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When Yemen is not Pakistan

July 18, 2011
tags: ,

Frank Cilluffo and Clinton Watts of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University published an issue brief at the end of last month titled “Yemen & Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Exploiting a Window of Counterterrorism Opportunity“. Well known Yemen analyst Gregory Johnsen has written an extended critique of the brief’s underlying assumptions, to which the authors have responded.

Much of the discussion on this issue (see also Twitter conversations) has revolved around what the short and long term effects of a “decapitation” strategy – whereby US uses special forces and drone strikes to attempt to eliminate key AQAP leaders – are likely to be, and which outweighs the other.

Cilluffo and Watts (and others) argue that drone strikes will disrupt AQAP operations in the short term and are unlikely to produce a long term “radicalisation” effect. From my reading of their arguments, there are two fundamental points supporting this thesis:

1. The US drone strike strategy in Pakistan has been effective. Cilluffo and Watts:

Increasing drones and SOF operations now is the best and only sufficient U.S. option for several reasons. […] targeted attacks on AQ’s leadership in Pakistan severely disrupted the terror group’s ability to plan and execute terror attacks abroad.

2. The Yemeni context is not significantly different from the Pakistani context.

Thus far nobody [in Yemen] has demonstrated the capacity, wherewithal, or political will to act in a way commensurate to the threat.  And since the U.S. is clearly in AQAP’s cross hairs we can’t simply wait and ought to pursue any and all pathways to counter the threat.  These same basic conditions exist in Waziristan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan as well.

I have several reservations about  the legitimacy and legality of the proposed strategy, as well as the “War on Terror” framework it  rests in, and the jury is still out on the consequences of drone strikes in Pakistan. But I can see the strength of Cilluffo and Watts’s argument: there is a lack of obvious short-term alternatives for dealing with AQAP; as they note, the previous US strategy of training and equipping Yemeni special forces for CT work is no longer viable, nor was it successful in any case.

However I am concerned by the disinterest expressed by Cilluffo and Watts in the specificities of the Yemeni context. After incorrectly attributing the political crisis in Yemen to a culmination of the Houthi and southern movement insurgencies (a basic misunderstanding of recent events in Yemen), they respond to Johnsen’s criticism:

We were not arguing about why the Saleh regime fell and the cause is rather irrelevant to our discussion on the use of drones and Special Forces operations. We find it hard to believe these two insurgencies, along with the popular uprisings, didn’t contribute to Saleh’s demise.

Ignoring the Yemeni political context and assuming that direct parallels can be made with the situation in Pakistan is, to my mind, not a good way to develop a successful strategy to counter AQAP.

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