"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Monday, November 29, 2010

AQAP v Huthi: This time, its personal

This might be a largely reactive day or two on the blog- I am waiting for Greg to release his rebuttal to Thomas Hegghammer's answer to the al-Awlaki debate.   I am not sure if I'll have anything interesting to add to it.  I know- since when has that stopped me?  Right now I am enjoying two top analysts duking it out.   Clint has also been doing excellent work on this over at Selected Wisdom.   This is much better than the old days, when we basically only had Jane Novak to argue with.

As for the probable AQAP attack on the Huthis, Will at the Yemen Peace Project has the statement and some good analysis.   I think he is right when he says that this probably isn't going to play particularly well among Yemenis.   As has been mentioned, there isn't exactly a deep theological divide between Zaydi Shi'ism and Sunni philosophy.  The difference is largely political, though it has been wrapped with more of a schismatic cloth in the war years- but that is still just the wrapping.  

I'm not sure if this attack is a push for more volunteers or a reaction to their arrival.  Foreign fighters generally don't have much respect for the lay of the land, and can push movements in more extreme directions.  After all, I didn't bust my hump across the Eurasian wilds just to take out some damned police officer.  That is for chumps and local teens.  Let's go after the real apostates.  It could also be a combination of the two, of course.

It is also possible that the attack is a result of a steeply-increasing sense of destiny.  AQAP hasn't been flawless, but it is human nature to look back on success with the feeling of inevitability- especially if you've convinced yourself you have a divine mandate.  This would be out of character for AQAP, where caution has been the rule, but it wouldn't be totally out of character for any successful revolutionary group.  You begin to believe your own clippings.   I am not yet ready to say this is probably the case; this is the smallest possible sample-size to analyze.

The most clever thing about this attack is how it undercuts propaganda.  What the hell is Salih going to say?  Stop attacking innocent Huthis?  Even US condemnation rings hollow; we haven't lifted a finger to stop scorched earth.   There is an opportunity here to slide into the role of honest broker, but it is a very small window and would require a lot more nuance than our strategy has provided.   I don't doubt all of this crossed the mind of the leadership, if not before the attack than shortly thereafter (they are excellent retroactive propagandists), but I still think this might be a case of bloody over-reach, the kind they have heretofore avoided.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Very quick thoughts on al-Jawf

I am traveling for the holiday and stealing a few minutes on a computer.  Basically, I feel that if the attack in al-Jawf is indeed the work of AQAP- and frankly, it might be; I haven't had time to do anything, so I apologize if this is outdated- this marks a very new and dangerous but morbidly positive step.  For years we've been arguing that AQAP has managed to avoid the schismatic violence that has marked much of Qaeda's existence.  In doing so, they have avoided the kind of backlash you saw in Iraq.  If this was them, then there are a couple of possible reasons.

1- They are increasingly emboldened, and feel that they can expand their circle of enemies.  Fight the government, fight the West, now they can take on more ancient and dogmatic enemies- Shi'ites (even though Zaydi's aren't anything close to Twelvers).

2- Command and control is splintering.  This doesn't have the hallmark of the low-risk/high-reward mentality we've seen heretofore.  This could have wild and unpredictable, splintering consequences.  It is possible that newer recruits have un-Yemeni ideas of how to do things, and are more aggressive and less patient.

(Of course, it is in AQAP's interest to create more chaos in the country, so it could be argued that this is a smart move, but it seems to go against their norm.)

Both of these could open up a scary chapter, but a less-disciplined, less-patient AQAP is one that isn't as scary in the long run.  Who knows?  AQAP showed a terrifying learning curve; maybe their decline will be just as steep.  It is way too early to tell, of course- this is all just idle speculation, fueld by three straight Thanksgiving dinners at three different places, with one more to go.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Clint had a good little post late last week about AQIM stepping up their attacks.  He asks if AQAP and AQIM are coordinating their efforts or if they are essentially in competition with each other.  I tend to think it is the latter, and agree with Clint that it will make them even more dangerous.  Ambition mixed with need is a dangerous cocktail, and they both need top talent.  I tend to think that if there is a competition, AQAP will come out ahead, but that could be a product of my bias and the fact that no one ever pays me to talk about AQIM- and rightfully so, for that matter.  It seems like they are getting better and more organized, but if I recall correctly a few years ago there were disputes over local matters vs broader regional goals, and this led to some fracturing.  This is inevitable in any terrorist organization- or any organization, I imagine- but the multi-national nature of AQIM led to even more tension.   While AQAP is a two-state operation, they have more a surety of purpose.  This might be changing with AQIM, but due to that I would imagine AQAP has more staying power.

Of course, I also think that the attraction of talent will make the group harder to control, as ambitious and war-ready jihadis might question why there aren't more attacks and why, exactly, it is important to kill this police officer or that one, and why they aren't putting bombs in markets, etc.  If AQAP loses some control, that might help turn the population against them.  At a terrible price, of course, which is why as Greg argues we need to start a propaganda war now. 

OK, I missed something

Page 13 of Inspire has a huge picture of President Salih scratching his head.  The caption above reads "What Should Ali Abdullah Salih Do About His Failed State?"  Then, underneath the picture, it says, "Yeah, Keep Scratching Your Head".   This is awesome enough, until the bottom, in very small font, which says "This ad brought to you by A Cold Diss."  This, reader, is enough to keep me happy for the rest of the week.  I can't begin to tell you how deliriously excited I was to see that.  A cold diss, indeed.  This is appealing straight to the potential American recruit who isn't sure where the Quran stands on saying "aw snap!" because it is no longer 1997.  Rest assured- a cold diss earns the disser even more virgins.

