December 25, 2010

U.S. Gaining No Ground in Yemen

Last week John Brennan deployed to brief an esteemed audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The White House couldn’t ignore Yemen one day after releasing its review of the Afghan war, having declared Yemen an equal threat to Pakistan, so it sent its counter-terrorism chief to “The Global Think Tank.” While Brennan repeated that exact warning, he also tried to tone down the militarized narrative pervading Yemen.

“So let me say this,” Brennan vowed, “even if there are no threats to our security emanating from Yemen, the circumstances that I have described so far would be more than worthy of American attention. Yemen matters, the people of Yemen matter. And as President Obama has made clear, our common humanity connects us to those Yemenis who are struggling to make ends meet and to live in freedom and dignity.”

Apparently this was enough to fool some observers into believing U.S. policy is finally progressing on the right track. They should have waited for the other boot to drop.

One week later, to mark the “anniversary” of the failed Christmas bombing out of Yemen, Brennan phoned President Ali Abdullah Saleh to, "emphasize the importance of taking forceful action against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in order to thwart its plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Yemen as well as in other countries, including in the U.S. homeland.”

Brennan’s speech to Carnegie displayed the Pakistani pattern: repeated calls for military action against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) concealed in politico-economic overtones. The dreaded "do more." He also mirrored U.S. counterinsurgency in general: more talk than action. While State Department officials have spent months waving attention towards Yemen’s non-military needs, U.S. policy on the ground has yet to catch the ideal vision they've painted.

Although Washington has raised humanitarian aid and tapped the international community to keep pace with ballooning military aid, U.S. focus remains predominately security-related. Brennan calls for patience, but by packaging military escalation with political and economic “reform,” U.S. officials are selling an incomplete “comprehensive” solution.

“We frequently push the Yemenis to move further and faster along the path of economic and political reform,” Brennan told Carnegie last week, “and to be more aggressive in the actions they take against Al Qaeda.”

The White House and Pentagon’s spin is undoubtedly complex. $130 million went to non-military accounts in 2010, as opposed to $150 million in military aid, and the White House plans to increase non-military aid in 2011. Voice of America reports that $300 million is allocated for 2011, half of which Brennan claims will go towards non-military assistance. However military aid will top $250 million in 2011.

Perhaps the complete figures haven’t been finalized, but Washington seems to be amplifying the image of its non-military aid to create a false perception. Regardless, Yemen's vast demands require a non-military-to-military ratio above 1-1, not a mere even trade. With 40% unemployment and an oil-based economy that's running dry, Yemen needs $225 million just to implement its Humanitarian Response Plan for 2011, and billions over the long term.

Except Western donors doubt that their funds will end up in the right place. Yemen’s ills are no different than Afghanistan's.

Brennan’s politico-speak at Carnegie increased over time, including the section that generated the most buzz. Flipping WikiLeaks into a token of trust with Yemen’s government, Brennan apologized and conveyed President Barack Obama’s gratitude to an “understanding” Saleh. Thus far WikiLeaks has revealed an air-strike arrangement between Saleh and U.S. General David Petraeus, misappropriated U.S. military aid towards the northern Houthi insurgency and southern secessionists, and U.S. ammo sent to Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthis.

“For their part, the Yemenis complain that our security and development assistance flows are too slow and encumbered by bureaucratic requirements and complications, that we expect economic and political reforms virtually overnight without understanding the implications of such reforms on Yemeni society and stability, and that we are more interested in fighting Al Qaeda than in helping the Yemeni people.”

“A healthy tension,” Brennan calls it.

Yet he’s simply being coy, or else Brennan is dangerously tuned out of Yemen's environment. Does he truly believe, as he claims, that WikiLeaks didn’t constrain U.S.-Yemeni relations or harm Saleh’s relationship with the Yemeni people? He’s the only one if so. The Yemeni people have come to expect lies from its government and meddling by foreign powers, so they weren't shocked. But they also have no trust in Sana'a and Washington.

More likely, Brennan consciously ignored Saleh’s flat-lined popularity because the White House has no solution to this problem. Although he believes that WikiLeaks can be overcome through “a bilateral relationship based on honesty,” Brennan's speech to Carnegie was riddled with deception. And he immediately encountered - and dodged - the most critical question of U.S. policy during the Q&A portion.

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch asks, “can you say with confidence today that no U.S. assistance is being diverted by Yemen for the fight against the Houthis or the southern secessionists?”

Brennan’s reply: “On the first question regarding WikiLeaks, I’m not going to address any specifics that might have been in the press about the contents of purported cables. You know, al-Qaeda and other terrorists will use whatever they can to try to recruit individuals and additional adherents to their twisted ideology. So they might point to certain developments, to certain things that come out in the public, in the press. But as I’ve said, they’re going to seize upon whatever they can. They are, as I said, a bunch of murderous thugs. They are individuals that are just determined to destroy and kill. And I think more and more individuals in Yemen, as well as other parts of the world, are seeing that, you know, al-Qaeda’s supposed, sort of, religious banner is a facade for this murderous agenda.”

Three errors strike this propaganda out. First, the U.S. and international medias cropped Brennan’s non-denial denial for a lead quote, never providing the question’s context. Second, Washington clearly cannot guarantee that U.S. military assistance won’t be diverted against the Houthis or Southern Movement, two conflicts that continue to burn. This lack of oversight has nothing to do with security concerns, and its damage is already done.

The Houthis have blamed America for funding Saleh before 2009.

Thus Brennan lowers the White House to al-Qaeda’s standards. Julian Assange isn't responsible for Saleh and Petraeus’s lie - Washington knowingly lost track of helicopters and U.S.-trained counter-terrorism units in the south, and passed ammunition to the Saudis to use against the Houthis. It’s also possible that “secret” U.S. air-strikes were floating in Brennan’s mind, the ones responsible for dozens of civilian casualties that Washington tried to cover up.

Either way Brennan turned America’s own murderous actions into a rant against al-Qaeda, exploiting America’s misguided policy into propaganda for that very policy. Isn’t that his accusation against al-Qaeda? Brennan never answers Mr. Malinowski’s question, but the Pentagon and CIA shouldn’t offer so much material if they want to avoid AQAP’s Inspire magazine and slick promo videos.

Carnegie President Jessica T. Mathews introduced Brennan with the highest praise, confidently announcing, “I think there probably is no better person to address all of these questions than our speaker here.” Luckily she qualified herself because Brennan, an old CIA hand, didn’t meet these expectations. His title says counter-terrorism for a reason. Yemen poses a full-scale counterinsurgency, where non-military thinking must dominate the military sphere.

Washington’s policy doesn’t appear to have gained any ground in 2010. Rather than lead off with a politico-economic theme, U.S. officials rushed directly into military-emergency mode and must now correct themselves. A comprehensive solution should have developed at the onset if everyone realized its necessity. One of COIN’s central laws, as America learned the hard way in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, holds the beginning of an insurgency as the pivotal moment for a counterinsurgency.

Waiting even one year has cost America in the battle for perceptions - a race that it already lagged behind in - and WikiLeaks just caved the ground from underneath it. Now AQAP’s strength shows no indication of depleting. Although Washington has trained its quota of counter-terrorism units, increased intelligence sharing, and is funding new counter-terrorism bases in some of Yemen’s poorest and most volatile provinces, these are its only accomplishments. So maybe Brennan was the man to explain that particular job.

But without substantial progress in the political and economic realms, an isolated counter-terrorism policy either treads water or drowns.

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