Small Wars

This Week at War: Yemen's al Qaeda Scam

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Yemen learns to profit from al Qaeda

The nearly successful Christmas Day downing of a Detroit-bound airliner has suddenly shifted the U.S. national security community's focus to Yemen. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged Nigerian-born "knicker bomber," reportedly confessed to being trained in Yemen by an al Qaeda group.

Yemen and its problems are suddenly on everyone's agenda. On Jan. 1, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus announced a doubling in annual U.S. assistance to the country. On Jan. 28, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will host an international conference on Yemen, where he will no doubt call for increased international donations. It seems that whenever the international community discovers another al Qaeda franchise, a financial reward to the host seems to follow. Pakistan has perfected how to profit from this perverse incentive. Yemen is now showing itself to be an able student of the same technique.

Writing in Small Wars Journal, Lawrence Cline -- a career military intelligence officer, Middle East foreign area officer, and an instructor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School -- provides a comprehensive summary of Yemen's political and economic challenges. According to Cline, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his government do not view al Qaeda's presence in Yemen as their most important problem. To Saleh and his government, the Houthi rebellion in the Shiite northwest and the separatist unrest centered around the southern city of Aden (due to unresolved issues from the 1990 unification of Yemen) are far more urgent. Yemen's problems do not stop there. The country is running out of both oil and water, hosts over 150,000 Somali refugees, and its trade suffers from the Horn of Africa's ongoing piracy problem. Yemen is a obviously very troubled place and Saleh in understandably seeking out as much foreign assistance as he can.

In this context, Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Saleh government may have settled into a mutually beneficial relationship. According to Cline, Yemen's government is not the focus of al Qaeda's terror campaign. Instead, al Qaeda likely values the sanctuary it finds in Yemen's remote areas and the access it enjoys to elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond. Threatening the Yemeni government would risk these advantages.

From Saleh's perspective, he has likely learned from Pakistan how rewarding al Qaeda's presence -- largely benign to him -- can be. The impending deluge of U.S. aid, with Brown's conference to add to the bounty, illustrates the perverse incentives offered to leaders like Saleh.

Does this mean that the United States should not assist Saleh and his government? At this point it has little choice; it can only access al Qaeda by partnering with Saleh, Yemen's ministries, and its security forces. A decade after the bombing of USS Cole in the Aden harbor, the al Qaeda problem in Yemen seems as bad as ever. Over the past 10 years, the United States has provided funding and training to Yemen's security forces, a program frustrated by corruption and perceived Yemeni indifference to al Qaeda. This matches the frustrations the U.S. suffers with its security assistance program in Pakistan. Neither should be a surprise given the current incentives.

The solution is for the U.S. government to develop alternate paths to al Qaeda that bypass those local institutions that lack an incentive to confront al Qaeda. It seems as if the CIA officers recently killed at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan were attempting to create such an alternate path. Although that operation suffered a disastrous setback, such efforts are one of the few ways the U.S. can keep its reluctant partners honest.

Maj. Gen. Flynn wants social scientists, not military intelligence officers

Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the top intelligence officer in Afghanistan, has ordered a major overhaul of the intelligence analysis effort in that country. Flynn took the highly unorthodox step of publishing his reorganization order, embedded in a report, through the website of the Center for a New American Security.

Flynn has ordered the military intelligence structure in Afghanistan to redirect its focus away from enemy insurgent groups and instead focus on "fundamental questions about the envi­ronment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade." Flynn's justification for this overhaul in the analysis effort is the population-focused counterinsurgency mission now assigned to coalition forces. According to Flynn:

What we conclude is there must be a concurrent effort under the ISAF com­mander's strategy to acquire and provide knowledge about the population, the economy, the government, and other aspects of the dynamic environment we are trying to shape, secure, and successfully leave behind. Until now, intelligence efforts in this area have been token and ineffectual, particularly at the regional command level.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy has tasked Army and Marine Corps infantry battalions with being not only warfighters, but also civil administrators, municipal engineers, and local politicians. Given this mission, Flynn has concluded that such an expanded list of tasks needs an expanded array of intelligence products to match. Perhaps just as critical to Flynn (and also mentioned in his report) was the apparent embarrassment he and his staff suffered when they were unable to provide the White House staff with more than the most rudimentary information on key Afghan districts.

Flynn's analysts will now focus on local demography, economics, sociology, and politics instead of just the enemy's structure and battlefield positions, the traditional focus of tactical military intelligence. Flynn's analysts will do this by attempting to become multidisciplinary experts on a specific piece of territory.

Such an overhaul seems both an intellectual stretch and an organizational gamble. The general is asking his military intelligence personnel to perform the research normally done by graduate-level anthropologists, economists, and other professionals in the social sciences. Flynn's order for analysts to study all the disciplines within a geographic area rather than specialize on a particular function only magnifies this problem. To produce valid research, professional social scientists spend years learning the local culture and collecting and analyzing data. The work product of Flynn's redirected analysts is likely to vary widely in quality and usefulness.

Second, Flynn has called for military leaders in Afghanistan to select "the best, most extroverted and hungriest analysts" to serve in the new analysis positions he is creating. Combat commanders will still face a determined and clever enemy and are not likely to part with those intelligence officers who they believe can provide the battlefield intelligence that will keep their troops alive.

Flynn's overhaul is an understandable response to both the counterinsurgency mandate and to his command's admittedly poor support to the White House during the Afghan policy review. But it remains to be seen whether his new structure will produce useful intelligence for troops in the field or gain the cooperation of commanders.