Operation: Hemorrhage

That is what AQAP has titled their new wave of assaults, as told by the latest issue of Inspire, everyone's favorite magazine.  (It was also the name of my prom.  Ba-dum ching!) The issue is a gloating one, somewhat hastily thrown together, and based entirely on what they call the success of the cargo bomb plots.  It goes into somewhat remarkable detail on how the bombs came together and on how they managed to avoid security, while also taking credit for the Sept. 3rd downing of a UPS plane.  It mostly avoids the cartoonish absurdity of the last issue, though it does devote a couple of pages to a fake bulletin board with quotes "from friend and foe."  AJG friend and Yemen expert Chris Boucek made the cut, with a quote and picture.  Chris, I imagine this is a highlight.  There is also a section of rhyming couplets called "Leverage", which seems to be mostly culled from Inspiration posters- "Shooting high for the skies/is greater than living a life of lies", except for the one in the middle about Israeli massacres and American crimes, which actually might be Ezra Pound.

But the silly stuff isn't what I want to talk about here.  I think it is rare that a terrorist group not only exactly divines, but also trumpets, exactly how they can hurt us.  There is some throat-clearing about how maybe there will be another 9/11, but the name itself implies knowledge of our security hysteria.  For a very, very small cost they have managed to send us into a tizzy, costing us billions and furthering their stature.  Our outrage has propelled them into the center-stage of jihad, which will help them in their near-term goals of getting rid of Salih and then beginning to work on the Saudi royals (I don't think the latter is realistic, but the attempt to get there could be painful and bloody).

Our greatest weakness is over-reacting; we seem to think that nothing should go wrong ever.  Any time AQAP, or any AQ branch, manages something, there is breathless round-the-clock fear-mongering, with fiery exhortations about whose head should roll.  Terrorism and counter-terrorism are often just tools in the political horse-race, with both parties climbing over each other to prove who is more serious (though, in an attempt not to be David Broder, the claim of "weak on terrorism" is an almost exclusively Republican tactic, but the Dems match that by trying to be overly muscular).

It is somewhat disconcerting to think how much AQAP understands the American mentality, although it isn't exactly hard to divine.  For every action, recently anyway, there is a wildly disproportionate reaction.  It is decent of them, though, to give us a backward blueprint outlining exactly what we should do.  On their own, AQAP can't hemorrhage us.  They can feint and strike and have mild, even strong, successes.  But while it seems like they are puppeting us, it is possible to cut the strings.  The triumphant tone of this Inspire is a little hyperbolic, and with an air of protesting too much, it is a difference of degree, not type.


There was also a line in there about how this is a war of information and technology.  It would be nice if the political class had as much understanding about the battle we are in as our enemies do.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Some Op-Ed

So, Greg has an editorial in the New York Times this morning arguing the case against our relentless and idiotic focus on Anwar al-Awlaki.  Most regular readers of this blog and Waq al-Waq already know this- hopefully Greg's editorial will shift the conversation, so that we don't waste time on resources on this mid-level nothing.  Of course, then we won't get to act so smug, but I suppose that is an ok price to pay.

On a personal note, I know Greg doesn't want to engage in a lot of horn-tootery, so it is up to me.  I've known Greg for 10, almost 11 years, since our AUC days.  Throughout the years we've talked about what would be one of the coolest, most exciting thing, and "an article in the Times" was always one of them.  I can't begin to say how proud I am of Greg, and how, as cool as it is to see his name in that by-line, there is also a sense of justice.  Greg is one of the very best analysts out there, in any field- his dedication and knowledge are matched only by his willingness to fully explore an idea, rather than cling dogmatically to anything.  This is a rare trait.  In terms of Yemen he is unmatched, and I am constantly in awe.  It is good for everyone involved that his voice is out there. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Long Run (eventually a Yemen post, so be patient)

A week or so ago I was at the library and was thinking how I didn't really know much at all about American expansion into the west- the outlines, sure, and I was a big fan of John Wayne movies, but I know vanishingly little about the details.  So I grabbed a couple of books more or less at random- thinking I can go for big and broad to start with, and if this obsession lasts beyond a couple of weeks then dig deeper.  The books I grabbed were Into The West by Walter Nugent (which is not the basis for the Spielberg mini-series) and Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides (which is not Blood And Thunder, the "all-girls roller-derby magazine", though I know you all thought it was.) 

I've read through Into the West and just started Blood and Thunder last night.  Into the West was amazing- it sort of disdained the so-called "heroic era" of cowboys and injuns, cattle drives and gunfights, rootin and tootin.  Instead, it focused some 500 years of European conquest and population displacement- looking at the big picture of migration, habitation, irrigation and farming.  It talked about the cities that were growing even as the west was "still being won."  (In something that blew my mind, he mentioned that the University of California had been having classes for ten years before the Shootout at OK Corral).  Mostly, though, it is the story of people- how they changed the land, how the land changed them, how generations of different cultures met and adjusted and created reality.  It showed how the world works outside of myths- even while showing the role that myths play.

Blood and Thunder seems a little different- it looks like it is tracing the "heroic era" through the story of Kit Carson.  I'm enjoying it, and it is an important story, but strikes me as one of those books that focuses obsessively on a little thing that might make a good story but doesn't reveal much of the whole- in this case, a short time frame and a relatively narrow geographical space (if the book doesn't turn out this way, I apologize, but you all know the kind of book I am talking about).  Of course, the Indian Wars were hugely important (morally neutral statement), but they were a small slice of what we really mean when talking about the story of the west.

I was thinking about this when reading this Reuters story, linked to through Nasser Arrabyee's blog.

As men and women pick corn and roll up the withered stalks in the fields of their tiny village near Sanaa, Humeid al-Masajidi says goodbye to a way of life his family will abandon forever.

