November 18, 2012
America, Politics, and Yemen

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:

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.

August 5, 2012
Measuring Success Against al-Qaeda

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we measure success in our fight against al-Qaeda.  After all, it’s been over 10 years since 9/11, the event that brought al-Qaeda shockingly to the forefront of public attention regarding terrorism.  Surely we have an objective way of saying we are or are not succeeding against al-Qaeda?

While this seems like a fairly straightforward topic, it’s actually a little blurry (for reasons I get into below).  There’s more of a general sense of how things are going than specific measurable data and examples, in large part because “al-Qaeda” and “success” are amorphous topics.

I should note that this post isn’t intended to be an assessment of al-Qaeda, but rather rumination about how we can even carry out such an assessment.  A good analysis of the fight against al-Qaeda requires knowing the enemy and knowing the goals.

1: To have success, we have to know who we are fighting. Again, at first glance this seems both obvious and obtuse: we are fighting al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of 9/11, the USS Cole bombing, the African embassy bombings, and other carnage before and since.  The issue that arises, though, is that just who “al-Qaeda” is has become rather muddled.

This is really a question with two sides: who is al-Qaeda, and who are we authorized to take action against?  (I say authorized here, but the larger question also involves who we are capable of taking action against, and who should we take action against.)

1.A: We have to know who al-Qaeda is.  As Clint Watts pointedly displayed in a survey on Selected Wisdom this week, just who we should call al-Qaeda is a subject up for debate.  This goes beyond whether or not franchises and affiliates actually fit the al-Qaeda bill to a bigger question of defining terrorist and jihadist groups at large.

Watts got into this in more detail in piece he wrote called “What If There Is No Al-Qaeda? Preparing for Future Terrorism,” as well as a blog post called “Al Qaeda Doesn’t Know Who Is In Al Qaeda.”  I’ll leave it to you to read those pieces for the specifics, but Watts does a nice job of summarizing his point in the blog post:

Last summer, I helped J.M. Berger launch a survey asking CT enthusiasts “What is al Qaeda?”. The results (Part #1 & Part #2) were quite interesting and the conclusion was that we in the West don’t really know what organizations or individuals really constitute al Qaeda.  I wonder how al Qaeda members would answer the same survey?  I bet the results would be quite similar. [Emphasis added]

While positively identifying al-Qaeda might not be completely straightforward, the concept is: to have measurable success, we have to know what we are measuring.  That means having a good definition of who, precisely, al-Qaeda is - and who it isn’t.

1.B: We have to know who we can take action against.  I am getting out of my realm here by getting into the legal justification side of the kinetic action formerly known as the GWOT, but I’m going to venture on anyway.  The past decade has seen a wide-ranging approach to fighting terrorism, both in scope of practice and target, all ostensibly supported by the law.

Public law 107-40, otherwise known as “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists" (or AUMF) states in part:

the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.  

Now, this is both specific and broad.  It is specifically tied to 9/11; you couldn’t use this act to justify force in response to, say, the USS Cole bombing, even though some of the same people were involved.  

It is quite broad, though, too: whole nations, organizations, or individuals can be targeted, and at the President’s determination.  Those people didn’t have to be the ones who directly participated in the attack (obviously, as it was a suicide attack).  Rather, anyone who planned, authorized, committed, aided, or harbored the attackers is a legitimate target.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is an interesting example of the confusion over legitimacy.  AQAP didn’t exist in its present form until 2009, though it was preceded by al-Qaeda groups operating in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.  Therefore, at first glance it would appear that AQAP is not a legitimate target under the AUMF.

However, as Leah Farrall points out in her 2011 Foreign Affairs article “How al Qaeda Works,” plans for what became AQAP existed before 9/11 and were executed at bin Laden’s command (p. 131).  Moreover, much of AQAP’s leadership, including Nasser al-Wuhayshi, is directly linked back to al-Qaeda central pre-9/11.  The Institute for the Study of Violent Groups has a fascinating graphic showing some of the inter-linkages between AQAP and AQC.  

Is AQAP therefore a legitimate target?  Are only the leaders who were part of AQC before 9/11 legitimate?  Are only the leaders who were part of AQC before 9/11 and who were directly involved in the 9/11 plot legitimate? 

To measure success, we need to clearly define who we can count toward that success.  Eliminating a Taliban leader, for example, might make the world a safer place, but it can’t count towards success in defeating al-Qaeda.

2: To have success, we need to know how to define success.  Again, this is an apparently straightforward concept that gets less so the more you look at it.  

In the past few of years we’ve heard how al-Qaeda was stronger than ever and now lately that al-Qaeda is going the way of the dodo.  Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has an article in Canada’s National Post that argues, as the title proclaims, “It’s far from safe to say that al-Qaeda is dead.”  There are some great points in there, and I recommend reading it.  As I mentioned to Gartenstein-Ross in Twitter, though, I think we sometimes overlook possible short-to-mid term plateaus in al-Qaeda’s trajectory because we are so intent on the long term.  

Now, obviously, long term analysis of al-Qaeda’s future is valuable, particularly when it’s good analysis.  (In a separate conversation with Gartenstein-Ross, we discussed how too often pundits swing to the extremes about al-Qaeda, either to garner attention, to get a scoop, or to just be contrary to the prevailing sentiment at the time.)  But the focus on al-Qaeda’s demise or lack thereof can be distracting, because it dilutes other definitions of success.

