"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Inspire Roundup and a Slight Disagreement

Good reviews of Inspire at Jihadica, Selected Wisdom, Internet Haganah, and Jarrett Brachman.  Most seem to be on roughly the same page as me (or rather I'm on their page)- this is pretty childish and not worth getting all worked up over. 

Thomas Hegghammer makes this excellent point: "He (Samir Khan) must have some kind of communication link with the AQAP organization, because the magazine includes pictures from the field and interviews with AQAP members. At the same time, Inspire contains less original material than AQAP’s Arabic-language magazine Sada al-Malahim, which suggests he is further removed from the organization than his colleagues over at Sada al-Malahim."  

Here is Clint Watts making a good point, but it is one where I have a very slight disagreement.

Khan’s strategy provides a diluted strategic vision for AQAP and AQ as a whole.  I imagine Abu Musab al-Suri, AQ’s noteworthy strategist, would be extremely frustrated by such a weak plan of action.  Shooting sprees and mowing down of pedestrians on crowded streets; these are not the attacks of strategic vision.  Khan’s suggested strategy is more similar to the approach of anarchist groups.  Khan’s “get your jihad on at home” approach:
1) points to no apparent strategic goal; how would this support the formation of a caliphate, promote Islamic law, deface a symbolic American target, or weaken the U.S.?

He's absolutely right; this is kiddie-terrorism, disgruntled mailman nonsense.  I went over that in the last post (which while perhaps not as erudite as those above, has more gratuitous swearing).  Where I slightly diverge is that there is a bit of a strategic goal here for AQAP, or at the very least an ancillary benefit.  Samir Khan is nothing to the leadership, if he got taken out by a drone or (more likely) shot himself in the face while posing in a tough-guy picture, they wouldn't miss a beat.  As Thomas pointed out, there is little direct contact.  But what the hell- he doesn't cost a lot, if anything, and if someone in America takes out an intersection or mows down a Pier 1 while shouting in Arabic, there will be breathless media hype.  AQAP is still consistently establishing their bona-fides, and if America can go nuts over something that cost them nothing it furthers their goal as appearing to traveling jihadis as the primary Qaeda group.

Yes, a lot of this will be the fault of an instant-react media and what Clint terms "ePundits".  Would that I could make them stop reacting to nonsense- but that isn't going to happen.   Overall, broadly, these attacks wouldn't do anything.  Their impact would only be based on our reaction.  But our reaction will be disproportionate.  And for an AQAP that is looking to form an army, continuing to have their name out there is a victory.  

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Super-Lawnmower Death Cars and the Banal Petulance Of American Jihadis

So the new Inspire is out (Aaron has it easily accessed at Jihadology), and the biggest story that seems to be coming out of it is of the American jihadi Samir Khan, who seems to be more important to the magazine than even Anwar al-Awlaki.  Most stories I have seen focus on him, and how he escaped the FBI and was able to travel easily to Yemen even though he had been writing about jihad for some time.  I agree that it is a failure, and one for which people need to be held to account, even though I have a feeling he is inflating his own derring-do.

What I want to focus own though is not how he did it, but who is is, and do so by looking at his writing and the magazine.  There is no doubt that the magazine is technically sophisticated and shiny and an appealing, easy read.  There are a lot of exciting pictures of explosions and short articles and little nuggets of infotainment*, which can suck in an internet-addled mind.  I think that is the point of this: despite its sophistication, it is childish and patronizing and seductive to people who desire to be told what to think. 

There is a little picture, for example, of President Obama, clipped and ragged to look like it was cut out of a magazine, with a quote by him saying "Our enemies are al-Qaeda who are trying to kill us but who have killed more Muslims than just about anybody on earth", followed by a parenthetical comment that he is "(speaking as if America hasn't killed more than a million Muslims in Iraq (before the invasion) and don't have blood on their hands from Afghanistan, Palestine, Sudan and elsewhere.)"  Underneath that, looking like it was tacked on, in what looks to be like a psuedo-Arabic comic font, is the addition of "JUST RIDICULOUS!"   The whole page smacks of a combination of office bulletin board and irritating, shrill political blog. 