"Starting next year there won't be any farmland here. This is the last time this land will be harvested. We've all sold the land," the 35-year-old farmer said, pointing to the fields around the village of Beit al-Masajidi, nestled beneath mountain peaks and dotted with scraggy sheep.

Yemen is grappling with an increasingly dry climate and a booming population. Harvests are shrinking as rainfall declines and groundwater dries up.

Farmers, 70 percent of the population, can no longer subsist on their own crops. Youths are flocking from the countryside to the cities in search of jobs to provide for their families.

This is one of those seemingly human-interest stories that, in the long run, plays a far bigger role in shaping Yemen's destiny than the fate of Anwar al-Awlaki or the next election.  Droughts, and the mismanagement of resources, have a way of making politics seem ephemeral- which in a very real sense they are.   This is far more than a sad story about farmers losing their way of life; we might be seeing a fundamental shift from a rural populace (currently about 70%) to an increasingly urban one.  Even if there is a solution to the water problem these are trends that are very difficult to reverse. 

Overcrowding and the creation of slums- violent places full of the world's most dangerous resource, unemployed and desperate young men- are a huge problem all over the third world (and many parts of the first, so no nose-looking-downing).  But even aside from that, a shift like this changes the very nature of a country in ways that are incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to predict.   If Yemen survives the next 50 or 100 years (which in one form or another it will, barring the unpredictability of water), it could be united and untied a dozen times, but and increasing urban nature will be the most important thing.  Migration patterns matter, but they are often too slow to be appreciated, especially these days.  Looking at the history of the world, the moving of people, the destruction and creation of farmland, the handling of resources, are what eventually drives things.  Of course, leadership matters, especially in resource management, but the slow population trends will affect its politics far more than any one president or jihadist ever could. 

I guess I don't really have a point.  Maybe it is just fascinating to think that while we ponder statesmenship and parse statements and agonize about drones, the factors that really affect long-term destiny are slowly grinding under our feet, and this first draft of history will be barely noticeable when papered over humanity's palimpsest.  

(Incidentally, at some point I'd like to post my scatter-shot thoughts on the Homesteader and Newlands Reclamation Acts, which were the might of the federal government creating the land for farmers, and what that means for today's politics- essentially, the myth of the "real Americans who don't need the government" and how liberalism can work with and help independent, hard-working industrious people.  If you guys will indulge me.)

Non Yemen-y Thought For Today

I'm allowed these every once in a while, right?

So, because it is unavoidable, and because I am a rageaholic, I've seen/read a lot about the royal engagement. I'm not English, so I don't have any emotional or historic ties to royalty, and so certainly won't begrudge anyone who is engaged by something that is silly and anachronistic, if ultimately harmless (although obscenely expensive- but again, no real dog in this fight).  Indeed, I don't even mind the main royals, who don't seem bad.  Especially Charles, who strikes me as a decent, well-meaning sort of guy smart enough to be aware of the crushing uselessness of his life.  Lots of sympathy for the guy, honestly.


In nearly every report, there is a kind of breathless tone that William is marrying a commoner, and large dollops of self-congratulatory bullshit about how this isn't a scandal.  That last part is great, I suppose, but it also begs the question: why, in the 21st century, in a modern, dynamic nation, is anyone able to use the word "commoner" without a frisson of disgust?  Is there a more tawdry, dated, weighted word out there?  Of course, there are more heavily-weighted words, but none that can be thrown out so casually and without fear of approbation.  I would say that the daughter of self-made millionaires is someone less common, if common is meant to be the opposite of important, than the son of someone whose chief duties since WWII has been waving.

Again, the happy couple doesn't seem to be particularly freighted with the royal/commoner distinction, and both of the sons have been fully engaged in the military, which I admire.  And the Queen has done a lot to devolve hereditary titles and the cost of the monarchy.  It is the use of that word by reporters that I hate, and the fact that it can be used demonstrates just how worthless and insulting is the very idea of kings and queens.

Saving Yemen?

I'll get back to drones, but my thoughts are still a little jumbled, as every time I think about them I argue with myself and contradict what I just thought.  But for the moment I want to talk about this Marisa Porges article in Foreign Affairs, titled "Saving Yemen".   The title is a bit grandiose, but I don't blame the author for that, as never once have I come up with a decent title (if I had my druthers, any published work would be titled "Yemen: Holy Shit.") 

The thrust of her article is that counter-terrorism, or COIN or whatever method you use, is not enough to save Yemen, even if combined with an aggressive human rights/structural solutions aspect.  What needs to happen, she argues, is political reconciliation, and for us to push Salih to share power, stop being so damned corrupt, and work to get the south and the north back into the process.  This is persuasive, and noble, and has long been a US goal, but I am not sure it is workable.   There are a few things in the article I take issue with, specifically this sentence, which follows the list of violent political problems.

With threats on all sides, the regime moved to curtail political freedoms and civil liberties and began relying more heavily on tribes and patronage to hold the country together, fueling growing resentment among Yemeni citizens.

The first part is surely true, and undeniably an exacerbating factor in Salih's increasing unpopularity.  But the regime isn't just now turning to tribes and patronage to hold things together- this is the way things have always been done in Yemen, whether it is through the imam or any of the Republican rulers.  Indeed, the slipping patronage network and Salih's growing detachment from many tribes are part of what is causing the country to fall apart.  Far from being an unwelcome outcome of dissolution, tribal relations are the underpinning of Yemeni political life.   She is right, and importantly so, to point out that the shrinking circle of a paranoid regime fules more discontent as it shuts people out of the body politic, but is approaching the issue from a slightly askew angle.

