Commentary Magazine


Topic: Christopher Harnisch

Too Much of a “Light” Thing

The profile of Country A in Yemen associates it with domestic military raids by the corrupt, ineffective central government. Country B’s profile in Yemen involves contracts to build a railroad and new electric power plant and sell the Sanaa government billions in new military equipment. Country C is Yemen’s largest trading partner, representing more than a third of its foreign trade, its biggest source of foreign investment, and the majority of its oil and gas sales.

Country A is, of course, the United States of America. Countries B and C are Russia and China. The year is 2010, and the war on terror is relying as never before on assassination strikes against terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Standoff drone attacks have increased in the AfPak theater – dramatically so this month. For the new push in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), U.S. reliance is on facilitating strikes performed by the national government. America has promised to double security assistance to Yemen, offering $150 million in 2010 for fighting AQAP. Humanitarian assistance from USAID, meanwhile, is projected to increase to $50 million in 2010. The U.S. also proposes to help the Saleh government fight internal corruption and improve its democratic practices.

As a Voice of America reporter points out from on-scene in Sanaa, Yemenis are not taking the increase in outside intervention well. The Saleh government faces a serious challenge in its effort to downplay the dimensions of foreign involvement. The Obama administration’s preference for light-footprint, standoff antiterrorism operations would seem to accord nicely with the Yemeni government’s desires, but there is hardly a one-to-one correspondence in the size of our presence and its effective political profile. AQAP, which claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt, already seeks to attack Americans; it will not be appeased by the absence of conventionally organized U.S. ground troops in Yemen. Yemenis themselves are now associating their government’s attacks, in which civilians are being killed, with American backing.

Trying to play this game without “skin” in it is likely to backfire on us and on our partner in Yemen, the Saleh government. In the coming months, that already-weak government will face a cadre of American advisers urging it to do things that make it more and more unpopular. Three other foreign governments – in Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia – will be bringing cash and looking for opportunities that may conflict directly with the course we have chosen, including competition for Saleh’s favor and loyalty. Iran will continue to jockey for a surrogate foothold on the peninsula and will find our commitment there a made-to-order front on which to oppose and confound the U.S.

The latter factor alone ought to prompt formation of the interagency task force proposed on Jan. 14 by Frederick Kagan and Christopher Harnisch. But our administration’s emerging reliance on targeted “leadership” strikes – now to be conducted by proxy in Yemen – is also widening an uncomfortable gap between its actual policy and the ideal of constructive use of all forms of national power. There is a real risk of doing just enough to enrage AQAP and the Yemeni populace but not enough to improve conditions and promote a long-term favorable outcome. Now is the time to mount a more deliberate approach.

The profile of Country A in Yemen associates it with domestic military raids by the corrupt, ineffective central government. Country B’s profile in Yemen involves contracts to build a railroad and new electric power plant and sell the Sanaa government billions in new military equipment. Country C is Yemen’s largest trading partner, representing more than a third of its foreign trade, its biggest source of foreign investment, and the majority of its oil and gas sales.

Country A is, of course, the United States of America. Countries B and C are Russia and China. The year is 2010, and the war on terror is relying as never before on assassination strikes against terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Standoff drone attacks have increased in the AfPak theater – dramatically so this month. For the new push in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), U.S. reliance is on facilitating strikes performed by the national government. America has promised to double security assistance to Yemen, offering $150 million in 2010 for fighting AQAP. Humanitarian assistance from USAID, meanwhile, is projected to increase to $50 million in 2010. The U.S. also proposes to help the Saleh government fight internal corruption and improve its democratic practices.

As a Voice of America reporter points out from on-scene in Sanaa, Yemenis are not taking the increase in outside intervention well. The Saleh government faces a serious challenge in its effort to downplay the dimensions of foreign involvement. The Obama administration’s preference for light-footprint, standoff antiterrorism operations would seem to accord nicely with the Yemeni government’s desires, but there is hardly a one-to-one correspondence in the size of our presence and its effective political profile. AQAP, which claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt, already seeks to attack Americans; it will not be appeased by the absence of conventionally organized U.S. ground troops in Yemen. Yemenis themselves are now associating their government’s attacks, in which civilians are being killed, with American backing.

