"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A few links, Yemen-related

Chris Boucek has a new book out on Yemen: Yemen on the Brink, published by Carnegie.  I think it is a collection of essays (the titles look familiar).  Put this on the "to-read" list, for sure.  Chris' insights and research are always extremely valuable.

Oliver Holmes has a gripping story in Time about the children of Sada'a- they have known war and displacement for 6 years; there is no way that doesn't warp you.  Along with the basic demographic and environmental issues Yemen is facing in the medium-to-long term (and yes, the short) this will only add pressure. It could be noted that if things continue to go poorly in the south you can have a pincer movement of trauma.

This makes twice today I've linked to Time, which I think puts the total times this blog has done so at two. 

Finally, here's a story about what else was potentially foiled in the Hawta battle: a "plot to kill senior military officials and foreign targets".   This is fairly predictable, even if it doesn't fit our usual conception of terrorism.  AQAP will strike at the US or Europe or elsewhere if the opportunity presents itself, but right now it is focused on destabilizing the government through attacks and assassinations.   This is why I think it is useful to look at them as primarily a rebel group with ultimate jihadi goals.  They aren't entirely a rebel group, like say the Houthis, but many of their motives and methods are the same.  It will be interesting to see how it plays out as they more prominent in the jihad community and continue to attract foreign fighters, many of whom won't really care about the immediate Yemeni goals.  I think whether or not the organization can survive will depend on how much influence al-Wuhayshi will be able to impose on his new troops.  If they can keep his vision and patience as a guiding light, they will continue to grow as a threat, perhaps exponentially.  If not, the leadership of AQAP has shown no revulsion at taking out their own- which could provide a fatal distraction.  I am not currently willing to hazard a guess as to which way it will go, but an influx of fighters could provide a way to destabilize the group itself.

This seems like it should be its own post once I get my head around what I am trying to say.  

Scariest read of the day

Shockingly, it isn't about Yemen (yup- I am going to go one post not talking about Yemen).  Barton Gellman in Time has an up-close and well-reported look at extreme right-wing militias, many of whom think war against the government is both inevitable and desirable.  It is unsettling- you want to think of these guys as toothless (literally and figuratively), but they have weapons, oftentimes a feverish religiosity, and a deep-seated conviction that the government is illegitimate and that they are the representatives of the people's will. 

OK, maybe this is about Yemen.   The parallels with AQAP are pretty striking, anyway. 

Here's a money quote, and a perfect example of cold-blooded sociopathy wrapped in a bogus cloak of Constitutionalism. 

Regardless of what conscience tells them, what chance do would-be armed rebels possibly have of prevailing against the armed might of the U.S.?
One answer comes from former Alabama militia leader Mike Vanderboegh, who wrote an essay that is among the most widely republished on antigovernment extremist sites today. In "What Good Is a Handgun Against an Army?" Vanderboegh says the tactical question is easy: Kill the enemy one soldier at a time. A patriot needs only a "cheap little pistol and the guts to use it," he writes, to shoot a soldier in the head and take his rifle; with a friend, such a man will soon have "a truck full of arms and ammunition." Vanderboegh is hardly a man of action himself, living these days on government disability checks. Even so, when he wrote a blog post in March urging followers to protest the health care bill by breaking windows at Democratic Party offices, they did so across the country.

Anyone else love that this clown lives off the government?

I think it boils down to self-pity, in the end, and a rage against your own impotence.  Regardless of the proximate cause- taxes, the ATF, the scourge of insurance companies no longer being able to deny pre-existing conditions- it is about bored people trying to make something heroic about their lives and being desperate to blame others.  Which I get, and there is certainly a lot of truth in thinking that large and powerful forces don't give a good goddamn about you.  However, that, among other reasons, is why I am a liberal.  For all the massive flaws of elected officials, I trust their response to citizenry a damn sight more than enormous corporations.  It is a bit disgusting and a large part terrifying that there are some people who disguise treason in the cloak of patriotism. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Incompetence? Complicity? Or Bad Luck?

Nasser Arrabyee has an excellent piece on the escape of many AQAP fighters from the battle of Al Huta.  He calls it the "hit and run" style of fighting.  I don't know if this is deliberately Fabian, but it might be a pattern.  This isn't the first time AQAP has been surrounded and about to be crushed by the government before slipping away (not all of AQAP, of course- they are too diffuse to be slaughtered in one battle).  So this raises three possibilities.  Probably more, actually, with many sub-possibilities, but I've already typed the word "three", and I will be damned if I backspace.

1) Incompetence.  The Yemeni army, even with US training, isn't exactly a skilled and professional fighting force.  Sure, they stopped the pipeline attack, and that was good, but even with overwhelming numbers they were unable to capture or kill a cornered and desperate force.   They are trying, but just don't have the abilities or the leadership to have anything more than sporadic and limited success.