This is the point, though- it isn't for sophisticated jihadists, or even for people with particularily well-developed minds.  They aren't the potential recruits in America or the West.  The recruits are people who are bored, pathetic, juvenile, and lonely.  The kind of people who watch Fight Club and see themselves in it, desperate for some excitement.  They blame society for rejecting them, and take their outsider status as proof of greatness, even though they generally lack any ability or inspiration that creates real, artistic or political outcasts.  

You can see this pretty clearly in Khan's writing.  There is a lot of inflated self-importance mixed with classic teenage-like, petty-reactionary bullshit.  There is a railing against people who work 9-5 jobs, who define themselves by what they buy or what they do.  There is a pervasive feeling of "I'm better than you", which you can find in all sorts of unformed and scared minds, whether they take solace in Atlas Shrugged or On the Road (though the people who take only that message from On the Road are reading it wrong- as I did the first time, and as millions do.  Khan's take is Kerouak as read by Qutb).   I understand the appeal of this kind of thinking.  I was 17 once as well.  We live in strange times, and people want to latch onto something. 

There is an easy correlation between these thoughts and violence.  The desperate mind looks to violence as a way of making yourself greater and finally shaking off the shackles imposed on you by the norms and the Rotary Club and all those fucking jocks.  I'm going to quote some of Khan's writing, which I think goes a long way of showing the child-like infatuation with violence that is inherent in most radicals, and particularly jihadis.  

I am acutely aware that body parts have to be torn apart, skulls have to be crushed, and blood has to be spilled in order for this (a caliphate) to be a reality.  Anyone who says otherwise is not prepared to make sacrifices that heroes and champions make.  

One has to say: come on.  Skulls have to be crushed?  This is not a serious person, but rather one with deep-seated issues and a desire to be remembered no matter what.  Heroes and champions?  Please.  Throughout the article he uses the a language mashed-up from comic books and revolutionary tracts, with talk of blood-suckers and parasites and the glory of violence.  Of course these people are dangerous, but they are not super-terrorists. 

This is also illustrated in what has been a much-discussed section of Inspire, the Open-Source Jihad, which gives tips to people in America who want to act on their own.  The tip this issue?  I wish I was joking when I said it was for "The Ultimate Mowing Machine".  The picture is of a huge Ford pickup roaring through a storm, awesomely lit by lightning and looking for the world like it is just going to burst through your screen and drink your beer and take your woman, you Vespa-riding pansy.  I am willing to bet it was taken directly from Ford- death to America, indeed.

Anyway, the tip is to attach some kind of blades to the front and just plow right the fuck into a crowd of people, mowing them down.  No doubt this would be scary if someone could get it to work.  But come on: this isn't how to sneak plutonium in though Canada.  This is something a 9th-grader doodles while thinking about gym class.   This is just stupid violence-porn, the kind of thing that Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris might dream up.  It is sick and twisted and simple enough to work, maybe (I don't know how exactly, but then I feel a sense of pride when successfully changing a tire, so what the hell do I know?).  But we really can't afford to spend too much time worrying about al-Awlaki or Khan or Inspire helping people bring us down from the inside.  Fighters and real jihadists are far more worrisome than the sugar-high ravings of outcasts.  Just give them some time and they'll find out about The Doors, and their minds will be open, man. 

(Note: there is of course a real threat, particularly from disaffected Muslims, especially in this strange time of Muslim-baiting by the right, but for terrorism to work you have to be terrified, and Inspire is more ridiculous than anything.) 

*It is strange to me that spell-check accepts "infotainment" but rejects "derring-do".  There is a broader point here, but it mostly makes me sad as an old-timey kind of guy.

Aden-Abyan Army

In his tape, Qasim al-Raymi announced the formation of an "Aden-Abyan Army" to directly fight against the government.  This will remind Yemen-watchers of the old-school Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, or the AAIA, in English shorthand.  I suppose, for a strategist like al-Raymi, there is no "I" in "Aden-Abyan Army." 

I really apologize for that, and will now get to the important part of this.

Announcing the formation of an army is a lot different than having one, of course.  But AQAP has never been much for idle threats or cheap bluster.  A question that a lot of people might have is: how is this any different than what they had?  The answer, glibly, is this: an army consists of foot-soldiers who have more talents than merely exploding. 