Small Wars

This Week at War: McChrystal Pulls Out His Old Iraq Playbook

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

When the counterinsurgent becomes the insurgent

Last week I wondered whether U.S. and Afghan forces would mount an organized campaign targeting the Taliban's "shadow government" inside Afghanistan. According to a Dec. 16 Los Angeles Times article, the answer is "yes." The article reports that U.S. special operations teams conducted 90 direct action raids in Afghanistan in November compared to 20 raids in May. General Stanley McChrystal is clearly not waiting for 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers to arrive to begin the U.S. counterattack against the Taliban.

Before he was selected to command in Afghanistan, McChrystal spent many years commanding the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the U.S. military unit that specializes in the most challenging direct action raids. McChrystal personally directed JSOC operations in Iraq. While it remains a subject of debate, many credit McChrystal's teams with a significant portion of the credit for the reduction of violence in Iraq.

It appears that McChrystal is directing a similar campaign in Afghanistan, at least while he waits for the reinforcements required to protect some of Afghanistan's cities. According to the Times article, the Taliban's mid-ranking leadership is the target of McChrystal's raiders. The intent is to leave the bottom-rung Taliban foot soldiers leaderless and susceptible to offers of reintegration.

Many analysts have noted the irony of the U.S. government's long involvement in Afghanistan. During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, Michael Vickers, then a young CIA operations officer, helped design and implement a classic unconventional warfare campaign, assisting indigenous Afghan forces to resist the Soviet army and overthrow the Moscow-backed government in Kabul. Today Vickers is assistant secretary of defense for special operation/low intensity conflict implementing a massive security assistance program to build up Afghanistan's forces -- the mirror image of his duties two decades ago.

The current situation actually requires more than just counterinsurgency and assistance for Afghanistan's security forces. Today there are two governments in Afghanistan; the Karzai government, deemed to be the legitimate power, and the Taliban shadow government, deemed to be illegitimate. U.S. and Afghan forces must simultaneously conduct a security assistance effort supporting the Karzai government and an unconventional warfare campaign attacking the Taliban shadow government.

McChrystal seems to be kicking off his campaign with some plays out of the JSOC playbook he used in Iraq. But the game in Afghanistan will be tougher. The Taliban can always fall back on its sanctuary in Pakistan, and its top-ranking leaders in Quetta and North Waziristan remain untouchable. It also has a well-demonstrated ability to replace its losses, even in its leadership ranks. Vickers's war in the 1980s and McChrystal's battles on the streets of Iraq were not easy. But when compared to today's multi-level war in Afghanistan, they seem simple.

Is it still worth selling weapons to Taiwan?

On Dec. 15 the New York Times reported that the U.S. government will proceed with a weapon sales deal to Taiwan. Neither government has yet disclosed which weapon systems will be in the transaction. Many of the systems in the deal are from a list approved in April 2001 but not delivered due to long-running political disputes inside Taiwan. Among the most contentious items is the Taiwan government's request for 66 late-model F-16 fighter jets. In 2008 the U.S. government cancelled this request after the Chinese government strongly objected.

If the U.S. and Taiwanese governments are still working off a 2001 shopping list, they should rip up that list and rethink Taiwan's defense requirements based on more current assessments. China's surface-to-surface ballistic missile inventory has expanded dramatically this decade and has completely changed Taiwan's defense calculus. Eight years ago Taiwan's defense planners were contemplating a conventional force-on-force defense against a hypothetical Chinese attack. Today, China's ability to use its superiority in missiles and air power to overwhelm Taiwan's air force and air defenses means that Taiwan must fashion a new doctrine to avoid China's advantages.

Earlier this year the RAND Corp. released a report on the Taiwan-China military balance, concluding that China's missile forces would be able to close Taiwan's air bases and cripple its air defense systems. Taiwan's remaining air power would then be vulnerable to destruction before U.S. military forces could intervene in the conflict. In the RAND study, Taiwan's ground and naval forces, devoid of air support, would then have to cope as best as they could with a possible Chinese amphibious assault on the island.

RAND's research indicates two courses of action for Taiwan. The first course is a very expensive upgrade in its missile and air defense systems. Without such defenses, conventional aircraft such as the F-16 would not survive the opening of a conflict and would thus have little utility to Taiwan. The second course is for Taiwan to adopt a dispersed and relatively low-technology irregular warfare strategy to defend the island. With this course, F-16s would play no part. Whether Taiwanese society is ready for a "guerrilla" defense of the island remains open for debate.

Given the inexorable growth of Chinese military power directed at Taiwan and the growing importance of the U.S.-China relationship, shouldn't the U.S. simply abandon arms sales to Taiwan? Taiwan unification is a supremely important issue to China and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are guaranteed to fracture the U.S.-China relationship. Shouldn't United States policy put the priority on its relationship with Beijing?

The U.S.-China relationship has likely become the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and its importance will only grow in the years ahead. However, the United States maintains a strong interest in Taiwan's defense. The establishment of Chinese air and naval bases on Taiwan -- and the corresponding ability  to project military power deep into the western Pacific --- would be a severe geostrategic setback for the U.S. and its allies in the region. China is very likely to establish this position eventually. But the U.S. should try to resist it for as long as possible. Thus arms sales to Taiwan -- that avoid China's strengths -- should continue.