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Fighting terrorism in Yemen

As the terrorism networkâ??s Yemen branch threatens new attacks on the United States, the United States Central Command has proposed supplying Yemen with $1.2 billion in military equipment and training over the next six years, a significant escalation on a front in the campaign against terrorism, which has largely been hidden from public view.

The aid would include automatic weapons, coastal patrol boats, transport planes and helicopters, as well as tools and spare parts. Training could expand to allow American logistical advisers to accompany Yemeni troops in some noncombat roles.

Opponents, though, fear American weapons could be used against political enemies of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and provoke a backlash that could further destabilize the volatile, impoverished country. - New York Times

One tendency among those who are skeptical about a counter-insurgency approach in Afghanistan is to yell "Yemen!" and hope that settles it. I'm certainly guilty of this. But those who would support more of a "counter-terrorism" approach to Afghanistan should grapple honestly with how that would work. In Yemen it appears the Obama administration is wrestling with two approaches - put a large "made in America" stamp on Yemen's military forces to make them more effective at fighting al-Qaeda (so we don't have to) or taking a less overt approach which may yield a less effective indigenous force but will also help insulate the U.S. from any blowback if the Yemeni regime uses its American tools for internal repression.

I think both approaches are better, in the long run, then the kind of massive counter-insurgency under way in Afghanistan, but I wonder if the desire to build local capacity won't inexorably lead to a much deeper U.S. involvement. After all, if some terrorist plot from Yemen does wind up succeeding, the call for America to push aside its weak local partner and take care of the problem itself will only grow louder.

The other issue, as Paul Pillar notes well, is whether America's involvement in Yemen (and elsewhere) is being driven by unrealistic expectations of perfect security:

One reason for the oversimplifying, military-heavy approach toward Yemeni terrorism is that Americans in general like to view their enemies in oversimplified terms and to favor simple, direct, forceful ways of dealing with them. Another reason is specific right now to Yemen and is related to an observation that my friend Steve Simon made in a panel discussion (in which I also participated) on Wednesday at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. The attempted attack of an airliner last December by the underwear bomber coming from Yemen, had the attack been successful, would have been a catastrophic political blow to the Obama administration. This effect would have reflected the way Americans expect perfection in counterterrorism, along with the partisanship that causes political opponents to pounce enthusiastically on any failure, regardless of its causes or how much it was or was not avoidable. So there is a strong impetus not only to do whatever possible to avoid another Yemen-originated attack, but also to be perceived to be doing that. This is an example of a demonstrable pursuit of perfection in securing Americans from terrorism working against well-considered adoption of policies that, while perfection is impossible to achieve, are apt to be more successful than the more demonstrable alternatives.

You couldn't find a better example of this than Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napalitano saying she couldn't "guarantee" that al-Qaeda wouldn't pull off another terrorist attack. But why on Earth would we expect her to make such a guarantee in the first place?