Barely expressed in the NYT’s long story about our use of paramilitary strikes in places we’re not officially at war is a conflict between three choices. The NYT piece describes the first two–a covert war run by CIA and briefed to Congress, or a covert war run by JSOC subject less oversight–as the choice the Administration is currently debating.
The Yemen operation has raised a broader question: who should be running the shadow war? White House officials are debating whether the C.I.A. should take over the Yemen campaign as a “covert action,” which would allow the United States to carry out operations even without the approval of Yemen’s government. By law, covert action programs require presidential authorization and formal notification to the Congressional intelligence committees. No such requirements apply to the military’s so-called Special Access Programs, like the Yemen strikes.
Implicit in the choice, is the question of whether or not we want to partner with the Yemeni government as we launch attacks on extremist groups in the country.
In part, the spotty record of the Yemen airstrikes may derive from another unavoidable risk of the new shadow war: the need to depend on local proxies who may be unreliable or corrupt, or whose agendas differ from that of the United States.
American officials have a troubled history with Mr. Saleh, a wily political survivor who cultivates radical clerics at election time and has a history of making deals with jihadists. Until recently, taking on Al Qaeda had not been a priority for his government, which has been fighting an intermittent armed rebellion since 2004.
And for all Mr. Saleh’s power — his portraits hang everywhere in the Yemeni capital — his government is deeply unpopular in the remote provinces where the militants have sought sanctuary. The tribes there tend to regularly switch sides, making it difficult to depend on them for information about Al Qaeda. “My state is anyone who fills my pocket with money,” goes one old tribal motto.
The Yemeni security services are similarly unreliable and have collaborated with jihadists at times. The United States has trained elite counterterrorism teams there in recent years, but the military still suffers from corruption and poor discipline.
So we are partnering with forces with occasional ties to our enemies, but the Administration fights fully briefing this stuff to Congress for fear it will be leaked?