April 13, 2010

America Striking Out in Yemen

“Awlaki is a proven threat,” a US official told Reuters news agency. “He’s being targeted.”

One storm came and went in January, and now, less than a week after that quote touched off a second storm, the winds have already subsided. Debate over the legality of assassinating a US citizen - specifically the al-Qaeda-linked Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki - remains inconclusive.

Not in the White House though. Announcing that Awlaki is a new target is, “probably good public relations in the war on terrorism,” the sourced added. “It sends a message to extremists that we are willing to play hardball.”

That extremists don’t realize America plays hardball is obviously nonsensical. The joke is on America, down 0-2 in the count, and looking like it won’t get another chance before it’s too late. Might won’t make right in Yemen.

The case of al-Awlaki is covered in legal, emotional, and counter-terrorism trappings that must be stripped away. The cleric has grown white hot as a political topic and while these aspects are valid considerations, they obscure the political and military ramifications of his death. A discussion of whether killing al-Awlaki is sound counterinsurgency has inexcusably failed to materialize.

Current policy in Yemen is almost guaranteed to compound the situation on the ground, increasing rather than reducing al-Qaeda’s position in the region.

Legality and morality have combined to create the primary diversion. While the “left” rushes to defend the constitution, the “right” evokes 9/11, terrorism, and evil. Left and right are used loosely since Republicans can be constitutionalists and some Democrats favor assassination programs, but the divide once again formed between those for and against the so called “War on Terror.”

Both sides missed the point in the process: will America continue to make poor military decisions - like Iraq - because it was the “right thing to do?”

Freeing ourselves of morals, if killing al-Awlaki or anyone of similar circumstances is illegal under US law, the action should be considered if it follows proper counterinsurgency. Conversely, legal authorization to kill should still be avoided unless the action is beneficial to the stabilizing the conflict.

A second debate, eschewing the legal emphasis, also misses the point. No one can argue that capturing al-Awlaki is more advantageous than killing him, but the principle would remain unchanged.

Right now the battlefield isn’t prepared for al-Awlaki’s removal and would not respond in America’s favor. US counterinsurgency is failing at the national and local level in Yemen, a red alert.

As part of the White House’s media roll-out, Jane Harman, the Democrat chairman of the House homeland security subcommittee, called al-Awlaki, “probably the person, the terrorist, who would be terrorist number one in terms of threats against us.”

“He very much in the sights of the Yemenis,” she told Reuters, “with us helping them.”

The next day Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi denied the US’s claim, saying, "Anwar al-Awlaki has to us been always looked at as a preacher rather than a terrorist and shouldn't be looked at as a terrorist unless the Americans have evidence that he has been involved in terrorism.”

Rampant anti-American sentiment in Yemen inhibits its officials from cooperating with Washington in public, sometimes in private, and the effects are no less evident at the local level, where America faces its greatest threat. We're confused by the CIA and US military’s high-tech means of gathering intelligence, and their inability to pick up a phone.

They would quickly learn from Ahmed al-Misri, governor of the southern province of Abyan, that killing al-Awlaki via airstrike or Special-Ops is the wrong road to take.

Abyan is the center of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Misri and local chiefs describe Al Qaeda militants moving freely between Bedouin villages in the mountainous desert, territory that resembles Afghanistan. The name “Al Qaeda” doesn’t exists to many. Here it’s an innate piece of the social fabric.

Misri reveals just how backwards US policy is in Yemen. Non-military aid has been eclipsed by hundreds of millions in military assistance. Washington says it’s privately pressuring President Saleh to engage in political and economic reform, but so far America has no impact on the ground other than weapons and intelligence.

And death.

According to Misri, US-supported airstrikes in December targeting al-Awlaki wiped out an entire Bedouin village, saying 14 of the dead were Al-Qaeda operatives while another 45 were civilians. “If the government doesn’t give a clear apology for what happened, people will turn a blind eye to the presence of Al Qaeda members.” The Obama administration stayed silent throughout the air-strikes.

This is all flawed counterinsurgency.

On the other hand al-Qaeda appears to be running a solid insurgency. Misri describes the group making initial contact through religious dialog, then offering services to local community like distributing cash and AK-47s, building infrastructure, and sucking up the local economy in the process.

“Say the government is paying someone $50,” Misri said. “They will pay $100.”

Being native al-Qaeda doesn’t need to strong-arm its way into authority, and its soft hand allows them to reap protection from the tribes and recruit foot soldiers. Thus al-Qaeda has a secure hold on its territory in Abyan province, also home to al-Awlaki’s tribe. If America really wants al-Qaeda out of Yemen it must win the allegiance of the tribes and southern secessionists. That has been our message and Misri gives the same account.

The strength of resistance groups will grow, he warns, without a political solution and a spike in international humanitarian aid. “We need more help to get the tribes to kick them [Al Qaeda] out,” he said. “The government does not have the resources to do that.”

But killing al-Alwaki will solidify a war.

As word of Washington’s death kiss spread the Al-Awalik tribe held council on Saturday to debate the matter. In an official statement published after the meeting, the tribal elders announced they would, "not remain with arms crossed if a hair of Anwar al-Awlaki is touched, or if anyone plots or spies against him.”

"Whoever risks denouncing our son (Awlaki) will be the target of Al-Awalik weapons," the statement said in a warning "against cooperating with the Americans.”

The evidence is overwhelming that regardless of the “right” or "just" decision, might will not serve to accomplish the end of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Anwar al-Awlaki's tribe and others aligned with al-Qaeda are America’s only real solution in Aryan province, but their favor will be critically jeopardized in the event of al-Awlaki’s termination. Killing him will spread the AQAP virus.

Where is David Kilcullen?

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