Trying to play this game without “skin” in it is likely to backfire on us and on our partner in Yemen, the Saleh government. In the coming months, that already-weak government will face a cadre of American advisers urging it to do things that make it more and more unpopular. Three other foreign governments – in Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia – will be bringing cash and looking for opportunities that may conflict directly with the course we have chosen, including competition for Saleh’s favor and loyalty. Iran will continue to jockey for a surrogate foothold on the peninsula and will find our commitment there a made-to-order front on which to oppose and confound the U.S.

The latter factor alone ought to prompt formation of the interagency task force proposed on Jan. 14 by Frederick Kagan and Christopher Harnisch. But our administration’s emerging reliance on targeted “leadership” strikes – now to be conducted by proxy in Yemen – is also widening an uncomfortable gap between its actual policy and the ideal of constructive use of all forms of national power. There is a real risk of doing just enough to enrage AQAP and the Yemeni populace but not enough to improve conditions and promote a long-term favorable outcome. Now is the time to mount a more deliberate approach.

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The Need for Getting Good at Nation Building

Fred Kagan and Christopher Harnisch make a good point in this Wall Street Journal article about the need to build up the state in Yemen and to help it defeat secessionist rebels — not just al-Qaeda. They suggest setting up an inter-agency task force to accomplish this mission. That’s a good idea. Problem is, the U.S. government still lacks the right resources and structures to tackle effectively the difficult task of state-building (or, as it is popularly known, “nation building”) in the Third World.

This is not exactly a new problem. Back in July 2003 I was writing about the need for Washington to create a “Colonial Office.” That was simply a cheeky way of getting attention for the idea of boosting our nation-building capacity — to create what I later suggested should be called a Department of Peace. Whatever you call it, we need to boost our capacity to build up foreign law-enforcement and military capacity along with electricity, sewage treatment, medical care, and the myriad other tasks that states need to perform in order to enjoy legitimacy with their own citizens and control their own borders.

This isn’t a matter of do-goodism run rampant; it’s a matter of self-preservation. Because as we are now seeing in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, among others, countries lacking effective governance — especially countries of large, discontented Muslim populations — can pose a direct national-security threat to the United States. After the early setbacks in Iraq, it was generally acknowledged that there was a need to boost our capacity in this regard but remarkably little has been accomplished outside the military.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have become much more adept at counterinsurgency since 2003, which, they have realized, includes a large nation-building element that would enable our local allies to carry on in the future with decreasing degrees of assistance from us. But the State Department, USAID, and other civilian agencies? They have shown only marginal improvements since 2003. Their capacities remain far too small and they are far too dependant on contractors of mixed reliability and worth.

A lot of this, admittedly, is not their fault; Congress deserves a fair share of the blame for not adequately funding these desperately needed capacities and for yielding to lawmakers’ knee-jerk revulsion against “nation building.” They seem to imagine that if we don’t develop these capacities we won’t be called upon to undertake missions that are never popular on the home front. Unfortunately, as events from Haiti to Yemen show, there is and will continue to be a high demand for the U.S. government to provide these services. The only choice we have is whether we will perform nation-building badly or well. We have chosen to do it badly and will continue to pay a high price if we persist in our blindness.

Fred Kagan and Christopher Harnisch make a good point in this Wall Street Journal article about the need to build up the state in Yemen and to help it defeat secessionist rebels — not just al-Qaeda. They suggest setting up an inter-agency task force to accomplish this mission. That’s a good idea. Problem is, the U.S. government still lacks the right resources and structures to tackle effectively the difficult task of state-building (or, as it is popularly known, “nation building”) in the Third World.

