Christopher Boucek of Carnegie has been quoted a great deal in the media lately and one of the things he has been saying has struck me as slightly off. I know Chris well, but I happen to disagree with him on several points. For instance, in his interview with NPR yesterday, he suggests that al-Qaeda "is very low on the priority (list) for the Yemeni government," in a different interview he says terrorism is the "least of Yemen's worries." I don't think this is true.
I understand where he is coming from, as I made a similar if distinct argument two years ago that al-Qaeda was third on the hierarchy of security challenges facing the state. But what was true two years ago is no longer true today. If one looks at the current situation in Yemen and where the Yemeni military is putting its resources then I think you are forced to the conclusion that the state is taking the al-Qaeda threat seriously. Now obviously, this doesn't make for as good of quotes in the media - it is much easier to criticize - and I think people should be rightly concerned about the Yemeni government's capacity for sustainability in taking the fight to al-Qaeda. But none of this means that it isn't a high priority for the Yemeni government at the moment.
If you look at the current security situation in the country the Huthi war is currently in suspension, the Southern violence, while ongoing, is not at the level of al-Qaeda violence. Will the Yemeni government attempt to peal off individuals from al-Qaeda and make personalized deals with them if the opportunity presents itself? Of course, but in this they are treating al-Qaeda no different from any other conflict.
Also, I think a second thing Chris mentions, if taken as a recommendation (and I'm not sure he meant it as such), is also a bit dangerous. The last question and answer sequence in the report is this:
BLOCK: Why do you think that al-Qaida based in Yemen is more of a threat to this country than al-Qaida based in Afghanistan or Pakistan?
Mr. BOUCEK: Well, I think if you look at what's going on in South Asia, the senior leadership of al-Qaida has really suffered from this prolonged drone campaign. There's a huge American military presence right next door. The Pakistani military is increasingly active in addressing these issues. None of those factors are going on in Yemen.
There's not a visible or large military presence anywhere nearby to Yemen, and there's not an option for that. So I think what we see is that Yemen is providing the opportunity for militants to plot and plan and mount operations. Just last week, there was an operation, you know, inside the capital against a British diplomatic convoy, the second time this year.
So I think the situation not only is worsening, but the movement in Yemen is taking advantage of the absence of the government's ability to crack down on terrorism.I think one could, or at least I did, listen to an answer like this and hear the faint echo of an argument for US troops in Yemen or a similiar drone campaign in Yemen. (I don't want to, nor am I able to speak for Chris, but I don't think this is what he meant, but since it struck me as being interpreted that way I thought I would address it.) First, sending US troops to Yemen would be a catastrophically bad idea, making the situation much, much worse and I think his answer suggests that as well. Second, a drone campaign in Yemen could also have severe long term consequences, by which I mean the AQ problem could be worse after such a campaign than it was before it.
I don't study Pakistan or speak the relevant languages so I'm not really in a position to comment on Pakistan, but I don't think anyone knows what is going to happen to AQ and extremisim in Pakistan once the US stops the drone attacks. Or maybe this is just going to be a new fact of life, something the US does from now on.
If the US thinks fighting several hundred or a thousand (I don't buy the 300 number) AQAP operatives in Yemen is bad enough imagine fighting many multiples of that number. Also, it is important to remember that temporary victories against al-Qaeda don't always make the US safer in the long term. The history of the war against al-Qaeda in Yemen should illustrate that fact. Tamping down the threat military often leads to the mistaken assumption that the threat has dissipated when in reality any lessening of the military pressure allows the problem to grow back in a much more virulent form than it was initially. Often this is the result of US military strikes, which through targeting mistakes and civilian deaths may have created more enemies than they killed.
I don't think the implicit argument here is a wise one.
Finally, I'm not sure that the 1992 Gold Mohur attack can be linked to al-Qaeda the way so many have done. The evidence is speculative at best.
Moving on to the morning papers, we have a News Yemen piece that gives an overview of Qasim al-Raymi's audiotape. The point about President Salih not know where to strike al-Qaeda - from Dhala' (that surprised me, but I think I see where al-Raymi is going) to Marib to Lawdar to al-Hawta - is one I don't think enough people have picked up on.
Mareb Press weighs in with a similar story on al-Raymi, saying that he believes that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has benefited from all the recent strikes (something I have also argued for previously). Again, while these strikes may have helped in the short term - they killed some key commanders and figures, al-Rashad, al-Mihdhar, al-Qahtani for example and delayed issues of Sada al-Malahim - they haven't been any sort of a debilitating blow to al-Qaeda. Months out from these attacks, AQAP has rebounded quite nicely.
Mareb Press also reports on two separate security incidents. One in Hadramawt, in which two soldiers and a civilian were killed (not clear if it was al-Qaeda related, although it sounds similiar, but sometimes it is hard to tell in Yemen). The second is from Shabwa is clear al-Qaeda related. Mareb Press says that there are military patrols over al-Said in Shabwa the site of an ambush of senior Yemeni military figures last week. Al-Tagheer also has a piece on the goings on in Hadramawt and Shabwa.