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Yemen Requests Review Of Deadly U.S. Military Raid


By most accounts, a U.S. military raid in Yemen a couple weeks ago did not go as planned. The operation was greenlighted by President Trump soon after his inauguration. And what was supposed to happen was this. A team of Navy SEALs and their allies were to sneak into a compound on a moonless night hoping to steal intelligence and perhaps capture or kill leaders of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Here's Tamara Wittes, a Middle East expert with the Brookings Institution.

TAMARA WITTES: They expected to find quite a bit of information about the organization - its financing, its activities, its membership - that they could use to combat the group in other ways in the coming months and years.

MCEVERS: But the raid turned into a deadly firefight, and the SEALs were forced to call in backup from American aircraft. In the end, about two dozen Yemeni civilians were killed, including women and children. One Navy SEAL was killed, and other American troops were injured. The White House called the raid a success. The Yemeni government says it wants a reassessment of what happened that night.

Tamara Wittes once worked at the State Department under President Obama. She says it would be problematic if Yemen were less likely to allow these operations against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

WITTES: That group is without a doubt one of the Jihadi groups that is most committed to attacking the United States and to attacking the U.S. homeland. And we've seen numerous attempts over the years. And so it's important that we have leverage and freedom to operate against this organization. It's also important, though, to look at the broader context in Yemen.

Over the course of this civil conflict that started in the spring of 2015, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been able to expand. It's had greater freedom of movement because there isn't an effective government in the country. So as much as we need to operate against it, we also need to help strengthen and support the Yemeni government. And most of all, we need an end to the civil war because as long as the civil war is ongoing, there is a governance vacuum that al-Qaida can fill.

MCEVERS: So it sounds like this is an important and sensitive time in U.S.-Yemeni relations. Do you get the sense that the Trump administration is working to keep those relations strong?

WITTES: I think the Trump administration is still coming to terms with the complexity of American relationships in the Middle East and all of the different factors that can affect them. Yemen is 1 of the 7 countries that was included in the executive order President Trump issued on immigration and refugees a couple weeks ago.

And that means that Yemenis who are suffering from the war who want to come here as refugees and escape the violence don't have the ability to do so. There's no question that that made it harder for the Yemeni government to cooperate with the United States, and it may even have increased their sensitivity to the outcome of this raid and increase their reaction.

MCEVERS: Given that the United States is supporting Saudi Arabia and its allies in this conflict in Yemen, in the fight against the Houthi rebels, how does that position it in the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula?

WITTES: To be perfectly honest, these two American roles are to some extent contradictory. To the extent that the United States supports one side in a civil war that over nearly two years now seems very much stalemated, it's prolonging a vacuum on the ground and violence on the ground that only gives al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula more room to operate. And so far, it seems as though America's allies in the region are looking at this as a proxy war with Iran, and they're looking for American support to fight it.

MCEVERS: I mean it would be fair to say, though, that this conundrum happened during the Obama administration in the first place - I mean backing the Saudis in this conflict and hoping to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula both at the same time. And that happened under the Obama administration.

WITTES: Yes, absolutely. I don't absolve the Obama administration at all from that choice. And indeed there's been a great deal of criticism not only in Yemen and in the region but here in the United States as well. And there's been a tremendous civilian toll. In fact the U.N. just launched an emergency appeal yesterday asking for $2.1 billion because two thirds of the Yemeni population needs emergency aid as a result of this war.

MCEVERS: Tamara Wittes, thank you.

WITTES: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Tamara Wittes is a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.