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Debating drone strikes in Yemen

July 22, 2011
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Gregory Johnsen has written a rebuttal to the rebuttal of his criticisms of the paper by Frank Cilluffo and Clinton Watts on drone strikes in Yemen, further laying out his views of the likely effectiveness (or not) of a drone-led leadership decapitation strategy to combat AQAP in Yemen. I think he’s right to hammer home the long term problems with such a strategy, but I fear that as the strongest argument for it is the lack of an obvious short-term alternative, critics of drone strikes aren’t going to make much headway without laying out clearly ways the threat can be, or is being, mitigated on a short term basis.

Cilluffo and Watts are making the case for a “short term results now, deal with long term effects later” approach: flawed in many respects, but an attitude that has traction in many quarters.  While I would agree with Johnsen that considering long term effects should be key in any CT strategy, it seems to me there is a significant contingent in Washington that prioritises short term results.


Following the debate:

Yemen & Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Exploiting a Window of Counterterrorism Opportunity (Cilluffo and Watts)

The seduction of simple solutions (Johnsen)

Authors’ rebuttal to “The seduction of simple solutions” (Cilluffo and Watts)

Drones instead of a strategy (Johnsen)


Other recent blog posts on drones, in Yemen and Pakistan:

On drones (Abu Muqawama)

Drone strikes: the human cost (Louisa Loveluck)




When Yemen is not Pakistan

July 18, 2011
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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.

An evening with Alaa Al Aswany

July 15, 2011
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Last night the well known author and columnist Alaa Al Aswany gave a talk at El Sawy Culture Wheel, Cairo’s amazing youth club and culture centre on the bank of the Nile. This was the first of a planned series of once a month talks Al Aswany will be giving at the Culture Wheel, and the hall was packed, with an audience of at least two or three hundred people.

With the advertised title of “Egypt after the revolution”, Al Aswany’s talk focused on the concepts of reform and revolution. While praising the successes of the 25 Jan revolution, he launched scathing criticisms towards Essam Sharaf’s government and the role being played by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in maintaining the old, corrupt system which should not be reformed, but rather restarted from scratch by a revolutionary government. However despite the fierce criticism he held back from calling for the SCAF to be overthrown.

He also directed criticism towards the Tahrir sit in, arguing that closing the mugama3 (the great bureaucratic domain which ordinary citizens must navigate in order to negotiate various paperwork issues) was a gift to the counter revolution. Between the extremes of the revolutionaries and the counter-revolution, the mass of the Egyptian people are the mutafarrageen, those who watch everything unroll on TV. Actions like the blockade of the mogama3 interfere with their everyday lives, and may turn them against the revolution – protests should instead target the actual loci of power.

He called for the unity of the revolution to be rekindled, lamenting the fracturing of the various political tendencies. Pluralism is healthy in a democracy, but the people need to be united until the aims of the revolution have been achieved.

After his lecture he invited the audience to write questions on comment slips, and promised to answer them all. I slipped out after a few of the questions, but not before witnessing some minor controversies. Inevitably someone went off topic and posed a question about his books, specifically taking him to task over the sex scenes contained in them. More significantly someone argued that he was encouraging people to act irresponsibly in pushing for more radical action: Al Aswany brusquely suggested that the questioner was in the pay of the old regime, and the questioner was heckled by the crowd when he stood up to defend himself.

While much of the talk was well received by the audience, I also heard negative comments about him. I also wonder how in tune he is with the new, young revolutionary politics: while he promised to engage in a dialogue, the set up was very much a lecture by Alaa Al Aswany: even if he did finish reading out the stack of questions handed to him, they seemed to be more interruptions in his lecture than a way to engage in a real conversation.

Egypt in transition

April 16, 2011

Yesterday Chatham House published the workshop report “Egypt in Transition”. This is the fruit of a trip I made to Cairo last month with Chatham House colleagues to hold a workshop there.

It was an incredible opportunity to meet a wide range of Egyptian political actors and discuss Egypt in the immediate aftermath of the revolution and where Egyptians hope the revolution will lead to.

It was striking to see Egyptians from all walks of life – and of varying political persuasions – talk openly about the problems of the old regime, and about the hope they had for Egypt going forwards. Of course, not all the taboos have been broken: the military’s recent demand for print publications to obtain permission before mentioning the armed forces is unsurprisingly described as a “substantial setback for press freedom in Egypt” by the CPJ.

What I took away most of all from our workshop was that Egyptians know the hard work starts now. They achieved a stunning victory in ending Hosni Mubarak’s rule, but there is a lot to be done in order to truly dismantle the regime and effect broad-based change in the political landscape.

