February 28, 2010

Three Strikes In Yemen's Counterinsurgency

Brookings Institute is an arm of the US government. One look at their roll call shows this, but reading its reports and listening to speeches fully impresses the reality. Not that there is anything wrong with this setup.

Or is there?

Perhaps Matthew Frankel is a mouthpiece. We don’t mean to pick on him if so. But whatever the case, Frankel analyzes lessons from Pakistan to apply in Yemen’s insurgency. A profitable experiment - if the proper conclusions.

Frankel lists three points where Pakistan can be instructive and whiffs on all three.

First, “consistent U.S. pressure has galvanized the Pakistanis to take a more aggressive stance against the Taliban. Getting local forces on board is one of the larger obstacles facing us in Yemen.”

Almost true: consistent TTP pressure galvanized Pakistan. The TTP made a mistake in bringing its war into the cities. Had it laid low and aided the Taliban in Afghanistan, America would be in more trouble without Islamabad responding as it did. US pressure would have likely backfired without the TTP’s strategic error.

What should be understood is that extreme US pressure on an unpopular government mixed with an anti-US public is the wrong course of action in counterinsurgency in the long run. Pakistanis still want America to reduce its influence in their country.

Frankel’s next observation: “Our earlier efforts in Pakistan - which relied almost exclusively on one-off drone strikes against HVTs - also highlight the need for greater engagement in Yemen.”

Another half-truth, the evidence of governments. US policy in Yemen certainly requires more than drones to achieve lasting counterinsurgency progress against al-Qaeda. But compared to Pakistan, this means additional ground operations in rebel territory and boosted CIA/Blackwater operations.

Yemenis as a whole are not likely to accept these events.

“Finally, the Pakistan case demonstrates that in order to succeed, having a good understanding of enemy dynamics is mandatory.”

A confusing statement. Nothing is simpler than “know thy enemy,” so why did Frankel reach the conclusion that more force is the answer in Yemen? He came so close to an alternative.

He concludes, “In order to have a lasting impact against AQAP, the United States will have to do much more than just carry out or support raids and attacks against group commanders. Remote strikes and targeted raids need to be combined with broader operations, both military and non-military, to achieve maximum effectiveness. This means that, in order to succeed in Yemen, we will have to expand our efforts there and convince the Yemeni government to focus its attention on AQAP. Until that happens, we will simply be treading water with no hope of durable success.”

Aside the one mention of “non-military,” his answer is primarily military, with dash of civilian support. Frankel leaves us with outmoded counterinsurgency. But a glimmer of truth can be seen in Germany, where the exiled Ali Salem al-Baid called for “two days of southern sage” as Yemen and Saudi Arabia hold high-level meetings in Riyadh.

The streets delivered, something the TTP would not be capable of achieving across FATA towns.

“Protesters also demonstrated in the town of Lauder further northeast,” reports the AFP, “while in Dhaleh, thousands gathered in defiance of a curfew which had been imposed overnight, In Lahej, thousands demonstrated in the towns of Hutah and Al-Habilain, and rallies were held in Mukallah, the main city of Hadramawt.”

Reuters summarized Yemen officials as saying, “Security forces arrested 21 separatists trying to provoke rioting during demonstrations in a southern provincial capital as Yemen increased security to guard against attacks.”

The Southern Movement is demanding independence from Yemen - or death.

“It is too late for half measures or reforms,” said Zahra Saleh Abdullah, one of the few Southern Movement leaders who agreed to be identified. “We demand an independent southern republic, and we have the right to defend ourselves if they continue to kill us and imprison us.”

The New York Times reports, “Another movement leader, sitting across the room, held up a coin minted under the British in 1964 and pointed to the words engraved on it: South Arabia.”

“This is our true identity, not Yemen” he said, “A southern republic or death.”

Compared to Pakistan, southern Yemen is more Balochistan than Peshawar. There’s no sending in the drones then cleaning up the mess to the thanks of liberated refugees. Hostilities in north Yemen, where Houthi rebels once fought, have significantly decreased despite sporadic violence amid a slow implementation of the ceasefire.

But al-Qaeda isn’t in northern Yemen, its leaders are known to operate in southern Yemen, where the President Saleh is the most unpopular figure on Earth. And Frankel wants the Yemen army, paired with US forces, to increase operations in this powder-keg?

So we say Brookings is a factory of the government, despite the paradoxically dangerous “solutions” it produces for its maker. What we can apply from Pakistan to Yemen is more what not to do in counterinsurgency.

Rather than putting military options first, put non-military options first. Couple incentives to political and economic benchmarks instead of military objectives. Don’t lean too hard on the government, especially an unpopular one. Don’t rush to assassinate “terrorist targets” considered religious leaders.

Instead try to raise the government’s popularity, so that US assistance is eventually welcomed instead of grudgingly accepted and privately scorned.

Yemen is even poorer than Pakistan. The appearance must be kept up of increasing economic aid. This number should be double or triple military assistance (150$ million) and publicized just as much. America learned too late with the ill-fated Kerry-Lugar bill that counterinsurgency must be spearheaded by political and economic reform.

President Obama must remove the strings and help Yemen’s people in order to regain the local support needed to launch a campaign on AQAP.

Now, we plead guilty to naivety when we say President Saleh should get his military funding only when he politically addresses the Southern Movement. America should have made this demand part of the bargain the whole time, but it wasn’t and now it may be too late.

The Southern Movement, all of southern Yemen, has run out of patience. Negotiation may no longer be an option if Saleh refuses to allow the south to secede. Amidst the chaos America may be able to act covertly, but what problems will that truly solve?

Never would America be more in Yemen - and more out of it.

The last counterinsurgency Yemen needs is more pressure from Washington and more military operations in the openly hostile south. This strategy can’t even be called COIN. Non-military solutions must take precedent to safely navigate the turmoil, only then are military objectives capable of being permanently achieved.

America’s rapidly expanding war, as Frankel not so coincidentally advertises, comes off a last-ditch attempt to beat the clock before military operations become impossible in Southern Yemen.


  1. Unfortunately the Brookings Inst. has a lot of foreign policy influence in our bought and paid for state dept.

    Perhaps, just maybe, the U.S. might be thinking twice about their involvement in Yemen.



    Check these headlines. Hmmmm

  3. Brookings is an outlet where former government officials hibernate until the next political cycle and for those wishing to break into the White House. The US government buys them and Brookings borrows them. This wouldn't be so bad if its recommendations weren't a mix of liberal internationalism and neoconservatism.

  4. Luckily Brookings isn't the only think tank with a revolving door to the government.

    I'd rather have academics, despite some dumb ones getting through, than have this county being driven into the ground by an army of lawyers who have learned how to say almost anything with a straight face.