January 12, 2010

Approaching Yemen's extremism problem

There was a good article in the Independent today about the situation in Yemen. Keeping in mind the recent discussion on this blog about what to do, two paragraphs particularly stood out.

"But, in an office guarded by soldiers with AK-47s and crowded with lieutenants and allies including a uniformed army brigadier, he added: "There are no new troops, no new army." The governor said he lacked helicopters needed to pursue militants if there was an incident outside the capital.

Mr al-Misri went out of his way to stress that "social development" help from the international community was urgently needed for his country, the poorest in the Arab world. Airstrikes and military force were not the "solution", he added. "We need more help to get the tribes to kick them [al-Qai'da] out. The government does not have the resources to do that."

Abu Muqawama and Richard Fountaine rode into this argument early on in their On the Knife Edge policy brief arguing for a "whole of government" approach while Marc Lynch has said that we should we careful of expensive and potentially pointless blundering (yes, it's fun linking to the Tehran Times re-print of his piece).

Steve Tatham and Andrew Mackay support a point David Kilcullen makes when addressing these Yemen-style conflicts we are bound to see more of in the future:

"‘(W)e typically design physical operations first, then craft supporting information operations to explain our actions. This is the reverse of al-Qaida’s approach. For all our professionalism, compared to the enemy’s, our public information is an afterthought. In military terms, for al-Qaida the “main effort” is information; for us, information is a ‘supporting effort'."

In Londonstani's opinion, this really hits the nail on the head and is absolutely relevent to Yemen. Al Qaeda chose to establish themselves in Yemen. The success or failure of the underwear bomber was probably not judged to be as important as the spotlight it will cast on a country with multiple problems which play into the hands of AQ strategists. In the international game of Judo playing out over multiple timezones, AQ is  making the West use its force against itself again and again.

Londonstani has a little experience of Yemen, and remembers it as being very similar to Pakistan and Afghanistan's Pashtun territories in many ways. The danger is that AQ will be able to do what it has done in Pakistan. It has failed to make the population rise up in its support but it has succeeded in allowing the Western world to make itself so deeply unpopular that in the longer term the outlook of AQ is changing the ideological structure of the society.

Reading Tatham and Mackay and relating their arguments back to Pakistan, Londonstani is increasingly convinced that the answer will come from information and influence and building that into aid and diplomacy. If Washington and London can convince Yemenis (and others) that AQ "isn't probably right" and its allies and domestic supporters aren't the only people who can provide justice, peace and security that would be a good start. It can't be about "tricking the natives with plastic beads" but effectively communicating your intentions and achievements. It sounds easy, but even that start is pretty far off.

UPDATE: Also, take a very good look at al Qaeda's own "comprehensive approach"

"Only a fraction of pledged Western aid has been disbursed because of serious corruption and capacity problems in Yemen's government, with the result that per capita development aid is significantly below that of some poor African countries...

...Saying the jobless toll in Abyan is 50 per cent, compared with an estimated national average of 40 per cent, in a country where 45 per cent live on less than $2 a day, he describes how al-Qa'ida adherents insert themselves into local tribes, often nomads who do not see TV and know little of the movement's existence. First, he asserts, a member who belongs to the particular tribe will introduce others who will bring financial and practical help – like the digging of water wells – to the local community.

"Say the government is paying someone $50, they will pay $100. At the same time al-Qa'ida Islamic "scholars" will "collect" some of the tribe's young people, jobless and naturally religious, to begin "training", while also providing them with occasional financial help. Mr al-Misri says he cannot tell how many adherents it has but adds: "they are growing because the environment in Abyan helps the groups to grow because of the economic and employment problems."