Yemen: More Resistance

Given how well it worked in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, why not Yemen?

According to a U.N. official, “Despite all counterterrorism efforts, al-Qaeda in Yemen has not retreated.”

Let me translate that:

Despite Washington’s sabotaging of the democracy protests and queering of the “election” process to ensure retention of the dictatorship (albeit without the dictator), so that drones strikes on anti-government militants that the government swears are “al Qua’ida” can continue, organized military opposition to the government continues.

The only surprise is that anyone is surprised.

And now, according to USA Today, “The Pentagon is planning to restart programs that would fund military training and equipment in Yemen, nearly a year after they were shut down because of escalating chaos in the embattled country.” Presumably, the programs are being restarted because of escalating chaos in the embattled country.

Is there an Alternative?
We are clearly seeing in Yemen a repeat of what has, since 9/11, become the automatic application of brute American force to resolve fundamental socio-political issues in Muslim societies. Clearly, this approach does not work.

the American military presence post-withdrawal is a very tenuous and uncertain proposition. By every reckoning, it is just a wild-goose chase for America….American military presence, come as it will predictably as a foisted tool, is sure to further destabilise this unfortunate land. [Frontier Post 3/11/12.]

With simultaneous displays of violence in Palestine, Yemen, and Afghanistan by the Washington-Tel Aviv axis, this description of how Washington’s policy of conflict resolution by violence cuts to the chase:

The United States continually pours funding into the Afghan National Police force, into these Afghan National Security Forces, into forces that will secure the TAPI pipeline, for instance, and the Afghan Local Police, the Arbakai. And it’s as though the only kind of security is that which comes from one group having heavier arms and more weapons and ammunition and so-called training than another. But what about health security and food security? And what about the fact that it’s claimed by numerous human rights groups that children in Afghanistan are starving to death at the rate of 250 per day, according to some?

The United States has, I think, done its best to secure the potential for a roadway, the pipeline, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, 450 bases that might be maintained, huge prisons. They’re still spending $100 million on construction of a new prison near the Bagram Air Force Base. And meanwhile, the conditions in Afghanistan are deplorable. People have endured a very harsh winter, as Democracy Now! has covered several times. And the rage that people understandably feel when $2 billion is being spent per week on maintaining an occupation, while people within Afghanistan are desperate just to try to find food to feed their families, it’s something that all of the surveillance and the analysis that the United States studies simply won’t understand. [Democracy Now 3/12/12.]

Washington’s policy of violence is failing in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, and now Yemen. [See the Guardian’s marvelous graphical summary of Arab protests for an overview of the last year’s events.] Shedding light on what may be the actual political dynamics in Yemen, one local newspaper observed:

Yemeni politicians and analysts accused the ousted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh of using Al-Qaeda to intimidate some Western countries with the aim of keeping his relatives in their military positions. [Yemen Post 3/11/12.]

The military killing of enemy combattants without addressing the underlying socio-political grievances that give them their popularity is the sweeping away of protest waves on the ocean of popular anger. When the killing of combattants is performed in the context of repeated murder of innocent civilians, it is not just futile but extraordinarily counter-productive. 


Yemeni rights organizations condemned the alleged U.S. airstrikes, calling them illegal. HOOD, a prominent Sanaa-based rights organization, said that no one has the right to kill another person without first bringing that person to trial. 

“This is illegal and dozens were killed without given a chance to prove their case. We are against any U.S. attack in Yemen,” said Mohammed Nagi Allow, HOOD’s president. [CNN 3/12/12.]


So, is there an alternative?

Theory is always easier than practice, but to start somewhere, in theory, the alternative is a vigorous program of socio-political reform to empower the population at the expense of the elite. The best defense against violent revolution is vigorous reform. Now, John Adams and Franklin Roosevelt may have understood that, but today this point is hardly accepted even in the U.S. by the ruling elite, so expecting that same elite to apply such an approach to Yemen is wishful thinking. Nevertheless, the fact remains that practical application of this theory in the U.S. created the conditions for a half century of dramatic economic growth and a fairly steady, moderate rise in equality and justice.

This does not prove that freedom and justice would work in Yemen, and it certainly does not mean U.S. taxpayers must foot the bill, but over the past year, thousands of Yemeni citizens have risked their lives in a volunteer effort to create a democracy that, in its willingness to make personal sacrifices, is simply unimaginable to comfortable, short-sighted Americans.* At a minimum, all Washington needs to do is follow the doctor’s mantra: DO NO HARM! Simply stand aside and permit moderate, popular, democratic reform. Who knows? Perhaps the Yemeni 99%, like the Egyptian 99%, are more capable than we think. 

