January 25, 2013

Al-Qaeda Waging a 'Dirty War' in Yemen


While the world is focused on the menace of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in North Africa, Daniel Green says that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has rebounded from a series of conventional military defeats and is fighting a "dirty war" against the Yemeni government:

Having been temporarily defeated using conventional military methods, AQAP has shifted tactics. Over the past several months, the group has undertaken a concerted murder and intimidation campaign targeting security, military, and intelligence officials working against it, not just in the south, but also in the capital. The most notable victim thus far was General Qatan, the southern commander who was killed by a suicide attacker in mid-June. By one count, at least fifty-five officials, many of whom worked on counterterrorism, have been assassinated by suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices, or small-arms fire.

AQAP's ability to conduct such strikes in the capital shows that its reach has grown significantly. It also suggests possible collusion with government security forces in Sana, some of whom may be allied with former president Saleh.

Green suggests that Washington expand military training for the Yemeni armed forces, focus on tribal committees to try and run al-Qaeda out at the grass-roots and bolstering U.S. intelligence to better anticipate assassination attempts.

The U.S. has had some recent counter-terrorism success in Yemen. The "number 2" of AQAP recently died from wounds sustained in a drone strike. The U.S. drone war in Yemen has also sharply escalated, with four drone strikes in the last five days. According to Ken Dilanian, the U.S. carried out 10 drone strikes in 2011 and 42 last year. It would surprise no one if we surpassed that figure in 2013.

(AP Photo)

December 26, 2012

Is the U.S. Digging Itself a Deeper Hole in Yemen?

The Washington Post offers some reporting from Yemen that suggests the U.S. drone campaign there is creating a mess:

U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world, and those governments have spoken against the attacks. But in Yemen, the weak government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public, fearing repercussions in a nation where hostility toward U.S. policies is widespread. It continues to insist in local media reports that its own aging jets attacked the truck.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has kept silent publicly, neither confirming nor denying any involvement, a standard practice with most U.S. airstrikes in its clandestine counterterrorism fight in this strategic Middle Eastern country.

In response to questions, U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing warplane, that fired on the truck. The Pentagon declined to comment on the incident, as did senior U.S. officials in Yemen and senior counterterrorism officials in Washington.

Since the attack, militants in the tribal areas surrounding Radda have gained more recruits and supporters in their war against the Yemeni government and its key backer, the United States. The two survivors and relatives of six victims, interviewed separately and speaking to a Western journalist about the incident for the first time, expressed willingness to support or even fight alongside AQAP, as the al-Qaeda group is known.

“Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans,” Mohammed said. “If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.”

Public outrage is also growing as calls for accountability, transparency and compensation go unanswered amid allegations by human rights activists and lawmakers that the government is trying to cover up the attack to protect its relationship with Washington. Even senior Yemeni officials said they fear that the backlash could undermine their authority.

“If we are ignored and neglected, I would try to take my revenge. I would even hijack an army pickup, drive it back to my village and hold the soldiers in it hostages,” said Nasser Mabkhoot Mohammed al-Sabooly, the truck’s driver, 45, who suffered burns and bruises. “I would fight along al-Qaeda’s side against whoever was behind this attack.”

Relatedly, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen spoke to the Canadian International Council about the budding air war in Yemen. It's a very illuminating interview and in it, Johnsen argues that U.S. policy in Yemen is backfiring:

In the West, the debate over U.S. policy in Yemen has become focused on drone strikes, but in Yemen, the focus is on the civilian casualties that are a result of some of those strikes. When the Obama administration started carrying out attacks in Yemen, there were about 200-300 individuals affiliated with AQAP. Today, it’s at least 1,000 – in fact, the U.S. State Department estimates that it’s at least a few thousand. I don’t think all of this is attributable to the use of drones, or to the civilian casualties they’ve resulted in, but I think a large portion of it is, and because of this, one of the things that I think the U.S. has to do is reconsider its strike policy.
Johnsen goes on to argue that a more targeted policy of fewer strikes against only truly high value targets may yield better results. But he also makes a crucial point -- because of the secrecy that surrounds U.S. counter-terrorism policy, it's very hard to make critical judgments about its effectiveness:
So we’re all basing our analyses on what’s been made public, and because there’s so little of that and so much that remains shrouded in secrecy, we’re all able to import our own biases into the discussion. Two well-intentioned, honest individuals could look at the same thing, and one could claim the action represents an evolution of what the term “imminent threat” means, while the other could see an example of the U.S. acting as a counterinsurgency air force. The truth is that most of us on the outside just don’t know what the government officials who are making these decisions are thinking, or what’s driving the program.