Consider this: which of the following constitutes success in fighting al-Qaeda:

  • Arresting or killing Osama bin Laden
  • Arresting or killing al-Qaeda’s leadership
  • Arresting or killing al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers
  • Rehabilitating/de-radicalizing al-Qaeda members
  • Preventing al-Qaeda from conquering/holding territory
  • Preventing al-Qaeda from carrying out its stated goals
  • Preventing an al-Qaeda attack on the US homeland
  • Preventing an al-Qaeda attack on US interests abroad
  • Watching al-Qaeda collapse on itself and fragmenting into smaller, weaker groups 
  • Watching al-Qaeda collapse on itself and dissipate entirely
  • Seeing al-Qaeda the group destroyed but its ideology living on
  • Seeing al-Qaeda remaining as an organization, but transitioning its focus to a non-jihadist, non-violent political movement

Each in its own way is a success in fighting al-Qaeda; moreover, many overlap with one another.  However, as long as there is no single rubric for success - or, perhaps more appropriately, as long as the rubric for success is not stated clearly when talking about success against al-Qaeda - it’s impossible to really say whether we are achieving success.* 

Success requires measurable goals.  Overlapping or contradictory goals in public opinion make talking about success in a general sense much more difficult, because people mean such different things when they say the same thing.  

Some would say the last decade is a success because there hasn’t been another 9/11.  Others would disagree because al-Qaeda has spread out into so many affiliates.  A third group would disagree, arguing that the rise of franchises and affiliates shows a weak core.  Success, then, isn’t quite so clear.

In conclusion, I wouldn’t even begin to suggest that we try to establish one definition for al-Qaeda or for success, though I think both would be helpful.  It’s beyond the scope of practicality.  As Richard English points out, the various agencies of the US government can’t even agree on a single definition of terrorism; how then could all the people involved in the study of and fight against al-Qaeda agree on specific definitions?

What we can do, though, is be as clear as possible when we talk about success against al-Qaeda.  That way, the audience can clearly know what we mean and how to interpret our analysis.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.


* [Edit: I forgot to mention this originally, but success in any of these areas tends to produce unintended consequences in others.  Eliminating a prominent leader, for example, can produce a number of new recruits, perhaps even offsetting the initial benefit.  Because these consequences can be impossible to predict, true success or failure may not be immediately apparent.]

May 12, 2012
On Our Drone Strategy

Just as George W. Bush may be recalled as the president who tried to fight terrorism by waging war and removing tyrants, Obama may be recalled as the president who sought to rout terrorists through targeted killing from the sky. – James Traub, “Terrorist Fishing in the Yemen

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about drone use – probably unsurprising given the massive number of stories written on drones in recent weeks.  Drones are incredibly troublesome to me, because I can see so much validity to both sides of the argument for and against their use.  (My recent post on drones in Yemen probably reflects that conflict, without really saying anything substantive.)

On the one hand, drones provide an unprecedented level of access to both reconnaissance and “kinetic action” in hard-to-reach places.  Though they cannot replace real eyes on the ground, drones can get places that we would have great difficulty putting actual people.  When people in far places have both the intent and capacity to strike against American citizens, we should do what we can to stop them.

On the other hand, there are major implications for drones’ ease of use.  Over-reliance on drones – at least for attacks – leads to a physical and (likely) moral separation from killing.  I don’t think we ever want to make killing too easy, even when we’re talking about an enemy that wants to kill us. 

Such reliance on drones might also lead us in directions we would not otherwise go.  In Yemen, for example, we probably would not militarily intervene to such a point that it would even be possible to kill some of the people we have killed in recent months.  We should be incredibly careful about letting technology guide our military strategies.

It is this last point that is probably the most troublesome to me, because I see our leaders taking what is undoubtedly a major technological advance and crafting entire strategies around it.  Terrorist decapitation via drone strikes is not a strategy; it is but one part of it.

Vice President Biden has long been an advocate of a very narrow view of counterterrorism.  An October, 2010 Foreign Policy article described it as an “approach that would focus on killing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders with bombs, missiles, and special-operations raids.”  Sound familiar?  The problem is that our military isn’t all drone operators and SEALs, and for good reason.*  For that matter, our approach to counterterrorism isn’t – and shouldn’t be – entirely in the military’s hands.

The approach we have to drone use now – at least in Yemen – is off-putting in part because it seems too one-sided.  Frank Cilluffo and Clint Watts had a back-and-forth with Gregory Johnsen about this very issue about a year ago.  (Cilluffo and Watts’ initial piece; Johnsen’s response; Cilluffo and Watts’ rebuttal.)  Both sides raised some good points.  However, the past few months seemed to have shown a shift toward an almost over-use of drones in Yemen (and elsewhere).

Part of the problem, too, is that the headlines are more easily packaged when we’re killing people.  “Drone strike in Yemen kills senior al-Qaeda leader” – because it’s always a “senior al-Qaeda leader” – sounds much better than “Small steps toward democracy and order in Yemen.”

How do we approach a situation where we are successfully eliminating (at least part of) the terrorist leadership we know, while alienating the populace?  Reports suggest a mixed review of Ambassador Feierstein’s approach in Yemen, no doubt at least in part because there are so many competing forces in Yemen.  Our short-term goals may be undercutting our long-term ones.

Yemen’s chaos makes it easier for al-Qaeda to grow, and for Ansar al-Shariah to offer a pragmatic alternative to the fractured government.  Yemen’s chaos makes it easier for American forces to operate with impunity, but also for us to try to play favorites in a situation that is far from being resolved.

In my previous post, I suggested that we needed more of a Special Forces approach to Yemen.  I didn’t mean we needed a greater reliance on Special Operations Forces, á la the Biden approach.  Rather, I meant that we needed a greater focus on winning hearts and minds; we needed to provide real, practical, and positive solutions along with law enforcement and intelligence aid, and military strikes – which apparently means drones.  And when we use drones, we need to make sure – absolutely sure – that we’re targeting the right people.  Pattern of life activity probably isn’t good enough, least not in a place that so many struggle to understand in the first place.

Without a balanced approach, we’ll either turn the populace against us completely, or we’ll give al-Qaeda an unsuppressed environment for development.  Neither is a good alternative.  But what we’re doing right now isn’t quite cutting it.


* I often joke that the current administration’s fascination with the SEALs might mean they’ll eventually rename all the branches to incorporate SEALs somehow.  Just like the Army gave everyone the beret a few years ago, we could have Green Beret SEALs, Delta Force SEALs, USMC Force Recon SEALs, etc.

