What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Memo - Yemen and counterterrorism strategy

Stephen Walt tried the other day to list the ten greatest gifts (from states) in the history of foreign policy. His somewhat weird mention of "martyrs in the cause of peace and justice," including "soldiers who have fought for just causes" brought up interesting associations in me, of course.
And it also makes me mention two further, rather provocative examples of such gifts focusing not on the world of interstate relations, but in general on strategy-making actors and strategic thinkers aligned with one or another of those.
It is a paradox, when you are devising strategy, that you have to first try and defeat yourself, playing your enemy in a virtual role game, in order to understand what vulnerabilities you have to look out for, on your side. Now, where this gets especially interesting, more than just an intellectual paradox slightly disturbing your calm as you sit back in your armschair, is when you put out all that stuff in the open source.
I have just read the first, highly thought-stimulating chapter of David Kilcullen's book, with its template for al-Qaida conquest in a four-phase model, including the key processes of "infection" and "rejection:" establishing a foothold, pulling in an external intervention, then accelerating a rejection of the external intervention by the local social context (as by antibodies in a human system). Brilliant, except of course that you need to use many caveats regarding where it can work, as it is really not only, or even dominantly, a tribal terrain out there that al-Qaida and the likes are trying to work on.
Now I have also, in the past, read of Baghram-escapee Abu Yahya al-Libi's advice to the West regarding how one ought to defeat a movement like the one coordinated by al-Qaida. And it was equally interesting reading. Highly thought-stimulating and all that. Recommendations regarding how one ought to do the counter-ideological struggle. What tools to use. Etc.
And parts of both plans are of course being put to use. Which makes this quite interesting. Not that the actors involved in putting them to use may not have had these ideas occur to them without external help. But even so it is interesting to see how the two sides exchange strategic advice so generously with each other. I am not saying this should not happen (see the point above about both sides thinking for themselves, on their own, quite a lot anyway), or that this is a new thing between strategic adversaries. I am just remarking that this flow of strategic concepts is one of those aspects to the relation between strategic adversaries that Walt could have remarked, especially as the "realist in an idological world" that he portrays himself to be.
An added question of interest then is how one should operationalise either Kilcullen's and Abu Yahya's ideas regarding the recently oft-suggested intensification of U.S. involvement in the conflict in Yemen. (Of course you might want to read about these ideas before looking at what I am putting down below.)
"Rejection" should definitely be more of a concern than it currently is, regarding any increase of U.S. involvement there. "Endorsing" truly "local initiatives" regarding the fight against a local insurgency, as part of "disaggregation," at the same time "addressing legitimate grievances" about sub-optimal governance, these are also important benchmarks to keep in mind - ones that current U.S. policy already seems to fall far from. You really can't expect perfect results when you go up to a government telling them "Hey Mr. Yemen, you have terrists out there in that Hadramw... Hadar... whatever region, so please go attack them for your own good, here is our SIGINT and our air power that you can use." But sometimes it may be better to live with imperfect results. Also, "provocation" (such as an attempted plane-bombing) may not be the best guidance for policy: it is meant by ill-willing people to be your guidance for a policy. Yes, 9-11 was a provocation but one to which it made strategic sense to give a response, even if that response was partly a botched attempt at a response, in many aspects of it. As to a widening of the war on al-Qaida in Yemen (which is already on, given how the U.S. does already give assistance to government forces), it does not figure on Abu Yahya's list of things to do. So consider adding that item at your responsibility.
Should it be added, I think there would be a legitimate chance of some mission creep occurring. Like, let us fight the Yemeni narcotics industry also, we cannot ignore khat etc... Wise talking heads could warn you of how interrelated the issue of water use, khat, corruption, the insurgency and al-Qaida terrorism is, and we would most likely build an ugly quagmire that would leave room in the end for... having empty discussions about how every agent of our influence is just hopelessly corrupt and in the end not really our agent of influence. Only, since the money is running out, this could happen sooner than in Afghanistan. (But it would also hasten the process parallel to this in Afghanistan.)
And I now realise that I haven't mentioned the al-Houthi insurgency yet. Take that for complexity.

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