Here is a good quick read on this phenomenon- a post by Clint Watts over at Selected Wisdom called "Foreign Fighter Terrorism: Worry More About 'Fighters' Than 'Martyrs'".  Basically, when people move over to al-Qaeda, they are asked if they want to be fighters or martyrs- martyrs are going to do suicide-bombings, for fighters, however, "the message morphs to something more complicated: “I’ll fight the infidel, but if I survive, I’ll probably head home or to another safe haven and ultimately fight again somewhere else.” While ‘Martyr’ recruits are tactically devastating, ‘Fighter’ recruits have far greater strategic impact.  Only poor performing ‘Martyr’ recruits survive the battlefield but high performing ‘Fighter’ recruits are more likely to head back home (equipped with skills and combat experience) and become the thread for future jihadi campaigns at home or in the West."   Clint also points out that, in the Sinjar records, Yemenis were behind only Algerians in choosing fighter over martyr- a full 61% choose to do something more long-term than strapping a bomb to their chest.

With this possible new army in Yemen, you have some of the fruits of fighterdom and the roots for other battles.  Yemen will increasingly have a foreign fighter problem, and these people can be trained and dispersed.  But you also have an immediate problem.  It isn't well-known, because suicide bombings make for a more exciting newscast, and grasp our attention with an almost alien violence, but actual fighting forces have been a larger part of Qaeda's goal, particularly in Afghanistan, where in the 90s they helped the Taliban fight against the Northern Alliance.  And while it is true that it was a martyr who killed Ahamd Shah Masood, the Qaeda fighting forces kept him forever on his toes.  An army can continue to apply concerted pressure in tandem with the horrifying and random shocks of the martyrs. 

This would make sense for AQAP to do- a two-pronged attack inside Yemen while still putting their message out to the English-speaking world and hoping to inspire more lone-wolf attacks (incidentally, I am working on my thoughts on the new Inspire, and will get to them after lunch).   This continues to show that AQAP is able to take lessons from jihadi venues all over the world and integrate them into Yemen.  It would be a nice to have dumb as they are barbaric, but in Yemen we don't have that luxury.

Anniversaries and Justice

Anniversaries don't mean too much to me, at least analytically.  We have a tendency to grasp at round numbers, imbuing them with a significance they don't really possess.  There is an emotional importance to them, of course- and I am an emotional guy- but we always tend to put meaning on certain days, and get excited in the lead-up to them, and then ignore any lessons the day after.  After all, there is no longer a definite magic to a ten-year, two-day memory. 

I bring this up because, as you know, today is the 10-year mark of the attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden, a major early blow by al-Qaeda.  Today is good to remember those who were killed, to honor their memory, and to stand in humble awe at their sacrifice.  Before that day, we didn't really know we were at war, and it wasn't until almost a year later that we as a nation really grasped that.  After all, there was an intense and annoying election coming up.  In popular memory, the tumult of the last decade started with the Florida debacle, but the roots of the waste can be tracked back to those beautiful, then red-tided waters.

There is both good and bad in the emotion of an anniversary.  There is a clarification of time, and in this case it provides an outlet for sick horror and shock at the idea of a decade going by without the instigators of this massacre being brought to justice.  This is the thrust of former FBI agent Ali Soufan's NYTimes editorial today, "Closing the Case on the Cole".  In this wretched decade, Soufan was consistently one of the good guys, maybe one of the heroes.  His investigation of the Cole attack, his doggedness in chasing actual justice, and his courageous stance against torture make him a figure to admire.   Soufan points out the Yemeni idea of justice, and then has some ideas of what we should do with Yemen.