2) Complicity.  This is the conspiracy angle.  Salih loves getting US dollars, and knows that he has to be a willing partner.  The attack, following Brennan's visit, was a great example of a dude firmly on our side in all this.  He was trying to level a great blow against his and America's mutual enemies.  But letting them slip away ensures more dollars.   It is the double game we're all familiar with- taking money but letting the problem continue, on order to keep taking money. 

3) Bad luck.  Tough terrain, hostile locals (it was in the south, where there is already seething anger at the government), a quick and slippery opponent.  At Tora Bora, bin Laden and co. managed to slip away from the greatest army the world has ever seen.  How can you blame the Yemenis for similar misfortune? 

Temperamentally, I tend to lean toward 1 or 3- human events are far more the product of chance, circumstance and lack of planning than they are the result of conspiracy or long-term duplicity.  This is especially true in Yemen, where long-term planning is often over-whelmed with the immediate needs of the day. 

Now, Salih has obviously played the double-game before, fighting some terrorists but coddling others.  As I've argued before, I don't think this is sign of bad character- it is a sign that he is the President of Yemen, not the United States.  It is childish to think that he, or any other leader, would act solely and 100% in line with the US.   That said, I think that he is concerned with beating AQAP, since they are a constant thorn in his side and are intent on bringing him down.  My take is that while Salih wouldn't mind stretching things out, and almost certainly will, he also wants to successful operations- and not just for PR.

If this pattern continues though, I might be forced to change my mind and delete this post and swear all of you to silence, under penalty of torture.  But for now I'd be interested to hear which of the above three readers think is closest to the truth, or something else I haven't thought of.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Also thanks to that conference I was keyed into Selected Wisdom, an excellent newish blog by Clint Watts.  It is a lively and no-bullshit approach to CT, and you would all do very well to read it.  Of course, you probably already do, and I am again late to the party.  Still glad to be there, though.  A permanent link is on the side now. 

Foreign Fighters

I just spent a couple of days at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Foreign Fighters Conference.  I was lucky enough to be on a panel with Chris Boucek and Barak Salmoni, both of whom blow me away with their knowledge and insight.   It's a real kick to get to do things like that.  The whole conference was fantastic, with excellent panels on Somalia, the Maghreb (a region that almost never gets talked about) and Af/Pak, as well as a free-wheeling and even contentious discussion of recent trends in the foreign fighter phenomenon.  The FPRI will have the whole thing on their site soon enough, and maybe we can get more into the latter discussion then (I don't want to summarize).  One of the things I got out of it was the lack of need for a comprehensive model when discussing these things, even though a model is sexy and elegant and has the veneer of summation. Everything is local and context-specific, and any unified theory will have more exception than rule.

One thing that was brought up in our Yemen panel, both by Chris and Barak (but not by your scribe) was the strange division between Yemen and Somalia.  This is something I have talked about, but not terribly well.  Those two countries are very close and have a lot of ties.  Political shorthand often obfuscates reality.  We see Yemen as a Middle East country and Somalia as an African one, but that distorts geographic facts.  Barak proposed calling the area the Northeast/Horn of Africa Continuum (or something along those lines- I didn't write it down), which would help to focus our thoughts, even if it is tougher on the tongue.   Chris elaborated on that, pointing out how  in academia, politics and especially in the military these are in separate branches, even though they have a vital relationship. 

My own contribution was about how the local context of Yemen could affect foreign fighters who are rushing there full of adventure and C4.  I think they will be a problem, but I am also pretty convinced that unless al-Wuhayshi can keep a strict control over the fighters, they will be an uncomfortable graft on the population.  AQAP has done an excellent job so far of cultivating tribal relationships, and this is a delicate balance.  I think that a glut of Pakistanis and Egyptians and even annoying Americans who got dumped and decided that was cause for jihad could potentially turn the population against them.  Who the fuck likes new converts? 

I also want to thank Jihadology's and AJG buddy Aaron Zelin, as well as reckless hobo Greg Johnsen for watching the webcast and sending in questions, though I don't think I answered either.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Laptop James Bonds

Esquire has a neat little article about counter-terrorism blogs, with a nice mention of Waq al-Waq (and includes, among others, Jihadica and the Jawa Report).  We are all lumped under the flattering headline of "Laptop James Bonds".   I suppose I'd pick Sean Connery, but am more likely more like Roger Moore. 


In the post two below, I sort of half-jokingly linked to Sarah Palin's Twitter feed.  I apologize to anyone who got sucked into a quagmire of paranoia and self-righteous anger.   Such as this.