March 3, 2012
Thoughts on Terrorist Disengagement and CVE

Recently, Will McCants wrote a pair of posts on Jihadica covering the topic of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).  Part 1 dealt with developing a good definition of CVE, while Part 2 evaluated what the scope of CVE programs should be.  I have to admit, I struggled with McCants’ definition before I fully wrapped my mind around what he meant by it.

This is not the first time McCants has commented on the issue of CVE.  For example, when Google ran a CVE conference in Ireland last year, McCants wrote a piece for Foreign Policy arguing that Google should put its technological might behind CVE efforts, rather than re-hashing ideas various governments have already gone over.

In his FP piece, McCants noted that CVE isn’t as easy as we’d like to make it out to be, stating “I am not ready to give up on the enterprise of countering violent extremism just yet, but I am less sanguine about its chances of success than I was before I started working on the problem.”  (The byline identifies McCants as a former “senior advisor on countering violent extremism in the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism.”)

All of this is to say that McCants is not new to the issue of CVE, and should probably be listened to when he writes about it.

My own research has focused more on deradicalization and disengagement, particularly in Yemen.  (More on distinguishing between CVE, deradicalization, and disengagement follows below.)  Moreover, as will become obvious, I’ve found John Horgan’s writings on the subject of disengagement to be among the most compelling, which also influences my view.*  I’ve written about Horgan before, both specifically and in passing.

It was with Horgan in mind that I evaluated McCants’ proposed definition of CVE:

Reducing the number of terrorist group supporters through non-coercive means.

As context, McCants first provided several reasons why a new definition was necessary:

The United States and its allies devote considerable financial and human resources to countering violent extremism (CVE). Nevertheless the definition of CVE is unclear, ranging from fighting bad guys to creating good guys. This lack of precision makes it hard to design, execute, and evaluate CVE programs and makes it easy to slap the CVE label on all manner of initiatives, including many that seem to have little to do with stopping terrorism and might otherwise be cut by Congress. The lack of precision also inhibits thinking about whether the CVE enterprise is worthwhile and what should constitute it.

Horgan and Kurt Braddock made a similar point in a 2010 article in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence, titled “Rehabilitating the Terrorists?: Challenges in Assessing the Effectiveness of De-radicalization Programs.”  Horgan and Braddock warn of the potential danger of even those released through rehabilitation programs, especially because success rates are determined by governments initiating the deradicalization schemes; recidivism, if tracked, is subject to the host country’s definition.  ”To date, there is no consensus on what constitutes success in reforming a terrorist, let alone what even constitutes reform in this context,” they say.  Moreover,

it has been practically impossible to ascertain what is implied by or expected from programs that claim to be able to de-radicalize terrorists. No such program has formally identified valid and reliable indicators of successful de-radicalization or even disengagement, whether couched in cultural, psychological, or other terms. (p. 268)

However, CVE isn’t quite the same as deradicalization, which isn’t the same as disengagement.  While definitions vary (much like with the word terrorism itself), Horgan distinguishes between deradicalization (the process of changing belief systems) and disengagement (separating from terrorist movements).  CVE, by contrast, is a little harder to pin down.  An Australian Department of Defence literature review on CVE notes that:

Given its basis in government policy rather than scholarship, the notion of ‘countering violent extremism’ is rarely defined let alone conceptualised or theorised within the literature. Rather, it stands as a phenomenon that is both self evident and taken for granted. The focus in the literature on countering violent extremism is generally on strategies that aim to respond to, or prevent violence, with recommendations for policy rather than on understanding how ‘countering violent extremism’ is constituted and emerges in particular ways. (p. 16)

Tellingly, checking out the White House’s CVE strategy leaves the reader without a clear view of what CVE entails; thus the need for a definition like McCants’.  However, McCants himself notes that what he’s proposing isn’t quite CVE in full, stating “I might also propose a new label and acronym for this activity but ‘CVE’ is so bland and prevalent that it’s not worth jettisoning.”  In the comments section, McCants further explains, “If it were just up to me, I’d use Countering Terrorist Recruitment.”

To my mind, then, CVE is the overarching (non-military and non-law enforcement) process of responding to terrorist groups; McCants’ definition is really one small part of the process at the forefront of terrorist group development, while deradicalization and especially disengagement are facets of the end of the process.  While this isn’t quite a definition, it suggests the CVE is very broad-based, made up of several components specific to various stages of activity and engagement.

I think the distinction is important, because what I see McCants saying is that US policies for CVE should be very limited in scope, rather than that CVE itself is actually limited to “Reducing the number of terrorist group supporters through non-coercive means.”  I think this was what bothered me all along in reading McCants’ posts, because I don’t think CVE is or should be universally focused on dissuading terrorist supporters at the forefront.

If we are focusing on the CVE component of reducing the number of terrorist group supporters, then we can apply all of McCants’ arguments for it — limited to terrorists rather than skinheads or gangs, empirically measurable, etc. — while also acknowledging that CVE for another country might look different, and might include additional components.

It is precisely this look at the scope of US policies that constitutes McCants’ second post.  With the caveat that what we are talking about is which domestic US policies on CVE we should be implementing right now (as opposed to what CVE should be in general, or even what CVE policies we should implement or support abroad), McCants is right on: it should be measurable work aimed at identifiable audiences of both law-abiding and incarcerated terrorist supporters.  It should not be about monitoring large portions of the population, attempts to control thought crimes or to implement social engineering, or otherwise exaggerating the threat or violating civil liberties.

In short, domestic CVE policies should be based on realistic goals of what we can and should do, and they should be held to a pre-determined rubric of success, with frequent re-evaluation of both goals and accomplishments.  Succinctly, do what you can do, and do it well; don’t try to do what you can’t and shouldn’t do.  (Or, as they put it over at Selected Wisdom, “broad, top-down federal strategies to deal with local issues routinely fail” because “The individuals, ideologies and threats of extremism arising from local communities vary wildly from place to place.”)

