Note: Unfortunately, this post likely will not mark a regular return to blog posting. I will try to post semi-regularly, as time constraints allow.
As the dust settles from the presidential election and the fallout in Washington over the Petraeus scandal, questions arise about what the next few years of American politics will mean for Yemen (as well as, of course, other countries around the world). A number of articles and video segments have recently covered various aspects of this broad question:
- In reviewing Gregory Johnsen’s new book, Bruce Riedel writes that, according to the title of the piece, “Yemen is the Scariest Challenge Facing Obama Abroad.”
- Other articles call AQAP “the most dangerous of the diffuse terrorist network’s [al-Qaeda Central] regional organizations,” and “the world’s most capable and active terror group targeting the United States.” (The latter piece and accompanying video segment note that AQAP is assisted by bomb maker Ibrahim Asiri, who is apparently “the world’s most dangerous man.” I won’t comment on NBC’s lack of mention of al-Wuhayshi, or the statement that for a year almost no one in the world knew about AQAP/Ansar al-Shariah’s governance in south Yemen.)
- As PRI’s The World host Marco Werman put it in an interview with Johnsen, AQAP’s obvious danger means “Defeating Al Queda [sic] in Yemen is one of the top priorities on President Obama’s national security agenda.”
- Joshua Foust and others have questioned the role of the CIA post-Petraeus, with Foust arguing that the intelligence community’s shift in focus to counterterrorism “can create blind spots that pose unique challenges for the president.” Other articles question whether the CIA has become too militarized, with too little focus on analysis, and whether the lines between the CIA and JSOC are too blurry. Steve Coll weighs in with what he thinks the next CIA leader should look like.
- Robert Worth also discusses what he calls diplomacy that “is now so heavily encumbered by fortresslike embassies, body armor and motorcades that it is almost unrecognizable,” while the Obama administration’s “light footprint” in the Middle East is called into question elsewhere in the New York Times.
- Amidst all this, Ibrahim Sharqieh argues that, according to the title of the piece, “US-Yemeni terror obsession will not solve Yemen’s woes.”
- Specifically, Brian O’Neill (writing at Waq al-Waq) discusses Obama’s “Second Term Politics and Yemen.”
To accompany all of these articles, two recent videos bring to light the discussion about American political maneuvering and Yemen’s future: a Brookings Institute-sponsored discussion on Yemen (which I’ll admit I haven’t watched yet), and a Huffington Post roundtable on intelligence, inspired by Foust’s article.
So what do the last couple of weeks in American politics mean for Yemen? Probably very little – or, that is to say, probably very little that’s different from the past few years.
The overwhelming result of the national election is that the status quo held. Congress largely returned the same members to Washington, and Obama was re-elected. While there will certainly be a new head of the CIA, and allegedly new heads of the State and Defense departments, what we’re likely to see in the next four years is a renewal of the focus on “smart power” in fighting terrorism. This is encouraged by what some have called the “Biden Doctrine,” based on Vice President Biden’s focus on narrow counterterrorism efforts like using special operations forces, launching cruise missiles, and initiating drone strikes. It is probably bolstered as well by the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound.
As Sharqieh points out, Yemeni President Hadi strongly emphasized counterterrorism efforts in a cable congratulating Obama for his re-election. The status quo hasn’t changed all that much in Yemen, either, in the transition from Saleh to Hadi. There have been shakeups, to be sure, but the primary basis of the relationship between the U.S. and Yemen remains the battle against terrorism. (As Foust pointed out in the HuffPo video, the U.S. does give a lot of money to Yemen for reasons other than terrorism. The application of American policies in Yemen shows a strong focus on counterterrorism, however.)
Potentially, changes at the CIA could affect American policy in Yemen. A de-militarization of the Agency, for example, could mean fewer drone strikes. A greater focus on HUMINT would have a number of benefits, among which could be more accurate strikes and/or raids. A shared understanding of the goals for Yemen and other countries, incorporated by the broad spread of American agencies involved with national security and foreign policy, could achieve a focused end state towards which to strive. (This point was eloquently stated by Heather Hurlburt in the HuffPo discussion.) Whether or not any of these will happen is anyone’s guess. Whether or not any of them will happen in the very near future is doubtful.
