November 25, 2010

Seeing COIN in Yemen Before Believing

According to an anonymous tribal leader, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was indeed behind Wednesday's suicide bombing on a Houthi religious ceremony. al-Qaeda has in the past attempted to trigger sectarian conflict with spectacular bombings, and the ambush in the al-Metoon area of al-Jawf governorate resembled its work.

Though the Saleh government is believed to manipulate AQAP’s name to crack down on the Houthis and southern secessionists (one leader was arrested this month), the unnamed tribal chief laid out a sound case for AQAP’s guilt.

Earlier this year five members were captured by Houthi fighters at a check point in their territory. Rather than negotiate with AQAP leadership, the Houthis passed the unit through a regional leader in al-Jawf to Yemeni authorities, perhaps in a bid to gain confidence with the government. Several weeks before the bombing, AQAP allegedly distributed a statement in the al-Jawf area warning people of cooperating with the Houthi tribe. The Eid al-Ghadeer ceremony, a Shiite religious holiday, was branded “non-Muslim.”

AQAP then labeled the Houthis as “agents of Iran.” Rumors that Tehran funds the proxy group in defiance of Saudi Arabia and America have circulated since the Houthi’s rebellion began in 2004.

At first Houthi rebels ferreting out AQAP cells sounds like ideal counterinsurgency; relying on local tribesmen who know the terrain and population over unpopular government forces. America hopes for such a reaction wherever it goes. And ceasing support of the Houthis must have been viewed as unreasonable, necessitating the terror of a suicide bomber. But there’s a hole in this account.

Mohammed Abdul Salam, spokesman for the Houthis, accused U.S. and Israeli intelligence of plotting the attack.

AQAP’s leaflets had denounced the Houthis for being enemies of Islam and “not enemies of America and Israel as they claim to be in their slogans.” It’s possible, then, that AQAP ordered the bombing and that the Houthis are protecting their image as anti-government and anti-Western. Before the attack Salam approved of security forces as helpful.

“The attack bore the hallmarks of the U.S., and its main purpose was to bring about more sectarian conflicts in the country, disturb the people's security and eliminate lives,” Salam said in a statement afterward. “Only U.S. can take advantage of such an incident."

The group remains in combat with the government despite numerous attempts to negotiate a ceasefire. Washington expects to ramp up its military operations in this environment.

If only U.S. officials began their counterinsurgency campaign where they claim to be now, instead of filling the last year with air-strikes and military threats - drones, CIA, Special Forces, bases. The State Department's coordinator for counter-terrorism, Daniel Benjamin, finally told reporters that U.S. policy depends on two factors: developing civil institutions and addressing politico-economic problems.

He added, “We also have a good training and equipment program for the Yemeni forces that will be implemented in four years. The outcomes of this program have started to come out... We have a large counter-terrorism base in Yemen that we called Mission 10."

All the U.S. and Yemeni people have heard in 2010 is Mission 10.

While potentially well-intentioned, Benjamin’s lofty goals in State still ride in the Pentagon’s back seat. Military and security operations continue to dominate public focus and funding. Some Yemeni officials and independent observers believe that Washington subverts Yemen’s political institutions and ignores its economic plight - or even hypes AQAP's threat - in order escalate U.S. military activity. And Benjamin’s COIN speak should be coming out of higher authorities to shape the administration's overall policy.

Now may not be too late, but the belated development of an ideological message has reduced the chances of countering AQAP’s own propaganda. Moderate Egyptian cleric Amr Khaled recently designed a media campaign to amplify the government’s Islamic message, a necessary component of fourth-generation warfare. The problem is that Saleh - the source of the messenger - lacks credibility with rural Yemenis, the marginalized section of society that Khaled’s program aims to target. They have to work for it.

AQAP’s propaganda often creates a direct effect by handing out cash, digging wells, and providing security - in exchange for allegiance, of course. Running against the government is easier than running a government.

Most importantly, Washington's treatment of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains undecided, with the White House supposedly pushing back against the gung-ho Pentagon and its GOP allies in Congress. Public concern over Saleh’s actions - entrenching his family and allies in power, siphoning off funds, using U.S. training and equipment to combat the political opposition - may simply act as cover for a wider military campaign. The consensus appears to be that Saleh, for better and worse, remains the surest option to run U.S. operations through, as he’s weak enough to concede foreign assistance.

But sooner than later the White House’s hesitation will be tested for real. US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein deployed with Benjamin to push the State’s COIN blitz, defending Yemen as a functional state while looking ahead to parliamentary elections in April. Feierstein says the White House expects a free, fair, and open election that allows full participation, but its spotlight will have to burn Saleh to get one.

60% of Yemenis supposedly expect one

Yemen’s election could receive the special treatment like Afghanistan and Egypt, given that Washington benefits from preserving the status quo. Unfortunately most Yemenis won’t. U.S. officials still have time to review their policy of shielding Saleh in exchange for cooperation against AQAP, and whether military escalation will actually neutralize the group. Careful thought must be given to those so obviously baiting Washington with their "Operation Hemorrhage."

Without resolution in the north and south, U.S. strategy is likely to spin in circles. Changing directions will be even harder after April.

[Note: Another suicide bomber struck a Houthi funeral procession on Friday, killing a purported 40 people and 15 Houthi leaders. An official at Yemen's Interior Ministry told Xinhua, "We have reports that al-Qaida has expanded its operations towards northern areas located in the Yemeni-Saudi joint border long ago and what happened today was not the first operation of al- Qaida."

Yemeni officials quickly blamed AQAP for the first bombing, before Houthi officials accused U.S and Israeli intelligence. The region is awash with propaganda.]

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