July 16, 2012

Al-Qaeda in Yemen

Watch Al Qaeda in Yemen on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

In May, Frontline ran a fascinating documentary on al-Qaeda in Yemen. It follows Iraqi reporter Abdul-Ahad as he travels into an al-Qaeda-held city and several strongholds throughout the country.

One interesting revelation to emerge in the footage is how sensitive al-Qaeda has become to tribal sensibilities following their rout in Iraq. Indeed, Ahad relates that even in Yemen, al-Qaeda ran afoul of a local tribe in the town of Lawdar and was quickly driven out. Meanwhile, Yemen's divided and dysfunctional army has largely failed to dislodge al-Qaeda.

May 17, 2012

U.S. Troops on the Ground in Yemen

According to the LA Times, U.S. special forces are operating in Yemen as spotters for air strikes:

In an escalation of America’s clandestine war in Yemen, a small contingent of U.S. troops is providing targeting data for Yemeni airstrikes as government forces battle to dislodge Al Qaeda militants and other insurgents in the country’s restive south, U.S. and Yemeni officials said.

Operating from a Yemeni base, at least 20 U.S. special operations troops have used satellite imagery, drone video, eavesdropping systems and other technical means to help pinpoint targets for an offensive that intensified this week, said U.S. and Yemeni officials who asked not to be identified talking about the sensitive operation.

The U.S. forces also advised Yemeni military commanders on where and when to deploy their troops, two senior Obama administration officials said. The U.S. contingent is expected to grow, a senior military official said.

April 19, 2012

Drone War into Yemen

According to the Washington Post, the CIA is looking to blow up people if they're acting suspicious in Yemen:

The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.

Securing permission to use these “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.

The practice has been a core element of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan for several years. CIA Director David H. Petraeus has requested permission to use the tactic against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, which has emerged as the most pressing terrorism threat to the United States, officials said.

We're frequently told that the drone campaign has succeeded in destroying al-Qaeda in Pakistan. But this is apparently a qualified success, since the same tactic now has to be ported over to Yemen. Presumably, if put into practice, it will succeed in doing what it did in Pakistan: killing many alleged terrorists, some untold number of civilians and angering a broad swath of Yemenis, a very small fraction of whom may try to attack the U.S. in revenge. The risk of destabilizing the Yemeni government is obviously lower, since what government exists is already fractured. And Yemen doesn't have nuclear weapons. So there's that.

Is this a good idea? Who knows. Personally, the very limited use of drones makes sense to me, but the scale, pace and targets matter. We don't yet know if the drone war in Pakistan was the success it appears to be: it's not just a question of whether it managed to kill all of the right people, but whether it so irreparably harmed U.S.-Pakistan relations and radicalized enough Pakistanis as to offset the benefits. (Also: will militants flood back into Pakistan's tribal areas once the drones fly elsewhere?)

The pattern we see here should give us pause: the U.S. drove al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan. They set up shop in Pakistan. We have mostly driven them out of Pakistan. They have established themselves in Yemen. It should be clear by now that there's not going to be a death-blow here.

September 21, 2011

Drone Patrol

Reacting to the big piece in the Washington Post on America's not-so-covert effort to drone-patrol Yemen and Somalia, Matthew Yglesias remarks:

The reporters say the “rapid expansion” of these military efforts “is a reflection of the growing alarm with which U.S. officials view the activities of al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.” No doubt it is that. But it’s also a reflection of a very grandiose conception of the appropriate role of the American military in the world. After all, a radical who’s in Yemen or Somalia is, by definition, not in the United States. It would be cheaper and easier to focus on making sure people can’t get from Yemen to Yuma or from Somalia to Sacramento than for us to go halfway around to try to kill them. But America’s strategic concept is basically that if there’s a problem anywhere in the world that could potentially be ameliorated by dropping American bombs, then we ought to drop the bombs.

Well, yes and no. It would have been quite helpful if the U.S. had the ability to accurately drop a bomb on bin Laden & co. in the late 1990s. Secondly, building a series of bases and airstrips to fly drones to conduct surveillance on al-Qaeda isn't a bad thing - intelligence collection should be the principle weapon in combating terrorism. Still, there is a legit concern about the extent to which drones will be used to actually kill people as opposed to just spy on them.

