Yemen Won’t Be Another Afghanistan

November 10, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared on The Guardian: Comment Is Free on November 10, 2010.

Several recent attempted terrorist attacks — including the discovery late last month of printer cartridges packed with explosives on board two cargo planes bound for and, as now revealed, targeted at the United States — have put the spotlight on Yemen, the country from which the plot originated and where the suspected bomb‐​maker is believed to be hiding.

In addition to this most recent plot, the failed attempt to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit in December 2009, and the failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in March 2010, have some connection to the impoverished land at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. And, as an added bonus, Yemen is the ancestral home of the bin Laden clan.

Notably, however, counterterrorism experts have not called for a full‐​scale military invasion of the country. On the contrary, since the attacks were discovered, several commentators urged thought over action, and none called for war. This point of view aligns with opinion inside of the Obama administration.

However, the Washington Post reports that the failed mail bomb attacks have convinced US military commanders “to take the gloves off”. For now, the effort extends to greater use of Predator drones, and enhanced cooperation with Yemeni officials. Joint training operations are also under consideration. “The only thing that does fall into the ‘no’ category right now,” one Obama administration official told the Post, “is boots on the ground.”

The administration’s measured response is encouraging. Very few Americans are in a hurry to get involved in another major military operation, especially while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to drag on (at a cost of more than $15bn a month).

The distinctive lack of enthusiasm for war in Yemen is likely indicative of more than an Iraq and Afghanistan syndrome. It would be a gross overreaction to flood Yemen with tens of thousands of US troops in order to kill or capture bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan al‐​Asiri. Likewise, the United States should continue its efforts to disrupt the internet preachings of Anwar al‐​Awlaki, the American‐​born cleric who purportedly inspired the failed underwear and Times Square bombers, as well as Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the army psychologist who murdered 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, a year ago.

But a wider effort to attempt to turn Yemen into a functioning nation state would fall victim to one of the most pernicious post‐​9/​11 myths: that we can only be secure by repairing weak or failing states.

In fact, few failed states have provided havens for terrorists, while a number of healthy states have done so. It is not state failure, per se, that threatens our security. Even in Afghanistan during the 1990s, the supposed leading example of this phenomenon, the trouble was that the government allied with al‐​Qaida, not that there was no government. There is no evidence that Yemeni leaders share al-Qaida’s absurdly grandiose goals. They are much more focused on putting down an internal unrest.

Looking beyond the case of Yemen, large‐​scale nation‐​building missions are costly and unnecessary, in general. The same goes for a heavy ground presence. Several experts note that physical “safe havens” are less significant than once thought, and are easily disrupted without a large number of troops (see, for example, Paul Pillar and John Mueller). A foreign troop presence often converts local extremists, who might otherwise concern themselves with resisting their own governments, into international terrorists interested in killing westerners or anyone who might make common cause with outsiders.

The White House, the Pentagon and even the most hawkish voices in the US Congress apparently agree that it would be madness to invade and occupy Yemen in order to disrupt terrorism that might emanate from there. One hopes that this wisdom seeps into the Obama administration’s review of policy in Afghanistan. For if targeted operations have killed terrorist leaders and otherwise disrupted their ability to carry out future attacks in Yemen and elsewhere, that same approach most certainly could be used in Afghanistan.

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