It’s not just irrational regimes that need changing but elitist, abusive regimes, and this is the way to do it.


Saleh’s Ultimate Weapon: Apres Moi, C’est al Qua’ida!

With exquisite timing, “Yemen’s army repelled an attack…by al Queda in the Arabian Peninsula,” according to Saleh’s regime, as Saleh ran out of all options for maintaining his dictatorship except waving the bloody flag of “terror” in Washington’s face. Why not? It has worked for him so far, and, indeed, might, with a grain of salt, even just possibly be true, but could al Qua’ida be so shortsighted as to pick this moment to make its move, giving Saleh precisely what he wants?

True or not, the “attack” came in the nick of time to bolster the fortunes of a leader who has few friends left outside of Riyadh and some corners of Washington. Needless to say, some in the U.S. mainstream media bought his claim hook, line, and sinker (e.g., CNN).
Meanwhile, as clashes erupt between pro- and anti-Saleh military units, tanks in Yemen’s capital are taking the nearly unprecedented step for an Arab country of protecting (!) the people. The West should note this precedent: government military forces being used not to protect politicians but to protect the people. What is this world coming to…
What it may be coming to is a struggle between military dictators and democrats. After all, the military is still running things in Egypt, the military is increasingly running things in Iran, Israel is transforming itself from a pioneering democracy into a garrison state, Bahrain has turned to its and its neighbors’ militaries to stifle popular aspirations, and Gaddafi is relying on military power to defeat his adversaries. As for Yemen,
What Ali Muhsin is doing is setting himself up for a post-Salih future and further limiting who will have to go.  His statement today – and it is important to note that he didn’t say he was joining the protesters, only supporting and protecting them – puts him in position to head the military or military council under the next government. [Gregory Johnsen.]
As with Egypt, the rise of the military to overt political control is the same old gang playing musical chairs. The attack on El Baradei appears to be one example, and the pro-regime bias in the media (something that will shock Americans, I’m sure) may be another. It remains to be seen how much influence the changing socio-political context will have on governmental structures or the behavior of rulers.

Yemen: The Problem Is the Regime, Not Yemeni Society

Although the rapid progression of events in Yemen give the impression that the country’s political system is collapsing, a slightly more rigorous evaluation suggests a significant degree of system resilience. Anti-social regime behavior should not be misinterpreted as indicative of system collapse; the other side of the coin is the behavior of society.
When society submits, either through hopelessness or naïve trust, the elite (not just the politicians but also the financial and corporate elite) are free to fill their own pockets. Understanding the nature of a country requires consideration of both the regime and the society. For example, an ominously powerful regime, e.g., that of the Soviet Union under Chernenko or Iran under the Shah, may be a house of cards. Yemen, perhaps surprisingly, shows admirable signs of socio-political resilience, all the tension and violence notwithstanding.
Evaluation of behavior harmful to the political system can provide an initial analysis of the situation in Yemen. Two criteria are used here, as illustrated in the ‘Behavior Harmful to the Yemeni Political System’ chart: whether the behavior is individual or social and the status of the actor. The higher the status of the actor engaged in harmful behavior and the greater degree to which the harmful behavior represents a social norm, the more diseased the political system.

Yemen’s political problems are caused by the regime.
Although the stream of events might give the impression that Yemen’s political system is about to collapse, harmful behavior in Yemen over the past two months is not centered in Quadrant D, which would suggest extreme system pathology. Rather, harmful behavior is generally the result of the president’s desires, e.g., goon squads sent by his security forces to attack peaceful protesters, attacks on protesters by soldiers (presumably, again, on presidential orders), or attacks by regime supporters in response to regime encouragement. The political system includes not just the regime but also society. Despite the general availability of weapons, violence is the near monopoly of the regime, suggesting that regime change rather than fundamental lack of political system functionality is the solution. Despite all the chaos and tension in Yemen, this, for those aspiring to achieve a more just society, is very good news.

This initial test of Yemen’s political system may be thought of as analogous to a quick check of your blood pressure. It is a snapshot of one view of the whole complex system. Additional tests will follow, looking at such aspects as protester behavior and changes over time, as subsequent posts continue the diagnosis of the health of Arab political systems in revolt.