For example, Fahd al-Quso, who had confessed to his role in the Cole attack and was sent to prison, is now out; earlier this year he gave press interviews and was featured in a Qaeda video threatening the United States. Jamal al-Badawi, who confessed to being Mr. Quso’s boss and received a death sentence, has gone through a cycle of “escaping” from prison, receiving clemency and allegedly being rearrested. (blogger's note: there is controversy about Qusa's whereabouts and his status among the living; Greg continues to look at it over at Waq al-Waq.)
Meanwhile, the security situation in Yemen has deteriorated. Freed operatives and the availability of safe havens arguably make Yemen an even better base for Al Qaeda than Afghanistan or Pakistan, as does the fact that the government is distracted by a rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Not surprisingly, Al Qaeda’s Saudi branch recently moved to Yemen and merged with the local faction to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In response, Washington is considering increasing military aid to Yemen, to as much as $1.2 billion over six years, up from $155 million in 2010. But it should do so only if it wins from Yemen a guarantee that it will be consistent in its fight against Al Qaeda.
An important test of that commitment should be how Yemen responds to a long-overdue request that Mr. Badawi and Mr. Quso be handed over to American officials to be properly prosecuted. Extraditing the two men would also help with another problem connected to the Cole attack: the case against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the plot’s alleged mastermind, who has been in American custody for almost eight years.
It is at the end that I begin to (very respectfully) disagree, though I don't feel particularly good doing so.  Ignoring that al-Qusa may not be in Yemen, or even be alive, extradition might not be the best way to help with Yemen's stability.   If these men aren't exactly heroes, they have protection, and their protection is something Salih can't afford to mess with, nor to tamper with any deals he might have made (although it is clear one way or the other that al-Qusa is still involved with jihad).

As this blog has irritatingly, and others have more eloquently, argued, so much in Yemen is negotiation.  It is frustrating, but for people to be peeled off AQAP there needs to be an element of trust, and being turned over to the US would violate that trust.  Bad people need to be let go- provided there isn't recidivism- in order to convince other bad people to stop being terrorists.  It clearly isn't a fool-proof system, and it fails as often not, but 50% is still a better percentage than zero.   Even 5% is. 

So then the question is: which is more important: justice?  Or victory?  I would love to see these men in jail, sitting idly in a federal supermax for the rest of their stunted and brutal lives.  But forcing Salih to choose between appeasing the US and local needs will destroy even our tentative and unreliable relationship, and make it much harder to help produce a relatively good outcome in Yemen.  Of course, the odds of that outcome being good are small, so why sacrifice justice for that? 

I don't have an answer; even the question makes my head hurt.  But these are the questions we need to ask ourselves.  These wars, or this war, or this action, or whatever it is, do not allow for easy and comforting answers.  Right or wrong are silly and unrealistic options.  Ten years on, I don't think we've figured out the ugly truths of this struggle.  

Friday, October 8, 2010

FPRI Video

Here is video and audio (and both at the same time!) of Chris Boucek, Barak Salmoni and me at the FPRI conference last week.  I am linking to the Yemen panel (NSFW!), but you can navigate yourself around and watch the whole thing, if you have the time.  Or spread it out over a few days.  Make it a treat for yourself after a day well spent. 

Warning: I apparently say "um" about a million times more than I had thought. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Waq al-Waq

For those that didn't see, Greg blogged up a storm yesterday at Waq al-Waq- the little fella just can't stay away.  This included live-blogging the al-Hurra Open Hour that I was on.  Live-blogging isn't easy, and he did an admirable job.  The other two pieces are more noteworthy, but one I will talk about in another post, coming shortly.  Go to Waq al-Waq- Greg is just reminding us why we miss his blogging.   But, then, it is hard to get much computer time in a Federal Supermax, so we should be grateful for what we get.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

AQAP's Threat

Nasser Arrabyee reports US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns saying that, in Yemen, terrorism is "a real challenge".  This is correct, if pretty damn clear.  He didn't mean it as a revelation, but as a commitment, while still talking about the need for social and economic development.

In light of this, and especially with the backdrop of the attacks on British diplomats and a French worker for an Austrian oil and gas facility, I think it is important to highlight what the real threat, and real challenge of AQAP is. (Note: as of writing, it isn't confirmed that AQAP was behind either of these, but it bears their hallmarks, as we'll discuss.  And even if they didn't do these specific attacks, they've done plenty of others like them, so the point stands.)

