Avoiding Past Mistakes in Arabia
Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Johnsen has written for a variety of publications on Yemen including, among others, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, The Independent, The Boston Globe, and The National. He is the co-founder of Waq al-Waq: Islam and Insurgency in Yemen Blog. In 2009, he was a member of the USAID's conflict assessment team for Yemen.
Today the Washington Post has a story up about the constellation of secret drone bases the US is building in and around the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa to deal with the al-Qaeda threat out of Somalia and Yemen.
Leaving aside the secret part of this story - I'm not sure how secret these bases are anymore, now that nearly every major newspaper and network has written and commented on them.
The Post, like most other newspapers, continues to adhere to administration requests that it not reveal the location of the drone base in the Arabian Peninsula. But as I mentioned on twitter last night - and for those of you who still, inexplicably, do not follow me - I will repeat here: the location of this base can't really be that secret anymore.
The base is designed to deal with militants in Yemen and, presumably, it is closer to the "hot zones" in Yemen than the base in Djibouti, which had previously seen drone flights over Yemen. So that leaves ...... (I'll leave it to you to fill in the blank).
Also, as one anonymous - is there any other kind of official in these stories - relates:
The locations “are based on potential target sets,” said a senior U.S. military official. “If you look at it geographically, it makes sense — you get out a ruler and draw the distances [drones] can fly and where they take off from.”
Today, Greg Miller, a fine reporter at the Post and one of the co-author's of the article, explains on the Post's blog that the idea behind these new bases is to "avoid the mistakes of the past."
The worry Miller says is:
"When al-Qaeda fled Afghanistan into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002, it took years before the CIA had assembled a drone program capable of putting the terrorist network under pressure. That delay, and costly deals for air-basing access in neighboring countries, allowed al-Qaeda to flourish."
And so in an effort to avoid that mistake, the US is building:
"... at least four drone airstrips in the Horn of Africa region: a long-standing military base in Djibouti; a secret new CIA facility being built in the Arabian Peninsula; an installation on the Seychelles; and a fourth facility in Ethiopia."
Now, I'm all for avoiding mistakes, but I worry that the US is taking a mistakenly shallow view of history. It is almost as if all history begins on September 11 - and that is a mistake and a potentially costly one.
One of the primary motivations for Osama bin Laden's jihad against the US were the military bases housing US troops in Saudi Arabia during after the the Gulf War.
This was key not just for bin Laden, but also for the recruits he attracted with the argument that the Arabian Peninsula had to be kept pure and that US troops in Arabia constituted a type of occupation.
Does the US think this current of thought no longer holds sway in Arabia? And that building bases on the peninsula is somehow going to go unnoticed?
Remember, AQAP is currently making an argument that Yemen is under western military attack, which should mean that all Muslims are obligated to fight in defense of Muslim lands. They have had some success making this argument recently, but it is still limited.
Building a base in Arabia and increasing bombings into Yemen will only make recruiting that much easier.
By all means the US should avoid past mistakes - but it has made more than one. Repeating those of the 1990s won't eliminate those of the past decade.
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