Left: how can u "take on" the Tea Party? It's a MOVEMENT...of the people; u "taking on the people"? Did u really not know it's not 1 party? via Twitter for BlackBerry® 

With all the talk from the Left re: who funds Tea Party Americans, one might point out the Left's "tea party" is Acorn, funded by Fed Govt via Twitter for BlackBerry® 
These two posts contain 15000 examples of contradiction, ignorance, conspiracy-addled twaddle, and logical impossibilities.  Can you name 7?  

The big story

Obviously, the big on-going story is the fighting in Hawta between the government and al-Qaeda.  Anwar al-Awlaki may or may not be trapped, depending on who you believe less.  There have been casualties on both sides.  I don't think we'll know the full story of this battle for a couple of weeks.  Right now, it looks as if it may be a hinge moment, but those moments are recognizable only in retrospect, and what seems important now may end up being nothing.  We've been down this road before, so I don't want to jump to any huge conclusions.

But one undeniably interesting story is this, from The Yemen Observer.

A Yemeni tribal sheikh  said Tuesday  that  al-Qaeda fighters who are being cornered in a mountainous area  in   southern Yemen  threatened to kill him if he did not stop  trying to  negotiate with them.

“ I tried to contact with them for negotiations, but they told me to  stay away  from them, and they said they would kill me to closer to Allah (God) if I do not stop trying to talk to them,”   Sheikh Hassan Ba Hanhan of Al Huta said.

Again, this shows how little respect AQAP has for some Yemeni norms, even as it seeks to use others to solidify itself.  Right now, I am unsure if these threats come from a position of strength or weakness.  My instinct says weakness.  I think the ferocity of the fighting may have taken them off guard.  Another interesting part of that story is this:
Yaslem Bajanoob, chairman of the local council of Mayfa’a,  said that some people are hesitant to leave  their houses and properties because they are afraid of plundering and looting acts if the army storms the village.

Bajanoob said that the tribesmen held meetings today Tuesday and warned from any looting and plundering of their houses and properties.

Many complications in these battles.  Memories of the army looting and stealing after the 1994 war are still fresh.  Even the most secular Southerner, overjoyed at the destruction of fanatics, also is wary of the army.   I think that people tend not to want to project the messiness of their own lives to other countries.  Looking abroad, we tend to see enemy or friend, without knowing how the two can overlap, even though we see that in our politics all the time.   In Yemen, an enemy of AQAP can also be an enemy of Salih.  We have to embrace complexity instead of ignoring it. 

Obama's Decisions

Aaron Zelin has a thoughtful article in FP's The Middle East Channel today.   In it, he essentially asks: what happens if the Obama plan to eradicate AQAP works?   Will they then again look away from Yemen and focus on something else, ignoring the structural challenges that remain?  If they do, Zelin reminds us, we'll be dealing with this again and again.  It will be like those Saw movies: endless sequels that nobody I know wants to see. 

Zelin also brings up this provocative question:

Another issue has to do with the legality of targeting an American citizen. How the Obama administration decides to handle the situation with Anwar al-Awlaki will shed light on the United States' legal policy vis-à-vis the war on terror. Will it lead the United States down a slippery slope that further erodes the rule of law and its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community? Or, will it affirm Obama's statement in his inaugural address: "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."
 I would quibble slightly with the wording- I think this will show if Obama wants to lead us back up that slope, since we sprinted and tumbled ass-over-tea-kettle down it the last nine years, to the point where it is hardly shocking that a citizen could be killed extra-judiciously.   There is a case for it, of course- he is at war with the US.  I'm not a legal scholar, though, and am reluctant to sound off half-cocked on this.

There has been some talk of trial, though that brings up another boatload of questions both legal and political.   The Yemeni government might be more amenable to arresting and extraditing al-Awlaki if he can get a fair trial in the US.   I don't like the "kill or ok maybe capture" strategy, especially for someone who is as low-level as al-Awlaki, but it is better than "kill at all costs".  Obama has to be willing to withstand the empurpled bloviating of ignorant senators, commentators, and other slackers for whom nothing less than a "trial" at dawn followed by a noon execution will suffice.   Long term thinking has to be the key.  Zelin's article helps to shape that framework.

The Grand Chessboard

Or the little one

MOSCOW, Sep. 22 (Saba)- Yemen ambassador to Moscow Mohammed al-Hilaly denied on Wednesday reports over the Yemen national chess team played against the Israeli team within the framework o the World Chess Olympics in its 39th edition currently taking place in Russia.

In his statements to Saba, al-Hilaly said that the Yemeni chess team was surprised by the first round draw which placed it in front of the Israeli entity.

He added that the team withdrew from the game which made the organizing committee to set the Yemeni team as a loser and announced win for the Israeli entity team.

The ambassador emphasized that the news which circulated that the Yemeni chess team played against the Israeli team are false and baseless.
Because, you know, that would be awful.  

Look, I am ok with Arab solidarity and defending the Palestinians, especially with a far-right government in Israel (though the timing of this is a little off).  But sports, or at least competition, should generally be removed.  There is no need to punish the participants.  