AQAP cannot take over Yemen- I don't think they would even want to (would you?  I mean, really). We aren't looking at a potential Taliban situation here, where atavistic militants grab the wheel of state.  And, as has been argued here and elsewhere, they aren't Yemen's biggest problem- certainly the Southern Movement and possibly the Houthi rebellion pose a greater threat to Yemen's viability as even a semi-centralized state.  This is without mentioning the huge demographic, economic and ecological catastrophes which aren't so much looming as busy breaking down the gates.

I think you can best sum up AQAP as a "threat multiplier".  They are able to both take advantage of and exacerbate existing problems.  Dependent on tourist dollars?  Attack tourists.  Hoping to spur new investment in oil and gas?  Attack oil and gas facilities.  Chaos in the south?  Move operations there, forcing the government to attack, create more IDPs, and further alienate the population from San'a.  And, if the British government is taking the lead in providing aid and assistance, make it deeply uncomfortable for them to be there.

None of this is new, nor is any of this unusual for a terrorist group.  But I think it puts AQAP in context.  They have shown themselves to be masters of the kind of asymmetric warfare that is perfectly suited for Yemen.  I can't tell you if it would work elsewhere, or who might have been better than them, but I also don't really care (I mean, I would be interested, but when talking about Yemen it doesn't matter).  They are giving a plate-spinning government a constant sense of whiplash, and their ability to move and regroup ensures constant reaction instead of action.

This poses a serious challenge- only going after AQAP makes it impossible to tackle the other, more legitimately important issues, but not going after them allows space for further disruptions.  Nothing major, perhaps, but when you are as on the edge as Yemen, nothing is really minor.

Incidentally, I'll be on al-Hurra today from 4-5 EST discussing these things, if anyone is flipping through channels and decides I'm a lot more interesting than playoff baseball.   I would politely disagree.


Nasser is also reporting that the British government "would redouble its determination to help Yemen overcome its challenges after a British diplomat was slightly injured in a terrorist attack..."   So this might backfire on AQAP, but I would have to guess they are also going to redouble their efforts. 

Also, thanks to Haroun al-Amriki: Sabanet is saying the government has apprehended the shooter of the Frenchman, and that he is a security employee at OMV, the energy firm.  So who knows?  Might not have been AQAP; could have been just a dispute or something else (which is no comfort to the victim, obviously).  Regardless, AQAP does target oil and gas facilities, so the above points are no less kosher.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rare Pop Culture Post

This is indulgent. Over at the AVClub, Steven Hyden is beginning a new series on music in the 90s, and the rise and fall of the "alt-rock" era. I like it because he seems a lot like me- someone who liked music, but didn't closely follow it until that time, so when Nirvana came out it was a shot from out of the blue. These two paragraphs do an incredible job of capturing what that was like without over-stating the case. It is silly to say Nirvana changed the world; it isn't silly to say it changed the world for some individuals.
Nevermind probably would not have impacted me in quite the same way had I been aware of the context it came out of; had I been a little older and a fan of college radio, I’m sure it would’ve just been another record that I liked about as much as Bandwagonesque or Green Mind. But Nirvana was not a band I had to discover; it came right into my world, and discovered me. This is something Nirvana still doesn’t get enough credit for: Kurt Cobain turned himself into a radio star at a time when somebody like him becoming a radio star seemed unfathomable. So, yeah, it’s worth noting that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds like Pixies, and that “Come As You Are” is a direct lift from Killing Joke’s “Eighties.” But Pixies and Killing Joke never got played on the radio in places like Appleton. Nirvana did, and this fact alone makes that band more important than any of Cobain’s underground precursors, who only started to matter on a macro level because they were Nirvana reference points.

Awlaki Not to Be Extraditied From Yemen?

