Talking Yemen: Boucek and Johnsen

Waq al-waq’s multi-media team has recently been busy preparing a new series of what could most accurately be called "sporadic conversations on Yemen," but we have instead elected to call it simply "Talking Yemen." For our first conversation we sat down – virtually, that is – with Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment and the author of the fine paper: Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral.

I sold the idea to Chris as first a small write-up of his paper and then five questions (I actually sent six) and then after I asked some follow-up questions I asked him if we could just publish it as a conversation and he graciously agreed to all my different versions. And so Waq al-waq would like to extend our collective thanks to Chris for his patience and time. (We would send out a Waq al-waq coffee mug, but sadly they are still in the design phase of development.)

(My questions and comments are in regular text and Chris’ are in italics.)

(Gregory Johnsen): I think it is clear from your paper that the US has a number of security concerns in Yemen from the resurgence of AQAP to the future of Guantanamo Bay Detainees to the continued stalemate on the al-Banna and al-Badawi cases, so my question is what should the US make a priority when it comes to counter-terrorism in Yemen?

I think we would both agree that the view of al-Qaeda is much different in San‘a than it does in Washington. There are numerous gradations and subtleties in Yemen’s view that appear to be missing in Washington’s black-and-white view of the problem. So, if this is true and if the US can’t get everything it wants, then what should it push for and when?

(Christopher Boucek): In working on this paper one of the issues that struck me was that Washington’s security and terrorism concerns dominated the US-Yemeni relationship, to the near exclusion of all other issues. As a result, it often seems that all other aspects of the relationship are made second tier issues. Admittedly, was it not for terrorism and security concerns, Yemen would likely not be of much concern to Washington. Nonetheless, making ‘progress’ on counter-terrorism issues the benchmark for all other issues does not best serve American foreign policy or national security interests.

Yemen’s many other challenges are directly linked to the security situation in the country. The deteriorating economic, demographic, and resource situations will contribute to greater instability in the future, and thus issues like economic reform and social welfare need to be addressed.

The United States has sought to build capacity in Yemen—such as with the Coast Guard—and such programs need to be expanded. The Yemeni Coast Guard needs bigger vessels that will allow it to expand its area of operation and deploy for longer periods of time. It also needs more shore facilities, as large portions of the coast are under-guarded now. The border guards complain that despite American needs assessments, they still lack vital equipment. American and international assistance should be directed at improving the police and prison service, and Yemen needs to implement comprehensive counter-terrorism laws.

So is there one particular thing the US should do or prioritize? In other words should it make targeting people like Nasir al-Wahayshi, Qasim al-Raymi or Said al-Shihri a priority – almost like it did with Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2001 and 2002 – or should it focus on getting Yemen to take the fight to al-Qaeda like the embarrassing July 30 Battle of Marib in the aftermath of General Petraeus’ visit to Yemen or should it be working out some sort of trade to get al-Banna or even, and less likely, al-Badawi back to the US?

(CB): I’m a bit hesitant to put one aspect of counter-terrorism above others as I think there needs to be a comprehensive approach. Going after leadership elements (the kill and capture stuff) will always be key, as will degrading and disrupting an organization’s infrastructure, including recruitment, logistics, etc. But those are short-term, immediate actions. Vital, but they need to be married up with other efforts. There also needs to be long-term, sustained programs to address a whole range of social, economic, and political issues. A unified, coherent counter-terrorism policy will need to combine both, along with local capacity building.

Al-Banna and al-Badawi are important for the United States, but I am not very confident that there will be progress on either. I’d like to be surprised, but I’m doubtful.

(GJ): In your paper you discussed the perception that Yemen lacks the educated professionals needed to run certain programs, but in speaking with many Yemeni officials one gets the sense that there is a pool of expatriate Yemeni talent that the government is not taking advantage of: is there any way that you see that the government can somehow utilize this untapped resource?

(CB): The Yemeni government has several programs to encourage expatriate Yemeni nationals to return and participate in public service. It is my understanding that such efforts are showing some results, but that it is often challenging to get expatriates to return to stay. The perception that Yemen lacks capacity to absorb more foreign assistance is very troubling, and is connected to a number of other issues. Progress has also been made in improving the Yemeni education system, and a lot more will be needed. First and foremost—like most everything else in Yemen—it needs more funding.