If there’s anything we can learn from the Yemeni model (which was, admittedly, quite different than what McCants suggests for the US), it’s that clear goals are absolutely essential.  Under Hamoud al-Hitar from 2002-2005, Yemen essentially tried to argue with al-Qaeda detainees and other jihadist prisoners that the Yemeni government was based on an Islamic and thus violent jihad should not be carried out in Yemen, resulting in the release of over 350 prisoners who signed paperwork saying they had turned from their ways.  It ended partially because some of these same released prisoners’ remains were found in the aftermath of suicide attacks in Iraq.

For all the structural criticisms of Yemen’s de-radicalization program (and there are many, including corruption and a revolving-door policy for prisoners), the clearest critique and most necessary change is the need for an unambiguous statement of goals for jihadist rehabilitation.  By Horgan’s theory, the Yemenis stated a goal of disengagement while trying to accomplish it through deradicalization.  However, most of the deradicalization process focused on altering perceptions of state legitimacy to appear properly Islamic, rather than on intense Quranic re-education.  The several well-founded criticisms of Yemen’s program essentially stem from the lack of needed goals and guidelines. Without measurable aims, effectiveness is impossible to gauge. Without documented, successful practices, Yemen could expect little outside help for its deradicalization efforts and even less from its own troubled government.

Why should we hold the American government to any different standard?  I’m not suggesting that we try the same approach that Yemen did; we couldn’t, even if we wanted to, and Yemen showed the danger of too heavily associating Western governments with attempts to change Muslims’ thinking.  I do think we should be able to learn from their mistakes, though.

CVE has to be dynamic, able to change with the threat (a challenge Yemen had a hard time overcoming as al-Qaeda in Yemen became more hardened and ideological), and it must be tailored to the specific culture and context.  Moreover, it must be carried out by the appropriate party.  Legitimacy is a key issue of deradicalization, which explains the lengthy debate over the propriety of the Yemeni state in al-Hitar’s dialogue in Yemen.  There as in the US, if a non-state organization ran CVE programming, it might be able to skirt some of the legitimacy issues, but it could face other obstacles, including finding the right leadership and sufficient resources.  (I’m very interested to see what McCants has to say about this in his third post of the series.)

Until we get a good idea of what we’re trying to accomplish, we have no chance of success.  McCants’ definition gives us a good start on what the US should try to do in the here-and-now.  Hopefully, it will help start a broader discussion about what CVE means in general, and how governments can maximize their investments and achieve their goals related to CVE, rather than throwing money after well-intentioned but obviously muddled programs.

(For the record, J.M. Berger’s re-imagined charts are far superior to the one accompanying McCants’ posts, and he’s got some good points on CVE of his own.)

[Update: McCants and I had brief back-and-forth on Twitter that helped clear up some miscommunication arising from this post being not clear enough.  You can see it here.]


* Other interesting works include Michael Jacobson’s “Terrorist Dropouts: Learning from Those Who Have Left,” Jaret Brachman’s Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, and the other writers in Horgan and Tore Bjørgo’s Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement.  Of course, this is just a small sample.  The Australian literature review mentioned above has more, of course, and then there’s this.

October 1, 2011
This Week in Yemen - 10/1 (Updated with more links)

I’m not even going to pretend I’ve had time to read most of these.  I’m just gonna stick them on here til I get a chance to read them.

As usual, organized roughly thematically.  Can you guess what the biggest category will be?

US Policies in Yemen

Yemen’s Political Situation

Al Qaeda/AQAP


Ok, I suppose the whole drone strike thing probably deserves its own section.  That, and I was afraid it would get too confusing if there wasn’t some sort of break in here.  So consider the following a subsection of “the world’s most famous drone strike yet.”

Anwar al-Awlaki

Samir Khan

Ibrahim al Asiri

Arguments on Drone Strikes

US/Yemen Relations After Awlaki’s Death

Adam Gadahn

And finally, I’ll leave you with this tweet from Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.  It’s something I’ll be pondering as I read these articles.

@DaveedGR  I wonder if the Awlaki strike signals an evolution in US drone strategy toward more strategic (rather than purely tactical) use.

September 25, 2011
Novak on Saleh’s Return

Over at Armies of Liberation, Jane Novak listed a number of lessons to take away from Saleh’s return to Yemen, including the following that she says the US should already have known:

1- Saleh will never willingly resign but will pretend to agree time and time again

2- Saleh will play the al Qaeda card and mobilize his jihaddist minions when challenged

3- Saleh will never act in the best interests of the nation, only in his own and the regime’s interest

4- Saleh is as batsheet crazy as Qaddafi and similarly believes in his own lies and majesty

5- Saleh is mercurial, and whatever his position today, it will change tomorrow, accompanied by an entirely contradictory propaganda package.

July 2, 2011

As the Yemeni government faces continuing crisis, and as the greater Middle East still faces the chaos of not knowing who will lead countries in which leaders have been or will be deposed, people are desperate for answers.  Unsurprisingly, analysts and politicians alike are happy to give their take, even if that take is to say, essentially, we don’t have any good answers.

Nor are the easy answers necessarily the best ones.  In his latest post on Waq al-Waq, Gregory Johnsen works idea-by-idea through Frank J. Cilluffo and Clinton Watts’ “Yemen & Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Exploiting a Window of Counterterrorism Opportunity,” detailing why or why not those ideas would work in Yemen.  Many of the points Johnsen made similar to what I said a week ago, though Johnsen is certainly more detailed and more critical than I was:

For those who are faithful readers of Waq al-waq it should come as no surprise that I strongly disagree with the report and its conclusions.  I think this is what happens when smart people tackle a complex problem in an environment they don’t know particularly well.  The report, in my opinion, is full of assumptions that make sense broadly but break down the closer one gets to Yemen.

Johnsen’s key points include the fact that AQAP has been getting stronger for a while, not only after Saleh’s removal; that the protests play a role, and we can’t only look at the Houthis and the Southern secessionists; that bombings have consequences, and the US would not get off as scot free as the author’s suggest; and that eliminating key leadership in AQAP is not guaranteed to destroy the organization. 