One Small Step Toward Rational Foreign Policy

Has Obama defeated the ominous war party of U.S. and Israeli extremists and obtained time for thoughtful reflection on how to resolve the U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute in a rational manner?

So it would seem, judging from a persuasive analysis by Gary Sick. In his review of relations with Iran before the Knesset on Dec. 23 chief warmonger Netanyahu focused on sanctions, saying calmly that “time will tell if these sanctions will be enough to halt the Iranian nuclear program,” and gave no real sense of emergency. Time will also tell whether or not Netanyahu has decided that beating the war drums is no longer a productive way of making friends and influencing people in Washington. For the moment, Obama seems to have some breathing room.

Sick wrote of an Obama “victory over Iran.” The real enemy facing Obama in Sick’s account, however, was the war party in Washington, and that is the party Obama appears at least momentarily to have defeated.

Now Clinton, who threatened to annihilate Iran during the election, is now calling for targeted sanctions “on the elite,” a remarkably more sophisticated understanding of how to conduct foreign policy.

No hint yet exists of a fundamental restructuring of U.S. policy toward the Mideast that would countenance welcoming into regional affairs an independent-minded Iran, but Iran can hardly expect anything along those lines as long as it continues its savage oppression of domestic dissidents and its policy of shoving its nuclear independence in the world’s face. One step at a time is quite enough to kick off the new decade, and this step toward re-humanizing the American image of Iranians is a good one. It is a far step from viewing Iranian officials as “mad mullahs” to viewing them as cost-benefit analysts capable of moderating policy in order to preserve their rights to travel somewhere or trade with someone. The former is a tunnel straight to war with no side exits; the latter is normal business with a tough adversary, i.e., normal foreign policy.

Let’s pretend that a “new decade” is in fact a genuine starting point, put behind us all the sorry history of mutual insults from the mouths of Iranian, Israeli, and American politicians, and look forward. Watch for:

  • Israeli rhetoric about the Iranian threat;
  • Iranian willingness to actually cut a deal, any deal on the nuclear issue, rather than just have more talks;
  • Neo-con efforts to undercut progress in U.S.-Iranian ties;
  • Any mixing of the incomprehensible mess in Yemen with U.S.-Iranian nuclear ties.

What game is Washington playing in Yemen? Is it making clear distinctions between short-term enticements and long term security?

Grading Washington’s Yemen Policy.
I recently posed the following question about Washington’s reaction to the Yemeni situation:

Should one be impressed that a global empire can turn on a dime and alter global policy in response to a single “underpants bomber” or should one view such a reaction as ludicrously amateurish?

Failing – Missing Big Economic Picture.
Here is an economic argument about the just opened Dauletabad-Sarakhs-Khangiran pipeline making Iran and Turkmenistan partners in the global gas business that Washington is missing the big picture in its obsession with chasing terrorist gangs:

We are witnessing a new pattern of energy cooperation at the regional level that dispenses with Big Oil. Russia traditionally takes the lead. China and Iran follow the example. Russia, Iran and Turkmenistan hold respectively the world’s largest, second-largest and fourth-largest gas reserves. And China will be consumer par excellence in this century. The matter is of profound consequence to the US global strategy.

Undoubtedly, Washington is trying to play both games simultaneously, always attacking Muslim “terrorists” in places that either have petroleum or sit on potential petroleum shipping routes. But is America’s global domination being undermined by Washington’s (take your choice) 1) obsession with Muslim extremist groups that oppose U.S. hegemony or 2) exploitation of the “war on terror” to facilitate its preference for using force to retain global leadership?

Passing – Seizing the Geo-Strategic Initiative.
In contrast, here is a geo-strategic argument viewing U.S. intervention in Yemen as a move to ensure continued U.S. domination over the Indian Ocean (with an eye on both Iran and China):

history has no instances of a declining world power meekly accepting its destiny and walking into the sunset. The US cannot give up on its global dominance without putting up a real fight. And the reality of all such momentous struggles is that they cannot be fought piece-meal. You cannot fight China without occupying Yemen.

Both arguments have merit. Washington’s incessant war-making while Russia, China, Iran, and friends from Turkey to Turkmenistan quietly sign petroleum contracts looks more than a bit irrational and self-defeating. On the other hand, Yemen would certainly be a grand spot to occupy for a good old nineteenth century empire.