This is not exactly a new problem. Back in July 2003 I was writing about the need for Washington to create a “Colonial Office.” That was simply a cheeky way of getting attention for the idea of boosting our nation-building capacity — to create what I later suggested should be called a Department of Peace. Whatever you call it, we need to boost our capacity to build up foreign law-enforcement and military capacity along with electricity, sewage treatment, medical care, and the myriad other tasks that states need to perform in order to enjoy legitimacy with their own citizens and control their own borders.

This isn’t a matter of do-goodism run rampant; it’s a matter of self-preservation. Because as we are now seeing in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, among others, countries lacking effective governance — especially countries of large, discontented Muslim populations — can pose a direct national-security threat to the United States. After the early setbacks in Iraq, it was generally acknowledged that there was a need to boost our capacity in this regard but remarkably little has been accomplished outside the military.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have become much more adept at counterinsurgency since 2003, which, they have realized, includes a large nation-building element that would enable our local allies to carry on in the future with decreasing degrees of assistance from us. But the State Department, USAID, and other civilian agencies? They have shown only marginal improvements since 2003. Their capacities remain far too small and they are far too dependant on contractors of mixed reliability and worth.

A lot of this, admittedly, is not their fault; Congress deserves a fair share of the blame for not adequately funding these desperately needed capacities and for yielding to lawmakers’ knee-jerk revulsion against “nation building.” They seem to imagine that if we don’t develop these capacities we won’t be called upon to undertake missions that are never popular on the home front. Unfortunately, as events from Haiti to Yemen show, there is and will continue to be a high demand for the U.S. government to provide these services. The only choice we have is whether we will perform nation-building badly or well. We have chosen to do it badly and will continue to pay a high price if we persist in our blindness.

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The Yemen Project

Frederick Kagan and Christopher Harnisch have a useful think piece in the Wall Street Journal today on applying “smart power” in Yemen. Their series of excellent points culminates in the suggestion of Yemen as the venue in which to test a prototype multiagency task force designed to wield all the elements of national power — diplomatic, informational, military, and economic — in the effort to produce stability in Yemen and immunize it against use by al-Qaeda. “Despite years of talk about the need to develop this kind of capability in the State Department or elsewhere in Washington,” they point out, “it does not exist. It must be built now, and quickly.”

Kagan and Harnisch are right that the question of U.S. involvement in Yemen is not whether we will be involved but how. Their case is strong that our effort should be a multiagency one, rather than expanding from its current minimal level on the traditional model of military intervention. But however we organize it, the key to engaging with Yemen is understanding what we are walking into. Yemen’s internal battle is not being fought in a geopolitical vacuum, and our intervention there has the potential to turn very quickly into a proxy confrontation with other regional actors.

Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the most obvious one, along with Iran, which arms the Shia “Houthi” rebels against Yemen’s central government. But an increased level of U.S. effort is likely to draw in other actors, like Somalia’s radical al-Shabaab terror group, which promised last week to send fighters to Yemen in support of the Houthi rebels. This is a legitimate threat; Iran and Eritrea keep al-Shabaab armed, and maritime traffic between Somalia and Yemen is routine and very hard to interdict.

Saudi Arabia’s interest in Yemeni stability, meanwhile, is direct and proprietary. Riyadh is concerned about incursions into its territory, of course, but is equally concerned about Iran — or other outside powers — gaining influence over Yemen. Yemen’s location brings the most significant of suitors to its door: Russia and China are the two top suppliers of arms to the Saleh regime, and at the end of December, both of them capped decades of extensive involvement in Yemen with major financial assistance and cooperation agreements. We are not the only great power proposing to influence events in Yemen with monetary aid and military cooperation; in fact, we’re at the back of the line. Russia was reported a year ago to be planning to re-establish its Cold War–era naval base on Yemen’s Socotra Island and will not remain passive in the face of a U.S. policy adopted on the energetic lines proposed by Kagan and Harnisch.