This is one of those stories where you either get angry or shake your head and laugh.  I am leaning toward the latter, mostly because of the terms "false and baseless", which is a level of outrage normally only seen when another candidate circulates rumors that you might, in fact, be running a child sex ring.   Although I suppose that the late Bobby Fischer would approve of this tactic.  Perhaps the Yemenis were just paying homage to one of the best?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The danger of al-Qaeda

Heavy fighting in Hawta today, in the south.  The army is taking it to AQAP, or at least trying to- it seems that the militants have a better chance at living once the army gives them their full attention.  Although it might be assumed as much, I don't think this is a direct result of Counter-terrorism chief John Brennan's talks with Salih.  I don't think the talks hurt, of course, but it has been my contention that Salih sees AQAP as enough of a threat to his regime that he wants to be going after him.  As far as AQAP is concerned, there is no double game. 

But that can also be a problem.  The fighting is displacing thousands in an already explosive and on-the-edge south.   This is creating yet another IDP nightmare for a government that may or may not have the will, but certainly does not have the means, to deal with it. 

Brennan's advice to Salih has to mention that while he eradication of AQAP is a fine goal, try not to burn the country to the ground in doing so.  There has to be support for what could be perceived as failure, even if it looks bad in the press and no-nothing mouth-breathers criticize Obama for "weakness."   In a speech at the US Institute for Peace, Daniel Benjamin outlined the administration's strategy for Yemen, and it seems they are taking the long view, at least in theory.  I hope this is the case.  It is tough in today's 1-hour news cycle to be able to slow-foot things and work 10 years down the road, especially with such a volatile issue as terrorism.  But to not do so is insane. 

Programming Notes

I'll be in DC next week for the Foreign Policy Research Institute's conference on "The Foreign Fighter Problem".   My panel is on the Yemen Case Study (surprisingly enough), and the paper for the panel will be delivered by AJG pal Chris Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  Also on the panel are Jeremy Sharp of the Congressional Research Service and WINEP's Barak Salmoni.  We'll be starting at about 8:45 on Tuesday, which is unfortunate seeing as how the Bears have the Monday Night Game.  The whole conference looks excellent, and if you are in the area and interested just run your mouse over this word, and you can get all the info you desire.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Oath

PBS will be showing The Oath tomorrow, the Laura Poitras documentary about Salim Hamdan and Abu Jandal.  Here is the official blurb.

Filmed in Yemen and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, The Oath interweaves the stories of Abu Jandal, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard, and Salim Hamdan, a prisoner at Guantánamo facing war crimes charges. Directed by Laura Poitras (Flag Wars, POV 2003; the Oscar®-nominated My Country, My Country, POV 2006), The Oath unfolds via a narrative rife with plot reversals and betrayals that ultimately leads to Osama bin Laden, 9/11, Guantánamo and the U.S. Supreme Court. Winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Excellence in Cinematography Award: Documentary. A co-production of ITVS in association with American Documentary/POV.

And here is the trailer.

Check your local listings.  I look forward to seeing it, and have heard nothing but excellent things.  I'll try to have something up about it on Wednesday, but I am not a terribly good critic.  

Waq al Whaaa???

Sorry for the awful awful title.  But Greg has emerged from his Pynchonian silence to blog back at Waq al-Waq.  Catch it before it fades away, somehow.

Niqab News

Haley Sweetland Edwards, who was once kind enough to post her thoughts on the niqab on this very blog, has a piece up in Slate's XX page.  It is about France's ban of the burqa.  It is well-argued, and shows the difficult and frustrating dilemma of taking your own commitment to plurality seriously- it is sometimes uncomfortable, and there is no hard line dividing right and wrong.  It is easy on the extremes, but difficult the closer you get to the middle. 

Haley is also now writing from the Caucuses at The Haley Bureau, which is an unassailably cool thing to do, and the official position of Always Judged Guilty is immense jealousy.   There is a longer piece on the burqa controversy up there now. 

Walking back (slightly) on Anwar al-Awlaki

In 2003, I came around to supporting the war in Iraq, with quite a bit of force.  Part of it was relative youth, and the misplaced thrill of being a liberal who disagrees with liberal orthodoxy.  Part of it was hatred for Saddam.  A large part of it was that I came to the conclusion- and I remember where I was when this hit me, at the apartment of the girl I was seeing at the time, boring her with my vacillations on the war- that there was just so much information out there it was impossible for the administration to mess it up.  They could take all the knowledge they wanted and apply it to not messing things up.  I don't want to sound like Tom Friedman, who says his fault was trusting the Bush administration, and thus slightly shifting blame.  It was poor analysis on my part- I misread both Iraq and America.  And yet, I was certain.