Just how often the CIA intends to pull the trigger and at which targets will go a long way to determining whether such a policy is making the U.S. safer or is self defeating. It's interesting to note that as far as making headway against al-Qaeda, the drone attacks have more or less eviscerated the core al-Qaeda group that existed in Pakistan but that did not stop splinter groups from forming in Yemen and Somalia. A similarly robust strategy of drone attacks in either of those countries may just duplicate the Pakistan model - a defeat of the "original" group but the migration and emergence of the same threat somewhere else. And this says nothing about the distortions and destruction that the U.S. will leave in its wake in the target country. Still, the political incentives are what they are: the Obama administration understandably does not want a significant terrorist attack on its watch and it's taking steps with that, and not the long term consequences, in mind.

June 15, 2011

Turning the World Into a Free-Fire Zone

According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration will step up U.S. bombing of Yemen:

The CIA is expected to begin operating armed drone aircraft over Yemen, expanding the hunt for al-Qaeda operatives in a country where counter-terrorism efforts have been disrupted by political chaos, U.S. officials said.

The plan to move CIA-operated Predator and other unmanned aircraft into the region reflects a decision by President Obama that the al-Qaeda threat in Yemen has grown so serious that patrols by U.S. military drones are not enough.

Remember when people were complaining that President Obama wouldn't say we were in a war?

I suspect this will soon be the template in Somalia too, and possibly elsewhere: the U.S. will basically patrol lawless or semi-lawless states with unmanned, armed drones searching for terrorists and, occasionally, bombing them. It's preferable to occupying these countries but it does raise an obvious concern about the potential for collateral damage to spur more terrorism than the drone strikes are ostensibly curbing.

November 27, 2010

The Next WikiLeak

Via Mike Allen:

ADMINISTRATION PREPARES FOR WIKIDUMP OF STATE DEPT. CABLES, possibly Sunday – Could be seven times the October release – Jim Miklaszewski, on “NBC Nightly News”: “U.S. officials tell NBC News that the upcoming document release from the website WikiLeaks contains top secret information so damaging it could threaten Senate ratification of the START nuclear arms control treaty with the Russians. According to the officials, the information contained in classified State Department cables reveals secrets behind the START negotiations and embarrassing claims against Russian leadership – information that could provide ammunition to Republican opponents of the treaty on Capitol Hill. …. There’s also serious concern that some of the leaks could threaten U.S. counterterrorism operations on two fronts, Afghanistan and Yemen. In Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai has already come under fire for Afghan corruption and questions about his mental stability, U.S. officials say the secret cables reveal new and even more embarrassing claims about his personality and private life. Perhaps more troublesome, the leaks reportedly include top secret information about U.S. military and intelligence operations against al Qaeda in Yemen and some critical dispatches about Yemen’s President Saleh.”

November 4, 2010

Why al-Qaeda Is Getting Tougher

They've learned from their mistakes in Iraq:

Whereas Al Qaeda in Iraq has been led in the past by foreigners, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is led by locals, Saudis and Yemenis who share a common culture. Although Abu Musab Zarqawi, the late Jordanian mastermind of Al Qaeda's Iraq branch, alienated the tribes, the militant group's Yemeni offshoot is cultivating them.

November 1, 2010

Yemen Threat


It was inevitable that al-Qaeda's failed bomb plot would provoke cries of "send in the drones." And, according to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is considering just that:

The foiled mail bombing plot by suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen has added urgency to an Obama administration review of expanded military options that include putting elite U.S. hunter-killer teams that operate secretly in the country under Central Intelligence Agency authority.

Officials said support was growing both within the military and the administration for shifting more operational control to the CIA—a move that would allow the U.S. to strike suspected terrorist targets unilaterally with greater stealth and speed.

Allowing the U.S. military's Special Operations Command units to operate under the CIA would give the U.S. greater leeway to strike at militants even without the explicit blessing of the Yemeni government. In addition to streamlining the launching of strikes, it would provide deniability to the Yemeni government because the CIA operations would be covert. The White House is already considering adding armed CIA drones to the arsenal against militants in Yemen, mirroring the agency's Pakistan campaign.