Saleh’s past support for Saddam and current repression of dissent suggest he might be more than happy to allow Washington to transform him into a new Saddam to rule Yemen on American behalf. But recall that in the end Washington became disenchanted with Saddam and launched a war against him in 1991 that continues today, in the process doing much to stimulate bin Laden’s career. Even assuming that Washington could create a Yemeni regime in the style of the cosy Saddam-Reagan relationship of, say, 1985, would this really offer Washington a solid foundation for designing a secure future?

The question is whether the U.S. should be trying to ensure its national security in the 21st century with a bet that in the end nothing has changed in the last 200 years. Might the better part of valor instead lie along the lines of asserting leadership of a new world based on recognition of Muslim demands for a new deal and the renunciation of a foreign policy grounded in the use of force just because force is what Washington possesses in excess?

Questions About Yemen

As the Empire mobilizes its irresistable forces in outraged response to the latest pinpricks of a single fairly incompetent group of Muslim extremists, it is hard to keep the scene in perspective. The Empire looks impressive, with its endless array of weapons and dollars. Exactly how is one to assess the balance of forces?

  • Should one be impressed that a global empire can turn on a dime and alter global policy in response to a single “underpants bomber” or should one view such a reaction as ludicrously amateurish?
  • Is what appears to be the focusing onto little Yemen of something in the neighborhood of $100 million in response to the tiny Yemeni extremist challenge a move to strengthen the empire’s foundations and extend its reach or an appalling waste that cedes the initiative to the opponent at a ratio of dollars to pennies invested that even a global force cannot afford for long?

A decade of lurching from one battlefield to another has enabled the Empire to win many fights, construct an enormous array of new military bases, and make deals with all sorts of new folks. However, it is not clear that the string of day-to-day military victories adds up to anything beyond the ability to fight again on the morrow. It is not clear that any actual enemy can be defeated by using all the new military bases. And then there are those new folks Washington is dealing with.

About the only thing that is actually clear in a decade-long battle is that despite all the power and expenditure and “victories,” Washington is not yet winning. The conflict just keeps moving around, with the new battlefields appearing more complicated than the old and the old all remaining open sores very much subject to future re-infection.

Consider, since Yemen is fashionable this week, the case of Yemen.

It is now being said in the media that Washington is working in Yemen with some of Saddam’s expatriate intelligence guys. The U.S. has been fighting against these guys since 1991, i.e., most of their careers. Might they just possibly have some personal issues with a sudden joint project? It’s worse than that. For the last six or seven years, events have been pushing these anti-fundamentalist secularists into the arms of al Qua’ida, as each force searched for allies against American occupation of Iraq. Might some lasting friendships have been formed?

Then there’s Washington’s other new ally, the Yemeni regime. Former Saddam ally and currently trying to beat into submission a whole range of domestic political opponents who for some reason feel they have the right to participate in the political process, the current regime also has a record of readiness to work with local Muslim extremists that rivals that of Pakistani intelligence.

So the question arises, “Does Washington’s new effort to combat extremism in Yemen by working with such folks strengthen the U.S. or just expose it to further future disasters?

Of course, I do not know the answer to any of these questions. I doubt that anyone does. The real question is, “Is anyone even asking these questions?”

The al Qua’ida Trap

Patrick Cockburn of the Independent on al Qua’ida trap:

the real strength of al-Qaeda is that a quite small incident, that a botched attempt by a Nigerian student briefly in Yemen to blow up a plane, can then precipitate a whole change in international relations and US—greater US support for the Yemeni government, a greater involvement in a really difficult country. This seems to me walking straight into a sort of al-Qaeda trap. You know, at the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda quite openly—leaders quite openly said that their hope was to entrap the US into ground wars in Muslim countries. And that seems to be exactly what’s happening.

Cockburn is referring to exactly the mistake that is discussed in yesterday’s post on Yemeni Radicalization Dynamics.

Yemeni Radicalization Dynamics

Is Washington about to fall once again into bin Laden’s trap and dig itself yet another hole in the Mideastern sands?

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:

  1. Harsh U.S. military tactics inflame hostility;
  2. U.S. or proxy military campaigns in one country exacerbate violence later in another country;
  3. U.S. or proxy military campaigns in one country cause refugee flows that destabilize the society of other countries;
  4. Quick to judgment, Washington supports the very repressive regimes that were the source of the problem;
  5. Addressing the symptom of militant protest rather than the cause of popular dissatisfaction, Washington undermines its own interests;
  6. Using its military hammer to address the radicals’ talking points;
  7. Trusting local leaders who speak English and sport official titles, Washington fails to perceive the interests they share with local militants;
  8. 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.