As the United States finally begins to wind down its military presence in Afghanistan, is the Obama administration poised to replicate that intervention in Yemen? The administration insists it has no such plans, but it has been evident for months that it regards the Yemen-based group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the most dangerous incubator of terrorist plots directed at America. And it is acting on that conviction.

This week The Times reported that US special operations troops, which were withdrawn from Yemen last year amid political turmoil in that country, have returned and are providing technical assistance to Yemeni forces. Meanwhile, at least 18 US military and drone strikes have been reported against extremists’ targets in Yemen since early March, a significant upsurge, and the CIA is active there. The administration also is trying to bolster Yemen's new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, by authorising the US Treasury to freeze the assets of individuals who "threaten the peace, security and stability" of Yemen.

The number of American forces in Yemen is minuscule compared with the approximately 90,000 US troops now deployed in Afghanistan (23,000 of whom will be withdrawn by the end of the summer). Troubling as they are for other reasons, including the possibility of civilian casualties, drone strikes against Al Qaeda insurgents are not labour-intensive. Moreover, the administration is adamant that the recent increase in US activity in Yemen doesn't portend a major commitment of troops or resources. "That would not serve our long-term interests and runs counter to the desires of the Yemeni government and its people," a spokesman for the National Security Council told The Times.

Given the experience of the US in Afghanistan, where a mission to dislodge Al Qaeda and the Taliban morphed into a decade-long exercise in counterinsurgency and nation-building, it is hardly alarmist to worry that similar mission creep might occur in Yemen, especially as the US becomes more invested in the Hadi government. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula isn't the only threat to the new regime. The militants have established an "emirate" in southern Yemen.

No one should belittle the danger posed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. There is clearly a need for intelligence operations such as the one that thwarted a conspiracy to construct a potentially undetectable bomb in the month before the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death. What President Obama — or Mitt Romney, if he is elected in November — must avoid is the sort of expansive intervention that has enmeshed this country in Afghanistan.

–LA Times editorial