Nation-Building in the Yemen

Drones alone won't be enough to stop Yemen from falling into the failed state abyss.

Last week, I wrote about the growing drone-ification of U.S. policy toward Yemen, and questioned the faith that drone strikes would not provoke the kind of backlash caused by less "targeted" forms of military intervention. At best, drones are an instrument of policy, not a policy in and of itself. Critics of the Obama administration's emerging counterterrorism strategy in Yemen and elsewhere argue that the United States needs fewer drones, and more of something else. The question for this week is: What's the "something else"?

It's a very urgent question as Yemen is now the front line of the war against terrorism. John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism advisor, has said that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, has over 1,000 members, and is "the most active operational franchise" of al Qaeda. The 2010 underwear bomb plot originated in Yemen, as did the effort last month, foiled by a Saudi double agent, to plant an undetectable bomb on a plane. In recent months, AQAP has routed government troops to establish a statelet in southern Yemen, providing it far more operational space than it now has on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of the attractions of drones is that most of the time they do what they're supposed to do -- kill terrorists. And they do it very quickly. And that is precisely the point that the administration's critics make. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar who blogs at the website Waq al-Waq, complains that the administration has been relying on "very quick and very simple solutions for Yemen" rather than the ones that take time and effort. Johnsen and others argue that the administration must give much more priority to the slow and tedious work of economic development and diplomatic engagement, including with the Yemeni opposition. "The U.S. has to focus more on the root causes of terrorism than the effects," as Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, recently said on CNN.

The "root causes" of terrorism are not so self-evident, but what is clear is that terrorists seek to exploit the empty spaces created by weak and ineffective governments. Thus the long-term solution to the growth of terrorism in places like Yemen is  to help the state become more effective, and more legitimate. American presidents since 9/11 have accepted this premise. In his second inaugural address, George W. Bush declared that the democratization of the Islamic world was in America's deepest national security interest. As a candidate, Barack Obama argued that the United States needed to focus less on elections in fragile states, and more on boosting economic development and government capacity. The counterinsurgency strategy he adopted in Afghanistan had a large civilian component designed to do just that. It is fair to say that the Obama administration has not demonstrated its commitment to nation-building in Yemen. U.S. civilian assistance  this year amounts to a very modest $112 million, of which $73 million will go to humanitarian aid. That leaves only $39 million for development, or a little over $1.50 for each of Yemen's 24 million people. This is a country which ranks 154th on the U.N. human development index, where households desperately need access to clean drinking water, electricity, and fuel oil, among other basic goods. Where's the long-term solution?

The experience of Afghanistan -- and Haiti, and plenty of other such places -- has shown how hard it is to spend large amounts effectively in states where the government has very little presence beyond a few major cities. After years of effort and billions of dollars, the Afghan government remains very corrupt, very weak, and not very legitimate. Yemen is a more advanced country than Afghanistan, but 33 years of the personalized and deeply corrupt rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh enfeebled state institutions and turned much of the economy into a patronage network. The marginal value of additional dollars might drop off quickly.

What about democratic legitimacy? A recent article in FP claimed that by spurning advances from the youth movement -- which took to the streets in Yemen's version of the Arab Spring -- the White House ended "any hopes of an authentic democratic revolution," and thus of "a more tolerant and stable Yemen."  The author predicted that more embittered young men will be driven into the arms of the AQAP. It's possible; but the same argument has been made about the drone strikes, and so far there's very little evidence on either front. There seem to be far fewer Yemenis who identify with the foreign fighters of al Qaeda than there are Pakistanis who identify with the Taliban, who are sons of the soil.

Again, it's easy to claim that the Obama administration's actions in Yemen belie its rhetorical commitment to democracy in the Arab world. Obama supported the plan advanced by Saudi Arabia -- no great friend of democracy -- to ease Saleh out of power in favor of his vice-president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a longtime Saleh loyalist. And yet staunch support for Hadi has proved to be the single greatest success of American policy in Yemen -- far more important than, say, a decision to double development aid, or to halve drone strikes, would have been. I've heard again and again that the White House doesn't have "a strategy" in Yemen, but in fact the strategy is to support President Hadi through all means possible -- a resumption of aid, high-level visits, public statements of support, and last week's announcement of a White House executive order freezing the assets of anyone who seeks to "obstruct the implementation" of the deal that transferred power to him -- a shot across the bow to Saleh and his circle.