(GJ): In your section "Ways to Help" you discuss the need to for Saudi Arabia and other GCC states to take "greater action" to help Yemen, but many – myself included – would argue that Saudi Arabia is already taking a great deal of action, but that it often is not productive action? Is this your understanding as well, and if so how can the US and other Western countries influence Saudi Arabia to take productive action? Especially if one takes it as a given that Saudi Arabia is just as concerned about a successful Yemen as it is a failed one.

(CB): If steps are not taken soon, Yemen’s problems will very quickly affect regional states, especially Saudi Arabia. It is true that the Saudis are very concerned and very active in Yemen—albeit not always in a completely organized or comprehensive manner. Saudi policy (policies?) toward Yemen have not always been clearly articulated, and the multitude of relevant players in Saudi Arabia has at times lead to contradictory actions. The Saudis have enduring national security interests in Yemen, and I would argue that Riyadh and the GCC need to all come together on how best to approach a deteriorating situation in Yemen. There needs to be longer-range planning on how Yemen and the GCC will interact. As with the United States, I believe it will be issues of security and terrorism that drive Saudi policy on Yemen. That is, fears of instability will push Gulf states to act.

(GJ): Is it possible for the GCC countries to speak with one voice on Yemen, particularly given some of the historical animosity between Saudi Arabia and other countries? I am reminded off the failed Qatari peace settlement in Sa‘dah. I agree that what you suggest is ideal, but I’m not sure it is possible.

(CB): Very true, getting the GCC to all be headed in one direction on Yemen will be a difficult task. This would be complicated by not just inter-GCC relations, but also by bilateral Yemeni relations with other Gulf states. You’re right that it would be ideal to have the GCC come to a consensus on this. Because the GCC will be collectively affected by Yemen’s future, it will be important for them to be a part of the discussions going forward.

(GJ): One often hears Yemeni officials speak of joining the GCC, and you point out steps that the GCC could take along this road, but in your opinion – given the diverse and different interests of the GCC members – is Yemen’s joining the GCC anything more than a desperate dream?

(CB): Great question—Yemeni officials seem to be very keen on joining the GCC. I’m not sure how that would ultimately play out. However, right now I am skeptical that Yemen would join as a full and equal member. I can more readily envision some kind of a ‘junior’ relationship in which Yemen has some benefits (such as on economic issues), but not equal status. Some Gulf states have real concerns about Yemen, including corruption, unemployment, prevalence of small arms, population growth, etc. There are things that Yemen needs and wants, including more formalized trade and labor movement arrangements. Part of any future relationship will need to take into consideration the costs of inaction on issues related to Yemeni stability. Those costs to the GCC will be too great if no action is taken.

(GJ): I had a conversation with a British official recently and he suggested that while everyone knows that the costs of a failed Yemen to the GCC and the international community would be great no one could really given an accurate picture of what failure would look like and because no one was able to do this the real and potential costs are not understood. My question, then, is: in the absence of a convincing narrative of what Yemen looks like in the future – my magic 8-ball is far from infallible – is there a way to convince the GCC to act as a unified bloc when it comes to Yemen, and if so which country (or individual) is shaping such a policy?

(CB): This is a very important point, and one that I think has really frustrated policy planning with regards to Yemen. There is near unanimity in what the international community wants to avoid—state failure or collapse—but no one really knows what event or events will trigger it. As a result, it is extremely difficult to devise or implement policies to avoid what has-yet-to-be-identified. I think you correctly noted that there is not much conceptual understanding of what a worse case scenario would look like. I guess that is the ‘ask again later’ response from the magic 8-ball.

I think what will push the GCC is terrorism and security fears, and I think we’ve seen some of the discussions going that way. It seems that the Saudis recognize this, and I would not be surprised to see some of the other Gulf states move in this direction as well. Certainly the attempted assassination of Prince Mohammed last month strengthened Saudi perceptions. I don’t think you would see any movement until there is a perception in the Gulf states that it is in their interest to act, and I would expect in the future to see Washington, London, and others encouraging the GCC to take greater steps on Yemen.

(GJ): You seem to suggest that the international community should help mediate the southern crises, but is there really a role for countries like the US, the UK, Japan or others to play here besides the type of the statements supporting unity that the US has already given? I think this is particularly pressing given US counter-terrorism concerns in the country. But even if you still believe that there is a role to play, with whom should the international community speak? The "southern movement" is so fractured that no one person or group seems to be able to speak on its behalf, despite the attempts of many to do so.