And this isn't meant to pick on one phrase just to be a jerk- being a computer-protected jerk is just an ancillary benefit of blogging- but because I think that askew angle informs the piece.  This isn't a specific fault of Porges, but rather a product of American thinking.  Everyone views things from their cultural prism, but it can be dangerous.

I am not sold on political reconciliation.  I think it is important, and would be ideal, but I don't know if you can fully reconcile the country to a central government, at least not in the short term.  It would take a lot for the Huthis to become involved in a government structure that has some 40 years of existence, as opposed to the 1000-year Zaydi rule, especially given the enormous violence directed at them by the center.  The South has been unified with the north for only 20 years, and those decades have been marked by murder, war and occupation. 

See, the problem, and I might be over-stating a little, isn't just that Salih is unliked, it is that the idea of a strong central government is at best tolerated, at worst despised and thought of as a blood-shedding nuisance.  I think that trying to mold San'a into Washington ignores a lot of Yemeni history and culture.  It isn't that they are lawless, pre-political children or anything- far from it.  There is a complex system operating just underneath post-Westphalian structures. 

We need to work within that system, which is in its own way considerably more democratic and egalitarian than Salih's rule.  Again, I think we need Salih, but we also need to work to devolve his power and to cut off streams of corruption, working directly with tribes and local leaders and even NGOs (Porges' piece does an admirable job of talking about the vast civil society that has blossomed in Yemen, and is worth the read if just for the way she deepens our knowledge and adds nuance to a place that many dismiss as irredeemably savage).  I think in time, and with a host of other things talked about on this blog and elsewhere, the stigma of central rule might wear off, and then there might be a stronger government with more power to the people.  But that is in the distant future, and trying to rush it can make things worse. 

As always, authors criticized by me are invited to respond.  In comments is fine, but if you would like email me and a response will have its own post, in full and unedited. 

Yemen's Clever New Monetary Source

Ellen Knickmeyer has a good piece in Foreign Policy about how Yemen is essentially outsourcing their navy to guard ships trying to make it through the pirate-infused waters around the Red Sea and Aden.  The sub-headline, which I don't think she wrote, calls it a "gun for hire" strategy, which while accurate is a bit unfair.  This is a pretty good revenue stream for Yemen, and it isn't as if they are distributing their navy to far-flung shores while ignoring home: piracy and smuggling are issues in Yemen, and this can help the navy become more professional and better-trained.  As Knickmeyer points out, there is a lot of potential for corruption here, of course, but I don't have much of a problem with that.  For one thing, this isn't money that would otherwise be going elsewhere- it isn't aid that is being funneled into the pockets of well-connected cousins.  It is an outside and independent revenue-generating operation.  Yes, it would be better if one thought the money raised could dig wells and irrigation channels, but that is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

And I do think this can be good: one of the most important areas of income for Yemen is the Port of Aden- once great, now dangerous and dilapidated.  Insurance rates are exorbitant, and shipping companies are wise to avoid it.  This is crippling for Yemen.  If they can work to make the area safer, and develop an effective navy/coast guard (and this is one of the areas where the US has a long-term interest, and has been helping, albeit with a wax/wane kind of intensity), it can help revitalize the port.  Granted, that brings up a whole magilla about sharing the money, which gets to the heart of the southern issue, but it is better to be arguing about a whole pie than fighting over scraps.

Anyway, the article is well worth reading. 

How to avoid using drones

Greg already highlighted the most important story of the day- the Yemeni beach volleyball team being distracted by bikini girls at the Asian Games.  What he failed to do, however, was point out the vast importance of this story, and its CT implications.  Drones are expensive and carry a lot of risks, but America is full of babes (he said, patriotism swelling).  All we have to do is airlift select Bikini Squadrons into AQAP areas.  It is nearly impossible to wage jihad when you are turned into a Tex Avery wolf.

Jihad: solved.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Drone Reax

It seems I have a prior engagement to go shopping downtown today- which is totally awesome, right?- so I won't be able to get to some more response on the drone thing this morning.  There are some excellent and thoughtful comments which I want to address in a real post, rather than the comment section.

Additionally, Clint has a great response, continuing to look at it from a broader CT perspective, including trying to figure out the line between civilian and combatant- specifically: if you are sheltering AQAP, are you still "innocent collateral"?   It is probably the single most difficult question we've faced over the last decade, and one that needs to be addressed.  He doesn't ask it in the abstract, either, but in the context of Yemeni relationships.  There is a lot more there, too, so read it.

Aaron attacks the drone issue as well, in a must-read post.  One of the more important things he brings up, among others, is the unintended consequences of drone strikes- specifically how it might create allies where there weren't before (e.g. AQAP and the Southern Movement).  There is a lot to unpack here.

Finally, Gareth Porter comes from a different angle, looking at the internal politics and intelligence side of the drone debate.   I'm looking forward to talking about all of these in length- I really enjoy this.  Instead, for now, I'll be trying on shoes or something.  The say every girl is crazy for a sharp-dressed man, but probably not when he is thinking about drones. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Drones and Yemen ( Really long post)

(The original title of this post was "Send in the Drones", which I liked, until I remembered I was actually riffing off the not-so-classic Simpson's Halloween episode "Send in the Clones", itself a play on "Send in the Clowns".  "Clowns" does not rhyme with "drones".  Damn you, pop culture!)