The question with drone strikes is not whether the U.S. will launch them into Yemen (it's been before and will almost certainly be done again) but the scope and pace of the campaign. The desire to hit al-Qaeda has to be weighed against the prospect that an intense campaign of drone attacks will destabilize an already weak government and multiply the number of people with blood feuds against the U.S.

UPDATE: Andrew Exum has some worthwhile thoughts on the matter:

You'll remember that last week, concerning Central Africa, I wrote that policy-makers should ask four questions -- in sequence -- before considering an intervention:

1. Will an intervention make the situation better, or worse?
2. If better, should the U.S. government participate in this intervention?
3. If yes, should the U.S. government lead this intervention?
4. If yes, what should the U.S. government do?

Reading the Wall Street Journal on the way into work this morning, I could not help but notice the focus has been almost exclusively on Question #4. Typically, we Americans are always asking ourselves, What is our government doing? (And why isn't it doing more!)

Though I am not a Yemen expert, I have spent more time in 2010 elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula than in any other year, including two trips to Saudi Arabia and one to the UAE. I got the opportunity, during both of these trips, to speak to a variety of policy-makers in each country, and one of the things I wish U.S. reporters would do more of is ask some of Yemen's neighbors how they would solve the problems of Yemen. This latest plot was apparently tipped off by Saudi intelligence (BTW: shukran, ya ikhwani) and involved bombs passing through both Qatar and the UAE. So the other nations in the region have a bigger interest than we do in shepherding the demise of AQAP.

(AP Photo)

September 20, 2010

Linkage, Containment and the 'Shia Crescent'


Linkage - the idea that there is a direct correlation between the Mideast peace process and the successful isolation of the Islamic Republic - has been the source of much debate in recent months in pundit and policy making circles, especially as Iran has eclipsed Israel's other security concerns in the Middle East.

Arab sheikdoms and autocrats, or so the argument goes, would naturally fall in line behind any U.S.-Israeli security regime in the region, as most of these actors - once pressed on the matter behind closed doors - would readily list Iran as their top regional concern, much as the Israelis already do. There's plenty of reason to believe that such a model for isolating Iran might emerge, evidenced more recently by the goody bags of weapons systems being doled out throughout the region.

But one of the pitfalls in creating such a regional dynamic, whereby the United States essentially guarantees the security and stability of the surrounding autocrats and monarchs, is what we're witnessing this week in Bahrain and Kuwait. When America's top diplomat calls Iran an emerging Junta, and the West repeatedly calls Tehran a regional threat, it gives the region's other not-democracies - you know, the friendly ones - carte blanche to suppress and discriminate against their Shia minorities and, in the case of Bahrain, majorities.

This certainly isn't breaking news, and Iran is by no means innocent of fanning the flames of sectarian division; and Secretary Clinton is, by the way, probably correct in her assessment of the Iranian leadership. But I question whether or not pandering to what are very old ethnic and religious differences is the best way to foster a 'cold' containment in the Middle East, or if it will only backfire and solidify Iran's place as champion of the global anti-American.

(AP Photo)

September 16, 2010

The Yemen Alternative

As the terrorism network’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?

June 7, 2010

Yemen as Terrorist Epicenter


As the U.S. struggles to stabilize Afghanistan, the Times of London reports that counter-terrorism officials are increasingly worried about Yemen:

If there is one country that is giving US counter-terrorism officials the greatest concern in terms of its burgeoning al-Qaeda training camps and the number of new holy warriors intent on carrying out attacks on Western targets, it is Yemen.

The country has become the base for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The organisation has set up training camps and appears intent on recruiting foreign nationals with the passports and visas necessary to board aircraft bound for the US and its allies. Inside the White House, the Pentagon and the US intelligence agencies the fear is that Yemen is more likely to produce a successful suicide mission within the US than perhaps any other country.

Even if the U.S. succeeds in stabilizing Afghanistan (and if you have hope on that score, do read Dexter Filkins' expose of Afghan corruption in the NY Times) al Qaeda and its affiliates are already taking root in other countries - just as many predicted. And what will the U.S. do? Will Yemen become another front in the Drone War?

(AP Photo)

February 9, 2010

Al-Qaeda, Yemen

An unfortunate name for one village in Yemen.

