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, Barak 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.