Archive for the ‘Yemen’ Category

The Security Situation in Yemen

January 12, 2010

Earlier today, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Edmund Hull, the former US ambassador to Yemen, in which he seeks to counter four so-called  “myths” about the country where he served.  He says that the following are popular misconceptions about Yemen:

1. The Yemeni government’s control does not extend much beyond the capital, Sana.

2. Yemen is a Qaeda haven because it is the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden, who is supported by tribes in Hadhramaunt Province.

3.  Yemen is torn by Sunni-Shiite divisions, much like Iraq.

4. Yemeni tribes have an inherent affinity for Al Qaeda or terrorism.

Mr. Hull’s assertions do not paint a full picture of the situation.  Although it is true that the Yemeni government has some influence outside Sana, there are large areas of the country where the government is weak, including the northwest  region where an insurgency persists.  Al Qaeda thrives in such places where they are less vulnerable to attacks by security forces; Somalia and the tribal regions of Pakistan are similar regions where militants have a relatively safe haven.

Although Yemeni tribes might not have an “inherent affinity” for Islamic militant groups, they have sheltered Islamic extremists in the past.  Muhammad al-Hanq, who was recently captured after a gun battle, is a tribal leader in Yemen and the head of the Arhab cell of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Tribes and clans are loyal to members who join terrorist groups, and they are obligated by custom to protect those who seek their hospitality, including anti-American militants.  Consequently, the tribal nature of Yemen may pose a challenge to counterterrorism forces.

There are also significant religious divisions in Yemen, although they may be less serious there than they are in Iraq.  There is a secessionist movement in the south of the country, where residents are primarily Sunni Muslims, against the government in the north, where Shiite Muslims predominate (President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a Shiite).  Southerns believe that northerners have unfair economic priviliges, and religious differences might be perceived as one reason for the discrimination.  Al Qaeda is comprised of Sunni extremists, and they might be able to exploit the north-south conflict if it turns violent.

These facts probably will not matter much when it comes to America’s policy toward Yemen.  The US will almost certainly continue to provide the state with intelligence, financial aid and military assistance (such as training and weapons) while carrying out targeted attacks with drone aircraft and special operations teams.  The US will not have a large presence in Yemen nor will it engage in nation-building efforts like it has in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Yemeni officials will have to deal with the political, cultural and socioeconomic facets of their country on their own when it comes to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies.

Advertisements

Kristof on Costa Rica

January 8, 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in which he discusses the relative “happiness” of countries around the world, focusing primarily on Costa Rica, which ranks number one according to various indeces.  The World Happiness Index ranks the US 20th, with Togo and Tanzania coming in last; another study ranks America 19th and puts Zimbabwe at the bottom of the list.

Mr. Kristof argues that the main reason that Costa Ricans are so happy is that they have low levels of military spending (the country has no armed forces) and they invest a relatively large amount in education per capita, which in turn has led to political stability.  He also credits the nation’s environmental conservation efforts as a contributor to public contentment.  Based on this assumption, he argues that the US should spend less on defense (including foreign military assistance) and more on social programs like education.  He also suggests that America should do more to protect the environment.

I respect Mr. Kristof for his efforts to highlight humanitarian disasters and violations of human rights, particularly in Darfur, but his latest article is highly flawed.  Comparing the US with Costa Rica when it comes to military expenditures is nonsensical.  Costa Rica faces no serious internal or external threats, whereas America is responsible for underwriting international security and protecting the world’s oil supply, on which the global economy is dependent.  Partly as a consequence of America’s foreign policy commitments and interventions, terrorists and insurgents are determined to attack the US and its interests overseas, and policymakers have found it necessary to provide materiel and financial assistance to governments battling anti-American militants in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  Withholding such aid could have disastrous consequences, and reducing the size and capability of the American military would undermine the liberal international order that Mr. Kristof claims to support.

Another weak point in his argument is his assertion that “happiness” is based on social spending.  He mentions that Mexico and Colombia rank higher than the US on happiness indeces, but both nations spend less on education and medical care than America, and they are also plagued by higher levels of drug-related violence.  He himself acknowledges that a “cultural emphasis on family and friends” might be responsible for the disparity in contentment; although such things are difficult to measure and his claim that Latin Americans value family and friends more than Americans is certainly disputable.  One thing that Mr. Kristof fails to note is that Latin Americans generally work fewer hours per week than Americans do (as do Europeans, who are reportedly “happier” than people in the US), which could be an important factor when it comes to reported personal satisfaction.

I am not suggesting that education and other forms of social spending are not important, or that federal and state governments in the US should not spend more in these areas (I believe they should).  I am merely saying that Mr. Kristof’s prescriptions for increasing “happiness” in America may not have the intended results  in light of geopolitical and social conditions. 

On a separate note, Mr. Kristof’s insistense that the US reduce military spending reinforces public perceptions that liberals are weak on national defense, which inhibits the electoral success of liberal candidates and inhibits their ability to promote the political causes that Mr. Kristof supports.