January 28, 2010

Video of the Day

Yemen has gotten a lot of attention since the 'Panty Bomber' set his nether regions aflame and admitted to receiving training there. However, some Yemeni's are not all that thrilled about it:

No one should be surprised that people do not like outsiders interfering in the national business. Nevertheless, powerful states will always protect their interests, often at the expense of weaker states sovereignty. Sometimes there is a causal relationship, such that weak states are the target for groups like Al Qaeda, and since Al Qaeda threatens powerful states, the weak state is subject to powerful state influence. Regardless, complaints about outside interference are almost always a hallmark of weakness in a given area. Nobody ever really interferes in internal U.S. matters because that is a good way to get a non-humanitarian visit from the U.S. military.

For more videos, be sure to check the RCW video page.

January 27, 2010

Off Shore vs. Counter-Insurgency


The Washington Post reports:

U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate, according to senior administration officials.

The operations, approved by President Obama and begun six weeks ago, involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military's clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. The American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but help plan missions, develop tactics and provide weapons and munitions. Highly sensitive intelligence is being shared with the Yemeni forces, including electronic and video surveillance, as well as three-dimensional terrain maps and detailed analysis of the al-Qaeda network.

This is, in rough outline, what George Will, Robert Pape and others had advocated for Afghanistan as an alternative to nation building. I guess we're going to get a real life experiment in which is the most effective.

(AP Photo)

January 18, 2010

Oil & State Failure


To continue with a theme from yesterday, the Center for American Progress' Rebecca Lefton and Daniel Weiss have issued a report, with the map above, showing American oil imports from "dangerous and unstable countries." The authors argue that American oil consumption helps to prop up unfriendly or even dangerous regimes and that it's time to invest that money on renewable sources at home.

Let's imagine that the authors get their wish and the U.S. finds a way to end its reliance on oil as a fuel (presumably we'd still need oil to lubricate machinery and as a feed stock for chemicals, but let's assume we can meet that need indigenously). What happens to the various "dangerous and unstable" countries once we deprive them of their major revenue source? Maybe they respond by adopting liberalizing reforms. Or maybe these nations join Yemen on the list of states teetering on the verge of collapse. And how secure would that make the U.S.?

I do think it would make more sense for the U.S. to invest its time, attention and resources in developing a less oil-intensive economy rather than trying to finesse the politics of the Middle East. At a minimum, such a development would help insulate our economy from major price swings and give us strategic resilience in the face oil-dependent powers. If such a move precipitates the collapse of various basket-case states, then that's a problem, but not necessarily an American problem. That's my view at least, but I was very much under the impression that the Center for American Progress believed that failed states represent a danger to the United States. I'm not clear why they'd want to produce more of them.

[Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan]

January 12, 2010

How Does This End?


The Cable's Josh Rogin passes along a report from the State Department that warns that Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria could be the next terrorist safe haven:

As the United States widens its understanding of the terrorism threat to include countries like Yemen and Somalia, its neighbor across the Gulf of Aden, the State Department inspector general's office is warning about another potential breeding ground for insurgents: Nigeria.

Of course, the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hailed from there, but his case is seen as an aberration because he grew up in the most advantageous of circumstances. But according to a new report made public Monday, Nigeria is at risk of becoming the same type of breeding ground for violent extremism that America is now battling in so many other places around the globe.

As many people have said repeatedly, you could break the back of al Qaeda in Af-Pak and still have a global terrorism problem on your hands.

Perhaps more importantly, as Matthew Yglesias intimates, we've now defined our national security interests in such a way that we cannot feel secure in the world so long as their are pockets of insecurity anywhere. That is not a rational view of defense but paranoia. Unfortunately, it's a view promoted as assiduously by progressives - including the Obama administration - as neoconservatives.

It's also worth asking just how much more expensive it would be to eschew global nation building and instead invest the money in developing an energy economy that does not rely overwhelmingly on petroleum.Having influence over the Middle East is great and all, but in a world where the U.S. economy wouldn't grind to a halt without oil, I don't see a lot of downsides to letting China enjoy the fun of wielding influence in the region.

(AP Photos)

January 8, 2010

Yemen's Attitude Toward the West

Yemen has been much in the news lately and Gallup's Julie Ray has some data on how Yemenis feel about relations with the West:

A majority of Yemenis (53%) interviewed in early August through early September 2009 told Gallup they believe greater interaction between the Muslim world and the West is a benefit, which may provide a foundation for Western nations and Yemen to build on in the days ahead. This percentage is lower than the median (62%) for the Middle East/North Africa region, but statistically, it is not any lower or higher than sentiment in a host of other majority Muslim countries, including Iraq (56%), the Palestinian Territories (56%), Syria (55%), Turkey (52%), and Algeria (50%).

