Obama’s point man on all-things-counterterrorism, John O. Brennan, fired back against criticisms of U.S. policy in Yemen on Wednesday night.
He was specifically addressing a letter to the president signed by by 27 foreign policy experts in late June warning that the U.S. is jeopardizing long-term national security goals by focusing too narrowly on counterterrorism — at the expense of addressing the country’s underlying economic and political problems. (Ironically, one of the letter’s recommendations was that the president should send Secretary of State Clinton to the country to illustrate a broader commitment. Instead, they received a rebuttal in the form of a speech from a top counterterrorism official.)
Brennan made two points that I’d like to look at more closely.
Security Vs. Civilian Assistance
Brennan made some of the same arguments he’s made in previous speeches — we have a comprehensive, multi-pillared approach, drones are the solution not the problem — but he also pointed out that $178 million of the $337 million in U.S. assistance to Yemen this year, or a little more than half, was civilian assistance, the largest amount the U.S. has ever provided to Yemen.
But this purported balance isn’t exactly fair, says Micah Zenko, a conflict prevention expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, because the portion of military and security aid doesn’t include covert security assistance from the CIA or other agencies. That assistance could number in the hundreds of millions of dollars, significantly altering the distribution.
Zenko also points out the officially reported balance between civilian versus non-covert security assistance isn’t really new or a significant recent shift. A February 2012 report (PDF) from the Government Accountability Office states that since 2007, the U.S. allocated more than more $642 million to Yemen, almost evenly split between security assistance, $326 million, and civilian assistance, $316 million. “Brennan’s speech essentially echoed other speeches,” Zenko told me. “It’s what I call a ‘buffet of generalities and adjectives.’”
Are Drones Creating Militants?
In December 2009, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist group’s affiliate based in Yemen, was believed to have roughly between 200 to 300 members, according to Gregory D. Johnsen, whose book about AQAP comes out in November. But its numbers have grown over the years. Earlier this year, Brennan described the group as having more than 1,000 recruits. And a July 2012 country report on terrorism released by the State Department now reports AQAP has grown to “a few thousand members.”
What’s behind the rapid rise? There are some who argue that America’s ramped up drone and air strikes in Yemen since 2009 play a role in driving up recruitment. A series of on-the-ground reports in The Washington Post, The Times of London, NPR and The Nation suggest that, in certain places and in response to particular strikes that have resulted in civilian casualties, the strikes are driving recruitment or sympathy for Al Qaeda. (Perhaps the most-cited is the Dec. 17, 2009 strike in Majala that killed a number of civilians.)
Brennan flat-out rejected those reports:
Contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP. In fact, we see the opposite, our Yemeni partners are more eager to work with us. Yemen[i] citizens who have been freed from the hellish grip of AQAP are more eager, not less, to work with the Yemeni government. In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem, they are part of the solution.
He added that the strikes are “legal, ethical, wise and highly effective.”
But he provided little evidence (even though some “direct actions” were declassified in June) to back up his claims, which Johnsen describes as “either deliberately misleading or naive.”
All that said, it’s worth pointing out that there is one report about strikes in Yemen that runs counter to all of the others. Political scientist Christopher Swift, who recently spent almost two weeks in Yemen conducting structured interviews with 40 tribal leaders, Islamist politicians, and Yemeni journalists and experts from 14 of the country’s 21 provinces, says that 35 out of the 40 respondents believed drone strikes do not make it more likely that Al Qaeda will recruit. The same number also said that drone strikes help more than they hurt.
“When I spoke to tribal leaders who are actively engaged in fighting Al Qaeda, they said, ‘You can’t have anything like the Majala strike [which killed civilians in December 2009] ever happen again,’” Swift told me. “But in the same sentence, they said, ‘but you need to keep the strikes going because they are disabling the leadership and makes it easier to go and hunt them down.”
His research raises questions about how to measure whether the strikes are driving recruitment or sympathy for AQAP on a nation-wide scale. I spoke with him about his methodology, and he was careful to tell me this: “I’m not saying my cohort is the final word on drones in Yemen, what I’m saying is that the situation is more nuanced and more complex, and we have to pay attention to what’s happening at the local level.”
So what might be some of the other factors at play?
Swift argues that AQAP’s burgeoning numbers can be explained by the country’s structural poverty and economic desperation, which he says the group exploits by paying recruits. “If you’re in a district that’s rural, isolated and remote, and if your kids are living on 400 calories a day, you’ll go with the person who can pay you $200-400 a month. Because you don’t have any other options. People are in no position to refuse.”
Johnsen, who’s one of the U.S.’s foremost experts on AQAP, questions whether the group is really that loaded with cash, but he agrees the security-development nexus is an important one. This idea that the U.S. needs to balance the two isn’t a new strategy; we’ve been hearing it for years, and we heard it again in Brennan’s speech Wednesday night.
The problem, it seems, is that all of this sounds a lot like counterinsurgency in a country where many argue the U.S. is essentially at war. And, as evidenced by Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s far easier said than actually done.