Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Don't lose perspective on Yemen

The failed underpants bomber's alleged (and in my view probable) ties to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have led to an outburst of calls to "do something" about Yemen. President Obama says it is a high priority to partner with the Yemeni government. British PM Gordon Brown calls for a global Yemen summit. Joe Lieberman warns that Yemen will be the next war. In fact, this risks becoming a classic case of massive overreaction playing right into the hands of a terrorist group. The Obama administration, which actually has been working on the Yemen issue all year, now risks falling right back into the classic catalog of Bush-era conceptual and practical mistakes as it scrambles for a response. To get Yemen right will require getting the complicated terrain of Yemeni and Gulf politics right -- not just looking for some kind of military intervention or an influx of foreign aid in order to be seen to have "done something", and not reducing it to an al-Qaeda or COIN problem.

Direct American military intervention in Yemen is so obviously ludicrous that it shouldn't even need to be said. Even the hyper-interventionist conservatives at the Washington Post op-ed page allow that "U.S. ground troops are not needed, for now." They never should be. The U.S. is already struggling to fully resource and equip a mission in Afghanistan which has been defined -- rightly or wrongly -- as vital to American security and interests. The U.S. simply does not have the resources to embark on a military mission in Yemen. If you think Afghanistan is a sinkhole, you will love Yemen. The yawning gap between the extent of U.S. interests and the resources necessary to make a difference is even greater in Yemen than in Afghanistan. And the optics of yet another American military intervention in the Arab world -- under Obama, no less -- would be devastating to the wider Obama outreach strategy. (On the positive side, at least committing scarce U.S. troops to Yemen would make a military strike against Iran that much less likely.)

The rush to partner with the Yemeni government to "tackle extremism", as Gordon Brown says, illustrates the need to think carefully about the political dimension. The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is to a great extent the problem, not the solution. Ever since Saleh recanted on his vow to not seek re-election and cheated his way to victory over Faisal bin Shamlan (who symbolically died this week), Yemen's political system has taken a sharp turn for the worse. Corruption, always bad, has skyrocketed. So have human rights abuses and political repression, including a wide range of attacks on media freedoms. Heavy-handed security services have a lot to do with the outbreak and perpetuation of the Houthi rebellion; as Joost Hilterman points out, "the Houthi leadership has portrayed its position as purely defensive against acts of state oppression and attacks by the Yemeni army." In short, partnering with the Yemeni government to provide honest, legitimate government may seem like a good response, but it is not likely to succeed. If you like working with Hamid Karzai, you're going to love Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Saleh government is more preoccupied with the Houthi rebellion, raging since 2004, than with AQAP even if we care more about the latter. The Yemeni government is also worried about the southern insurrection, and about keeping Saleh in power at any cost. Combating "extremism" is a vague formulation which misses the complexities of these multiple insurgencies and political challenges. The Yemeni government will no doubt be happy to take American and international money and support to strike against its enemies, but don't expect that it will do anything approaching what we want them to do.

Other very smart people suggest -- correctly -- that military solutions aren't going to do it, and that the better response would be more development assistance. Development assistance is nice, and I'm generally for this kind of whole-of-government assistance and engagement, but Yemen is one of the most underdeveloped places on earth, with a vast expanse and an inhospitable terrain and extremely limited state penetration. It is also mind-bogglingly corrupt. Development aid sent to the Yemeni government will likely simply be funneled in to the same kinds of projects that are currently well-funded (many of them on the Riviera), or else wasted like water in the ocean.