Tag: yemen

Confused about the Middle East? So Is the United States

Since the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern countries have fallen into political chaos like dominoes. This week’s explosion of conflict in Yemen is just the most recent example. Though many of these conflicts are based on local grievances, they are being exacerbated by the involvement of the region’s larger states, and by the United States.

America’s leaders denounce intervention by unfriendly states like Iran. Yet the United States ignores or even enables such actions by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. In doing so, America is simply contributing to the mess in the Middle East. Washington should back off and refuse to get more deeply involved in further Middle Eastern conflicts.

Yemen’s conflict is nothing new; the Houthi rebels have been active in Yemen for more than a decade, and captured the capital in January, forcing President Hadi to flee south. This week, as the rebels finally reached the southern city of Aden, Hadi fled, and apparently appealed to Saudi Arabia for help in combatting the Iranian-backed insurgency.

Yesterday evening, that help arrived in the form of a massive Saudi air campaign and a reported 150,000 troops. The Saudi efforts are supported by a number of other GCC and Arab states, as well as U.S. logistical and intelligence support.

But like everything in the Middle East today, this conflict isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The Houthis are indeed aligned with Iran, and probably receive monetary support. But they also represent a sizeable fraction of the Yemeni population, and many of their policies – such as opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Yemen – are widely popular. Even more confusing, the Houthis are also adamantly opposed to Al Qaeda, and have spent substantial time and resources fighting AQAP fighters inside Yemen.

This conflict fits with a broader pattern of post-Arab Spring clashes in the Middle East, conflicts which are complex and local in nature, but which are treated as simply proxy wars or sectarian conflicts. The fear that Iran might make gains in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and elsewhere drives Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to respond militarily, increasing tensions and conflict.

The U.S. response to this complex reality has been to reflexively back traditional U.S. allies. But in doing so, American policy has become confused, contradictory and overleveraged. We’re working towards similar goals as Iran inside Iraq, opposing them in Syria and Yemen, all while trying to reach a nuclear deal before the March 31st deadline. How this mess of policy contradictions is supposed to produce viable results is anybody’s guess.

Yemen has a long history of instability, and any military solution to the crisis will likely fail to produce a long-term solution; it will just paper over the problem. It’s not even clear whether the reinstallation of the Hadi government would be best for U.S. interests: though a Houthi government is unlikely to allow U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda, they might prove more effective at fighting the group than the government has.

America should stop reflexively backing traditional U.S. allies in the region, and refrain from deeper involvement in these conflicts. Instead, we should think more clearly about when (and whether) the United States should be involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, and about how such actions fit our overall strategic goals. Because one thing is certain: further U.S. intervention in the Middle East would be an exceedingly bad choice.   

Yemen’s Chronic Instability

The last few days have brought dramatic news from Yemen: rebels occupied the presidential palace, initially forcing constitutional concessions and then the resignation of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. The president was, at least nominally, a U.S. ally, cooperating with U.S. forces on drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP).

Yemen itself had even been hailed as one of the few successes of the Arab Spring, with a negotiated transition resulting in steps toward democracy. But such an interpretation glosses over Yemen’s long history of instability, as well as intervention by foreign powers. The current conflict is not only a popular uprising, it’s a proxy war, one that has been worsened by U.S. policy in Yemen.

Yemen has experienced chronic instability throughout its history, in large part because of interference from Saudi Arabia, which has long been worried about Yemeni influence. The first Saudi king, Abdulaziz, is reputed to have called his senior sons to his deathbed, admonishing them to “keep Yemen weak.” The Kingdom has at various times provided funds not only to the Yemeni government, but also to various opposing tribal leaders.

The most recent iteration of Yemeni instability is a decade-long civil conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, Sunni militias, and a Zaidi Shi’a militia group known as the Houthis. This latter is also known as the Shabaab al-Marmineen (or the Believing Youth), and is believed to receive large quantities of funding and arms from Iran (and formerly Syria). The insurgency has spanned a decade, with only sporadic ceasefires, resulting in widespread death and displacement. The Houthis even initiated cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia in 2009, which led to a large-scale Saudi invasion of Northern Yemen.

The Houthis were also heavily involved in the 2011 protests against Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, although they rejected the Saudi-negotiated transfer of power to then–Vice President Hadi. Since late last year, the Houthis have controlled large parts of the capital Sanaa, although power has remained nominally vested in the hands of the Hadi government.

The crisis in Yemen is thus not only a civil conflict, but also a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this, it is similar to the early Syrian civil war, which was initially driven by Saudi support for rebel groups and Iranian support for the Assad regime. While the situation in Yemen is unlikely to deteriorate in this way, it is worth focusing on the fact that many conflicts in the Middle East are actually driven by larger regional actors, some of them U.S. allies.