Further, nearly 6 in 10 Yemenis (59%) also say the quality of the interaction between the Muslim world and the West is important to them. This number is about average for the Middle East/North Africa region, where the median percentage who believes the quality of the interaction is important is 60%. Yemenis, interestingly, are slightly more likely to share this point of view than Iraqis (54%) or Palestinians (53%).

The entire report is worth a look.

January 7, 2010

H/T-ing Our Way to Yemen

Judah Grunstein offers some clever and insightful thoughts on blogging Yemen.

January 4, 2010

Through a Partisan Haze

Former Bush administration homeland security official Frances Townsend offers her take on how to handle the burgeoning jihadist threat from Yemen:

The Obama administration needs to take a clear, tough line with Yemen: Take care of the terrorism problem within your borders so you are no longer a threat to the United States and our allies in the region, or allow the international community to come in and clean it up for you. The time for polite diplomacy is long past.

Matthew Yglesias isn't impressed:

But is excessive politeness really the reason Barack Obama hasn’t threatened a full-scale invasion of Yemen unless the Yemeni government undertakes unspecified measures to “take care of the terrorist problem”?

It seems to me that just 18 months ago the President was one George W Bush, a discredited and unpopular figure who liked to go out of his way to be rude to foreign countries, and even there these tactics weren’t being employed. Why? Well because when the right was in power a “Yemen hawk” inside the administration would have had to say what, exactly, she wanted done and what the risks and tradeoffs might be. But from an out of power perspective, it’s party time. On to Yemen!

While this is unquestionably true, I don't think sketching out maximalist "solutions" has anything to do with being a "hawk" per-se but being a partisan operative. If you are primarily motivated by a desire to wound political opponents, position yourself for a future job in an administration or protect your legacy, you will make arguments in the fashion that Townsend does above. (And in her defense, the format was not the place for a long discourse on "what should be done with Yemen." Perhaps her specific ideas have a lot more merit than a few paragraphs can reveal.)

We saw this with much of the Democratic party and Afghanistan in the 2008 election. There was a lot of enthusiasm for fighting on the "central front" of the war on terrorism when it was convenient to burnish Obama's Commander in Chief credentials. When it came to actually making the decision, there was considerably less enthusiasm for a troop surge. Ditto Sudan, where there was a lot of tough talk before the Obama administration took office about stopping the genocide, and not much since.

Partisanship puts demands on our foreign policy debate that are hard for the subject to bear: it reduces complexities to Manichean certainties and it offers easy solutions to problems that can't be solved - and that's when it's not being blatantly dishonest. There's no escaping it, it's just the way the political incentives work.

January 1, 2010

A Virtual Safe Haven


The New York Times' Eric Schmitt and Eric Lipton examine the role of charismatic Imams using the Internet to lure Muslims to the jihadist cause:

American military and law enforcement authorities said Thursday that the man accused in the bombing attempt, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, most likely had contacts with the cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, whom investigators have also named as having exchanged e-mail messages with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an American Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people in a shooting rampage in November at Fort Hood, Tex.

Speaking in eloquent, often colloquial, English, Mr. Awlaki and other Internet imams from the Middle East to Britain offer a televangelist’s persuasive message of faith, purpose and a way forward, for both the young and as yet uncommitted, as well as for the most devout worshipers ready to take the next step, to jihad, officials say.

“People across the spectrum of radicalism can gravitate to them, if they’re just dipping their toe in or they’re hard core,” said Jarret Brachman, author of “Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice” (Routledge, 2008) and a consultant to the United States government about terrorism. “The most important thing they do is take very complex ideological thoughts and make them simple, with clear guidelines on how to follow Islamic law.”

The events of the last two weeks - both the Christmas bomb plot and the emergence of Yemen as a terror safe haven (and a reminder of London's role in the radicalization process), have cast the argument that it's vital to state-build in Afghanistan to defend the U.S. from jihadist terrorism in a new, and unflattering, light. At a minimum, it puts the question of just how many of our counter-terrorism eggs we need to be putting in the AfPak basket vs. other theaters.