So far, Hadi has exceeded all expectations, and certainly those of Saleh, who counted on his compliance. He has sacked two Saleh family members who occupied senior military posts; both at first refused to go, and needed additional threats from Jamal Ben Omar, the U.N. emissary, who has worked closely with American officials. "He has really been able to consolidate the political center," according to James Fallon of the Eurasia Group. "Inside the GPC" -- Saleh's party -- "there's been a gradual isolation of Saleh and the closest of his circle." Checkpoints have come down from the main streets of the capital, Sanaa, and youth activists have not challenged his authority. In recent days, Hadi has also sent the army back into the south in the hopes of retaking the towns and villages now held by AQAP. The fighting is reported to be fierce, if so far inconclusive.

Hadi enjoys support in part because he is an interim figure whose writ runs out in 18 months. And Saleh, who remains in Sanaa, could upend the deal at any time. But he would have to pay a very serious cost, both with the United States and with the U.N. Security Council. Right now, U.S. policy in Yemen is looking better than it's reputed to be. Les Campbell, Middle East director of the National Democratic Institute and a veteran of Yemeni politics, says, "The U.S. has to a great extent handled Yemen very, very well. They're working very closely with the president, but they haven't really alienated the protestors. That's a pretty good feat."

Yemen is still a disaster area. There is an indigenous rebellion in the south, as well as a sectarian war in the north. Rebels regularly attack the electric grid as well as oil and gas pipelines. Jamal Benomar recently said that as many as 700,000 children could die this year from malnutrition. Yemen seems to be running out of everything -- above all, oil, its chief export, and water. But the ultimate source of its problems, as a recent report notes, is not scarcity but political failure. What Yemen needs most is a political system which all factions are prepared to buy into. America's vast investment in Afghanistan has failed because Afghan politics has failed. There's very little Washington can do about, or around or against, a feckless and corrupt regime. If the White House is pushing all its chips on Hadi, it's because right now he represents Yemen's best chance to survive its current crisis, and for it to begin to rebuild. President Hadi may not be much of a democrat, or even a liberal; but he may be just good enough.      


Terms of Engagement

Terrorist Fishing in the Yemen

The Obama administration has doubled down on the use of drones to go after bad guys. How long until the blowback comes?

Last month, according to news accounts, U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to widen the scope of drone attacks carried out against al Qaeda members in Yemen. Previously, strikes targeted only known individuals; henceforth, the CIA and the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command will be permitted to target people whose patterns of behavior make them high-value targets. Many counterterrorism and Yemen experts think that the White House is opening up the gates of hell. They might be right, but I wish the alternatives they suggest were more convincing.

The White House's decision is important not only in itself but as an indication of how Obama wishes to fight the war on terror. The president inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; whatever he did there was largely reactive. Americans are no longer fighting in Iraq, however, and they have begun to draw down in Afghanistan. The locus of terrorism has also moved on, to Yemen, Somalia, and the Maghreb. These are the sites where Obama is free to choose his tactics -- and make his mark. His strategy is complex; in places like Yemen and Nigeria, the Obama administration is trying to improve the ability of embattled governments to deliver services and is training militaries to stand up to terrorists. But drone warfare has moved to the very center of the White House's strategy. Just as George W. Bush may be recalled as the president who tried to fight terrorism by waging war and removing tyrants, Obama may be recalled as the president who sought to rout terrorists through targeted killing from the sky.

Obama has authorized not only a new policy but a new global infrastructure for drone warfare. Last year the Washington Post reported that the United States is "assembling a constellation of secret drone bases" in Ethiopia, the Seychelles, Djibouti, and the Arabian Peninsula. After years of refusing to acknowledge the secret effort, the White House has decided to openly make the argument for drones. On April 30, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan delivered a speech in which he argued that targeted strikes from remote aircraft satisfy the criteria of just war and constitute a "wise" choice because they allow for immediate response, eliminate American casualties, and minimize -- virtually to zero, according to Brennan though not to a multitude of skeptics -- collateral damage to civilians. Brennan went into unusual detail in explaining the painstaking standards applied to each targeting decision.

