What’s Missing in New York Times’ “Latest” Version of US Military Role in Yemen

This weekend’s New York Times provided new details of a US special operations commando and a C.I.A. officer who killed two individuals attempting to kidnap the Americans inside a barbershop in Yemen’s capital. A part of the story that caught my attention was the Times’ description of the overall US strategy and involvement in Yemen. A lot seems to be missing from the newspaper’s account.

Here’s the key text (compared to text from the NYT in February 2012):

New York Times on May 10, 2014:

“The Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy in Yemen aims to help President Hadi overhaul his nation’s military to combat the Qaeda franchise in its strongholds in large parts of the country’s south. And it calls for the United States and Yemen to work together to kill or capture about two dozen of Al Qaeda’s most dangerous operatives, who are focused on attacking America and its interests.

This approach mirrors the White House’s global counterterrorism strategy in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: to employ small numbers of Special Operations troops, C.I.A. paramilitary teams and drones against elements of Al Qaeda that are committed to striking the United States, while arming and advising indigenous security forces to tackle costlier long-term counterinsurgency campaigns.” (my emphasis added)

New York Times on February 26, 2012:

“This approach mirrors the White House’s global counterterrorism strategy in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: to employ small numbers of Special Operations troops, Central Intelligence Agency paramilitary teams and drones against elements of Al Qaeda that are committed to striking the United States, while arming and advising indigenous security forces to tackle costlier long-term counterinsurgency campaigns.” (my emphasis added)

Yes, the second paragraph in the May 10 story is a duplicate of the paragraph in the Times story in February 2012. Has nothing changed in more than two years?

More specifically, is the Obama administration still only “arming and advising” Yemen’s security forces — or playing a far more direct role? And is the use of lethal force by the US only for targeting “two dozen of Al Qaeda’s most dangerous operatives, who are focused on attacking America and its interests”?

Recall that just last month, news reports explained that the United States provided “extensive assistance beyond drone strikes during a massive anti-terror operation in Yemen, including flying Yemeni commandos to a site where they killed scores of suspected al Qaeda members.” That doesn’t sound like just arming and advising.

And what about being focused on the most dangerous Al Qaeda operatives who threaten the United States? One of the most reputable sources for documenting drone strikes, the Long War Journal has repeatedly reported on the following “trend”: “The US targeted not only senior AQAP operatives who pose a direct threat to the US, but also low-level fighters and local commanders who are battling the Yemeni government.” The Long War Journal stated that this trend has existed since May 2012.

As Bobby Chesney recently noted over at Lawfare (based on an account in Politico’s Morning Defense), the Obama administration is reportedly open to expanding the US military role in Yemen even more. Bobby ends his post with “Stay tuned…” I agree.

But, if you stay tuned just to the New York Times reporting, you may be missing it.

[Editor’s Note: For an earlier analysis of a New York Times story on US operations in Yemen, see Ryan Goodman and Sarah Knuckey’s post, “How We Read a NYTimes Story on Drone Strikes in Yemen.”] 

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Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.