Foreign Minister Abu Bakq al-Qirbi seems to say so.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said that Yemen will not extradite the US Scholar from Yemeni origins Anwar al-Awlaqi to the United States. He affirmed that the scholar accused of links with al-Qaeda is now in the area where security forces are chasing al-Qada elements.
 This probably isn't going to go over very well, but Yemen has to play a dangerous game here- pleasing the US without alienating its own citizens, who still remember the kidnapping and trumped-up charges against Sheik Moyyad by the United States (for those who don't remember, the Sheik was arrested in Germany and brought to the US, where all accusations of helping Qaeda vanished.  He was eventually convicted of supporting Hamas, which is not a crime in Yemen.  Regardless of your feelings toward Hamas, this was bizarre and didn't present the US judicial system in a good light when it came to the GWOT.  Legally, it wasn't any different than if we sent a swat team into Ibb to capture a local qat dealer- because qat is so very, very bad).  The case against al-Awlaki is obviously a little more clean-cut, but when it comes to perception that doesn't matter.   The government handing him over to a haughty and arbitrary United States is just another way they can be painted as lackeys to America (and probably Israel, because why not?).

Sadly, I think we're in a bind.  We've trumped up this relative nobody to be the living, breathing embodiment of evil, the next Osama, a terrorist out of our nightmares, capable of riding into town wielding a sword made out of machine guns, or something.  Yemen's unwillingness to extradite will make it clear to anyone with an opinion that they are an unreliable partner playing a double game and bent on making AQAP happy. This isn't the case- whatever Salih;s opinions are about Qaeda as a whole, AQAP is his enemy. He wants to get them, I think, but can't further and needlessly provoke the citizenry just so Sean Hannity doesn't call Obama a coward.   Our breathless hype has made reconciling positions almost impossible.  When we look back on the Yemeni chapter of al-Qaeda's history I think the relentless overstatement of his importance will be the most baffling thing.  

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Our Man in Sana'a"

I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about Ellen Knickmeyer's piece in Foreign Policy, and you all know how much I hate to be remiss.  The article is about how President Salih is corrupt and mismanages the country.  This is: not a surprise, but it is good to know just who we are getting into bed with. 

I didn't have a problem with most of it, on the surface.  It is an insanely corrupt government, and that is just killing Yemen.  She does an excellent job of highlighting how corruption is destroying any chance of rebuilding an imploding infrastructure.  And there is no doubt that Salih has made some criminally bad decisions, and indecisions.

But there are some strange things going on, outside of factual errors (such as saying Salih led the 1962 coup- he fought on the side of the Republicans, but was decidedly not a leader).  For one thing, the decisions are presented outside of context.  This blog always argues, at the risk of being a bore, that long-term thinking almost always has to be sacrificed to the alter of the immediate.  This isn't good, but it also isn't terribly immoral- it is probably amoral.  Considerations of the day are key, and the chaos the create down the road will be dealt with down the road.  Obviously, this heightens the shuddering violence and instability of the country, but to present this as something unique to Salih is misleading. 

A good example of it is this:
When it comes to short-sightedness regarding Yemen's best interests, Saleh and his ruling family circle have demonstrated a near unerring propensity to err since he assumed the presidency in 1978, after leading a military coup in 1962. Since then, Saleh has built a power system based heavily on buying the goodwill of Yemen's tribal leaders, allegedly paying them to deliver the votes of their people in election after election.

There is the coup part in there, but that has been covered (and I do like the phrase "unerring propensity to err".).  It is the second sentence which weirds me out.  This is presented as if it is something that Salih does because he is corrupt, and because he cares more about power than governance, rather than an inevitable feature of ruling Yemen.  The tribes have always needed to be propitiated, and not just to get votes.  Assuming another president could avoid this is unrealistic.

What gets me in the conclusion.
But if Saleh continues to refuse and delay reforms, the United States and its allies should do something inconceivable in the can-do war on terror: back off and let Saleh feel the pain of his sucked-dry economy and thwarted people. Rather than trying to prop up another wobbly tyrant, as in Afghanistan, the United States would help most by allowing Yemen's citizens, and potentially better Yemeni leaders, to finally have a say.
This reminds me of one of my favorite lines in literature, the last line in The Sun Also Rises.  Brett wistfully and probably unrealistically says to Jake that they good have had such a damn good time together, to which he replies yes, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"   There is a devastating mix of romanticism, weariness, cynicism and a touch of hope in it.  But it never happened, it never was going to, and it being pretty is as far as the thought would go.