If drones are the future of counterterrorism, Yemen is the laboratory. The country looks like a much more propitious setting for the effort than Pakistan, where Obama has also stepped up the pace of attacks. The Pakistani security establishment treats the Taliban not as a threat but as a strategic asset, while the current, admittedly extremely tenuous government of Yemen views al Qaeda as a threat to its sovereignty. Over the last year, as the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh disintegrated in the face of massive public demonstrations, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the local affiliate is known, occupied a swath of territory in southern Yemen. The new interim government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has welcomed the U.S. effort and used its own air force to supplement American drones. And while in Pakistan al Qaeda and Taliban forces mingle with the local population, AQAP, by staking out its own territory, has exposed itself to aerial attack. In the last few weeks, drone strikes have killed Mohammed Saeed al-Umda, fourth on Yemen's most-wanted list, and Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, AQAP's external operations director.

As military solutions go, drones really are hard to beat. As Brennan noted, "Countries typically don't want foreign soldiers in their cities and towns." By contrast, "there is the precision of targeted strikes." The drone thus represents a lesson learned from the first generation of the war on terror: Precision limits popular backlash. But is that really true? By all accounts, drone strikes in Pakistan have become ever more accurate, but still inflame Pakistani public opinion almost as much as has the occasional incursion by U.S. or NATO forces. In March, Pakistan's parliament voted to prohibit such strikes altogether. That outrage, in turn, has made it almost impossible for the United States to achieve its long-term goals of helping Pakistan become a stable, civilian-run state. Short-term success has jeopardized the long-term goal -- though that price might still be worth paying.

That hasn't happened yet in Yemen. And perhaps it won't, so long as the drones hit al Qaeda terrorists rather than local insurgents, not to mention civilians. But that's a leap of faith. As Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen, notes, "Right now we don't have a Pakistan-like reaction. But at first we didn't have that reaction with Pakistan either. This is something that builds. And folks in Yemen know what's going on in Pakistan. This will play into the broader narrative of the drones we use in Pakistan and Afghanistan." Another lesson learned from Afghanistan is that even a counterinsurgency effort designed to protect civilians and promote good government will provoke nationalist resistance. People on the ground will see the intervention as against them, not for them (which explains why, according to WikiLeaks cables, President Saleh publicly insisted that the Yemeni air force had launched the strikes). Counterinsurgency, which seemed so promising all of two or three years ago, now looks like an illusory, or at least oversold, solution to the war on terror. How long before we say the same of drones?

The answer, in both cases, is not to abandon the approach but to acknowledge its inevitable costs. There are no cost-free military solutions. The drone strikes that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, two AQAP leaders, were well worth the effort; the same should be said of more recent attacks. But when does the cost exceed the value? Bodine said that she recently attended a conference at "an undisclosed location" in which this very question provoked furious debate among security officials. The White House, in fact, pushed back against a CIA request to set the same targeting rules in Yemen that it now operates under in Pakistan, where it is permitted to strike militants who pose a threat to U.S. forces whether or not they include a high-value target. So there is skepticism in high places, if not in the CIA or special operations forces. The new "pattern" rules may still be too broad.

The frequency of strikes is already much greater than most of us realize. A report by the Britain-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism counts 21 definite or possible drone strikes in Yemen over the last two months; a Yemeni government official has said that the United States has been launching an average of two strikes a day since mid-April. The danger of producing more militants than we kill in Yemen hardly seems hypothetical.

The danger, more broadly, is that the United States will fall in love with drones and thus that targeted strikes become the U.S. strategy rather than an element of it. Of course, that raises the question of what that larger strategy should be -- not only in Yemen but in the other places where al Qaeda seeks to exploit weak states to gain a territorial foothold. The answer, from most critics, is that the United States must not sacrifice the long term for the short term. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert who blogs at the site Waq al-Waq, argues that the United States must accept "the really difficult work of diplomacy and counter-terrorism." The no-shortcut answer is capacity-building, democracy promotion, economic development. The only long-term solution to the al Qaeda exploitation of state failure is to cure state failure.

That's true, of course. But that may not be a fair criticism of the Obama administration, which has been pursuing just such a strategy since 2009, though it was derailed by the political turmoil and violence of the last year. Only in recent months have many military and civilian programs in Yemen been restored. Beyond that, however, what grounds do we have for putting any faith in such a strategy? Experience in Afghanistan, which in some ways Yemen strongly resembles, has not been encouraging. The appeal of precision airstrikes is magnified by the failure of the less lethal alternatives.

I'll devote next week's column to the question of what, if anything, the United States and other partners can do, and should do, to help the Yemenis help themselves -- and thus to put the drones in their proper place.

John Moore/Getty Images