That is a pretty circuitous way of beginning this piece on Anwar al-Awlaki, someone whose supposed prominence I have blasted.  Certainty is the death of good analysis, which I what I suppose I aspire to.  It is incredible to me that people like Kristof, Peretz, and Krauthammer can still be so strident and certain about things when they were deeply and fundamentally wrong about the major FP question of the last decade. 

So I want to walk back, a little.  I do think al-Awlaki is a threat, as his knowledge of English and of America allows him to manipulate things in this country more than bin Laden.  That said, he is at most a useful tool- in the right hands he can be very dangerous.   I think as the anti-Muslim bigotry in the US gets ramped up and endorsed at high levels he will be able to strike a chord, especially among young Muslims who have are probably increasingly disillusioned about what it means to practice Islam in America (note: that is speculation on my part.  I admit to not having my finger on the pulse of the teenage Muslim community). 

But I am not going to sprint backwards.  For instance, I'm probably not going to endorse this Telegraph article from Philip Johnston, titled "Anwar al Awlaki: The New Osama Bin Laden?"  (Correct answer: no).  As a way of trying to tamp down some of the hysteria related to this dude, I will fisk in full below the jump.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Greg Johnsen as Thomas Pynchon

For those of you that miss Greg's blogging- and I count myself firmly in that category- he's quoted in today's long-ish NYTimes article about military aid to Yemen.   We can pretend that counts as micro-blogging, or something.   The article is mostly about the debate surrounding the aid and how it should be used.  I'm kind of torn about this- based on a number of factors, I tend to give this admin the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it comes to the long game.  But I also tend not to give anyone the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Yemen, because I am a smug bastard.  

There have been a couple of signs that they are trying to do the right thing in Yemen, especially when it comes to establishing relationships with the tribes.  This is a good thing to do because not only does it give us some leverage in a post-Salih world, but also because it might help undercut on of AQAP's strengths- namely, their increasing coziness with the tribes.  But in American politics there is always the temptation to say "screw it, let's just throw some guns at them."   I will believe that there is a more long-term strategy when I start to see non-military aid promises fulfilled. 

What I found strange in the Times article actually came at the end, in Greg's quotes.  I will put the three paragraphs here in full.

If the Saleh government was once seen in Washington as too cozy with Islamic militants, that has changed, in part because Al Qaeda has stepped up its attacks. In recent weeks, Yemeni security forces have rousted Qaeda fighters from the southern city of Lawdar. In retaliation, Al Qaeda on Friday published the names of 55 regional security, police and intelligence officers, calling them “legitimate targets.”
“That response shows Al Qaeda sees a real threat from security forces,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton. But Mr. Johnsen said the priorities of President Saleh, an autocrat whose family has ruled for three decades, do not coincide with those of the United States.
“If we’re just pouring money and equipment into the Yemeni military in the hopes that it will be used against Al Qaeda,” Mr. Johnsen said, “that hope doesn’t match either with history or current reality.”
I'm not quite sure what is going on here.  I don't want to say what Greg means, but my take is that there should be an "only" before "against Al Qaeda".   I hope Greg will correct me if I am wrong, but I think Salih does want to stop this generation of Qaeda, as they are intent on ruining him- no negotiations.  Our interests in that field at least loosely dovetail.   The fear, to me- and this isn't so much a fear as it is a guarantee- is that Salih will use our aid money against the Houthis and the Southern Movement.  

This is the big paradox, and one the article strangely avoids.  What Salih is facing is a violent crisis of legitimacy.  His right to rule is bought by hardly anyone.  And yet, our goal in Yemen is to maintain at least enough government to fight AQAP and (hopefully) tackle some of the major structural issues.  If our aid money is used by the government to fight their other enemies, that will increasingly delegitimize Salih, and the United States.  Propping up Salih is the least-bad of a number of bad options.  We can't make it worse by doing nothing except giving him new toys.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The cost

Andrew Bacevich has stirred a lot of talk lately about the limits of US power, the wars we are in, and what we can do as a nation- talking that goes beyond CT/COIN debates or even "Can Iran Get a Nuke" discussions- but fundamental questions about national interest.  Some of the discussion is spurred by the 9/11 anniversary, which is understandable.  James Fallows linked us to probably the shortest David Foster Wallace essay ever, in which he asks if 9/11 victims should be considered martyrs instead of victims, and that is the price we have to pay for living in a free society.  It had been asked before, of course, but never that I have seen in the martyr terms. 

Pivoting off both of these thoughts a bit, I am going to poke my minor nose into the debate with a question.  This is one for which I have no answer, at all.   It is a very specific, though not entirely far-fetched scenario involving my two favorite places, one which I think puts this fundamental question in very stark terms. 

