Afghanistan: Village by village

An important element of U.S. strategy to stabilize Afghanistan and contain and preempt the Taliban is the empowerment of village militia in their own defense. I wrote about the virtue of this approach in November in in the context of a broader discussion of our strategic mistake in imposing an overly centralized government on Afghanistan in their new constitution we helped prepare. See and
Today’s Washington Post publishes an important and balanced discussion of value and risks of this policy:

Post Scripts on Yemen

Correctly assessing the enemy’s motives is essential to
combating him effectively. If radical Muslim fundamentalists hate American
freedom, etc., they are at war with us in our homeland and we would be in a
very different situation requiring a very different strategy than I think we
are actually in. The suicide bomber who killed seven American CIA agents in
Afghanistan December 30 adds further evidence that such claims are false. A
U.S. drone attack in Pakistan killed the important terrorist leader Baitullah
Mehsud in August. “In a chilling videotape released posthumously Saturday by
the Pakistani Taliban and broadcast on regional TV channels, bomber Humam
Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, 32, called on Muslim holy warriors worldwide to
avenge Mehsud’s death by attacking U.S. targets. ‘We will never forget the
blood of our emir Baitullah Mehsud," Balawi said on the tape, using the
title that means leader of the Muslim faithful. "We will always demand
revenge for him inside America and outside.’"[1]
 What the bomber hates is America’s
intrusion into his part of the world and its attacks on his brothers, not the
American way of life.

War is always the enemy of liberty, even when trying to
defend it. Our constitution and common sense gives our president essentially
unlimited powers to defend the nation in times of war. Liberty has been
preserved by limiting the wars we fight and keeping them short. These days we
invoke the imagery of war (the war on drugs, crime, terror, etc.) far too often
and too easily for those of us who love liberty and the checks and balances on
government power that are a critical tool for persevering liberty. As Vice
President, Dick Cheney relentlessly pressed for more and more Presidential
power to fight terrorists in the mistaken belief that that was the only way to
win the war against al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorists. Even today he persists in
this dangerous, fundamentally un-American view. His fellow traveler in the Bush
Justice Department, John Yoo (the bad guy would wrote the opinions justifying torture
and other expansions of Presidential power) makes the case for the Imperial
Presidency explicit in his latest book “Crisis and Command.”[2]
This bears on the issues of trying terrorists in regular or military courts,
the use of warrantless wiretaps and similar powers.

Anyone who thinks that I am expressing isolationist views
has totally misunderstood me. My professional career at the IMF has been
devoted to sharing the cumulated wisdom of the developed world with regard to
monetary policy with the central banks of other less developed countries. This
includes explicit “nation building” in places like newly independent (from the
USSR) countries like, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova, and post conflict
countries like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Serbia. I
strongly believe that it is in America’s self interest and the interest of
every other peace loving country in the world to contribute to the building of
more law abiding, successful, and prosperous countries freely trading with one another.
I believe in this kind of “nation building.” I do not think this better world
can be promoted at the end of a gun or as part of an empire of the old or the
new American type neocons seem to want. President Bush was right to say that
Democracy is ultimately the best way to govern peaceful prosperous countries
that respect the just rights of individuals and their neighbors, and that
promoting democracy is thus in America’s interest. But his neocon friends are
wrong to think that viable democracy, as we understand that term, can be
promoted at the point of a gun. Many internal conditions are required before
democracy is likely to improve governance. The Imperial Presidency and the new
American Empire advocated by the Dick Cheney’s of the world are a bigger threat
to our liberties and well being than al-Qaeda.

[2] Reviewed by
Jack Rakove, "John
Yoo on why the president is king"
, The
Washington Post
, January 10, 2010, Page B01.

Is Yemen Next?


With the benefit of hindsight after eight years of war in
Afghanistan and almost seven years of war in Iraq, hundreds of billions of
dollars gone up in smoke (per year), and the loss of thousands of American and
many more non American lives, many of us have doubted that it was in America’s interest
to undertake these wars. No one can seriously argue that they made us stronger
and/or more secure. As a result, American troops are now stationed in several
more countries, the primary reason for terrorist attacks against America (the
idea that they attack us because they resent our freedom and decadence is
laughable on the face of it).[1]
The two or more trillion dollars we have paid for these two wars could have
been spent to strengthen investment in American infrastructure and productive
capacity, which is ultimately the basis of our military and political strength
in the world. Afghanistan’s complex regional and tribal make up was poorly
understood and our plans to rebuild a more centralized government in
Afghanistan were ill conceived, facing us with high probability of failing to establish
an environment that serves any ones interests very well. And Al Qaeda can and
has easily moved elsewhere and we don’t have enough young men and women to send
to die in too many more places. But it is easier to look back and see our
mistakes, than to evaluate similar situations in advance. Enter Yemen.

