Saturday, January 16, 2010

The locals in Yemen are not necessarily becoming radicalized by the presence of Al Qaeda extremists but they will eventually warm to their presence on account of the protection they offer against government oppression and general criminality as Yemen comes closer to becoming a failed state. This is approximately the stage of "infection" that AQ has currently reached within Yemeni society. The true danger to the rest of the world comes not from what AQ and its affiliate groups do from hereon out in Yemen but instead depends upon the international community’s reaction to their presence there.

The eminent counterinsurgency scholar David Kilcullen has written extensively about "accidental guerrillas," locals that do not necessarily share the views of the extremists they harbor but are brought into the fight against western powers nonetheless on account of heavy-handed counterinsurgency campaigns designed to kill terrorists, but that in reality kill mostly civilians. Air strikes and Predator attacks are particularly good at creating these "accidental guerrillas" as they kill indiscriminately with little thought given to the true danger of collateral damage. Especially in cultures that are tribally oriented, the need to seek revenge against those responsible for the death of a family member is considered a duty upon which the family’s honor rests.

Unfortunately, the international community currently has its hands full occupying two other predominantly Muslim countries and thus the forces are not available to conduct a proper counterinsurgency campaign in Yemen. However, instead of increasing drone attacks within Yemen’s borders, the U.S. should instead first try a modified carrot and stick approach. In this instance the carrot will be foreign direct investment and World Bank loans to help revive Yemen’s failing economy or at the very least keep it from collapsing. This is something the international community should be doing regardless in order to prevent Yemen from becoming a failed state. The stick should be an information campaign that seeks to reach out to tribal leaders in order to educate them on recent history. As of last month, Yemen joined the list of countries from which AQ has launched direct attacks on U.S. soil. Specifically, the last country to allow such gross malfeasance is currently being occupied by nearly 90,000 foreign troops with more on the way. The point of this education is to convey the message that the presence of foreign fighters in their lands is a direct threat to tribal autonomy.

And that’s my fifty cents (inflation…)

A few quick thoughts on the tragedy unfolding in Haiti:

The scale of this disaster is just devastating. Casualty estimates at this point are more guesswork than anything, but I'm afraid that the initial estimate of 45,000 - 50,000 dead made by the American Red Cross - reported several days ago - may be far too low. It seems like agencies are now refraining from publicly making estimates. This is smart, since there is no way to make an informed approximation given the current lack of information. A more pessimistic take is that agencies aren't releasing their internal estimates because the numbers are so high as to be demoralizing. I don't know which is the case, but I certainly hope the pessimists aren't accurate.

Furthermore, it is worth remembering that there are usually more indirect than direct deaths in disasters. In other words, the number of people who die in the weeks and months following a disaster from disease and malnutrition is generally much larger than the number of people who die from trauma wounds in the first few days. Sadly, we are now hitting the point where those who are trapped in the rubble or were wounded in the initial quake are either getting the medical attention they need or are dying. Consequently, the focus of aid has to shift from search-and-rescue operations to addressing the over-arching public health dangers - water, sanitation, disease, and malnutrition. Any delay could dramatically increase the number of indirect deaths, which are predominately preventable.

Finally, it's not often that I find myself agreeing with David Brooks, but he is partially correct in his column. Brooks is right that the devastation and death we are seeing isn't solely a result of the earthquake. The infrastructure in Haiti was in shambles before Tuesday, and thus was unable to respond to a natural disaster. By infrastructure I mean not only classic physical infrastructure - roads and buildings - but also the public health systems and government institutions. As Brooks says,

This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.
This, however, is the extent of my agreement with Brooks. I don't think we can attribute all, or even most, of Haiti's underdevelopment to some ill-defined "culture." But his basic point holds true - earthquakes in the 21st century do not, by themselves, cause mass-casualty disasters. It is only when they strike impoverished or poorly-governed places that people die in large numbers, and unfortunately Haiti illustrates this principle.

Update: Anne Applebaum at Slate has a great piece about the underlying dynamics in Haiti that turned this earthquake into a catastrophe.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Yemen's now infamous role on the world stage as the newest state to fail and become a terrorist safe haven can most easily be explained by its dwindling oil production. Like many middle eastern states, Yemen's government relies on oil exports for roughly 80 percent of its revenue. However, in the past six years Yemen's oil output has shrunk from 450,000 barrels per day to just 180,000 barrels per day. Until recently this sharp decline was masked by record high oil prices, but as oil prices have normalized, Yemen's economy finds itself on the brink of collapse. This loss of revenue comes at a particularly bad time for the Yemeni government as their country's security concerns continue to escalate. Yemen is currently fighting Shiite militia's in its Northern provinces not to mention the growing presence of Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters throughout the country.

The influx of Al Qaeda into Yemen can be directly linked to that states failing economy. Experts predict that Yemen's remaining oil wells will run dry within the next ten years. Impending economic destitution has however not caused Yemen's government to focus its efforts on creating some sort of economic life raft by say for instance reorienting itself towards a labor based economy. Instead Yemen's leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has chosen to reaffirm his family's stranglehold on power by appointing his kin to key government positions with the ultimate goal of ensuring that his son Ahmed succeeds him to the presidency. However, with less and less money to spend on security services to enforce his power, Mr Saleh is essentially securing his family's role as nothing more than the Mayor and city counselor of the capital of Sanaa. No national income not only means no money for a military but also ensures a complete lack of social services for anyone living outside of the capital, which after all is the primary purpose of having a government in the first place.