A major point of discussion in the debate about the future of intelligence and national security concerns the role of terrorism in the overall threat picture, and particularly the role of al-Qaeda. Some have argued, as Jeremy Scahill does in the HuffPo discussion, that the focus on terrorism is disproportionate given the other national security threats to the U.S. The challenge for achieving the right balance on terrorism is two-fold: international terrorism is quite diffuse, begging a “needle-in-the-haystack” allusion, and the political climate requires absolute success. Guiding both points is the truism that “We have to be successful 100% of the time; they only have to be successful once.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that so much money and manpower is devoted to fighting terrorism. Whether accurate or not, the widespread belief is that the U.S. will not soon find itself slugging it out with an equally large foe; a Cold War-esque U.S. vs. U.S.S.R style fight is not the major concern. Moreover, while foreign militaries undoubtedly use guile and subterfuge to mask their capabilities and intentions, the structured nature of such potential adversaries differs significantly from the de-centralized framework of terrorist threats. To put it bluntly, it takes more effort to catch people when they aren’t in uniform and can blend in with the population.
Additionally, while some advocate an Israeli-style resiliency to terrorism in the U.S., noting that we can’t be successful every time, the current political climate is such that failure to defeat terrorist attacks – at least in the homeland – is probably a deal killer for most politicians. It might not single-handedly end careers, but it certainly won’t help them. Therefore, those in power must work from a position of perceived strength.
Complicating the fight against terrorism, especially in places like Yemen, is that there are so few people who have a strong grasp of the countries in which we are operating. (I say this while acknowledging that, by necessity, I can speak only of those who are in the public sphere. The government’s stable of culturally-proficient analysts aren’t writing open-source articles.) America lost a great analyst of Yemen when Christopher Boucek died just over a year ago. Gregory Johnsen is one of the few American experts on Yemen who consistently engages the public sphere. While there are certainly others who offer good analysis, we simply do not have enough people to provide the context we need for policies in places like Yemen.
Moreover, changing political winds mean that constant analysis is required. For example, Johnsen has repeatedly pointed out that official estimates for the size of AQAP have risen from 200-300 in late 2009 to more than 1,000 today, possibly as much as 6,000. This, Johnsen argues, is largely the unintended result of radicalization arising from Yemeni displeasure over American drone strikes. Now, Johnsen doesn’t assert that Yemeni deaths are the only cause, but a major one. We also have to factor in potential implications of the Arab Spring (both pro- and anti-government sentiments), Yemeni poverty, and any number of other factors that are often difficult to nail down. The only way to get a good grasp on the situation is continual observation and analysis.
Unfortunately, too often we simply don’t know what’s going on, and that affects our decision-making. I would be interested in seeing if there has been a similar growth in jihadist groups in the same timeframe as AQAP has expanded. As Scahill pointed out in the HuffPo roundtable, we often don’t know what other groups are doing, or even if they exist. (I was reminded at that point of my dissertation supervisor, who on a U.N.-sponsored fact-finding trip to Palestine came back with a lengthy list of extremist Islamist movements the U.N. had never heard of.) Is AQAP’s growth self-perpetuating? That is to say, is AQAP’s post-bin Laden prominence as a dangerous group drawing recruits, making it more dangerous and thus more attractive? Are we under-estimating the scheming and leadership capabilities of AQAP’s leader and bin Laden deputy Nasir al-Wuhayshi?
Given our lack of knowledge, can we realistically expect anything to change in the near future? If things get significantly worse, American leadership may seek an alternative to our current approach. Just what that would look like, I don’t know. Success in Yemen requires not merely Yemeni involvement but Yemeni leadership of the approach. Unless something drastic happens to force a change, however, I think we’ll continue to see a piecemeal approach of eliminating one terrorist leader at a time with implicit Yemeni approval, rather than a grand new direction in Yemen. And if something drastic does happen, I don’t know if anyone knows what to do next.