Al Qaeda is once again operating in Yemen (remember the bombing
of the U.S.S. Cole October 12, 2000?). What should we do about it? Looking
ahead we see the dangers to us of Al Qaeda operating recruiting and training
areas in Yemen more clearly than we see the dangers of further stretching our
military into a country whose government is deeply hated by at least half of
the country creating an incentive to attack us (the foreign invader) that does
not now exist. We need to try hard to evaluate the costs and benefits of our
future involvement in Yemen with equal attention to both types of risks.

The Republic of Yemen occupies the Southern end of the
Arabian Peninsula. Somalia, the land of pirates and another potential haven for
Al Qaeda, is a short distance way to the South  across the Gulf of Aden. Its
size and population (0.20 million square miles and 23 million people) are
similar to those of Afghanistan (0.25 million square miles and 30 million
people). Its largely Arabic population is overwhelmingly Muslim almost equally
divided between Sunni and Shi’a. However, its Sunni and Shi’a population are
very unevenly distributed with most Sunnis in the South and most Shi’as in the
North. South Yemen, which only gained its independence from Britain in 1967,
was only united with North Yemen, which gained its independence from the
Ottoman Empire in 1918, in 1990.

Enhanced U.S. involvement in Yemen to eliminate or contain
Al Qaeda might take the form of intelligence gathering with or without the participation
of the Yemen government, military cooperation with and support to the Yemen
government (equipment, training, etc), or a military invasion ala Afghanistan
and Iraq. In evaluating the costs and benefits of these options, we don’t need
to wait to be surprised that the Yemen government is very unpopular with a
large segment of the population and that we would be taking its side against an
existing insurgency. We already know that. There has already been one civil war
between the north and south (1994). “Southerners contend that the government
has denied them their share of oil revenue, and has dismissed many southerners
from military and government jobs. A wave of protests has roiled the south,
prompting a government crackdown. Many members of the Southern Movement, a
loosely knit coalition, now demand secession. ‘We no longer want our rights
from the government. We want a separate north and south,’ said Ahmed Kassim, a
secessionist leader….”[2]
 “Al-Qaeda militants… are shielded
by tribal alliances and codes in religiously conservative communities that do
not tolerate outside interference, even from the government.”[3]
In short, in Yemen we would face many of the same sorts of problems we are now
facing in Afghanistan. Thus the cost of any significant involvement, especially
direct military involvement, in Yemen would be very high.

Limiting our Yemen activities to enhanced intelligence gathering,
whether covert or overt, would greatly reduce the costs and risk of our
activities. Occasional drone attacks on carefully vetted al-Qaeda personnel and
facilities in Yemen (though a few mistake are inevitable) would be no less
effective toward the objective of eliminating or containing al-Qaeda than the
full military invasion and continued operations in Afghanistan have been there.
Addressing the issues causing the insurgency, or “nation building” more
broadly, is a desirable long run strategy but is not promoted by the presence
of foreign military (ours or anyone else’s). An invasion would increase the
cost enormously with no clear increase in benefits. “‘If there is direct
intervention by the United States, it will strengthen al-Qaeda,’ warned Rashad
al-Alimi, Yemen’s deputy prime minister for security and defense. ‘We cannot
accept any foreign troops on Yemeni territory.’”[4]
There is substantial evidence that the presence of foreign troops on their home
soil is the most significant motivation for almost all suicide bomber attacks.[5]
We should not introduce that reason for Yemeni insurgents to attack the United
States, which is not now the source of their discontent.

But what about al-Qaeda? Shouldn’t we go after them in Yemen
(Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, etc) with everything we’ve got? If we do, they
will just move somewhere else. . We bare the cost with no benefit. We will
better defend ourselves from al-Qaeda and the small number of other fanatical terrorist
who wish to punish the U.S. (rather than their own domestic enemies): by
improving our intelligence and its use to detect and deter terrorist plots,
strengthening our borders, and reducing our irritating and costly interference
in the lives of others.

[1] While Ben
Laden had previously listed the presence of American forces on Saudi soil as a
prime motivation for al Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S., in the first public
statement in which he explicitly acknowledged responsibility for the 9/11
attacks (three years after the event in a video broadcast on Al-Jazeera) “bin
Laden said he did so because of injustices against the Lebanese and
Palestinians by Israel and the United States…. In the video, bin Laden accused
Bush of misleading Americans by saying the attack was carried out because Al
Qaeda ‘hates freedom.’ The terrorist leader said his followers have left alone
countries that do not threaten Muslims. ‘We fought you because we are free …
and want to regain freedom for our nation. As you undermine our security we
undermine yours,’ bin Laden said. He said he was first inspired to attack the
United States by the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon in which towers and
buildings in Beirut were destroyed in the siege of the capital. ‘While I was
looking at these destroyed towers in Lebanon, it sparked in my mind that the
tyrant should be punished with the same and that we should destroy towers in
America, so that it tastes what we taste and would be deterred from killing our
children and women,’ he said…. ‘Any state that does not mess with our security,
has naturally guaranteed its own security.’” October 30, 2004.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sudarsan Raghavan,
warns of limits to its cooperation"
, The Washington Post, January 8, 2010, Page A12.

[5] Robert Anthany
Pape, “Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” Random House,