(As an aside, the latter point has been reinforced by former Bush CT official Juan Zarate, who recently decried the current administration’s narrow focus on eliminating leadership:

Juan Zarate, a senior counterterrorism official under President Bush, said that by narrowing its counterterrorism focus to Al Qaeda, its affiliates and individual followers, the Obama administration underestimated the power of Al Qaeda’s ideology.

“To narrow the focus has the potential to inadvertently blind us to the underlying ideological struggle that still exists as well as to terrorist threats on the horizon that neither begin nor end with Al Qaeda,” Mr. Zarate said. “This focus also inadvertently aggrandizes Al Qaeda at a time when we want to emphasize its irrelevance.”

Continuing the aside, part of Johnsen’s criticism stems from the authors’ too-uncritical take on Thomas Hegghammer’s postulations about Anwar al-Awlaki’s role in AQAP, as laid out in this article - which I admit, was quite intriguing.)

Coming back to Johnsen, the problem is with “The Seduction of Simple Solutions,” as Johnsen titled his post; neither the Middle East nor the groups operating inside it are hegemonic, and the solutions to the problems there cannot be one-size-fits-all.  (Foreign Policy makes this case in the article “Think Again: Failed States,” which seeks to dispute some common misconceptions about how we view failed - and failing - countries.)

An yet … the basic tenets of freedom seem fairly simple.  Removing autocrats generally seems good, and opposing al-Qaeda is an easy position to take.  Thus, the “Solution For The Yemeni Crises" as laid out in a guest post on Jane Novak’s Armies of Liberation seems straightforward, if perhaps simple for the complex problems Yemen faces:

1. Formation of a presidential council to serve as a higher reference and consisting of five members [representing geographical regions].

2. Formation of a ministerial council as follows:
• Headed by Hameed Al-Ahmar […].
• Two deputies to the prime minister, one civilian and the other from the military.
• Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar to serve as minister of defence […].

3. General elections for a house of representatives comprising 120 members of equal division between north and south (60+60).

4. The formation of a political and legal committee to normalize relations [between the Houthis and Sana’a, and the Houthis and Saudi Arabia].

5. The formation of a political and legal committee to confirm the relationship of a federal union between [North and South Yemen, and to propose a new relationship between them].

(I’ve cut this down quite a bit, so make sure to check out the full thing).

This guest post reflects similar ideas to those laid out by former Ambassador to Yemen Edward Hull and Johnsen himself, as I remarked in a post shortly following the attack on Saleh.  No doubt they are the democratic moves necessary to resolve the corruption and leadership crisis in Yemen, but they are, to use a cliche, easier said than done.  (As I am in the midst of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, it is difficult for me to dismiss the gulf between political groups’ intentions and the reality of implementing them.)  It is easy to say, as one youth activist does in Al Jazeera, that we need to “think outside the AQAP box” in Yemen; it is far more difficult to come up with practical solutions.

Then again, the Yemeni people could always follow Abu Bakr bin Abdul Aziz al-Athri’s advice, and ally the tribes with AQAP against the infidel West.  Jamestown’s Murad Batal al-Shishani argues that, as government decreases, tribalism in creases in Yemen:

According to a recent comprehensive study on the political role of the tribes in Yemen, people’s adherence to the tribal system is inversely proportional to the state’s ability to ensure law, security, justice and equality. Because of the state’s failure in providing these elements, the majority of Yemenis continue to look positively at the continued existence of the tribal system, with figures favoring the system as large as 77% in Hadramawt, 75% in Imran and 74.5% in Sana’a.

To every argument there is a counter-argument, and AQAP is trying to provide a powerful opposing view:

Al-Athri’s booklet can be understood as a theoretical effort by a global jihadist ideologue to assist AQAP in winning the battle for Yemen. The stature of al-Athri as a jihadi scholar is increasing, and he appears to be a leading successor of al-Maqdisi as a jihadist ideologue. His appeal to the tribes of Yemen indicates that AQAP’s attempt to win these groups over is a top priority for the entire Salafi-Jihadist movement.

The solutions for Yemen will not be simple.  While we might say that Novak’s guest post is not full enough, or that Cilluffo and Watts have not argued their points well enough, I think we can all agree that al-Athri’s view is the least desirable solution for Yemen.

June 18, 2011
"I don’t think the U.S. has a policy on Yemen," Carapico said. "One part is we back the Saudis and whatever they want is good enough for us, and then the other part of it is we really, really don’t like al Qaeda."

Nasser Arrabyee: Saudis To  Make Yemen’s King, and Americans Satisfied With Destroying Al Qaeda

June 11, 2011

As I was thinking about all I wanted to cover in this post, and trying to determine how I could cram it all under one title, the word misguided sprang to mind as the central theme.  So much involving Yemen, whether it’s what’s going on in the country itself or what people say about it, comes from a place of patently self-indulgent power grabs or from sheer ignorance.  And so we begin.

Writing in the Atlantic on the 6th, former CNAS intern J. Dana Stuster argues:

The news of Saleh’s departure was heralded in the streets and protest camps with celebrations, but these are almost certainly premature. Over the past two weeks, Saleh has finally succeeded in fragmenting the opposition movement. In doing so, he provoked the violence that has now forced him from the country, but in the process, he has severely undermined the possibility for a transition to the sort of new and inclusive Yemeni government he resisted by all means possible.

I don’t know if “fragmented” is the right word, but Saleh’s departure certainly opened the door to further chaos in the country, and for replacement by another powerful family, rather than by democracy.  Stuster reiterates the foolishness of violating tribal customs.  By shelling a group of tribal leaders attempting mediation, “Saleh seemed to be sending the message that there is only room for his authority in Yemen, and even the tribes are subject to him,” Stuster says, which was “a bold move in a country which, by most accounts, is governed by a tribal system masquerading as a military autocracy.”  What’s more:

Fracturing the opposition movement is Saleh’s greatest triumph in recent months. As Chatham House analyst Ginny Hill observed, there are now two power struggles in Yemen: the struggle between power elites (the president and the tribal leadership), and the struggle between the government and its people. The stakes in the struggles are different: one demands authority; the other, accountability. Even if the Hashid oust Saleh, there will plenty of other rivalries and grievances that could play out among those remaining.