Over at Selected Wisdom, which has rapidly become one of my favorite blogs, Clint Watts has a series of posts about drones, Yemen, and a Yemen/drone combo.  The first post is an excellent look at how drones have disrupted al Qaeda in the Af/Pak region.  As he states, drones have:
  1. Disrupted AQ’s strategic planning by eliminating AQ leaders or isolating them in protective positions.
  2. Caused AQ to exhaust additional resources to maintain operational security.
  3. Largely eliminated large-scale conventional training venues.  Hanif used to train formally at camps, but now he and his fellow recruits are confined to rooms in shacks.
  4. Forced AQ to use less experienced and poorly trained individuals.  These new recruits are less likely to be successful operationally and will also be unlikely to carry out terrorism for future generations.
They have been able to do this while not, in his estimate, racking up many more civilian casualities than a COIN operation would (obviously, this is a bit of counter-factual guesswork, but non-drone operations do kill civilians, regardless of the great care our fighters take).

Then, moving into Yemen, Clint argues against Robert Worth, who criticized the idea of using drones to hunt Anwar al-Awlaki.   For what it is worth, I agree with Worth on this very narrow point: hunting al-Awlaki and going for the kill is probably extra-judicial, most likely needlessly inflammatory, and an absolute waste of resources.  Readers of this blog know that al-Awlaki is a sideshow.  He presents some danger, but he is not the theologian, strategist, mastermind, and certainly not the leader of AQAP. Any time spent hunting him is time not spent hunting down the real threats.  It will give us all the negatives of using drones with very little in return, save for what would be a brief and entirely domestic PR victory. 

So then let's talk about drone use in general, assuming we would be using them against the real baddies.  The question is: should drones be used in Yemen?  I admit that I am kind of on the fence with this; I go back and forth almost hourly, like a whiny metronome.  I think the broader CT perspective provided by Selected Wisdom is very helpful, as a lot of us who write about Yemen tend not to focus on a wider picture.  I know I am cloistered and perhaps over-protective: a petulant teenager (No one understands Yemen!  We're in love!).  So let's look at some of the arguments. 

What drones do best, or rather as a product of what they do best (killing), is disrupting networks and sewing paranoia.  This will become more and more important in Yemen as foreign fighters see it as a profitable place to wage jihad (creating this image is a major short-term goal for AQAP).  Drone strikes, even if they don't end up taking out the leadership, will force it to be on the move and less able to plan operations- though they have shown a remarkable ability to learn and maneuver on the fly.   If drone strikes are reasonably successful- and these arguments have to be taken in a vacuum right now, before I get into the negatives- AQAP operations will slow down, and foreign fighters, battle-hardened jihadis who can augment AQAP's operation prowess, might stay in Af/Pak or Kashmir or Indonesia.  Depriving recruits of a reason to go to Yemen would be a success.

But drone strikes wouldn't just deny a reason, they would make it harder to bring in more pros.  Hooking up with the leadership would become difficult, and in a country as proudly xenophobic as Yemen a bunch of foreign fighters waging jihad all willy-nilly would go a long way toward discrediting AQAP, even without standard hearts-and-minds ops by the US (though obviously those should go on).  The paranoia is a key element here as well.  AQAP has managed to be extremely successful while comprised almost entirely of Yemenis and Saudis.  Foreigners coming in while there are killers in the air could make it more difficult for AQAP to accept their help, to trust them.  The jihadi networks go a long way, so this would probably just be a slight benefit, but any little bit helps. 

Obviously there are benefits beyond what it will do to the foreign fighter networks, but I think those are going to be a huge deal as AQAP continues to evolve.  Domestically, if the leadership were to be incapacitated it wouldn't destroy the group, but would hamper them, and perhaps provide us with some breathing room to deal with other structural issues.  And Clint makes a good point that drones, while terrifying, leave considerably less of a military footprint than do soldiers.  But that brings us to the negatives.

What is frequently lost in discussing Yemen is that future drone strikes wouldn't be new in the country- in 2002 the US took out AQ's leader in one of the first successful drone attacks.  This was an operation agreed to by both Yemen and the US, with the understanding that it would be presented as an accident, that al-Hirithi and those in the car with him at the time of death were transporting a bomb that went off.  This was supposed to be a fingerprint-free operation.  But the US was understandably excited by their success, and publicized it.  This was dumb.  Pesident Salih felt burned, as that opened up a vulnerable flank to charges of lapdogism.  Right now, Salih is facing a massive crisis of legitimacy- drone strikes are a painful reminder of a recent past, and will allow not just al-Qaeda but other domestic enemies to charge him with being a puppet who lets Americans kill Yemenis.  While Salih is far from an ideal ally, he is currently our best bet, and it is probable that even a successful drone attack will undercut another plank of our policy.

Hurting Salih isn't the only plank that will be undercut.  Even if you take out morality, even if you take out standard propaganda/recruitment arguments, collateral damage isn't just a matter of numbers.  Even if the terrorist-to-civilian kill ratio is 40-1, that one person could turn a potential tribal ally into a certain enemy.  Our best hope in Yemen, to me, is to maintain Salih's power while devolving it and working with the tribes, both for security and structural reasons- working directly with them not only helps us keep contact with real power brokers, it also closes off avenues of corruption.  Clint argues that using soft power will " will slowly win over some of the Yemeni people and will cost the U.S. billions.  Around 2020, we might actually get one AQAP member turned over to security forces thanks to our niceness.  Ohh, that’s right, Yemen has already run out of water at this point, and most likely AQAP has conducted a thousand additional attacks and grown considerably due to the ripe recruiting conditions created by water resource shortage."   He makes a good point that soft power will be a slow process, but I think he underestimates what creating personal relationship will do.  Having tribal allies will speed up the process of apprehending AQAP and denying them tribal havens- it won't be absolute, but it will be better than what we have now.  Killing with drones hurts our chances to establish these crucial relationships, and these relationships are the best way to get things done in Yemen.  Salih depends on them, AQAP needs them, we shouldn't ignore them.