U.S. involvement in Yemen has also helped to worsen this crisis. The Hadi government’s support for U.S. drone strikes against AQAP contrasts strongly with Yemeni popular opinion, which has been widely outraged by the killing of innocents. Such unfortunate killings are driven by U.S. reliance on Yemeni targeting data: Yemeni leaders have a tendency to present political rivals as terrorists in order to engineer their demise. These deaths have driven growing anger at the Hadi government.

Ironically, the Houthi fighters are themselves strongly opposed to AQAP and actively engage in combat against the group. There is even evidence that the United States has cooperated with the Houthis on targeting AQAP.

The situation in Yemen remains fluid. The country appears to have no leader, and it is unclear whether the Houthi occupation of the capital constitutes a coup or not. But in either case, the United States should stay out of the conflict, evacuating the embassy if Sanaa becomes too dangerous. The crisis in Yemen is typical of the country’s long-running instability, and the pressures it faces from regional powers. U.S. involvement won’t help.

Drones Risk Putting US on ‘Slippery Slope’ to Perpetual War

As the New York Times reports, the Stimson Center today released a report warning that “the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a ‘slippery slope’ into perpetual war.” The Washington Post, the Guardian and Vox all lead their articles on the report with that warning.

The slippery slope point probably isn’t new to most readers. But it’s worth focusing on here, both because the argument is often misstated or misunderstood, and because, in this case, I helped make it. The report’s task force, co-chaired by retired General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Rosa Brooks of Georgetown Law, included working groups. I was on one that considered, among other things, what danger drones create for U.S. foreign policy. The report largely reflects those we identified: the erosion of sovereignty, blowback from those in targeted countries, drone strikes’ tendency to undermine democratic oversight, and the slippery slope problem.

The report puts those concerns in context. It points out that: drones can serve wise or dumb policies; that most drones are for surveillance or other non-strike uses; and that it is drone strikes that occur off declared battlefields that have generated the most controversy. The report notes that past military innovations, like cruise missiles, raised similar concerns by making waging war easier.

The report rejects several common complaints about drones. It denies that they create a reckless, “playstation mentality” among pilots. It explains that drones are not more prone than other weapons cause civilian casualties.

Having delimited the circumstances where drones raise concerns, the report goes into considerable causal detail, at least compared to most reports of this kind, about what the trouble is. The blowback, oversight, and sovereignty problems are relatively easy to understand, in theory. The tricky part is measuring the harm.

Kill or Capture?

In the latest issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, I review Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. Although some hawkish critics smear President Obama as weak, bumbling, and easily manipulated by America’s enemies, Klaidman reveals how our “covert commander in chief” has tightened his grip over the secretive program of targeted killings and their expanded use into Somalia and Yemen, beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. The president has meanwhile claimed the authority to hold terrorism suspects in prolonged detention indefinitely without trial. On this issue in particular, as I conclude in my review:

The reader is naturally drawn to realize the book’s underlying point: America’s lack of a long-term detention policy may be perversely incentivizing kills over captures.

 Check it out.

Drones, Special Operations, and Whimsical Wars

Asked the last week on 60 Minutes how many shooting wars the United States is in, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta took a moment to answer. He eventually said we are going after al Qaeda in Pakistan and its “nodes” in Somalia, Yemen, and North Africa. Somehow, he left out the indefinite war we have going in Afghanistan.

It’s no wonder that Panetta can’t keep track of the wars he’s supposed to manage. On top of Afghanistan and the drone campaigns, 12,000 U.S. special operations forces are distributed around dozens of countries, increasingly outside declared war zones, where they train foreign militaries, collect intelligence, and occasionally launch lethal raids. As just reported in the Washington Post, some of these forces are now operating a dozen bases across Northern Africa, where their activities include overseeing contractors flying surveillance aircraft. Despite the Obama administration’s claims of great progress in fighting al Qaeda, the global shadow war shows no signs of abating.

The official rationale for using force across the world is that al Qaeda is global. But that’s true only thanks to a capacious definition of al Qaeda that imposes a sense of false unity of disparate groups. The always-overrated remnant of the organization that sponsored the 9/11 attacks barely exists anymore, even in Pakistan. Our counterterrorism efforts are directed mostly against others: terrorists that take up al Qaeda’s name and desire to kill westerners but have limited links to the real McCoy, as in Yemen and North Africa, and insurgents friendly to jihadists but mostly consumed by local disputes, like the Taliban in Afghanistanal Shabaab in Somalia, and al Qaeda’s Islamist allies in southern Yemen. Like the phony Communist monolith in the Cold War, the myth of a unified, global “al Qaeda” makes actions against vaguely-linked entities—many with no obvious interest in the United States—seem like a coherent campaign against globe trotting menace bent on our destruction.