In a post at the end of April, I argued that Yemen had a series of choices to make: the choice between anarchy and something else; the choice between Saleh and something else; and a choice on how to deal with the US.

(As an aside, at the time I also wrote: “So, Saleh might go on his own. Or, he might go less than willingly. I’m surprised there have not been more attempted attacks directed specifically at him - unless I’m missing some - but he could very well be assassinated. Or, he could be removed by a coup. My understanding is that fear of the latter is the reason Saleh is providing for not moving forward with the GCC deal. A military coup could easily take us back to the first choice.”  All of which sounds strikingly familiar 6 weeks later.)

I would argue that Ginny Hill’s formulation is a better-worded assertion of the same points I made in April.  The struggle of the elites is reflected in the choice between Saleh and something else.  The struggle between the government and its people is reflected in the choice between anarchy and something else.  Which bring me back to my conclusion from the April post: “when Saleh goes, a compromise candidate replaces him with whom everyone is unhappy. The US backs off monetary aid while pushing harder for military alliance. Anti-US elements in Yemen try to force the government to be more overtly Islamist, and al-Qaeda attempts to expand its influence as a provider and protector. In short, we’ll get what we want - Saleh out - but without real change for the better.”

I’m not going to go so far as to say (acting) President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi [profiled here by Gregory Johnsen] is that compromise candidate, but I do think my assessment is still pretty strong.

But Saleh’s not done yet.  Before Saleh was injured, Barak Barfi, writing for CNN, said:

Saleh’s latest ruse seeks to transform the conflict into a tribal war.


With Washington lacking any influence over the conflict’s actors, all it can do is sit back and watch as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other Islamist militants extend their influence in tribal regions where military units have abandoned their posts and left their weapons stores exposed to looters.


The only winner in such a bloody battle would be Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, given free rein to extend its tentacles throughout a leaderless state.

(I should note these quotes are not in quite the same sequence they were presented in the story.)  Here we have examples of misguided approaches on a couple of levels.  Saleh has arrogantly attacked tribal leaders in a way that violates tribal custom.  He has flagrantly abandoned real defense against al-Qaeda by focusing his troops on his domestic problems.  And the US, due to its ineptitude in previous aspects of the situation, is forced to the sidelines.

Yet Saleh’s foibles don’t end there.  By Tuesday, revelations began to emerge of the extent of Saleh injuries.  “Saleh ‘Badly Burned’ in Blast" declared the Express’ headline, while the New York Times noted "Yemen Uncertainty Grows; Leader’s Burns Called Severe.”  The Times piece elaborated:

Mr. Saleh, who was flown to Saudi Arabia on Saturday along with the prime minister and other top aides for treatment at the Armed Forces Hospital in Riyadh, was first said to have light injuries, including burns on his face, neck and arms caused by an explosion at the palace mosque during Friday Prayer. On Tuesday, it was revealed that he has suffered burns on 40 percent of his body and that a large wooden shard sliced into him and might have punctured a lung, said Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, the head of the Arabiya television network.

But the explosion left Mr. Saleh with burns on his back as well, said a person familiar with his injuries, speaking on the condition of anonymity, and although not life-threatening they were severe enough to require strong sedation for the pain and several months of convalescence.

“His face was quite charred,” said a Western official, speaking anonymously in accordance with government restrictions. “The burns are serious; he is not as well as his aides are portraying it.”

An Arab diplomat said, “It is not life threatening but will require a lot of care.”

Despite this, Saleh has apparently been pushing for a return; some aides have said he will be back within a few days.  (Of course, these are probably the same ones who said he only had a few “scratches” from the attack on his compound.)  While questions remain about what the US, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen itself can or will do about an attempt to return by Saleh, Gregory Johnsen says we shouldn’t count the wily president out yet.  Christopher Boucek, Ginny Hill, and Abd al-Ghani al-Iryani have declared Saleh’s on the way out, Johnsen writes, and, “Maybe they are right.  I hope they are.  But I still worry that the old guy has a few more tricks up his sleeve.”  Johnsen expands on his point:

There is a reason his eldest son Ahmad, who commands the Rep. Guard and Special forces, and his quartet of nephews stayed in the country.

(There are just too many scenarios I can imagine involving those five and their men with guns for me to fully jump on the Salih is done bandwagon. - don’t get me wrong I think he is on his way out, still, I’m not just sure if it is now - Even if he is forced out as president he may not be done. In many ways, this is personal.  […])

If this goes all the way to the wire, are the Saudis going to arrest Salih?  Besides with so many family members still in Yemen, money and influence, Salih can still exert a lot of influence even from behind the scenes.

Johnsen also notes the trend among some Yemen analysts noticing “politics in Yemen, and particularly about politics in Salih’s family mirroring the Godfather trilogy.”

And the politics are certainly confusing - a fact reflected in the ignorance expressed by so many pundits talking about Yemen.  In another post, Johnsen (a solid analyst on Yemen, in case you haven’t picked up on that) laments the tendency of misguided evaluations of Yemen and AQAP:

One of the things that I find most frustrating is reading articles or comments on AQAP by people who have never bothered to actually read what the organization itself puts out.

I mean, there is already so little information about the organization that it seems self-evident to me that researchers or analysts should take advantage of anything that AQAP puts out.  If people who believed themselves competent to talk about AQAP adhered to this one little rule, I’m confident they would make many fewer mistakes than they currently do.  

As it is, when people speak without being well-steeped in what the organization puts out, they tend to create an imaginary organization that tells us more about the person making the comment or writing the article than it does about AQAP (emphasis added).