Here are the key findings from the report:

  • Egyptians feel that in the post-Mubarak era they have an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the political landscape.
  • Challenges that will be faced include increasing political awareness at the grassroots; connecting activists and the political elite to the needs of marginalized populations, especially in rural areas; and encouraging/enabling a fragmented opposition to coalesce into coherent groups.
  • The military’s role in politics is seen as problematic and it should be replaced by a civilian government as soon as possible.
  • The Mubarak era has left a bitter legacy in Egypt’s relations with the West, as most Egyptians perceive Western governments to have been supporters of his rule; Western policy-makers will have to make serious efforts to build relationships of trust with the new political actors in Egypt.

A comparative perspective on protest politics

April 10, 2011

I’ve just been reading Zeinobia’s comment on the events in Tahrir Square on Friday night, when the Egyptian army forcefully cleared the square of protesters who refused to obey the curfew. (For a fuller description of what happened, see this post from the Arabist).

There’s much to discuss around what this means for people’s perception of the military in Egypt, around whether the army can control the media narrative, and so on. Zeinobia makes some very important points around the need for transparency and accountability from the ruling military council, and its ham-fisted approach to PR.

However it’s her criticisms of the protesters which has set me thinking. Lots of Egyptian activists and commentators are discussing the fallout from Friday night’s events, and it’s clearly a divisive issue: the protesters were challenging the army through their actions, and knew they were likely to face a pushback, but is it an effective tactic for achieving their ultimate goals?

Zeinobia thinks not:

The [SCAF – Supreme Council of Armed Forces] has made terrible mistakes but Egyptian activists have turned in to their own worst enemies. The Egyptian activists do not want to play politics , they do not want to leave the Tahrir at the right time and return to it at the right time to deliver to get what they want. 

She also echoes one of the main concerns I heard on my recent trip to Cairo about the need for the new generation of activists to make better connections with a wider section of the Egyptian population:

Unfortunately Some of these activists despite bragging of being in the streets all day have lost all the connection to the rest of the Egyptian people who will stand with the Egyptian army despite they know very well that it suffers from corruption just like any other institutions in the country. 

Zeinobia is not the only one asking questions about what can now be achieved by more Tahrir protests. Sandmonkey wrote a very persuasive piece a few weeks back arguing that the Jan25 coalition need to “Start organizing yourselves into an offline grassroots movement, Zenga Zenga style”.

Not being on the ground or part of the movement I couldn’t make a strong case for or against the protest tactics currently being used, but reading these discussions struck a chord with me: I have been having parallel conversations with friends about protest tactics in the anti-cuts movement, following the demonstrations in London on March 26.

While the repercussions of pushing protest boundaries in the UK are nowhere near as severe as those faced by activists in Tahrir, the non-TUC actions on March 26 are something of a parallel issue. I don’t think the non-TUC actions were harmful to the movement, but there are questions about how successful activists who took part were in communicating what they stood for and whether they were able to connect with the majority of the UK public. 

UK Uncut has been quite a savvy campaign and successful in encouraging a broader range of people to engage in peaceful direct action. But targeting Fortnum & Mason – while in no way an illegitimate target – had overtones of “class war”, and in the moment it was difficult to get the message out widely about how the occupation fitted in with UK Uncut’s campaign. Following the mass arrests after the action there is now a risk that UK Uncut activists will get engulfed in the fight against political policing – not unworthy, but also not typically of concern to the non-activist population.

Activists in both the UK and Egypt are taking a step back to think about wider strategies beyond protest for achieving their political goals. In the UK we’ve had much greater freedom to protest than Egyptians in the last 30 years, but we’re still having the same conversations about how to use protests as an effective tactic.

Engaging the radical margins

April 2, 2011
Outside Fortnum & Mason, March 26

Outside Fortnum & Mason, March 26

The March 26 protests in London against public spending cuts and tax avoidance by big corporations have elicited a fair amount of media attention and discussion as to what constitutes legitimate peaceful protest.

Questions of proportional policing and legitimate protest tactics are complex political issues that merit in depth debate. Like UK Uncut I’m not going to condone or condemn the actions of the “black bloc”; instead I’d like to make a point about the nature of the debate both within left wing circles and in the mainstream media.

While some have made valiant efforts to start a grown up discussion on this topic, others have been less mature. The Guardian has done some good reporting interviewing black block activists, but most comment and coverage of the black bloc has focused on its actions rather than its ideas.

Taking a lesson from my main area of academic interest – politics in the Middle East – I’d like to point out that the key to good policy is informed debate. Refusing to engage with the complex motivations and ideologies of insurgent movements or terrorist groups gets us no closer to resolving the conflicts which produce those movements.

In comparison with many political extremists, the hard left in the UK is pretty cuddly – smashing a few windows is small fry in the grand scheme of political violence. It’s understandable that the majority of Britons want to condemn these actions, but the media should do more than hold up a mirror to national knee-jerk reactions – it should inform a better understanding of the political context.

I’m not expecting Daily Mail journalists to start reading the Anarchist FAQ, but the anti-cuts movement would benefit its internal debates by facing head on the ideas present in the radical margins.

March 26

April 2, 2011

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A few photos from protests in London on March 26, including the controversial defacing of Topshop and Fortnum & Mason.