The biggest political story of the post-9/11 era may be the degree to which Washington’s response to the radical Islamic challenge misread the nature of that challenge, thereby empowering the most extreme Islamic elements and undermining U.S. national security. The decade of failure resulting from Washington hubris and provincialism seem, judging from the new panic over Yemen, to have taught Washington little about the process of Muslim radicalization. A few points about how that story seems to be playing out in Yemen follow. For those who have thought about the course of the Western-Islamic confrontation, it will sound all too familiar. nothing about the true dynamics underlying the
To make a very complex and poorly understood story as concise as possible, the worsening situation in Yemen seems characterized by at least the following list of underlying dynamics:
- Harsh U.S. military tactics inflame hostility;
- U.S. or proxy military campaigns in one country exacerbate violence later in another country;
- U.S. or proxy military campaigns in one country cause refugee flows that destabilize the society of other countries;
- Quick to judgment, Washington supports the very repressive regimes that were the source of the problem;
- Addressing the symptom of militant protest rather than the cause of popular dissatisfaction, Washington undermines its own interests;
- Using its military hammer to address the radicals’ talking points;
- Trusting local leaders who speak English and sport official titles, Washington fails to perceive the interests they share with local militants;
- Viewing the world through U.S. eyes, Washington fails to appreciate local regime priorities.
Again, the point here is not to claim to have “discovered” something new but to point out that, with Yemen, Washington seems in the process of making all the same mistakes that have undermined U.S. policy for a decade all over again.
Building on the abstract discussion of Muslim radicalization presented earlier, below are a few details about the Yemeni case.
War Crime Chickens Come Home to Roost. Following military attacks in December, which the Yemeni press is condemning as “massacres,” “dozens of Qaeda family members and local residents were killed, increasing anti-government sentiment.”
Military Campaigns Spread Chaos. Yemenis who fought in Iraq after the US invasion are now back in Yemen supporting radicalism there, duplicating a similar flow out of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Militant leaders in Pakistan have also reportedly begun transferring to Yemen. Poor as Yemen may be, the Yemeni population is flush with small arms, and militants reportedly are even sending arms to Somali Al Shabaab insurgents even as Al Shabaab reportedly plans to send fighters to Yemen. Chaos in Somalia has provoked refugee flow into Yemen, offering Yemeni radicals further opportunities for recruitment.
Supporting Repression. With people angry at misgovernment and radicals quick to exploit it, supporting a corrupt and repressive regime plays right into radical hands; in Yemen, the current regime has become increasingly repressive in a quest for permanent power and “is to a great extent the problem, not the solution.”
Symptoms, not Causes. With poverty, civil war that has left 100,000 homeless, and a growing water shortage far more characteristic of Yemen than some American nightmare of jihadi armies, the US provides military aiddetermined and concerted effort” to finance a counterterrorism unit in Yemen and ominously responded to a question about sending U.S. troops as off the table “at this point.” Britain, however, has already sent a counterterrorism unit to Yemen, while the U.S. is sending special forces, so Brennan’s remark about U.S. troops was invalidated before he even made it. and bombardment. U.S. Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan has admitted to the press that Washington plans “a
Failing to Address the Radical Critique of the West. In “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” Yemeni-American imam Anwar al Aklaki made several points that Washington, by its behavior over the last decade, has only made more persuasive. He characterized the contemporary period as a period “when Muslim lands are occupied by the kuffar, when the jails of tyrants are full of Muslim POWs, when the rule of the law of Allah is absent from this world and when Islam is being attacked in order to uproot it.” Al Aklaki also pointedly addressed Western media bias, noting:
The danger of the Western media stems from the fact that it puts on the cloak of truth and objectivity when in reality it is no more than the mouthpiece of the devil. Can’t you see that the Western media is constantly trying to underplay the atrocities committed by the West…
Trusting Local Leaders. Washington has a tendency to trust distant politicians just because they happen to be able to say the right things in English and because they are in power. “It is a threat to US security to under-estimate the level of enmeshment between the Yemeni state and al Queda.” Underscoring Obama’s letter of support for Yemen a few months ago, the high-level January 2 meeting between U.S. Central Command chief David Petraeus and President Saleh suggests that Washington is moving rapidly to make a highly questionable commitment to Saleh.
Misunderstanding Regime Priorities. Washington not only ignores popular priorities (e.g., water, employment, good governance), but it overlooks regime priorities. The Saleh regime seems far more concerned about retaining power and, in particular, about winning a civil war against an ethnic minority called the Houthis (a fight in which the U.S. has no dog) than with the global contest between radical Islam and the West. The Houthi rebellion against regime repression and Saudi interference seems “more a reaction to a dysfunctional governmentdraw Iran into a conflict that so far seems provoked more by Saudi Arabia itself than by Iran, Saudi claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Indeed, Iranian media have recently emphasized the extent of Saudi aggressiveness. than an inspired, centralized, ideological movement,” but the type of heavy-handed Saudi and U.S. military attacks that have recently killed numerous civilians could certainly transform it into an anti-Western movement. Saudi aggression may also
These dynamics interact in complex ways that should be carefully studied before any decision to intervene is even considered. It is hard to imagine an al Qua’ida recruiting technique that could be more effective than having the U.S. attack villagers from the air. Supporting a corrupt and repressive regime while ignoring the demands of Yemeni reformers needlessly makes the link between opposing the West and improving the lives of the Yemeni people. Moreover, whatever Washington does is viewed with suspicion because of the history of U.S.
intervention in the region on false pretexts.
In essence, two conflict are occurring. One is a domestic struggle between a regime desiring power and people desiring better governance. The secon d is a global struggle between jihadis and the West. For the West to win, it must prevent the two struggles from becoming mixed. For violent jihadis to win, they must convince the populace that the struggle for liberty and justice means combating the West. To the degree that the West can use judicial means to combat jihadis while either remaining aloof from the domestic struggle for liberty or—better—in some way becoming identified as a supporter, it gains. To the degree that the West becomes associated in popular perceptions with a repressive regime, the jihadis become the symbol of liberty, and they gain. To a great extent, the story of the post-9/11 world is the story of Washington’s failure to maintain the distinction between these two struggles.
One pitfall for the U.S. is for the reform movement and general population to perceive the U.S. as their enemy. The U.S. will almost inevitably fall into this pit if it attempts a military solution to the problem of eliminating terrorism because military means, especially those employed by the U.S., are unsuited to attacking militants hidden in a civilian population. The true believers will gladly sacrifice the lives of innocent civilians in order to win the war against the U.S. Emphasizing judicial methods not only reaffirms American principles but protects U.S. interests by minimizing the number of enemies it will make.
Another pitfall for the U.S. is allowing a regime the U.S. is cooperating with against jihadis to exploit that cooperation in its domestic struggle to defeat reformers and retain control. If the regime succeeds in doing so by playing on U.S. confusion between jihadis claiming the patriotic mantle and genuine reformers, the jihadis may seize control of the opposition movement.
Washington is undercutting American interests both by relying on counter-productive military measures and by failing to respond to Yemeni needs. Doing nothing might be dangerous, but it would quite possibly be significantly more effective than the policy that appears to be emerging in Washington.