the U.S. will have to take on some of the larger issues there: a weak central government, no viable economy," says Nelson. "This is what's so important for the U.S. We can't just invest in the stability of these countries only when there is a terror threat. If we abandon Yemen, we should not be surprised some additional extremist activity is going thrive." How long might that take? "Twenty or 40 years," he says.
Pursuing that lofty goal wouldn't be cheap. Washington has sent billions in aid dollars to Yemen since the terror attacks opf 9/11 to enhance the average Yemeni's freshwater, health care, agriculture and education access.
"But we're broke," says Riedel. "That's why we have to press the Saudis to do more. "It's their backyard.
But that comes with a price, he adds. "The Yemenis resent t he hell out of the Saudis. But, as much as we might want to, we alone can't put the Yemeni Humpty Dumpty back together again."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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