(AP Photos)

December 30, 2009

Idle Hands Are the Terrorist's Tools


As we all put on our junior counter-terror decoder rings and attempt to sort out the news surrounding al-Qaeda in Yemen, I thought it might make some sense to step back and look at what makes Yemen attractive for terrorists in the first place.

This graph of data collected by Gallup earlier in the year offers a useful visual:


That's the same disgruntled south where al-Qaeda operatives are allegedly--and brazenly--staging public protests against Sana'a and the West; the same disgruntled south recently targeted by the Yemeni government with American assistance.

I think it makes strategic sense to work with an agreeable Yemeni government on counter-terrorism, but al-Qaeda finds an audience in Yemen for a litany of reasons. Geography and history are among them, but so are poverty and unemployment. Coupling military aid with multilateral assistance addressing jobs and, while we're at it, drought might make for a more well-rounded policy in the country.

(AP Photo)

December 29, 2009

What to Do about Yemen?


This is the question dejure and it has provoked a number of interesting responses. Here we have Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine arguing that we should engage comprehensively with the current regime and here's Gregg Carlstrom saying that we did much the same thing with Musharaff in Pakistan and that hasn't exactly brought about a stable, pro-American Pakistan. What we're left with is no good options.

This cuts to the heart of a problem with the war on terror: the tactical moves which appear essential, such as targeted killings and working with unsavory governments can undermine our position over the long term. Collateral damage and the image of the U.S. bombing various terrorist enclaves can drive new recruits, while the empowerment of corrupt and despised regimes inevitably leads to resentment at their foreign patron. On the other hand, doing nothing to aggressively thwart those who would blow up American airliners is an abdication of the basic responsibility a government has to protect its citizens.

Unfortunately, the debate tends to break down with those advocating the long view unable to offer a viable plan to offset immediate dangers, while those urging immediate action (particularly military action) don't have a plausible way to merge those recommendations with longer term considerations.

But the emergence of the airline bomb plot does seem to vindicate those, like Paul Pillar, Stephen Walt and others, who've argued that even a successful surge in Afghanistan won't offset the threat from jihadist terror or prevent the emergence of other safe havens.

(AP Photos)

The Good, the Bad and the Central


Max Boot discusses Yemen and its place in the greater War on Terror:

We cannot ignore the terrorist threat emanating from Yemen or other states but nor should we use this undoubted danger as an excuse to lose the war of the moment–the one NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan. Winning the “war on terror” will require prevailing on multiple battlefields–Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, and a host of other countries, including, for that matter, Western Europe and the United States. The methods and techniques we will use in each place have to be tailored to the individual circumstances. Few countries will require the kind of massive troop presence needed in Afghanistan or Iraq. In most places we will fight on a lesser scale, using Special Forces and security assistance programs. But because a lower-profile presence may work elsewhere doesn’t mean that it will work in Afghanistan–or would have worked in Iraq. We know this because the Bush administration already tried the small-footprint strategy in Afghanistan. It is this strategy that allowed the Taliban to recover so much ground lost after 9/11–territory that can only be retaken by an influx of additional Western troops. There is no reason why we can’t fight and prevail in Afghanistan even as we are fighting in different ways in different countries.[emphasis added]

The point on the Bush strategy in Afghanistan is simply inaccurate. What Boot calls a "small-footprint strategy" was in fact a rather ambitious, rhetoric-laden, albeit poorly resourced nation building agenda (we all remember the purple and blue fingers, right?). The goals didn't match the muscle, requiring a "reduction in objectives" by the Obama administration, as Richard Haass put it. In other words, President Bush spoke boisterously while carrying a tiny, tiny stick.

But Boot never explains why Afghanistan is such a vital front in the War on Terrorism, nor does he explain what Iraq has to do with that war at all. And why the Taliban--along with roughly 100 al-Qaeda operatives in the Af-Pak region--require a heavier troop presence than other threats (such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, for example) remains unclear to me.

I agree with Boot that the "good war, bad war" stuff is no good, and migrating the designation from one front to the next for political expedience is irresponsible. The real question--one I feel Boot never properly addresses--is why we even need a central front in order to conduct this war.

He writes that "one of the key advantages gained by our presence in Afghanistan is that it makes it easier to target terrorist lairs in Pakistan." But presence and escalation are clearly two different things, and targeting said "lairs" does not require the latter--as was demonstrated two weeks ago in Yemen.

(AP Photo)