The Jeremy Scahill Blame Continuum

The above chart from the CIA World Factbook shows population growth before and after President Ali Abdullah Saleh took power. Like Syria and Libya and Egypt, Yemen has not known family planning. All of them are patriarchal societies with burgeoning populations amid climate change-driven drought. Yemen has been collapsing for a long time; in fact, it has barely been a country at all for very long.

Northern and Southern Yemen fought an intense civil war for eight years, spent two decades apart, united in 1990, and may now split again on the same old fault line. Yemeni paper currency was still being eschewed by tribesmen for Austrian silver thalars well into the 90s. If this sounds a bit like a Ron Paulite libertarian dream economy, you understand the problem with Yemen, which also has a population better-armed than its official armed forces.

Of course, these are Yemeni problems, not our problems. The Bushies did not help Yemenis with their problems, but rather helped President Saleh with his problem — namely, maintaining and improving a praetorian guard to survive in a country of warlords. The Bushies were trying to get help with their problem, which was al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Jeremy Scahill of The Nation, who published an article on Tuesday blaming the situation in Yemen on American drone strikes, recounted this story in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now:

The Bush administration, beginning in the mid-2000s, started to build up Yemeni counterterrorism forces that were entirely controlled by Ali Abdulla Saleh’s family. His nephew, Yahya, ran the counterterrorism unit. His son, Ahmed Ali, ran the Republican Guard. They got all of this funding from the U.S. They built up those forces. Those forces have almost never been used to actually battle anyone determined to be terrorists. They’ve existed primarily for the defense of the Saleh regime. And all this U.S. money, way disproportion—disproportionate to the amount of money the U.S. has spent on humanitarian aid, has gone basically to the Saleh family military units.

That is a policy failure, but how much of the current unrest is about the state of Saleh’s forces, and how much is about the price of bread? It’s the staple food in Yemen, and wheat prices surged in late 2010 right as the Arab Spring began. In fact, you would expect that huge societies with youth bulges coming of age amid high unemployment would probably see some tension over food insecurity. It’s a leading cause of human conflict, and the most common one in the region.

While Yemen’s GDP rose during the last decade, per capita income did not rise at the same rate and the global economic downturn hit as hard there as anywhere else. After 33 years of Saleh, maybe the Yemenis have had enough and don’t see their government as a success story?

No, it’s all about American power. President Obama, you’ll recall, discarded the Bush strategy of ignoring al-Qaeda for one of targeting them with a laserlike focus. And this, Scahill argues, is the spark that has lit the Yemeni powder keg:

The only U.S. priority in Yemen, as has been articulated through U.S. funding, is the issue of counterterrorism. The United States is absolutely obsessed with 300 to 700 people that are members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has identified it as the single greatest terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland. And, you know, U.S. officials talk about AQAP, this group, in a way that I think gives it a lot more power than it’s capable of. Yes, the underwear bomber, the alleged underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, went to Yemen and then left Yemen and tried to bring down the airliner over Detroit. The parcel bomb plot, where there were these printer cartridges put on planes, and they attempted to ship them as explosives to Jewish community centers in the United States, originated in Yemen. And of course you had Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a U.S.-born cleric who basically—his entire power in the world was due to YouTube, where he would go on YouTube and, you know, make proclamations. And you saw him sort of get radicalized as the U.S. intensified attacks against Yemen. That’s about it. That’s what you have in Yemen. And yet it is the source of a great deal of funding on a counterterrorism level, and really obsessive-compulsive behavior on the part of U.S. intelligence officials. (Emphasis mine)

I’m not sure which part of that ‘graff I like least. The “obsessive compulsion” here is the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force passed in the wake of 9/11: the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, and wars generally require an obsessive focus on finding and killing the enemy. Where that enemy is few and disorganized, he must be crushed out before he has a chance to grow and organize. Scahill is being a little disingenuous here, too, because Awlaki did much more than spout on YouTube.

As far back as 2009, investigators had linked Abdulmutallab with Awlaki, but the memo describes how the Yemeni American tested the Nigerian’s commitment to jihad, arranged for him to meet a bomb-maker, and told him to get on a U.S. airliner and detonate his explosives over the United States.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Underpants Bomber, was sentenced today. His was just one of several recent AQAP actions attempting to build a power base in Yemen, taking advantage of these more-anarchy-than-usual times, and turn the country into a new platform for attacks on the United States. Despite their attempts to dress this up as leadership in a popular revolt, AQAP has enemies even in Yemen. For instance, this happened just yesterday:

Tareq al Dahab, brother-in-law of slain U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed along with five bodyguards by his brother Hizam – who was himself later killed in a revenge attack. The assault happened just before dawn on Thursday as the group prayed in a mosque and in al-Baydah province.

“Tareq al-Dahab and five of his bodyguards were killed in a mosque in the al-Manasih area near his home,” a tribal source told Reuters. “His brother Hizam had three men with him and they killed Tareq and his men easily because they surprised them.”