Now, all that said (is this post still going on?), any operations we enact will involve the hideous death of innocent people, unless we only rely on soft power- and I don't think that is an option.  One of the reasons it isn't an option is because AQAP wants to destroy the center, and they aren't going to step up and dig irrigation channels.  While AQAP is around, there is a vanishingly small chance of providing any relief.  I think an important argument is that even if we merely train Yemeni soldiers and arm the government, and even if the government doesn't use our arms against other foes, like the southern movement (which is: not a realistic hope), Salih will still be painted as a puppet of the US, and anger at his tactics will redound upon us as well. 

Which is why I am very reluctantly, and surprisingly to me, signing off on drone use.  The Yemeni army is not known for restraint, and while most operations need to be run through them, if we can have successful strikes without local sloppiness and aggression we can minimize PR losses.  If the US is going to take the heat anyway, it is better to have a few deaths than to have a village razed in our name.  But these drone strikes have to come with excellent local intelligence collected through a cultivation of tribal relationships- these will both help the chances of a successful strike and partially mitigate the chances of a blood feud.  We have to be smart so we aren't used by one tribe to take revenge against another.  And we have to make sure that these are necessary and important, and not just an attack on a charismatic nobody who happens to speak English, or, god forbid, some tiny foot soldier doing it to put food on his families plate.  I understand this distinction can't often be made, but trying to destroy the entire group rather than just its leadership will have severely negative consequences. 

Obviously, this has to be combined with aggressive soft-power remedies.  A civilian's death can overwhelm the news of one good deed, or ten or 100, but these good deeds have to be so prominent they cannot be ignored.  We also have to have an anti-AQAP PR blitz, in Arabic.  Without these things, drone strikes are nothing more than a militant sop.  These last strident point aren't meant to be arguing against Clint, who didn't argue them.  But they are a must.

OK- that seems long enough.  I reserve the right to change my mind after breakfast or something, or when Greg argues differently.  I welcome all comments and arguments.  This is really important, and I want to know what all of you, who know a lot more than I do, think about this. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A light touch of ugly regional parochialism

In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell expressed some frustration with at the Spaniards ineffeciency and lack of punctuality.  He says "In theory I rather admire the Spaniards for not sharing our Northern time-neurosis, but unfortunately I share it myself."   I pretty much feel the same way when it comes to the mentality of my Chicago home- I admire people who don't have the "second city" chip on their shoulder, but I have it, and as much as I may try to pretend differently, it is huge. 

Which is why I have a mix of sympathy and amusement over our local media trying to figure out why the Yemen cargo bombs were addressed to Chicago.  There is a sort of sober glee in the stories; a strange kind of boosterism- see, New York, we can be attacked as well!   The stories all come with a mention that the packages were meant to blow up in mid-air (presumably), but that Chicago is still a target.  In this Tribune piece, there is a bit of subtle puffery about the last issue of Inspire.

A few weeks earlier, al-Qaida's online magazine had published a photograph of Chicago's skyline, with the nation's tallest building, the Willis Tower, front and center. 

That's right- front and center.  And did we mention it was the nation's tallest building?

Now, I think Chicago could be a target.  It is a major city, and one of the world's most important cities for international business (there's my boosterism, Rahm).  As Evan Kohlmann points out in the Trib story, "'I think the primary interest in Chicago is that it is the power base of President (Barack) Obama.'"  I think the "power base" line might be overstating the case- it is doubtful that AQAP thinks they can bring down the President by attacking Chicago, as an attack on a power base normally can (and that probably isn't what Kohlmann means; I just wanted to clarify).  But the symbolism is hugely important.  Additionally, Chicago is in the heartland, more or less, and an attack there could show a greater reach than "merely" attack cities on the coast.

In the article, Kohlmann was also paraphrased saying "At the same time, blowing up a plane near or over Chicago would likely cause more collateral damage on the ground because, unlike New York or Los Angeles, the city is not near an ocean, he said."  I hesitate to point out that Chicago is on a lake, a really big one, of which if you are close enough is virtually indistinguishable from the ocean (you can't see across either).  I am not totally sure what this means- I guess that the NY airports are on the ocean, so the route of the plane might be more over water than land, and therefore when it explodes it has a better chance of crashing into the sea.  O'Hare and Midway or more inland.  So this makes some sense, although no flight pattern is direct (when I've flown back from DC or NY or Philly lately, I've always been entirely over water at some point).

 This isn't at all to pick on Kohlmann, whose analysis I admire.  He was asked a question to which we really don't have an answer- all is speculation.   There isn't anything really inherently special about Chicago as a target, at least not more or less than other major cities (even though it is the best one- yeah!).  The main thing to take away is that terrorism is about body count and panic.  There is only so much we can do about the former.  The latter, though, is entirely in our control.

As if on cue... (edit at bottom)

I said yesterday that I was hoping to get a little bit into what the elections might mean for Yemen policy, and, as if on cue, albeit by a tangential way, Lindsey Graham provides a white hot dose of strident militancy. 

If President Barack Obama "decides to be tough with Iran beyond sanctions, I think he is going to feel a lot of Republican support for the idea that we cannot let Iran develop a nuclear weapon," he told the Halifax International Security Forum.
"The last thing America wants is another military conflict, but the last thing the world needs is a nuclear-armed Iran... Containment is off the table."
The South Carolina Republican saw the United States going to war with the Islamic republic "not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard, in other words neuter that regime."

I've always kind of had a soft spot for Graham- he seems like he is a funny guy, and was pretty much the only Republican grown-up during the Supreme Court nomination hearings (you mean Sotomayor isn't a racist brainless affirmative action baby?), but this is nuts.  I don't know enough about Iran to say that we might have to accept containment as a strategy, and so would be reluctant to take an option off the table (or to leave a cliche unmined), but I don't know anyone in the world who advocates this kind of nonsense.  Tactical strikes to take out nuclear capabilities are dangerous and possibly impossible, but they seem to be an option if things really go south.  A full-out war is an incredible idea.