I will be the first to admit that, not being a full-time Yemen watcher, I haven’t explored AQAP’s English language propaganda piece, Inspire, as much as I could have.  (Well, that, and I was concerned about the ramifications of downloading too much terrorist propaganda.)  Coupled with my (lamentable) inability to speak Arabic, and I know that I am at a disadvantage when analyzing Yemen generally and AQAP specifically.  That being said, I have written before about my frustrations regarding write-ups on Yemen, as basic research often topples both key points and minor details of the many columns being written about Yemen in recent days.

Some of the problems are fairly small, even resulting in amusing commentary.  In the same post, Johnsen writes that on “Friday, June 3, [a drone strike] killed someone the NY Times is identifying as ‘Abu Ali al-Harithi.’  Of course, longtime readers of Waq al-waq will remember that someone named Abu Ali al-Harithi was killed by the US in November 2002.”

Johnsen quips, “I don’t really think AQAP has developed a team of zombies, so it is likely (what are the odds?) that somewhere along the line the kunya got mis-reported.”

Johnsen doesn’t want to point out specific examples of the larger issues in commentary on Yemen, but two come to my mind.

David Silverberg, writing for Homeland Security Today, has a piece out called Yemen loses a president and America loses a friend.”  That title caught my eye, because - while I think there is some propriety in calling Saleh a necessary evil, or an uneasy ally - friend seemed like such a strong word to use.  And Silverberg had some interesting things to say:

Now Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh has lit out for Saudi Arabia, injured by a rocket attack that reportedly burned 40 percent of his body, leaving his people in revolt, the tribes in arms and the country in turmoil. Except for the 32 years when he himself was in power, that means Yemen has pretty much returned to normal.

I don’t want to write this as a paean to Saleh; he definitely overstayed his welcome and he’s not exactly a shining example of enlightened governance. But he managed to unite North and South Yemen in 1990 in a non-communist union and put down a rebellion in 1994 when southerners tried to secede. He has actually been elected by popular vote three times, though each time by lopsided margins. He juggled fractious tribes, restive subordinates, fundamentalists and the poorest population in the Middle East. By Middle Eastern standards, and by the standards of Yemen’s past, his was relatively enlightened rule and Yemen was about as stable as it ever gets.

And Saleh was a friend of the United States. Some of this was necessity; the United States had no rivals of comparable wealth and power in the region and there was no more Soviet Union. But it was also because it was in Saleh’s interest to keep the Muslim extremists at bay. He was a secular ruler and if Osama Bin Laden’s jihad (and the Bin Laden family is originally from Yemen) succeeded, Saleh would have likely faced the sword—literally.

I’m not sure how Saleh’s death at bin Laden’s sword jives with Saleh’s use of jihadists to quell the Southerners when he “put down a rebellion in 1994 when southerners tried to secede,” but let’s move on.  Yemen is important to Western powers today, Silverberg says, “because it’s the home of the most serious and intractable Al Qaeda franchise, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), led by Anwar Al Awlaki, a real potential successor to Osama Bin Laden.”

Any time I see these assertions - that al-Awlaki leads AQAP, or that he could replace bin Laden - I am immediately skeptical about the writer’s grasp of the situation in Yemen.  But at least Silverberg believes Yemen is a potential threat to the US, writing further that “of all the revolutions in the Arab Spring, if there’s any that could turn toward Islamist extremism it’s the one in Yemen.  We can only hope that whoever emerges as the leader in Yemen is neither a puppet of Al Qaeda nor an enemy of the United States.”

Steve Chapman, on the other hand, sees our involvement in Yemen as unnecessary.  In a Chicago Tribune column called “Obama and the pursuit of endless war: Starting new fights and prolonging the old ones,” Chapman states:

[War] No. 4 is Yemen, where we learn the administration is carrying out an intense covert campaign against anti-government militants, using fighter aircraft and drone missiles. It is being handled by the Pentagon in conjunction with the CIA, and according to The New York Times, “teams of American military and intelligence operatives have a command post in Sana, the Yemeni capital.”

Feel safer? Probably not. Most of what presidents do with the U.S. military is not aimed at enhancing the security or welfare of the American people. It serves mainly to advance our domination of the world, even — or maybe especially — in places irrelevant to any tangible interests. Like Yemen.

To say that Yemen is “irrelevant to any tangible interests” is to overlook two key points.  First is that Yemen is at a choke-point for global oil shipping.  We’ve already seen what Somali pirates can do in the region; what happens when there are failed states on both sides of the Gulf of Aden?  Now, it would be one thing to say that war over oil is not warranted, or that it’s up to the Yemeni people to decide their own fate; it’s another to say that Yemen is not relevant to any tangible interests for the US.

Secondly, AQAP has overtly tried to attack the US.  Again, one could argue that the threat of AQAP is overstated, or that there are better ways of dealing with it.  However, I’m pretty sure terrorist threats emanating from Yemen against the US fall under the category of being “relevant to our tangible interests.”

Now, Chapman and Silverberg both make some good points in their pieces; both are worth the read, in their own ways.  But both reflect a misguided understanding of Yemen’s internal politics and its relationship to the US.  Chapman’s ending line - “The more we fight, the more we fight” - has some truth to it, but not always for the reasons he points out.  Part of the reason is because the US is forced to carry the load of international security, partially by our own allies.

Andrew Exum quotes a speech by outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in which Gates said:

The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense. Nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.

(When I was getting my master’s in the UK, one of my classes devolved into a grand discussion on how the US could - and perhaps should - carry the weight of military interventions for humanitarian purposes, and the EU could foot the bill for rebuilding afterwards; a convenient arrangement for the Europeans, I thought.)

Exum’s response was in keeping with his forthright way of writing on Abu Muqawama:

This kind of reckoning between the United States and the states of Europe has been long overdue. Some European states have proven themselves serious about both the alliance [NATO] and their own national defense. (I’m looking at you, Denmark.) Others have not. If Germans complain with justification that their workers subsidize Greek hair-dressers taking early retirements, it’s perfectly fair for the United States to complain German workers enjoy comfy state benefits in part because U.S. tax-payers underwrite their national defense.