As we have seen in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Gaza, Pakistan, Egypt and countless other areas of the Muslim world, when governments fail to provide the most basic of services, extremist groups the likes of Hezbollah and Al Qaeda are more than happy to step in and foot the bill. This is what we are now coming to see play out in Yemen. As government revenues continue to shrink, security throughout the country deteriorates as less forces are deployed and corruption abounds. Less security means greater ease of movement for terrorists who come to Yemen not to hide but instead to operate in plain sight in the rural countryside where overtime they cement themselves into local tribal culture through inter marriage (a common AQ strategy).

The U.S. answer to the realization that Yemen is a failing state has been to double the security aid we send annually to Yemen to $140 million. This is a ridiculously low sum of money when you compare it to the $2 billion that Yemen's GDP has been declining by over the last 3 years. Furthermore, sending security aid to a country whose president considers the security of his family to be the nation's number one national security concern is really not money well spent. A smart use of the money that the U.S. borrowed from China, would instead be on promoting local economic development through the opening of vocational schools and the funding of local industries like cotton production and leather tanneries. Without this investment, Yemen is likely to go down the same road as Afghanistan with its farmers abandoning traditional crops for narcotics. Many growers in Yemen have already switched to growing Qat, a mild amphetamine quite popular in Yemen. How long before AQ starts taxing this trade?

The lesson here is that we need to tackle Yemen's problems less kinetically and more economically. The reason it is so important to get this right in Yemen is that Yemen is just the first example of a problem the international community is going to have to deal with more and more in Middle East in the coming years. The oil is running out and in many nations much larger than Yemen (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq) there is simply not enough of an economy presence to make up the difference.

And that's my fifty cents (inflation....)

I mentally wrote several blogs today waiting in the security line at the airport:

  1. The problem with airport security is that it is reactive instead of proactive. Case in point being that Richard Reid tries to blow up his shoes, so the result is that we all have to take off our shoes at airport security. What do the terrorists do, they move the bomb six inches up the leg. Unfortunately for TSA, American Puritan values wont allow them to request that we all take our pants off in the airport. Don't get me wrong, personally I would have no problem with this. I have a great butt, and quite honestly, I'd enjoy the view. But in all seriousness am I to assume that we are fucked now that the terrorist's have discovered the crotch bomb?
  2. Why don't people dress up to fly anymore? Gone are the days of people actually giving a shit about what other people think of them. Judging from most of the people I saw today I would have guessed that half of them were headed to the gym and the other half were in the process of moving from their bedrooms to the couch based on their choice of head to toe juicy couture jumpsuits. Since when did the word airplane become synonymous with living room?
  3. If you have traveled on an actual airplane anytime in the past 8 years why do you think that you are the one person who is going to be able to get your giant bottle of hairspray through security? There should be a separate security line for people who have been previously caught with banned items in their carry on luggage. The line will be just as long as the others but the exception will be that over half of the people in this line will miss their flights on account of the time it takes to unpack and then repack all of their collective belongings. This will undoubtedly lead to quit a few people going postal and not to mention more than a few people screaming "don't tase me bro,"but lets be honest...its the only way they'll learn!
Just a few thoughts from the mind of an enlightened man....Happy Travels

Recent reports seem to indicate that U.S. officials are optimistic about improvements in Afghanistan since President Obama announced his "surge." Unfortunately, any gains in security are ephemeral. More American troops acting intelligently can provide short-term security, but the long-term prospects are dependent on the powers in Kabul. And they are less promising.

Hamid Karzai is running an illegitimate and corrupt government, and unless major changes are made the U.S. is powerless to prevent the further deterioration of Afghanistan.

The issue is getting some notice, but all too many pundits are perfectly willing to minimize and overlook its importance. While most do acknowledge the Karzai problem, they are quick to emphasize the adaptability, intelligence, and courage of American troops as the decisive factors. They are right to emphasize those traits - the U.S. military is adaptable, intelligent, and courageous, and has achieved far more in Iraq and Afghanistan than anyone could reasonably have expected. But the underlying assumption is that if we just keep working hard and resist the urge to quit we can overcome all obstacles and be successful in Afghanistan. And that assumption simply isn't true. As long as there is no legitimate Afghan government there is nothing we can do. No improved strategy or increase in troop levels can do more than stem the bleeding. It's not a matter of COIN vs. counter-terrorism; that tactical argument misses the point.

An occupying military force is limited in what it can achieve. Defeating the Taliban requires a political, not military, approach; and foreign troops cannot be a sufficient political force. Creating a government in Afghanistan is not a simple task, and it is unreasonable to expect it be competent and capable after only a few short years. It is not unreasonable to expect that a government, even a weak and feeble one, can and should be working to get better. The Karzai government is not. Corruption is rampant and worsening and the Afghan people are showing less and less faith. Instead of using the security that the U.S. has provided in many provinces to speed development and demonstrate the modernity and prosperity that the Taliban are fighting against, Karzai has appointed drug smugglers, war criminals, and inept cronies to positions of power. Unsurprisingly, aid money has been siphoned away and even the areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban are not active show little progress.

We can rearrange deck chairs all we like, but without a legitimate partner in government the U.S. is powerless to change the direction of Afghanistan. If Karzai is unwilling to make changes, and he has given no indication of adapting, President Obama has no choice but to withdraw the troops. Yes, the results will be bad. The Taliban will gain ground, harbor terrorists, impose draconian laws and oppress women. The fallacy is believing we have the power to avert that outcome. It's not Washington that matters - it's Kabul.

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