Yemen is more than a poor, unstable nation that makes a natural hideout for al-Qaeda; it is, due to its location, a geostrategic prize. As the Nigerian airplane bomber demonstrated, we must increase our involvement there. This is an opportunity, not just a regrettable necessity, for both Yemen and us — if we approach it with positive objectives in mind. Succeeding there will inevitably have the effect of sidelining Iran and Russia, and we will need to be prepared for their reactions. We might even be able to achieve a limited partnership with the Russians if we avoid harboring illusions about their objectives. As Kagan and Harnisch suggest, a Yemen intervention looks like a natural fit for a high-level multiagency task force, as opposed to one centered mainly on military or intelligence activities. The “measure of effectiveness” for that task force would be its success in defining U.S. interests proactively rather than reactively, and in preparing us to deal with the interests already being actively asserted by third parties.

Frederick Kagan and Christopher Harnisch have a useful think piece in the Wall Street Journal today on applying “smart power” in Yemen. Their series of excellent points culminates in the suggestion of Yemen as the venue in which to test a prototype multiagency task force designed to wield all the elements of national power — diplomatic, informational, military, and economic — in the effort to produce stability in Yemen and immunize it against use by al-Qaeda. “Despite years of talk about the need to develop this kind of capability in the State Department or elsewhere in Washington,” they point out, “it does not exist. It must be built now, and quickly.”

Kagan and Harnisch are right that the question of U.S. involvement in Yemen is not whether we will be involved but how. Their case is strong that our effort should be a multiagency one, rather than expanding from its current minimal level on the traditional model of military intervention. But however we organize it, the key to engaging with Yemen is understanding what we are walking into. Yemen’s internal battle is not being fought in a geopolitical vacuum, and our intervention there has the potential to turn very quickly into a proxy confrontation with other regional actors.

Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the most obvious one, along with Iran, which arms the Shia “Houthi” rebels against Yemen’s central government. But an increased level of U.S. effort is likely to draw in other actors, like Somalia’s radical al-Shabaab terror group, which promised last week to send fighters to Yemen in support of the Houthi rebels. This is a legitimate threat; Iran and Eritrea keep al-Shabaab armed, and maritime traffic between Somalia and Yemen is routine and very hard to interdict.

Saudi Arabia’s interest in Yemeni stability, meanwhile, is direct and proprietary. Riyadh is concerned about incursions into its territory, of course, but is equally concerned about Iran — or other outside powers — gaining influence over Yemen. Yemen’s location brings the most significant of suitors to its door: Russia and China are the two top suppliers of arms to the Saleh regime, and at the end of December, both of them capped decades of extensive involvement in Yemen with major financial assistance and cooperation agreements. We are not the only great power proposing to influence events in Yemen with monetary aid and military cooperation; in fact, we’re at the back of the line. Russia was reported a year ago to be planning to re-establish its Cold War–era naval base on Yemen’s Socotra Island and will not remain passive in the face of a U.S. policy adopted on the energetic lines proposed by Kagan and Harnisch.

Yemen is more than a poor, unstable nation that makes a natural hideout for al-Qaeda; it is, due to its location, a geostrategic prize. As the Nigerian airplane bomber demonstrated, we must increase our involvement there. This is an opportunity, not just a regrettable necessity, for both Yemen and us — if we approach it with positive objectives in mind. Succeeding there will inevitably have the effect of sidelining Iran and Russia, and we will need to be prepared for their reactions. We might even be able to achieve a limited partnership with the Russians if we avoid harboring illusions about their objectives. As Kagan and Harnisch suggest, a Yemen intervention looks like a natural fit for a high-level multiagency task force, as opposed to one centered mainly on military or intelligence activities. The “measure of effectiveness” for that task force would be its success in defining U.S. interests proactively rather than reactively, and in preparing us to deal with the interests already being actively asserted by third parties.

Read Less




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