It is kind of like he, and others like him, forget the entire last decade.  Now that combat operations in Iraq are "over" and we've won (well, that's what I've heard), the horror and muck and impossibility of that war can recede into the distant past, and invading a larger and better-armed country is going to be a walk in the park.  We might be met with flowers, even.

I don't want to get too much into Iran qua Iran, as much as the underlying message in Graham's statement.  It is the first part that I think can give us a clue to post-election thinking.  In saying that if Obama wants to be more militant, he can expect Republican support.  This is sort of a twisted olive branch.  There are going to be huge legislative battles, with an eye toward 2012, over health care and any form of regulation.  Given Democratic control of the Senate and the veto pen, health care won't be overturned, but there will be constant attempts in order to force the Dems to seem out of touch and uncaring and arrogant and dismissive of the public.  Gridlock, investigations and accusations are the only things on the domestic menu for the next two years.   But in foreign policy- well, maybe we can find some middle ground, if the middle shifts violently to the right.

What this means for Yemen is, of course, money.  The President controls foreign policy, but Congress controls the purse, and a long-time Republican talking point is non-military foreign aid.  Cutting aid is a pet project.  Eric Cantor, incoming speaking John Boehner's best buddy, has talked about cutting aid to countries that don't share US interests (but exempting Israel from normal aid channels so its money can't be touched).  One can clearly see a path where Yemen is painted a country without aligning interests- even though, in the real world, it is a childish fantasy to assume that any two nations will have perfect harmony in their goals; the grown-up thing to do is work out where common interests exist.  The cumulative message is that if the President doesn't want to spend his entire time fighting Congress, he has to be considerably more militant and focus entirely on things that go boom.

This is wildly dangerous.  One of our most important goals in Yemen has to be to reduce our military footprint, and replace it with something more benign.  This doesn't mean coddling terrorists or just letting them be, it means being smart and playing the PR game to sap some support from AQAP (Greg talks about op-eds in Arabic combating AQAP's theology and justifications.  I assume those who read this blog read Waq al-Waq, but if you don't make sure you read the whole piece I linked to there.  It shows again, as if any proof was still needed, why Greg is the best analyst out there).   An empowered Republican Party is offering Obama a terrible way out- become more militant, less "squishy" about food and water, and you can have some victories.  Of course, accepting this option means losing in Yemen, and that is not an option.

It is a little strange that those who proclaim the loudest and proudest that America is the greatest- maybe the only- force for for goodness and decency in the world recoil when that generosity is divorced from the barrel of a gun.  But I should be too old to be stunned by intellectual incoherence.  Gibberish is the new reason.

Strangely, a modicum of sanity might come from the Tea Party branch, at least those who have thought through their philosophy beyond the flag-pin stage.  Rand Paul, for instance, is basically opposed to foreign adventurism, and he is a star.  If he can stick to his guns and get his voice out, there might be less pressure to bomb anyone we want.  Granted, Paul is also against non-military aid, but I will take a tiny relief of pressure from where I can get it.


In a brief post about how Rand Paul seems more in favor of earmarks than he did during the campaign, Jonathan Chait at TNR links to this Salon article about Paul seeming a bit more ideologically flexible in the foreign policy world (which itself is a link to a GQ profile by Jason Zengerle, formerly of TNR- thus completing the internet circle).   Paul tells AIPAC he is "more reasonable" than his father, and impress Bill Kristol and Dan Senor by meeting them in "learning mode".  So perhaps Paul isn't going to be in the semi-reasonable wing- or, rather, like nearly all politicians, he'll have to decide between his principles and his ambition.   It would be nice if the Republican Party had a prominent voice inside the party objecting to the "all war all the time" platform, if not from a strict security position than at least form an economic one. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

National Editorial

I have a short-ish piece up in The National today.  Readers of the blog won't find too terribly much that is new, but there is a brief discussion at the end about the ramifications of the mid-terms.  I'd like to go into that in more detail, though, and am working on a few things that do so. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Disease and Antidote

The Wall Street Journal has an op-ed piece by Con Coughlin chastising the West for its naivete regarding several key AQAP players, most importantly Anwar al-Awlaki.   It does not, of course, offer other tactics that could have been used, just shame and fear.  Since this article is as stupid and as guilty of over-blowing Awlaki as anything, this is a good time to link to this: Aaron's takedown of the Awlaki hype.  My kind of writing- both angry and informed.   Hold on to this and read it anytime you see the words "AQAP mastermind" or "the new bin Laden." 

We'll see who wins this battle: the weight of popular opinion or a few ill-tempered and unshaven (presumably) bloggers?   I'm guessing the former.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Deferring to Readers

Reader CharlieCarp left a comment below which I think is pretty important and am going to reproduce in full. 

I commented on Waq yesterday, and will add to that a bit here today. I'm not actually sure that this attack 'failed.' Is AQAP really trying to kill a few anonymous strangers? Or is it looking to cut off Western civil engagement in Yemen, force greater involvement by the US (and consequent closer identification among Yemenis of Saleh and the US military)?

If the latter, there might even be greater propaganda to be had from an attack that didn't even hurt anyone -- one can assume that the US/Yemeni counterstrike causes collateral damage, which would be 'revenge' for a strike that didn't hurt anyone.

I'm no scholar of AQ, but I've always thought we make a big mistake when we think that their attacks are about us, rather than communicating/marketing to its prospects/constituents.

