December 2, 2010

Is Yemen’s Cable a Breaking Point?

Contrary to the demonization of WikiLeaks, some of its anecdotes could be viewed as blessings in disguise. Before switching to their “threatening international diplomacy” card, U.S. officials took turns slamming the whistle-blowing outfit for endangering U.S. soldiers, intelligence agents, and their local contacts.

But Arab calls for an Iranian strike have been twisted by Israel to the point where Gulf states might decide to cool regional tensions. And the rendezvous between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and U.S. General David Petraeus holds the potential to save lives by corralling a hasty U.S. strategy.

That is, if the “revelation” of “secret” U.S. air-strikes means anything to Yemenis or U.S. policy-makers.

Exactly how much significance Saleh and Petraeus’s meeting contains has emerged as a key question in U.S. counterinsurgency. One leak usually doesn't sink a war by itself, but they do produce constraints on policy-makers. Karl Eikenberry, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, stunted President Barack Obama’s rapid Pentagon buildup with a last minute alarm on President Hamid Karzai’s credibility. The Yemeni leak has been subjected to intense focus because it holds the same potential to grind down U.S. escalation.

Fully predicting the cable’s ramifications is impossible. Predicting that current U.S. operations will fail to neutralize al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) isn’t.

Reality is manipulated by expectations and in this regard the Obama administration caught a break. As air-strikes pounded Yemen’s mountainous territory in December 2009 and into January, the Saleh government claimed responsibility while denying direct U.S. involvement. Few believed these initial assertions to begin with. Once several strikes were revealed to have missed their mark, killing a number of civilians instead, Yemeni authorities passed the bag back to Washington, where standard denial proceeded.

It’s now known that Saleh and Petraeus sealed their arrangement in January, but this “discovery” was like mapping a black hole after viewing the distortion on stars in front of it. Such a policy had already been tested in Pakistan. Another errant strike in May would kill a deputy provincial governor, once more pointing Sana’a and Washington’s fingers at each other. U.S. officials supposedly don’t even believe the Yemeni official was killed, and feel that Saleh used the incident to push back against U.S. encroachment.

Because this arrangement has gone swimmingly, the two governments are in the process of expanding U.S. support into counter-terrorism bases - and wrestling over how much direct force is too much.

Though all the more annoyed by Washington’s duplicity, those opposed to these shadow wars can’t be shocked by the latest events. The disenchantment experienced by outsiders is similar to the atmosphere inside Yemen, where few citizens were surprised by Saleh’s double-games. This is a population habituated to misinformation.

There are no illusions of U.S. involvement, whether in Sana’a or in the mountains where Predator drones actively patrol.

As a result Saleh’s taste for bootleg whiskey, illegal under Sharia, is considered more damaging than his obedience to Washington. However the combination of Saleh’s transgressions is his real problem, and by extension Washington’s. It must be assumed that AQAP’s next Inspire magazine will capitalize on WikiLeaks, propaganda savvy as the group is. This material is tailor-made for painting Saleh as an apostate - a corrupt leader who must be replaced with a true Islamic authority (which AQAP mistakenly believes it is).

AQAP is also searching for additional justification now that it commenced attacking the Shia Houthis, who remain at tentative war with the Yemeni government. Having accused Shiites of blasphemy, AQAP could be gambling on Iraq’s error of artificial sectarian conflict. But this also appears to be a direct assault on Saleh, himself a Shiite.

Even Petraeus has reportedly doubted Saleh’s credibility. One can empathize on the level of practicality, but continuing a dubious strategy won’t produce tangible benefits either. Policy must evolve, not escalate in the same rut. Saleh’s main request for Petraeus, still leading Central Command (CENTCOM) at the time, was delivered without subtlety: “Helicopters, Helicopters, Helicopters.” Petraeus initially refrained, fearing that Saleh would use them against the Houthis (and possibly blaming the U.S. for anything that went wrong), until the Yemeni president swore to use them only against AQAP.

CENTCOM did ask Congress for $83 million in Hueys and Russian Mi-17 helicopters last September. There have been no reports of air-strikes since May, but the drive for new bases is fueled by the need to gather intelligence for future strikes.

Whether or not the leaked cable slows U.S. policy in Yemen or brings it to a halt remains to be seen. It’s impossible for Washington to uproot itself now, too deep in this small war despite Robert Gates’s avoidance of the term. Conversely, no effect whatsoever is improbable. AQAP should feel a recruiting bump, but its primary damage will be inflicted by amplifying its message through WikiLeaks.

No matter what U.S. and Yemeni officials say about air-strikes, cruise missiles, bases, and “elite” counter-terrorist units, the same motto now binds them together: “We’ll keep saying your guys are our guys.”

A hostile environment has just become more hostile, a weak president even easier to denounce, and Washington’s shadowy activity exposed in full view. A zero-sum competition is being waged over message. As AQAP justifies its own religious and political propaganda, America’s message is barely audible under the hail of military speak, droning out attempts to de-escalate the conflict. Last week Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s top counter-terrorism official, and Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, tried to sell U.S. policy as caring foremost about the state’s political and economic institutions.

They sounded as unbelievable as they do after the leak.

Wikileaks can serve as an alarm to the White House if it’s as wise as it thinks. Though expressing reservations about the Pentagon’s buildup, the Obama administration is empty of alternatives as AQAP blatantly announces its next strike. Unfortunately answers for Yemen’s decaying political and economic system are rare. The $1.2 billion in military aid floated by the White House pales to the $10 billion in humanitarian aid requested by Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi.

And that’s just the first payment.

Although there may be some pullback from the White House after these leaks, it probably won't be enough to correct a futile U.S. policy. Non-military operations remain a secondary priority despite widespread criticism. Supporting Saleh was risky enough before the latest controversy - now it’s becoming suicidal.

There’s more than one way to break U.S policy in Yemen. If public opinion doesn’t lead to reform, Washington could end up breaking itself.

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