Why Yemen Isn't Afghanistan or Iraq

White House official's Yemen talk sounds a lot like Iraq, Afghanistan approach, but differences exist.

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Yemeni soldiers on a tank after the army seized the Al-Qaeda strongholds of Jaar and the provincial capital Zinjibar, more than a year after the jihadists captured most of the Abyan province.

A senior U.S. counterterrorism official spoke before a packed room at a prominent Washington think tank Wednesday, touting the White House's "comprehensive approach" that emphasizes "governance and development" in a faraway land.

Yes, you have heard these buzzwords before. But John Brennan wasn't talking about Washington's policy for Iraq or Afghanistan. He was describing the Obama administration's approach to Yemen, the newest front in the war against al Qaeda.

President Obama "has insisted that our policy emphasize governance and development as much as security and focus on a clear goal: to facilitate a democratic transition while helping Yemen advance political, economic, and security reforms so it can support its citizens and counter [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP]," Brennan told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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One longtime Pentagon observer who was in the room E-mailed U.S. News & World Report to ask whether Brennan had mistakenly brought his Afghanistan speech. The quip could have been repeated when Brennan later dropped the phrase "clear, hold, build." There were glances in the room at the irony of Brennan's endorsement of that George W. Bush administration concept, which the Obama administration scrapped in favor of a revised approach that focused on transferring duties to Afghan officials and forces.

But make no mistake, Yemen is not Afghanistan, nor Iraq. At least not yet. Here are three reasons why:

Small Footprint. The U.S. footprint in Iraq at its peak was around 170,000 troops, and 101,000 in Afghanistan. Throw in tens of thousands of private contractors and the total American footprint rivaled the population of a medium-sized U.S. city.

U.S. officials have acknowledged at least one small team of 20 U.S. commandos is in Yemen working with indigenous forces and officials with training, intelligence, and surveillance. Speculation within national security circles is rampant that more American special operations forces and intelligence personnel likely are there, as well--but nothing rivaling the massive Iraq and Afghanistan deployments.

The U.S. has relied largely on "targeted strikes" to take out AQAP leaders and operatives in Yemen using missiles fired from drone aircraft. Brennan was opaque about those strikes on Wednesday, acknowledging "targeted strikes" are part of the U.S. approach to Yemen, but later saying with a chuckle that some unnamed nation is responsible for drone attacks there.

Civil War. Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan before 9/11 not to rule that nation but to plot and prepare for terrorist attacks on the United States and its allies. And the terrorist organization established a presence in Iraq only after U.S. troops ousted Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.

Al Qaeda's main cell in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region features few Afghans and Pakistanis, Brennan said. But AQAP is made up mostly of Yemenis. While they have tried to attack the United States, the al Qaeda affiliate's main goal, Brennan said, "is to overthrown the government in Sanaa," Yemen's capital.

AQAP has been clashing with Yemeni security forces for years, claiming ample territory in southern Yemen earlier this year in a series of high-profile attacks. Al Qaeda forces even "fly their flag" to show they, not the central government, control specific parts of the Middle East nation, Brennan said. "That Yemen did not devolve into an all-out civil war is a testament to the courage, determination, and resilience of the Yemeni people," he said.

Saudi Arabia. Foreign policy experts have said the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were plagued by myriad problems due in large part to efforts by those nations' neighbors to thwart America's goals. Syria and Iran meddled in Iraq for years, allowing al Qaeda fighters to cross their borders into Iraq and interfering in Iraqi politics. Pakistan and Iran have frustrated U.S. officials with similar actions in Afghanistan.

But in Washington's Yemen toolbox lies an important, influential and wealthy ally: Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda was formed in part because of Osama bin Laden's gripes about how the Saudi royal family ruled his native country. AQAP gains in Yemen, Saudi officials worry, could stoke political unrest at home.

And the Saudis are writing big checks to keep that from happening.

"The international community has threatened U.N. sanctions against those who would undermine the [Yemeni political process], provided humanitarian relief, and offered assistance for the National Dialogue and electoral reform," Brennan said. "International partners--including the UK, Germany, China, Russia, India, the EU, and the UAE--have pledged aid. Saudi Arabia offered $3.25 billion, on top of the significant fuel grants it gave Yemen to offset the losses caused by attacks on oil infrastructure."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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