I would argue that you are correct in the main- it wasn't really a failure, as it generated all the response a successful (read: actually exploding) attack would- at least in the short term.  I think it might fade though.  After the flurry of Yemen excitement in January, temperatures cooled for a while, waxing and waning and not really picking up much steam again until this week.  Had the bombs gone off- had they even been able to- it would have been a longer-term media sensation (today's elections are going to push it away for all but us obsessives).   Of course, if it was probing mission, something I now doubt, it was a wild success.  And in terms of tilting the balance of civil/military engagement, it will probably achieve its goals, as you very helpfully point out.

As for the last paragraph, yes, and well put, although I don't think it is entirely either/or.  There is an incredible amount of parochialism when discussing AQ motivations/tactics/reason for being, and this hurts analysis and policy.  But America and the West still are an enemy, even if they are far and largely unreachable.  Both tactics- hurting us and growing- are intertwined, but you do offer a very useful correction to the navel-gazing hand-wringing that accompanies most discussions.

And yes: you can navel-gaze and hand-wring at the same time, both metaphorically and physically.  Unless you are really uncoordinated.  

Declining Capability?

At Wired, Spencer Ackerman has a nice little article about whether or not AQAP could have managed to detonate the bombs on the cargo planes- it is tech-y, as you would expect, and provides a cool window into the logistics of terrorism, something as important as the politics behind it, and something you won't really find here.  I can hardly work my own cell phone, and it is one of those giant ones from the early 90s.  But there is something in it that I found unsettling (above and beyond the unsettling nature of terrorism).

U.S. officials have been cautious about attributing responsibility for the plot to al-Qaeda. But if al-Qaeda is the culprit, the Pentagon adviser says, the terror group is showing “declining capability.” Hijacking multiple aircraft on 9/11 is much more complex than trying — unsuccessfully — to blow up a pair of passenger or cargo planes.

This only is true if you assume an unbroken continuity between the al-Qaeda that attacked on September 11th and AQAP, and you shouldn't assume that.  While AQAP (and its previous names) didn't start from scratch in 2006, they also were not just an offshoot of the Af/Pak branch.  They had to build up their organization, and have done so at a remarkable rate.  And hijaking planes is no longer a viable option for terrorism- they have to find new ways to exploit vulnerabilities.  They seem to be learning from every success and failure.  While this was less of a success than the Christmas Day attempt- it was interdicted; the failure didn't come from bad luck- it still gave AQAP what they really want: attention and fear, which translate into a recruitment bonanza. 

Initially I thought that this was kind of a weak-sauce terror plot, and had hoped that it might mean the leadership was losing some command and control as the organization got bigger.  But subsequent revelations showed that the plot was mature, although far from perfect.  This doesn't strike me as declining capabilities as much as an ability to adapt.  We should be glad that terrorism might not have the spectacular potential it did 10 years ago, but it is troubling if that is cause for relaxation.  

There is also this. 

The logistical difficulties in setting off the bomb might strengthen the theory that the printer-bomb plot was a terrorist test run. Then again, the chief bombmaker for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, has failed to kill anyone in his two previous high-profile bombing attempts: the thwarted Christmas Day attack, which failed to detonate; and the near-miss 2009 attempt on the life of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief.

I think the first sentence is correct- if it wasn't intentionally a test run, it might be seen that way by the leadership, who are very flexible.  The second part is kind of funny, but a little too dismissively snarky- the Christmas attempt came damn close to catastrophe, and the attempt on bin Nayif was essentially a success operationally- it was only an accident of positioning that saved his life.  So let's not write them off.  I don't think that is what Ackerman was doing, of course, but I don't want it to be read that way.

Checking in on cargo bombs.

Am working on an editorial about the bombing attempt, and so am reluctant to discuss much here, out of respect for the people who are paying me (cows, milk, etc).  I'm somewhat glad that I didn't, as I was initially not terribly impressed with the plot, and said so to the local Chicago media- goodbye, career in punditry.

The one thing I don't get, and have gone back and forth on, is why they were addressed to synagogues. Of course, it came out that they were most likely to be intended to explode midair, but there still had to be some thought as to what address to put on the packages.  To me, there seems to be no better way to set off alarm bells then to send something from Yemen to Jewish buildings in Chicago, if just for the sheer incongruity.  One train of thought could be the impression that the ZOG would be less likely to inspect these out of respect for our Jewish masters, though that is probably a stretch.  A slightly more likely, though only slightly, explanation is that this could be seen as a win/win for AQAP.  Like in the Christmas attempt, they got all the publicity in the world even with a failed operation, and now have seen the strengths/weaknesses of the cargo system.  This is a worrisome thing when dealing with an organization as flexible and as able to learn lessons as AQAP.  The sophistication of the bombs gives some lie to the idea of a dummy operation, but even in failure AQAP achieved some important goals.

Finally, I've been asked several times "why Chicago?"- the local media is of course obsessed with it.  My answer has been: I don't know.  At least in my head.  But, in true pundit form, I can't answer that.  Best guesses are that it is the most major American city to have not had a serious attempted or successful attack, and a strike in the heartland might help scare people who think terrorism is a coastal phenomenon, though I don't know who that would be.   The other guess has something vague to do with Barack Obama and the symbolic importance of attacking his hometown.  My dad thinks they are Packers' fans- and, honestly, that is as good as anything I have (and confirms my ill feelings toward AQAP).

I've read in a couple of places the speculation that this reflects animus toward cargo planes, the kind used to transport people to Gitmo.  Please ignore anywhere you read that.  By that theory, it is a damn good thing we didn't transport prisoners via nuclear submarine, lest our entire maritime defense system be threatened.

I'll let you know about the editorial, and continue to update around the edges, all the while lamenting today's electoral bloodbath.  Given my true passion for US politics, don't be surprised to see 15,000 slurred words go up tonight on the election, which can be safely ignored.