A big question at London conference: What to do about Yemen?

How to battle Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists in Yemen has been added to a London conference on Afghanistan. The Fort Hood shooting and Christmas Day airline bombing attempt have made Yemen's extremists a more urgent problem for the US and its antiterror allies.

By , Staff writer

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    White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, with deputy security adviser John Brennan and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, at a briefing about the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt. That suspect is alleged to have trained in Yemen.
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    Eyes on Yemen: A memorial honors the fallen in the Fort Hood shootings. The suspect has ties to a cleric in Yemen.
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Yemen's emergence as a hotbed of Al Qaeda activity against the West was already raising questions about the scale of any US or Western response. Now, by adding Yemen to the agenda of a Jan. 28 international meeting about the Afghanistan campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has touched off a debate about how best to counter a violent strain of Islam as it surfaces in various Muslim countries.

The gathering in London of Western leaders and defense ministers is designed in part to show that the big-footprint approach to counterterrorism – as undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan – is proving effective. Appending Yemen to the discussion, some security analysts worry, may signal that the coalition against Islamist extremism may simply continue its current approach, at great cost of blood and treasure.

What is needed instead, they say, is a true accounting of what the West has achieved thus far in its battle against radical Islam.

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"We need to be honest enough to come right out and say that much of what we've done so far has been futile at best and counterproductive at worst," says Wayne White, a former State Department policy planning official and intelligence officer. "We should be rethinking much of what we're doing, but instead the response is to flip the page to Yemen and continue the knee-jerk reaction of marching into another failed or nearly failed state."

The point of adding Yemen to the meeting, Prime Minister Brown said earlier this month, is to determine what the conflict-riven country on the Arabian Peninsula needs to combat terrorists, to seek pledges to train Yemeni security forces, and to better coordinate development aid.

The United States has already said it will double military and civilian assistance to Yemen – aid last year was less than $70 million, a far cry from the billions the US spends annually in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Obama also nixed sending US troops to Yemen, although he did not categorically rule out that option for the future.

A need to coordinate the West's response

The need to coordinate responses to the threat within Yemen is why the Afghanistan-Yemen meeting in London makes sense, some experts say. The US appears to be the main target of Yemen's Al Qaeda-affiliated groups: Suspects in both the Christmas Day airline incident and the Fort Hood shooting last November are alleged to have links to a radical cleric in Yemen. But other Western countries, too, have come under threat from Yemen's extremists.

"There's always a possibility [the Yemen discussion] could siphon off some political attention from Afghanistan, but there are some obvious similarities ... between Afghanistan and Yemen that are at the heart of what the people [at] this meeting are going to discuss," says James Dobbins of the RAND Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center in Arlington, Va. "It makes sense to use the opportunity to address this new priority."

One "similarity" that even critics acknowledge is that Afghanistan and Yemen are both governed by corrupt regimes that have alienated many of their own people. By propping up these regimes, they warn, Western countries are only abetting the instability that Al Qaeda thrives on.

"The idea that these places are at the center of the global struggle against extremist Islam, or that our survival depends on making another huge international commitment to one more failing place, is ludicrous," says Patrick Lang, a retired senior military officer who served two years as the US defense attaché in Sanaa, Yemen's capital. "For us to get more deeply involved on the side of the government is not going to make our situation any better."

Al Qaeda 'chortling'?

A big international commitment to Yemen may be what Al Qaeda is hoping for, some analysts suggest, in that it would open one more front in a diffused Western antiterrorism effort.

"Al Qaeda must be chortling at the great bargain they just got," says Mr. White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute here. "For the price of an airline ticket and a pair of underpants they've managed to spread out the global counterterrorist effort that much more thinly."

The US and its partners should "consider that what we've done hasn't worked out well anywhere," he says.

RAND's Mr. Dobbins disagrees. America's low-profile, small-scale effort to help the Philippines government fight Islamist rebels is the kind of approach that could work in Yemen, he says.

"I do think there's a general consensus after the experiences in Afghanistan and ... Iraq that we should avoid large-scale military interventions," says Dobbins.

Some urge limited counterterrorist military action

Some security analysts conclude that the answer is limited counterterrorist military activity coupled with a focus on security for population centers (what some call the Biden approach, after the vice president's proposal for an Afghanistan strategy).

"Biden was a lot closer to what is needed," says Mr. Lang. "Jihadists in these places are the guys we should be focusing our efforts on, not on remodeling the whole Islamic world."

Others warn that the US and its partners cannot ignore failed or failing states – and that a limited response now of blasting Al Qaeda operatives using Predator drones may only result in the need for heavier military intervention later.

"We're hoping we can [succeed] by whacking these guys," says Frederick Kagan, an expert in military history at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "But Yemen is a state that is rapidly heading toward … collapse, so either we face the difficulties now or [confront] a much more difficult situation down the road."

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