When Do We Go to War in Yemen?

That is the question posed at the National Journal’s National Security experts blog.

My response:

We shouldn’t even be contemplating war in Yemen, but we should also understand that the proposed expansion of security assistance to the government there is likely to pay only meager dividends.

Steven Metz gets at the nub of this problem in his two thoughtful posts (here and here). We have an unreliable ally. We have minimal capacity for making them more reliable. Neither of these observations are unique to Yemen. The same could be said of many other countries. Accordingly, we should concentrate our limited resources in a proactive and strategic – as opposed to a reactive and haphazard – way. 

Contrast that with Jim Carafano’s invocation of a new “axis of evil” and the implication that we have no choice but to deepen our involvement in Yemen (and Saudi Arabia and Somalia) while continuing to fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Oh, and let’s not forget that there are still about 110,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

To wit: “Sorry we have to fight on so many fronts….but it beats battling them on the Tarmac in Detroit.”

Sorry, but that just doesn’t fly. 

While impeding al Qaeda’s ability to carry out major terrorist attacks has and will entail multiple fronts in many countries, it is not obvious how this fight should be conducted, nor is it obvious that the fronts in Yemen and Somalia and Saudi Arabia (or Afghanistan and Pakistan, even) are instrumental to success or failure. Safe havens exist in many places, including stable democratic countries. Are we really committed to preventing any country from providing a safe haven? Does the concept of a physical safe haven even make sense in the virtual world of globalized communications and the Internet?

Leaving aside the dubious safe haven argument, Carfano’s either/or proposition (fight them there or fight them here) is equally flawed. We should think of security in layers. A man from Nigeria who trained in Yemen and attempted to detonate his underwear bomb in Detroit was thwarted by his own incompetence and the alertness of the airliner’s passengers. Too close for comfort, to be sure, and we have since learned of numerous points along the way where his travels could have been interdicted. But what we’ve learned about this failed attack doesn’t confirm that our only option is to focus on the one layer (Yemen = terrorist training ground) at the expense of the other layers. An equally compelling case could be made for ignoring Yemen, per se, and focusing on other means of interdicting terrorists that are not so heavily dependent upon unwilling and duplicitous allies, or that burden our overtaxed military with an open-ended mission in yet another failed state.