Which bring us back to that single unifying point of this post, the word misguided.  Throughout the international security front today, we see all sorts of misguided assertions and movements. 

Yemen’s Saleh wants to play both sides of aisle, allying with both the US and some of her enemies. 

Likewise, the US wants to keep Saleh around while decrying autocracy elsewhere (and even attacking it in Libya, for some indefinable reason), undercutting any authority it might have in Yemen. 

Saleh wants to keep his grip on power, yet violates tribal rules in attacking his enemies despite relying on tribal support as his foundation for power over the last three decades. 

Despite clear and wide-spread opposition to his rule, Saleh wants to return to Yemen, even risking plunging Yemen into civil war or anarchy to do so. 

Speaking on all this, commentators allegedly informing the American populace of the situation in Yemen muddle the issue with profound misunderstandings and biases. 

Topping it all off, the US is forced to confront issues for which is perhaps not prepared or resourced simply because no one else will do it.

It is true that the dangers America faces are not as clear-cut as they were in, say, World War II, which is also perhaps the last war veterans say was undeniably necessary.  However, the threats facing the US today are vast, and our defense requires a deep understanding of our enemies’ and our allies’ politics and beliefs, as well as a determination to see it through.  We can’t always fix the misguided directions those around us take, but we could do a better job of correcting our own.

May 29, 2011
Western Options in Yemen

Yesterday, as I was trying to quickly finish up my post, I wrote:

"So what now?  Well, there’s two options: back off completely, or go in strong.  My guess is that we’ll keep trying to split the middle, though, to our own - and Yemen’s - detriment."

Though I still don’t have the time to expand fully on these ideas, I thought they warranted further comment.

US policies in Yemen have been ambiguous, to say the least, when it comes to anything other than defeating al-Qaeda.  (The strategy for eliminating al-Qaeda in Yemen has likewise been a bit muddled, but that’s another post.)  As we waffle on who to support, when to put our foot down, and what to say, we push the people of Yemen further and further away from us - not the ideal when it’s the people who form the potential base for either a growing al-Qaeda or simply a non-ally.

So we have come to a point in Yemen where riding the fence has everyone against us, with all sides essentially blaming us for their problems and accusing the other side of colluding with the US.  (I suppose all sides might be a bit of a stretch, but American support for Saleh has certainly been thrown in his face, and Saleh himself has accused the US of backing the protesters, as I have mentioned twice before.  In the original story on the subject, it’s clear that Saleh noticed early on the trend of the US turning on the powers in the region, despite alliances.)

So, if we are distrusted by all, what can we do?

There are, to my mind, two less-than-good choices, and one really bad choice.

The first less-than-good choice is to do nothing; to treat Yemen’s brewing civil war as simply an internal issue that must be worked out amongst themselves, and to let it be.  As a country founded on a revolution that re-defined itself with its own Civil War, the US should recognize the inspiration for self-determination of the people.  Democracy cannot be handed to people; they must earn it for themselves.

Of course, the weaponry and tactics are different now than they were in the 1700s.  Moreover, there are a number of other cons to letting things be: many people will die.  It endangers a vital region for global security.  It could set a precedent for other autocratic regimes.

So the flip side is, as I said before, to “come in strong.”  What that would look like exactly is somewhat difficult to articulate.  It’s hard to imagine the US invading Yemen a la Iraq or Afghanistan, but then, who thought we would become embroiled in a conflict like the one in Libya? 

Diplomatic processes are generally more about carrots than sticks, and right now there’s not really a lot to offer Saleh.  He’s got what he wants: power (and, for the moment, latitude to exert that power as he wishes).  Yemen’s economy isn’t one that would be effectively damaged by sanctions (it’s doubtful that in today’s economy we could - or would want to - cut Yemen completely off from potential customers for its vital asset, oil).  Cutting off US aid might hurt more, but Yemen receives funds from more than just us.

Moreover, these is some question as to the general effectiveness of sanctions.  Jerald A. Combs, writing on, states:

Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, a major compilation of case studies by Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliott concerning economic sanctions as exercised throughout the world in the twentieth century, concludes that sanctions worked only about one-third of the time, usually when they were exercised decisively rather than gradually, had multilateral rather than mere unilateral support, and were directed at rather weak and unstable regimes (vol. 1, p. 93). Truly altering a nation’s fundamental political or military policy most often required military force.


Nevertheless, sanctions also have produced nationalist reactions in target nations that stiffened rather than weakened resistance to America’s foreign policy goals. Moreover, even friendly nations often refuse to go along with U.S. sanctions, and the economic effect is simply to transfer commerce from the United States to other countries. In the end, then, sanctions are a tempting means for the U.S. government to try to coerce cooperation with its policies by means short of war and to signal its determination at home and abroad, but in the absence of the threat or use of military force, embargoes and sanctions do not often succeed in changing a nation’s fundamental policies, and they impose costs on the initiator as well as the object of such measures.

The alternative is military force, most likely in the form of NATO intervention, though possibly through UN peacekeeping action.  (For what it’s worth, the Yemen Post is reporting that “The GCC countries have planned to take the Yemeni file to the UN Security Council to take decisive action [t]o oust President Saleh who backed out of signing a GCC-brokered power transition deal three times since unrest erupted in Yemen four months ago.”)

While military force has the major incentive of being, in keeping with Teddy Roosevelt’s saying, a big stick, it too has many potential conflicts.  These include further destabilizing the region, inciting enemies in the area, further stretching our military forces (and our tangential alliances with supporting countries), and setting the potential precedent of attacking what had been an ally.  Of course, these are all dangers even if the intervention works, which is by no means guaranteed.

The really bad choice is to continue as we are; by essentially saying “Saleh should leave” while doing nothing about it leaves us open to the bad sides of both the less-than-good choices.  For those who want us to butt out completely, we are sticking are noses in; for those who want real support, we are speaking without acting.  It’s understandable why we are trying to play our cards close to the chest in the potential powder keg that is today’s Middle East; to continue in my (somewhat muddled) metaphor, if we keep our current course, we might play our way right out of the game.