If you know, very certainly (again, this is hypothetical), that AQAP was going to be able to bring down a plane in downtown Chicago, say crash it down State Street, killing many (thousands?), and knew the only way to stop it would be to invade Yemen, would you?  This invasion might not be as costly as Iraq or Afghanistan, but would certainly run in the tens of billions and lose many soldiers, and there would probably be no clear-cut victory.  I don't mean "let the attack happen" in a Truther sense; this is fiction.  I am also aware there is no alogrithm for "citizens' lives v. dollars spent".  I chose Chicago because I live here, with loved ones, any one of whom (myself included) could be downtown at any given moment.   So these are the things that you have to think about: potential personal loss as measured against what your country can afford; what you personally can endure versus the traumatic shock of another major attack, weighed against the divisions yet another war would bring to our society.  And, perhaps, the life of your cousin spending the day at Macy's against the life of an anonymous soldier, bleeding out in an impossible land.

I don't have any answers, but this is something that, between the Yemen stuff, and my budding mayoral campaign, that I want to explore.   Any thoughts are always welcome.

Religion v. RELIGION!!!

In the comments below, reader Jim sends a link to a Saba Net article about President Salih using a Quran Memorization competition- which is more exciting than any NFL game or comic book- to attempt to create a cleavage between moderate and radical Islam.

He wondered saying: "These extremist terrorist elements who kill the forbidden self, where they are from the tolerant teachings of Islam?", he added "Their terrorist and criminal acts forbidden by law and Islam only hurt the interests of the nation".

"Islam is a religion of love, brotherhood and compassion, and Islam had never taught terrorism and banditry, but it forbade these bad acts", President Saleh noted.

He urged the scholars and preachers as well as all citizens to take responsibility as well as the state agencies to counter the deviant thoughts of that perverse group and to thwart its terrorist plans.

Jim notes: "This forms part of what is a clear campaign by the government to promote moderate Islam, targeted at the youth. Western media may not pick this up but in conjunction with a military strategy it forms an essential part of the overall campaign plan as proven in other Middle Eastern countries."   I think he is right, and if this works it is an important step.  Nasser Arrabyee also noted a similar tactic, with Salih urging clerics to speak out against extremism.  This is different than the al-Hitar meetings, where the famed cleric tried to convince militants the error of their ways.  This seems to be something broader, intending to start before people get to the blowing-up stage of development. 

Of course, in publicly declaring he wants clerics to do this, Salih threatens to undermine them.  If someone is leaning toward the AQAP narrative, then the clerics following Salih are merely his lackeys, which makes them under-puppets of the United States.  Or maybe second-degree lapdogs.  I can't decide which I dislike least. This is somewhat similar to the criticism directed at al-Azhar in Cairo, which is easily painted as a tool of the regime's sleepy authoritarianism.   Indeed, even if one isn't leaning AQAP-ward, for many, if not a huge majority, the government lacks legitimacy.   It is troubling to think that moderate clerics could get tied up with the crumbling government of Salih.

But I am not saying that this shouldn't be done; it is vitally important.  It just shows, for probably the thousandth time, how difficult things are in Yemen.  Some form of central control is vital to containing AQAP, but it is that very central control that helps Qaeda thrive.   A good example of this difficulty can be read in this AP article from a few days ago (for some reason I'll link to the one in the New York Post, because why not?).   The article can pass without comment, as it does an excellent job of showing the difficult tangles in our "action without footprints" policy. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Some Dumb Guy

So Pastor Terry Jones, of the weirdly-named Dove World Outreach Church, is going ahead with his plan to host International Burn a Koran Day, which may or may not also feature bobbing for apples.  Fun for the whole family, if you are a family of assholes.   He is going ahead with this despite General Petraeus specifically calling him out, saying it would endanger the troops, which seems pretty indisputable. 

                                                     (Not the Terry Jones from Monty Python)

Strangely, he makes a good point, saying "'We think it's time to turn the tables, and instead of possibly blaming us for what could happen, we put the blame where it belongs — on the people who would do it.'"  There is an element of truth to that- we very rarely say that the people who are rioting over a damn cartoon have responsibility.   It is both misleading and insulting; it takes away agency from people, as if they are children incapable of doing anything other than responding to stimulus.

However, there is a big difference.  This is intentionally enraging people in order to draw attention to yourself.  Of course he has the right to do this (though I don't know if it qualifies as incitement), and should go ahead.  But burning things to make an angry point seems more like something done by those you are protesting.  It is also a little strange that everyone is debating whether or not he should be burning the Quran, instead of saying "this fucking guy wants to burn books."   It is amazing how many steps backward we keep taking, and insane that I am nostalgic for the more pastoral and tolerant right wing of the George Bush era.

Incidentally, props to the Washington Post for being the only publication (that I've seen, though I didn't go very deep) to say they will most likely be burning translations of the Quran.  In Islam, if it isn't in Arabic it isn't the real book, just a shadow thereof.   Of course, there is nothing inherently godly about Arabic, so it is all the same to me, but at least the WaPo knew what they were talking about.  