It is pretty to think that cutting back aid would allow a good government to spring into place, that backing off would do anything other than accelerate the chaos.  But it won't- there isn't anyone with a power base to really run Yemen, and that is how we are forced to think.  I am not saying that Yemenis inherently need a strongman or that Arabs just want someone to rule them or any of that claptrap, but that Yemen right now, with its hideous conditions, isn't able to transition from Salih to a competent bureaucrat with an efficient civil service humming beneath him.  A lot of this is Salih's fault; a lot of it is in the system.  No one wants to support him forever.  I'd love it if it were possible to replace him with someone better who could keep things together.  But we don't choose the countries we are involved in, and can't choose the conditions we find them in.  What we can choose is how to deal with them smartly and with long-term planning.  In the short-term we need Ali Abdullah.  We can't dreamily turn our back and wait until there is a more comfortable leader with whom to deal.  Our policy has to know this, but also to help ease into the next five, ten or twenty years.  Anything else is an exercise in feeling good at the expense of our security and those we are ostensibly helping.

As always, the policy of AJG is to allow the person I've needlessly attacked to respond, in full and unedited, with as many attacks at my learning, character or grooming as desired.  Ellen Knickmeyer, if by some chance you are reading this, please feel free to drop me a line and open a debate. 

Exciting Stories for Cool Kids!

That title seems more gripping than "A Few Links About Aid In The Arabian Peninsula".  I think it will also be the title of my forthcoming 1940s-style mystery serial.  Anyway.

The first link is from Nasser Arrabyee, about Germany providing some 110 million bones, US, to Yemen for aid projects such as water and other infrastructure needs.  This is good, of course.  It does, however, highlight a troubling trend, at least in the long-term: the perception that aid comes in two different ways- the US provides guns to the regime, and Europe provides what the people actually need.  This is balderdash, or maybe poppycock- the US is also providing hundreds of millions in direct aid.  But it is also giving over a billion in military aid, and has trumpeted that number far louder.   I understand there are domestic reasons for wanting to highlight the exploding side of aid rather than the weak and palsied "keeping people alive" side of it- that is one of the seemingly unavoidable stupidities in our political climate.  But the dangers of this barely need to be written.  If the only perceived US footprint is a boot- regardless of how accurate that is- we lose.  Maybe not in the short-term, but in the extremely medium term.   The US is the primary foreign target of jihadi rhetoric.  Even if there is a tacit agreement among the Friends of Yemen- we provide guns; you: butter- and even if the end result is the same, the story of the US propping up an apostate dictator to crush the little guy is a propaganda coup.  The US needs better PR on this.

A slightly more difficult question is the proposed $60 arms deal to Saudi Arabia.  This has been percolating for a while, but here is the briefest summary, from the CFR website.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have recently ordered U.S. weapons worth around $123 billion. The largest deal, if approved by Congress, would be a $60 billion package of U.S. arms for Saudi Arabia, including eighty-four new and seventy refurbished F-15 fighters, supplied largely by Boeing, as well as seventy Apache helicopters, seventy-two Black Hawks, and thirty-six Little Birds.

On the above link there is also a learned debate about the merits of such a sale, mostly revolving around whether it will provide a good counterbalance to Iran.  I don't feel qualified to weigh in on that question, so instead I'll talk about the potential impact on Yemen.  I know, weird twist, right?

The helicopters scare me.  The Sauds have never exactly been reluctant to interfere in Yemen, physically if needed.  This was shown again last year, when they foolishly enmeshed themselves in the Houthi war.  And what is the point of fancy new equipment if you can't use it?  I don't doubt the Saudis are very concerned with Iran, but it is a mistake to think that Yemen is an afterthought for them.  The odds of new, well-publicized US arms being used in Yemen are pretty short.  I'd take that bet in a heartbeat. 

And then what?  Well, nothing unites Yemenis like Saudi interference.  Even those who were on the side of the government liked seeing the overbearing older brother get their nose bloodied in Sa'dah.  It is another great marketing gimmick for AQAP and for the Houthis- the US is selling arms to two corrupt governments in order to crush you.   Even if we discount the propaganda bonus, Saudi involvement further complicates an impossible situation in the north- our goal is to keep Yemen from falling apart, not speed that up.  Of course we're going to sell arms to the Saudis, but we also really need to keep an eye on how they are used.