Yemen sharpens debate: Are wars the answer to terrorism?

Critics say the US has put too much emphasis on large-scale military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yemen shows that Al Qaeda is too agile to be defeated by such a 'whack a mole' strategy, they say.

Nasser Nasser/AP
Yemeni people walk in the old part of Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday. Yemen showed signs of friction with the US over the fight against Al Qaeda, insisting it has the terror group under control, as the US Embassy in Sanaa ended a two-day closure.

The emergence – or better said, reemergence – of Yemen and the Horn of Africa as a focal point of Al Qaeda-led terrorist activity aimed at the United States is sharpening a debate over how and with what resources the US has chosen to battle the global Islamist extremist threat.

With Yemeni connections to recent terrorist acts or threats in the US surfacing, some critics of the approach taken by the US since 9/11 say too much emphasis and treasure have been dedicated to large-scale military operations like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the US has become bogged down there, these critics add, an agile and mobile enemy has used convenient tools like the Internet and the lawless regions of failed or weak states like Yemen and Somalia to build networks and regroup after defeats elsewhere.

“It’s gotten to be like the old whack-a-mole game, where we’ve hit them here, but they’ve just popped right back up over there,” says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA Middle East analyst now at the National Defense University in Washington. “We’re not going to bomb our way to a solution in Afghanistan, and it’s not going to be by forgetting about all the other places where these groups have influence, either.”

US increasing counterterrorism aid to Yemen

The Obama administration is tacitly recognizing the validity of some of the criticism, announcing in recent days an increase in counterterrorism aid to the Yemeni government to take on extremist forces including those aligned with Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Earlier this week Gen. David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, said during a visit to the Yemeni capital of Sanaa that American assistance for fighting the extremist threat will increase this year. On Monday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the Obama administration has requested security and development assistance of about $63 million for Yemen this year, or more than 50 percent over last year’s amount.

Moreover, Yemen can expect an infusion of money targeted specifically at counterterrorism, Mr. Kelly said – funding that reached $67 million last year.

After his inter-agency security meeting Tuesday, President Obama said, “We are going to target Al Qaeda wherever they take root.” That followed an announcement Friday by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown that Britain will hold a high-level international meeting at the end of the month on efforts to combat advancing radicalization in Yemen.

But such statements and announcements do not silence those who say the US is still putting too many eggs in the Iraq and Afghanistan baskets.

One of the harsher critics of US counterterrorism policy is US Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, who is as critical of Obama’s Afghanistan policy as he was of President Bush’s Iraq policy. Senator Feingold has said since shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that prolonged military operations in Islamic countries cause the US to become bogged down and lose sight of extremist threats popping up elsewhere.

In a Dec. 2 letter to Obama explaining his opposition to the president’s Afghanistan troop build-up, Feingold said, “Al Qaeda and its affiliates are located in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, and other places around the world.”

“Rather than investing so many of our resources in Afghanistan, we should pursue a comprehensive, global counterterrorism strategy,” he said.

No easy answers

But even some experts who generally agree with Feingold’s perspective say the problem is not so much that places like Yemen have been ignored, but that there are no easy answers to the problems there.

“Our level of interest in Yemen has remained fairly constant over recent years, and we have had some successes there against extremist forces like Al Qaeda,” says Charles Dunbar, a former US ambassador to Yemen. “The issue is not that we’ve turned our backs on Yemen, but that it’s just plain hard to know what to do about it.”

Mr. Dunbar, who now teaches international relations at Boston University, says the combination of a weak central government facing a variety of internal armed conflicts, security challenges, and extensive poverty make Yemen “an absolutely prime location” for anti-Western extremism to flourish.

Indeed, some experts in counterterrorism policy say the US and other Western countries would only exacerbate their problems by working too closely with a government that is considered corrupt and nepotistic by large sectors of the Yemeni population.

“It would repeat a pattern we’ve been criticized for in the past,” says Dunbar.

Adds the National Defense University’s Ms. Yaphe, “You have to turn the entire society against the extremist forces, and we’re not going to get there by putting ourselves in with allies and governments that on a normal day we wouldn’t touch.”


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