The real reason we are fighting so much these days is that war is too easy. International and domestic restraints on the use of U.S. military power are few. And unrestrained power tends to be exercised. Presidents can use it whimsically, at least until they do something costly that creates a backlash and wakes up public opposition. Drones and special operations forces made this problem worse.

Most of the world is what the military calls a permissive environment, especially since the end of the Cold War. Most places lack forces capable of keeping our military out. Many potential allies invite it. The risks traditionally associated with war—invasion, mass death, etc.—are now alien to Americans. Since the draft ended, the consequences of even bad wars for most of us are minor: unsettling media stories and mildly higher taxes deferred by deficits. That’s why, as Nuno Monteiro argues, the U.S. military was already quite busy in the 1990s despite the absence of real enemies.

Because war is so cheap, the public has little reason to worry much about it. That leaves elected representatives without any electoral incentive to restrain presidential war powers. No surprise then that the imperial presidency grew as American power did. Technology gains and secrecy exacerbate the problem. Even more than strategic bombing from high altitude, which already prevented U.S. casualties, drones cheapen warfare. Covert raids are riskier, of course, but secrecy limits public appreciation of those risks.

The president and his advisors assure us that they use these forces only after solemn debate and nights spent (badly) reading just war theory. But a White House that debates the use of force only with itself short-circuits the democratic process. That is not just a constitutional problem but a practical one. Broad debate among competing powers generally produces better decisions than narrower, unilateral ones. That is why is it is naïve to suggest, as John Fabian Witt did last week in a New York Times op-ed, that the executive branch is developing sensible legal institutions to manage the gray area between war and peace occupied by drone strikes. What’s needed are checks and balances. That means Congress needs to use its war powers.

First, Congress should rewrite the 2001 Authorization of Military Force, which has morphed into a legal rationale for doing whatever presidents want in the name of counterterrorism. That bill authorized force against the organizers of the September 11 attacks and those who aided them, which seemed to mean al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and maybe Pakistan. The new law should state that acts of war, including drone strikes, in other places require a new authorization of force. If Congress is for bombing stuff in Yemen and Somalia, it should debate those missions. Second, Congress should reform the convoluted laws governing the deployment of special operations forces, making their use more onerous and transparent. Those forces should engage in covert action only after a presidential finding, as with the CIA. Third, Congress should require that taxes or offsets fund wars. That would increase debate about their worth.

The trouble, as already noted, is that Congress has no interest in doing these things. Congressional leaders are today more interested in policing leaks about the president’s unilateral exercise of war powers than in restraining them. Short of a military disaster involving special operations forces or drones, this seems unlikely to change in the short term. In the longer term, we need a restoration of Congress’ institutional identity. Even without an electoral reason, politicians should want to exercise war powers simply because they can—because people like power. That’s the assumption behind Edward Corwin’s notion that the constitution’s is an “invitation to struggle” over foreign policy. Something has obstructed Congress’ desire to struggle. Those concerned by the president’s promiscuous use of force should try to identify and remove the obstruction.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Yemen, Drones, and the Imperial Presidency

Based on a broad theory of executive power, President Obama, and possibly his successor, has the authority to target people for death—including American citizens—without a semblance of transparency, accountability, or congressional consent. Since 9/11, officials and analysts have touted drone strikes as the most effective weapon against al Qaeda and its affiliates. Drones have become a tool of war without the need to declare one. The latest front is Yemen, where a dramatic escalation of drone strikes could be enlisting as many militants as they execute.

“In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda,” a headline blared in last week’s Washington Post. The evidence of radicalization comes from more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists, and officials from southern Yemen, an area where U.S. drone strikes have targeted suspected militants affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The escalating campaign of drone strikes kills civilians along with alleged militants. Tribal leaders and Yemeni officials say these strikes have angered tribesmen who could be helping to prevent AQAP from growing more powerful.

According to the Post, in 2009, U.S. officials claimed that AQAP had nearly 300 core members. Yemeni officials and tribal leaders say that number has grown to 700 or more, with hundreds of tribesmen joining its ranks to fight the U.S.-backed Yemeni government. “That’s not the direction in which the drone strikes were supposed to move the numbers,” wrote the Atlantic’s Robert Wright.

As the majority of U.S. missile assaults shift from Pakistan to Yemen—allowing foreign policy planners to wage undeclared wars on multiple fronts—Americans should pay close attention to a few important and complicating factors that make the conflict in Yemen unique. First, the self-proclaimed Marxist state of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) only merged with its northern neighbor, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), in 1990. In 1994, the two countries fought a bloody civil war that did not result in a smooth reunification. The International Crisis Group’s “Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question” summarizes competing North-South narratives:

Under one version, the war laid to rest the notion of separation and solidified national unity. According to the other, the war laid to rest the notion of unity and ushered in a period of Northern occupation of the South.