The Price of Doing Business

January 5, 2010

Yesterday, ForeignPolicy.com published an article by foreign policy scholar Stephen Walt in which he argues that Islamic terrorism is blowback from US foreign policy decisions that affect the Muslim world and not simply the work of evil men looking for thrill kills.  His blog post comes in the wake of a recent attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an extremist affiliated with Al Qaeda, to blow up an airliner headed for Detroit.

Mr. Walt does not say that America’s foreign policy is wrong (with the exception of America’s virtually unconditional support for Israel); he merely says that living with an increased terrorist threat is “the price of doing business”  for a superpower that interferes in the affairs of other nations around the world.  He claims that most Americans fail to see the connection between terrorism and US attempts to dominate the international arena, and he believes they are overly concerned and unreasonable about their security.

Mr. Walt is right in asserting that Islamic terrorists are motivated by aspects of America’s foreign policy, such as its military presence in the Middle East, civilian casualties resulting from US attacks and America’s unwavering support for Israel in its conflict with Palestinians.  He is also correct in saying that certain elements of US strategy do not necessarily need to be changed in response to the danger posed by Al Qaeda and other militant groups (after all, it would be impractical for America to pull out of the Middle East where the world’s the main oil supply that the global economy relies upon is located).  However, taking precautions when it comes to things like airport security is reasonable, and implementing measures like full body scans for airline passengers is prudent in light of terrorism incidents over the past decade. 

Americans will have to live with the terrorist threat and accept the fact that complete safety is an impossible goal.  The government and the public should try to avoid the opposite pitfalls of overreaction and complacency, and policies will have to be modified when they are too close to either folly.

Yemen: Al Qaeda’s New Haven

December 29, 2009

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi recently told the BBC that his government needs more international assistance to combat Al Qaeda elements in his country.  He said that Yemen has the will to take on the militants but needs additional financial and military support from Western nations.  His comments came in the wake of an attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man who was living in Yemen until earlier this month, to blow up a civilian airliner that was traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Yemen is very unstable and its weak government is engaged in two civil wars.  This chaotic environment is ideal for terrorists who seek a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks.  Somalia, which lies directly across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, has similar problems, and both countries have reportedly become destinations for Al Qaeda members who leave Pakistan for security reasons.  US policymakers and military leaders, including Gen. David Patrareus, the head of Central Command, are concerned about the threat posed by militants in that part of the world, and American special operations forces have reportedly carried out raids against suspected terrorists from nearby bases and offshore platforms.

The US has sought to improve the counterinsurgency capabilities of countries that are fighting Islamic extremists, including Afghanistan , Pakistan and Iraq, but those attempts have been on a large scale relative to most American efforts to help foreign governments with internal defense.  Given manpower and budget contstraints, the US will have to rely on Special Forces and other small units to train soldiers in partner nations.  For the same reasons, it is unlikely that the US will engage in more nation-building in lawless states where militants thrive, but providing a small number of trainers and a few billion dollars to bolster the security forces in countries of concern would be a fairly minor expense when viewed in the context of America’s overall defense budget, and it is a strategy that the Obama administration will likely pursue.

Terrorist Havens in Somalia and Yemen

June 12, 2009

According to American officials, dozens of Al Qaeda operatives and some of the group’s leaders are leaving Pakistan and moving to Somalia and Yemen.  Members of the Obama administration, the military and the intelligence community have credited the increased level of drone attacks against Al Qaeda bases in the tribal areas of Pakistan as the reason for the exodus.

Although the displacement of some terrorists from Pakistan, a politically fragile country with nuclear weapons, is a positive development, the militants relocation to the Horn of Africa is troubling.  Somalia and Yemen are failed states and Al Qaeda could easily find safe haven there from whence they can plan and launch attacks against Americans and other civilians.  Al Qaeda militants in all three nations are reportedly communicating with one another electronically, which could facilitate terrorist operations but also enable American forces to more easily locate the plotters.

The terrorist threat in Somalia and Yemen is a matter of grave concern.  Although a major US troop deployment to either country to combat the militants is infeasible given the ongoing military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American military could start launching airstrikes against Al Qaeda bases in those countries and send special operations personnel to train local security forces and carry out ground attacks.  Given the weakness of the governments in the Horn of Africa, it will be difficult to root out Al Qaeda from that area but eliminating some of the fighters would at least be a partial victory.

The increased presence of international terrorists in Somalia and Yemen highlights the need to prevent countries from becoming failed states and help strengthen those that already fall into that category.  Such a task will not be easy, and problems of corruption, internal conflicts and a lack of economic resources could make it almost impossible in some nations without a major international effort that would be politically untenable.  But preventing nuclear states like Pakistan and other places of major strategic interest from descending into chaos is imperative and should remain a major tenet of US foreign policy.