After the mosque attack, Hizam was killed after Tareq loyalists blew up his house in revenge.

As far as airstrikes go, Scahill is also leaving out an important part of the story in Yemen, namely Saudi airstrikes on Shiite al-Huthi militants (see here, here, here, and here). So insofar as explosions have had a destabilizing effect, not all the instability has been American-made.

Actually, when you tally up the bombings in Yemen lately (the assassination attempt on Saleh comes to mind) it is clear that most of the bombing in Yemen comes from Yemenis themselves (see here, here, here, here, here). In his Tuesday piece on the topic at The Nation, Scahill says 230 Yemenis have been killed in gun battles with militants since last May. I’m fairly sure that number eclipses reported American strike casualties, both militant and civilian.

But Scahill offers one more trump card:

You know, President Obama authorized strikes that resulted in three U.S. citizens being killed within less than a month in Yemen: Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico; Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son; and then Samir Khan, who was another U.S. citizen from North Carolina and was the editor of Inspire magazine, the English-language publication of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. All three of those U.S. citizens were killed within one month.

And it’s forehead-slapping time, because US citizens who go to foreign countries with the intention of inspiring and directing attacks on the United States earn the deaths they receive. The oath of enlistment in America’s armed forces requires uniformed service members to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Those who quibble that the CIA is not part of the Pentagon should remember that clandestine services are always and forever a part of every war. The CIA’s progenitor was the OSS, which engaged in all sorts of unpleasant and murderous schemes during World War II. This is nothing new or shocking, no matter how many times someone repeats “U.S. citizen” in a soundbyte.

Moreover, he doesn’t make a convincing case that American firepower is more to blame for strife in Yemen than anyone else’s firepower. To be sure, the history of American policy is part of the toxic mix that is Yemen today, but no one can claim all the blame. For instance, I blame President Saleh more than President Obama or even Bush, and I think I can make a very solid case for that hypothesis.

But we need to ask ourselves why AQAP has grown in Yemen these last three years, because the answer (again) is that laserlike focus on al-Qaeda. The organization has almost entirely been pushed out of Afghanistan, and has a diminishing presence in Pakistan. It has been leaving Central Asia and setting up shop elsewhere because its membership has been under pressure. President Saleh (as Scahill notes) has been quite unhelpful in rooting AQAP out of Yemen. So what’s a commander-in-chief to do?

The answer, according to the peace party, is that he should charge AQAP members with crimes and…what? If Saleh won’t arrest them, should he order Blackhawk Down-style raids? Or should he just say “stop, and if you don’t stop I’ll say stop again”? It’s never really clear, because the people who complain most about drone strikes are not offering alternatives. Maybe that means they don’t have any, or at least nothing better than a drone strike.

And that is the problem here, because there aren’t really any good choices and the threat is definitely real. Scahill seems a little dissonant on this score:

They’re a threat, on a tiny magnitude, to the United States and its allies, that has been given a prominence in the U.S. counterterrorism paranoia machine that is almost laughable, if it’s not so serious. (Emphasis mine)

AQAP cannot be both risible and serious. As someone who has personally experienced the al-Qaeda threat years before it became horribly fashionable, take it from me that this threat is very real and deadly. Further dissonance shows up in his Nation article:

But US policy has enraged tribal leaders who could potentially keep AQAP in check and has, over the past three years of regular bombings, taken away the motivation for many leaders to do so. Several southern leaders angrily told me stories of US and Yemeni attacks in their areas that killed civilians and livestock and destroyed or damaged scores of homes. If anything, the US airstrikes and support for Saleh-family-run counterterrorism units has increased tribal sympathy for Al Qaeda. “Why should we fight them? Why?” asks Sheik Ali Abdullah Abdulsalam, a southern tribal sheik from Shebwa who adopted the nom du guerre Mullah Zabara, he says, out of admiration for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. “If my government built schools, hospitals and roads and met basic needs, I would be loyal to my government and protect it. So far, we don’t have basic services such as electricity, water pumps. Why should we fight Al Qaeda?” He says that AQAP controls large swaths of Shebwa, conceding that the group does “provide security and prevent looting. If your car is stolen, they will get it back for you.” In areas “controlled by the government, there is looting and robbery. You can see the difference.” Zabara adds, “If we don’t pay more attention, Al Qaeda could seize and control more areas.” (Emphasis mine)

Get that? The Sheik is Scahill’s primary witness in the piece, but half the ‘graff is about the Saleh regime’s governance failures, which were going on for three decades before President Obama took the oath of office. Whatever role American policy has played in this story, it has been smaller than Saleh’s — or AQAP, or the tribal anarchy of Yemeni politics, or the North-South divide, or slow economic growth for a burgeoning population, or climate change-driven drought. That’s just an empirical analysis. But empiricism isn’t what Scahill’s intended audience wants.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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