Media reports asserting that AQAP is taking advantage of the South’s hunger for independence should be understood in the context of this Northern-Southern divide. Rather than encourage the Yemeni government to respond to southern demands for greater local autonomy, Washington’s tactics are helping the U.S.-backed Yemeni government repress Southern separatists. Indeed, many residents in Abyan, in southern Yemen, claim that the Yemeni government intentionally ceded territory to domestic enemies in order to frighten the West into ensuring more support against the indigenous uprising.

These developments are troubling, as the escalation of drone strikes could be creating the self-fulfilling prophecy of helping alleged AQAP-linked militants gain ground and increasing local sympathy for their cause. As Ben Friedman wrote recently, the misperception that comes with conflating AQAP with the broader insurgency is that it “invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.” That assessment echoes the sentiment of The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, who has done intrepid reporting in Yemen. He recently said the campaign being conducted “is going to make it more likely that Yemen becomes a safe haven for those kinds of [terrorist] groups.”

The Oval Office seems to be giving this issue of sympathy short shrift. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, has publicly argued that the precision of drone strikes limits civilian casualties. However, the New York Times revealed last week that the president and his underlings resort to dubious accounting tricks to low-ball the estimate of civilian deaths, counting “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants” while the Department of Defense even targets suspects in Yemen “whose names they do not know.” The Times’ article recounts one of the administration’s very first strikes in Yemen:

It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.

As foreign policy planners in Washington deepen our military involvement in Yemen, the American people—rather than focusing on the number of senior al Qaeda killed—should be asking whether we’re killing more alleged militants than our tactics help to recruit.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Washington Post Defines Worst Fears Down

“Al-Qaeda bombmaker represents CIA’s worst fears.”

That’s the headline of a Washington Post story on Yemeni terrorists’ attempt to down a U.S. bound flight by placing a bomb on the body of an operative that turned out to be a CIA and Saudi agent. By straining to alarm readers about the bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the story makes three errors.

First, by defining the CIA’s “worst fears” as “a highly skilled terrorist determined to attack the United States,” the Post underestimates the imaginative capacity of intelligence officials and overrates Asiri’s prowess. The article uncritically quotes House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King’s claim that “Asiri is an evil genius. He is constantly expanding, he is constantly adjusting.” Whatever King means by “expanding,” “failing” would have been a better choice of words. In just one of the four Asiri plots mentioned in article did his bomb detonate properly. That one killed only its bearer, al-Asiri’s brother. The nearby target, Saudi’s Prince Nayef, suffered only minor wounds.

Second, the article dubiously claims that two of those plots nearly wreaked great damage:

If it were not for a technical problem (Abdulmutallab’s device failed to detonate) or solid intelligence tips (Saudi counterterrorism officials alerted authorities in Dubai and Britain to intercept the cargo planes), Asiri would have succeeded in staging a catastrophic disaster in American skies.

It is, however, questionable whether Abdulmutallab’s bomb, had it properly detonated, was powerful enough to cause his plane to crash. Even if it opened a hole, the plane might not have crashed.

In the second case, where bombs were hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes, authorities tell us the detonators probably would have worked and could have downed the planes. But there remains a decent chance that detonation would have occurred while the planes were on the ground. Also, one reason that the devices made it on to cargo planes without detection is that they contain few people and thus justify less security. The death of a crew would have been tragic, of course, but “catastrophic disaster” is a stretch.

The likely success of terrorist plots can’t be assessed simply by looking at the stage of the plot that caused its failure. As Jim Harper argues, plots require success in a series of tasks, each of which drives down the odds of overall success. Bombs that are both difficult to detect and easy to detonate are tough to make, and competent bombers are hard to find. Borders have guards. Intelligence services employ double agents.

The article’s third error is its assertion that the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda has “taken advantage of Yemen’s political turmoil and seized large swaths of territory in the south.” That language conflates the terrorist group with a broader insurgency, confuses their goals, and overstates the group’s potency. The misperception invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.

Let’s review the record of the bombmaker who is labeled our “worst fear.” His organization has made no discernible progress towards its murky political objectives—though its Islamist protectors have gained territory amid a power vacuum. He has never produced mass violence nor apparently come close, and his most successful act of terrorism was to help his brother blow himself up. His next best effort resulted in a severe crotch burn for the bomber, who survived, talked to U.S. authorities for months, and is serving a life sentence.

That is “success” only under an exceedingly capacious definition. Bin Laden and his acolytes are being grandiose when they talk about bankrupting us. But their boasts show that “terrorism” remains a good label for their misbegotten efforts. They sustain their endeavors by imagining that violence, by generating fear and cost, will cause their enemy to fold and to accommodate their goals. By hyping their menace, we help them cling to that fantasy.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.