A few links

Don't have much time for analysis today, so here are a few links of interest. 

Here's a story about massive protests over power cuts.  Violence is sexy and draws the headlines, but in a faltering state with deep mistrust- often outright hatred- of the government, annoyances throughout daily life can explode.  It reminds me of a part in the great biography of the old Mayor Daley and his Chicago, Boss, by the inimitable Mike Royko (and he is inimitable, so stop freaking trying, John Kass), about the 1967 riots.  The proximate cause was the fire department closing hydrants on the west side, to save water, while white kids in the north were allowed to frolic at their leisure.  This was the last straw, and huge swaths of the city burned.  Daley, who thought everything could be fixed with projects and buildings, quickly trucked in pools and let the hydrants flow and built swimming structures.  As Royko said, if Chicago didn't have the happiest blacks, it "at least had the wettest ones."  This of course ignored the underpinnings of discontent.   It is a difficult dance- daily grievances exacerbate discontent, but the roots don't go away with band-aid gestures.

Here are a couple of stories about AQAP, its evolving leadership, and stepped-up tactics by the Yemeni government.   AQAP is getting a deeper bench and growing stronger roots- indeed, it inspires any number of hackneyed and mixed metaphors. This just underscores the ultimate futility of relying solely or even largely on military methods.   Military and intelligence action is indispensable to avoid attacks in the short-term, but we'll be risk being stuck in that mode forever.   

Friday, September 3, 2010

Quick Programming Note for Labor Day Weekend

After two exhausting days blogging, I need a vacation.  That isn't true.  But I do have a camping trip this weekend.  If I am not blogging next week, it isn't because I quit again- it is because I was eaten by a bear.  Remember me as a hero.

Incidentally, does anyone else get a strange feeling when seeing commercials for Labor Day sales with stars and stripes exploding in the background?  I don't mean this in the same vein as how degrading it is that MLK Day and Memorial Day are excuses for mattress sales- though there is an element in there.  I guess I mean it more because it evokes a celebration of capitalism, which is not exactly the reason for the holiday.  And while I think that the progressive labor movement was, in fact, a celebration of our ideals, the scorn with which the Flag-Pin crowd holds for the progressive movement makes for an uncomfortable association while watching the commercials (by Flag Pin I don't mean anyone who wears one, or of course any patriot, but those who use mile-wide and inch-deep patriotism as a political cudgel). 

Of course, I suppose you could see those commercials as unintentional subversion of the aggressively patriotic message, but it is pretty clear they are unreflective and opportunistic.  "This is a holiday, and Memorial Day is a holiday, and we use fireworks and flags and Ronald McDonald raising the flag at Iwo Jima to sell things- let's do it for this one!"   It seems a little obtuse to make this another chest-thumping holiday when one party is clamoring to further their program of deregulation.  I don't know why this is bugging me.  I've been reading some Upton Sinclair lately- for no reason other than I happened to see them on a shelf.   I'm not a socialist, really.  Just a guy who gets annoyed by things.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

One more for today

The Atlantic has a piece on a new ceasefire in the north- a ceasefire about which, as always, this author is extremely optimistic.  Not bad, except for one little thing.

The Houthis are Shia Muslims, and the Yemeni government is Sunni. The government alleges that the Houthis are trying to overthrow the regime and implement Shia religious law. The Houthis have repeatedly denied this accusation, claiming they are defending their branch of Shia Islam - Zaydism - from a government they feel treats them like second class citizens because of their religious differences.    
To quote from Harun al-Amriki's excellent Yemen Twitter feed: "Inaccurate to portray Yemeni govt as Sunni. Saleh is Zaydi just not Hashemi."  Indeed- the divisions are not cut-and-dried.  This doesn't fit the normal Sunni-Shi'ite clash we like to read about.   And the Houthis are not treated like second-class citizens just because of their religion- it has historical roots in the Imamate and the Civil War.  Of course these have religious roots (among other factors), but things are a lot more complicated than we like to believe.


The big US-Yemen story of the day, of course, is the Journal's piece about pumping military aid into Yemen. 

WASHINGTON—The U.S. military's Central Command has proposed pumping as much as $1.2 billion over five years into building up Yemen's security forces, a major investment in a shaky government, in a sign of Washington's fears of al Qaeda's growing foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.
The timing and the final funding amount will depend on how supporters of the effort overcome resistance from some officials at the State Department and the Pentagon, who have doubts about Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the ability of his government, seen by many as corrupt, to effectively use a flood of American-taxpayer money.

"Seen by many" is journalistic lingo for "is".

