“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” - al-Qaeda thrives on this motto. America, on the other hand, doesn’t seem as adept at fixing what’s broken. While reforming its tactics and strategy to avoid another Afghanistan-like invasion or Iraq-like rejection, al-Qaeda and its offshoots continue to bait Western militaries into failed or semi-failed states with relatively simple tactics.
Tap into the impoverished, politically marginalized, tribal and religious roots of any given state. Expand into transnational, organized crime. Pay well. Provoke overly-aggressive Western military action to scare local populaces and gain new recruits. Repeat.
Unfortunately Washington repeats its strategy even after failure. In conjunction with other with Western and regional governments, US Special Forces are first supplied to “train” local security forces, then buttressed by satellite and drone imaging along with transport logistics. Clandestine bases may be needed as well. To fund these initiatives Washington must look the other way as it pays off corrupt regimes, entrenching the local political system that’s often a source of problems. A drowning economy receives little attention at first and, once America gets around to increasing humanitarian aid, too much is siphoned off before it reaches people on the ground.
As the conflict deteriorates, Washington uses each new al-Qaeda plot to justify expanding militarism.
If one were to visit two capitals and hear various opinions from their respective political establishment, they would be forgiven for mixing up the two locations. In both the prelude and aftermath of AQAP’s parcel bombs, officials and analysts have deplored America’s military-centric reaction for intensifying their conflicts. So go al-Qaeda and US operations in Yemen and the Sahel.
"I have seen no evidence that would lead me to believe the international community or regional actors... have any vision for any sort of a strategy in Yemen," says Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University. "[Since] the attempted attack on an airliner over Detroit, the US is still lost in the desert in Yemen. The easy, almost reflexive answer has been to carry out air strikes, but this won't solve anything.”
Part of why this perverse cycle is so maddening stems from its seemingly obvious nature. Al Jazeera has rounded up the recent studies warning against military intervention in Yemen, most of which have been extensively quoted by international observers. It also informs readers that the Pentagon's proposed five-year, $1.2 billion security package dwarfs a three-year State Department commitment of $120 million.
"Unemployment is the radicalization problem," explained a high-level official working in economic development who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The economy is highly mismanaged due to the ineffectiveness of the government. You can clearly attribute the security problems in Yemen to the economy."
Of course these problems feed back into the government too. Nearly $3 billion pledged at a 2006 conference has yet to be spent, as international donors remain leery of widespread corruption. (Yemen ranked 146th in 2010's Corruption Perceptions Index, although to be fair its score is relatively decent compared to Iraq and Afghanistan, paired at 175 and 176.) And with the oil and gas industries accounting for 75 % of revenues and 90% of exports, President Ali Abdullah Saleh is under increasing pressure to consolidate his power before Yemen’s reserves run dry, predicted within the next decade. Yemen’s political and economic system must reform hand in hand.
No amount of Reapers and US Special Forces “trainers” can change this reality, nor the climate in the Sahel desert.
Algeria’s economic status isn’t nearly as poor as Yemen’s. Enjoying vast petroleum and natural gas reserves, Algeria’s GDP per capita exceeds $7,000, three times what the average Yemeni earns. Unemployment (10%) is roughly a quarter of Yemen’s. However, the battlefield against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) extends beyond its borders into more troubled states: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and the West African coast. These states’ economic fundamentals mirror Yemen’s own troubles.
And as with Sana'a, relations between the US and Algerian governments assume suspicious dimensions. In both cases Washington has exploited a suspect government by offering political and military security in exchange for their fealty. Yet this arrangement doesn’t necessarily negate those officials who publicly diverge from US strategy, even if they remain on the private payroll. Whether they mean it or not, these states require extensive economic reform before lasting-security gains can be made.
"If tomorrow we have a western presence in any country whatsoever (in this region), they (the terrorists) are going to become mujahideen and then we create a hell with the best intentions in the world,” Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia recently told reporters before addressing the National Assembly.
Replying to a question on Western "pressure,” Ouyahia responded, "We are under pressure from anyone and our position is as clear as the spring water... We tell our friends from around the world that Sahelian countries need support and respect. As long as there is no development, security remains fragile.”
Aside from political and economic reform, Western efforts to stem the drug flow between South America and West Africa pale in comparison to the military focus on AQIM. So it wasn’t surprising to hear from Abdelmalek Sayah on the same day. The chief of Algeria’s National Anti-Drugs and Addiction Office (ONLCDT) concluded, "The connection between narcotics and terrorism is proven in the Sahel region. We know that planes have landed in Mali and Mauritania several times, carrying in each trip, up to four tons of cocaine.”
Claiming that over 20 tons passed through the two countries in 2009, Sayah further estimated that 240 tons of cocaine from Brazil, Peru and Colombia have transited through West Africa since 2008. 74 tons of cannabis were seized in 2009 compared to 38 tons in 2008, a trend Sayah claims has turned Algeria from a transit country into a consumer. The same pattern has likely struck Mali and Mauritania.
It’s also turned AQIM into a millionaire’s club, now reportedly on an arms shopping spree with an estimated $100 million saved from 2003 to 2010.
Though each region contains its own differences and nuances, their similarities leave no doubt as to what they need and what they don’t. Honesty serves as the common denominator. With Yemen’s war on the rise due in large part to America’s influence, US officials continue to promote military action with minimal respect for non-military programs. It’s left to the US media to inform Americans that US policy is exasperating the conflict by propping up an unpopular regime.
Yemen’s situation has been matched by rumors that Algeria’s intelligence agency, Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), pulls the strings on AQIM, with America willing to comply so as to military encroach on the Sahara. Unfortunately few Western journalists know their way around the desert, leaving this information even more obscured than Yemen’s dilemma. And animosity between Algeria and Morocco remains unchecked, evidenced by Algeria's boycott of Morocco during a recent EU summit. Whereas the opening of their land border, closed since 1994 after an attack Morocco attributed to the DRS, is widely suggested as a remedy, Sayah justified its closure with the illegal drug trade.
Perceptions take on a reality of their own in counterinsurgency and US strategy suffers from the same image crisis in Yemen and Algeria. The reality of America’s imbalance between military and non-military aid causes damage in itself, then reverberates into the perception that America is insensitive to local needs. This perception further rubs off on local governments, distorting both the ground situation and how people view it, and completes a vicious negative cycle.
Washington is broadcasting the wrong policy and image in both conflicts, yet it doesn’t appear to feel an urge to change - even as its government partners voice their doubts. The only one celebrating US strategy is al-Qaeda.