Paul Pillar

Seeking Perfect Security in Yemen

U.S. officials are reportedly divided over a proposed large new military aid package for Yemen.  The aid would provide Yemen with $1.2 billion in military equipment and training over the next six years, a significant increase over what it gets now.  U.S. Central Command proposed the package, and former CENTCOM chief General David Petraeus has been its most enthusiastic supporter.  The proponents argue it is necessary to put out the fire represented by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.  Critics of the aid package include State Department officials and the most recent U.S. ambassador to Yemen, who believe it is an unbalanced and disproportionate response to the al-Qaeda threat and may backfire if the Yemeni government of Ali Abdullah Saleh uses the aid against domestic opponents other than al-Qaeda.

The aid package is a manifestation of the American tendencies to militarize counterterrorism, to think of a metaphorical "war on terror" as primarily a literal shooting war, and to respond to an international terrorist threat that knows no territorial boundaries by capturing, bombing, or stabilizing particular pieces of territory.  The impetus behind the package also tacitly acknowledges what most proponents of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan do not: that Afghanistan has no special claim as a piece of territory that will make a significant difference in whether al-Qaeda does or does not pose a serious threat to U.S. interests.  The issue of aid to Yemen also manifests some of the trade-offs that abound in counterterrorism, particularly the one between the short-term kinetic impact of using force against bad guys and longer term consequences that may not only run against other U.S. values and interests but also may be counterproductive as far as the counterterrorist objective itself is concerned (such as by stoking anti-Americanism through collateral casualties or close U.S. association with the repressive apparatus of a local regime).

None of these considerations by themselves mean the aid package is necessarily a bad idea.  And the package has the major virtue of letting Yemenis do the heavy lifting and, unlike Afghanistan, not entailing a major deployment of U.S. troops.  But the proposal looks like an effort to strike the most direct, demonstrative blow against terrorism in Yemen without thoroughly considering those trade-offs and other consequences.  Yemen currently faces no external threat but is beset by the Houthi rebellion in the north of the country and increasing restiveness among the once-independent southerners.  Both of those situations pose, from the regime's perspective, greater threats than anything al-Qaeda is doing.  The situation is tailor-made for the kind of backlash-inducing redirection of U.S.-aided military resources that the State Department skeptics fear.

One reason for the oversimplifying, military-heavy approach toward Yemeni terrorism is that Americans in general like to view their enemies in oversimplified terms and to favor simple, direct, forceful ways of dealing with them.  Another reason is specific right now to Yemen and is related to an observation that my friend Steve Simon made in a panel discussion (in which I also participated) on Wednesday at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.  The attempted attack of an airliner last December by the underwear bomber coming from Yemen, had the attack been successful, would have been a catastrophic political blow to the Obama administration.  This effect would have reflected the way Americans expect perfection in counterterrorism, along with the partisanship that causes political opponents to pounce enthusiastically on any failure, regardless of its causes or how much it was or was not avoidable.  So there is a strong impetus not only to do whatever possible to avoid another Yemen-originated attack, but also to be perceived to be doing that.  This may be an example of a demonstrable pursuit of perfection in securing Americans from terrorism working against well-considered adoption of policies that, while perfection is impossible to achieve, are apt to be more successful than the more demonstrable alternatives.

(Photo by Middayexpress)