This seems on the face to be exactly what many are warning against- pumping in a flood of money to enhance the security services while leaving the massive underpinning structural issues untouched.  Non-military aid, promised with a heap of pronouncements this year, has been terribly slow, and essential food supplies are, at best, trickling in.  There is also the fear- which is polite blogger lingo for "near goddamn certainty"- that the aid will be used for Salih's other wars in the north and the south, and send the country into further chaos.  

These are legitimate concerns and fears.  As has been hammered home nearly ad nauseum, mere military aid might staunch the bleeding, but won't save the patient.  It's like House- the treatment is worse than the disease! 

But the Journal article adds a little more nuance to that picture.

Special Operations teams run several rural development programs in Yemen's tribal areas.They are doing the type of work the State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Teams have done to understand local needs in regions of Iraq and Afghanistan, a congressional official said. Officials said the teams' aid role in Yemen has grown in part because of the U.S. Embassy's stricter travel restrictions for civilian employees. In some cases, USAID officers haven't been out to visit their projects in years.

This isn't laziness; Yemen is a dangerous place.  There is good that the military can do, where aid groups fear to tread.   This, then, is the frustrating paradox of nation-building policies- you can't build a well while being shot, and the shooting won't stop until there's a well.

What this really boils down to is a question to which no one has an answer, and really what no one wants to ask: is it worth billions of dollars and years of blood and treasure to protect, say, one or two planes of citizens, or even a few thousand?   What we've learned over the last decade is what should have always been obvious: America doesn't have infinite power and resources; all wars have to be paid for.  So do you bog yourself down in yet another maddening country to stop a threat which, in the end, shouldn't prove to be existential?   Instinctively, you say yes- lives are worth it.  I know that is my gut.  But what I want to do in over the next couple of weeks is explore that question a little more in-depth.   Any insights or suggested readings are welcomed. 

Case in Point?

Fawaz Gerges has a mostly fine article about "Yemen's Summer of Discontent" (although you would have to believe that it was only this summer that AQAP's tactics shifted to "all-out war against what it called the “tyrant” Saleh government and its soldiers “who terrorize Muslims, support the crusade against our country, and are the first line of American defense in Yemen.”"  This is: not new.)   However, in that mostly fine article, he lays down this, in direct contravention to what I said yesterday.  It is like he didn't even read the blog.

In particular, Anwar Al-Awlaki—the Yemeni-American cleric the Obama administration designated in April as a legitimate target for assassination—provides AQAP members with theological, ideological and operational guidance.

This seems a pretty gross exaggeration, if not outright distortion, of what al-Awlaki does.  But this is, of course, the conventional wisdom.  I usually rebel against that, but maybe I am off my game.  So here's a question to readers or to bloggers: am I way behind the curve on al-Awlaki?   I kind of worry I underestimate his threat maybe as much as others over-estimate it.  Thoughts?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


If one man has dominated jihadi discussions this summer- at least in the popular press- it was been Anwaw al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American demogogue who was the motivating force behind the Ft. Hood shooting, and Christmas attack, and the Times Square bombing.   He has been routinely depicted as the next bin Laden and the most dangerous man in al-Qaeda.  This has been much to my consternation and bewilderment.  In AQAP, at least until recently, he has been pretty far down the totem pole- there are many people who are better strategists and more skilled at propaganda.   This is also just opinion, but I find "inspiration" to be somewhat nebulous and emphemeral- those who can plan attacks and organize men are far more dangerous.  To be really, really crude, he is also just 1-for-3 right now in terms of success. 

Of course, no one can say that he isn't important.  He is excellent at reaching out to the disaffected, especially in Western countries.  And in this summer of anger, where Islam-bashing has far exceeded the aftermath of 9/11, when cynics and bloviating bigots dominate the conversation, there is room for another famous demagogue to speak to a different kind of rage. 

And that sort of encapsulates the man's frustrating danger- we have helped to make him a far more important player then he was before.  His fame completely outstrips his accomplishments, like any reality-show dimwit.  Putting a cross-hair on his unassuming head catapulted him up the jihadi ranks to the point where he is almost as important as we all pretended he was.  He is the Paris Hilton of jihadis- someone who shouldn't be, but is now an inescapable fact in our lives.

My take on this is that the shrewd operators who are the real masterminds behind AQAP are content to let him take credit (and possible drone strikes).  They can continue their long-term goals and step up their attacks in the shadow of someone less-accomplished.   While we have built him up, we have also let our real enemies grow more dangerous.   Our government and media have been swatting a fly while ignoring dragons.  We've created a fully post-modern terrorist. 

Getting the band back together

Well, not the whole band.  Just me, really.  It has been a strange summer with other things, uneventful and prosaic (like, having a job) occupying my mental space.   So, I'll try to get this back up now and see if anyone is still interested in reading.   It is a bit like starting over, of course.  So it goes.   We'll have a new post up shortly.