(CB): You’ve hit on a key point. Implementation will be difficult to be sure. The statements of support are important. One possibility could be for the international community to support (financially and otherwise) greater service provision, not just in the south, but throughout the country. How this can be accomplished without also expanding grievances against Sana will be tricky. The Yemeni government could be encouraged to address and accommodate some of the issues driving the unrest, for instance by increasing investment, expanding opportunities, and curbing excesses. Sana can and will need to be supported and encouraged on such efforts.

(GJ): Doesn’t curbing excess work against the regime in San‘a, at least if one views the regime as a patronage-based system that is intent on its own survival? I would argue that the regime uses the goodies of the state to maintain its own survival particularly among its clients in the military and security services. So how can one convince the regime to take steps such as you outlined above, which the regime has traditionally seen as being against its own long-term interests?

(CB): The provision of goodies will have to continue, no doubt. In fact, the number of people receiving the goodies should probably be expanded. I guess when I was thinking of excesses, I wasn’t thinking so much of patronage, as I was of the local antagonisms and inequities that often come along with it. Part of the dilemma seems to be that short-time interests are often misidentified as long-term interests, and the two do not always overlap. The absence of durable and enduring state institutions directly contributes to this, and this is an area where the international community should be focusing.

(GJ): Given the confusing and fragmented information coming out of the war in Sa‘dah – the Huthis have been linked to everyone from al-Qaeda to Iran and from Libya to Hezbullah while the government is allegedly utilizing Iraqi officers and receiving support from Saudi Arabia – what is the US to make of the conflict? I think this is particularly acute given the widespread belief in Yemen that the US has – and is believed to be still – providing intelligence assistance to the Yemeni government as a way of looking for favors when it comes to al-Qaeda in the country. Is there any role for the international community here?

(CB): As you rightly noted, one of the most troubling aspects about the fighting in Saada is how difficult it is to get accurate information. This complicates everything. Moreover, the scale of the humanitarian impact is massive, and the often indiscriminate nature of the fighting worsens the situation. Over the course of the conflict, the Yemeni government has sought to link its actions to a number of other issues, and the recent uptick in press accounts discussing the war as sort of proxy conflict has been disturbing. I’d argue that viewing the conflict this way does not help. Straight away the international community should press for greater access for humanitarian and relief organizations, coupled with urging all parties to suspend fighting.

(GJ): I believe there is a worry among some, particularly in the US, that pressing San‘a too hard on Sa‘dah will lead to less cooperation on al-Qaeda and other security issues that are important to the US, so silence is believed to be the best option because we need Yemen’s help on other issues. Is there any way to get Yemen to scale back in Sa‘dah while still inducing its support against al-Qaeda?

(CB): Part of this could be broadening the scope of the discussions. I completely agree that it will be important for Washington and others to recognize the issues that are important to the Yemeni government—like Saada and the south. As you’ve noted before those are existential issues for the regime. It seems this has in part contributed to some of the friction between Washington and Sana; at times communicating past each other. The international community needs to engage Yemen on multiple issues—not just traditional security issues—many of which are critical to the stability of the state and future regional security. I would argue that taking action on economic, social, education, and other issues would decrease some of the destabilizing factors challenging the country.

Saada is going to be a very difficult policy issue to navigate, no doubt about it. In part because the conflict has gone on for so long, and it has been viewed as a distraction from the other issues that the US and others would like to see the Yemeni government focusing on. In the end, war in Saada does not advance the goal of improving stability and security in Yemen. I don’t think there is an entirely kinetic solution to what’s going on, at least not long term. There are other tools that can be used, and if the Yemeni government does not currently have the means to do so, the international community can and should assist.

(GJ): Many thanks for your time and thoughtful answers. The readers of Waq al-waq appreciate it.

(CB): Many thanks for a great discussion and the opportunity to talk about these issues. I’m a great fan of Waq al-Waq, and I really appreciate all the comments about the new paper. Keep up the excellent work of raising the bar on all things Yemen.

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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Strange Maps
  • Survey by Pew Research Center shows great variation in chauvinism across Europe.
  • Eight most chauvinist countries are in the east, and include Russia.
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White-nose syndrome is nearly as lethal to bats as the Black Plague was for humans.

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  • Bats serve a crucial role in our ecosystem and economy, and white-nose syndrome is already pushing many species to the brink of extinction.
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