By Carl Prine
This is my second installment of “Prine of Departure,” where I go out and beg the smartest people I know to say really smart things about things I don’t understand. Two have now agreed (and only one filed a restraining order).
Christopher Swift is a fellow at the University of Virginia Law School’s Center for International Security Law and the author of “The Fighting Vanguard: Local Insurgencies in the Global Jihad,” a book likely to be published in the fall.
His A.B. is in Government and History from Dartmouth College, M.St. in International Relations from the University of Cambridge and J.D. from Georgetown University. In his quest to put every letter of the alphabet behind his name, Dr. Swift’s Ph.D. in Politics & International Studies also came from the University of Cambridge.
He’s toiled at the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), where they targeted terrorists and other noisome people, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Freedom House. When at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, he served as an aide to Zbigniew Brzezinski.
So, yeah, he actually can spell “Zbigniew Brzezinski” without googling it (like I just did).
I contacted him because I read an advanced copy of his “From Periphery to Core: Foreign Fighters and the Evolution of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” due to be published soon in FPRI’s Orbis, and wanted to mark him off my Prine of Departure Smart List before he got any smarter and I’d have to interview him twice.
CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: How do want to proceed?
PRINE OF DEPARTURE: Well, I’ll do my job for a change and ask a question!
I thought we would talk today about Yemen, which is being overshadowed by ongoing operations in Libya but which remains a key problem for the US and our allies.
Looking at this as an outsider, I see that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the putative Pan-Arab president for life since 1978 – after his TWO predecessors were assassinated over the span of a whopping nine months – deserves the nickname “Mayor of Sana’a.”
His forces haven’t exerted hegemony over a large part of Yemen for some time, to the point that Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) terrorists have successfully freed political prisoners, the Southern Movement of separatists has been picking up steam and the northern Zaidi Shiite rebellion by the Houthi insurgents isn’t going away.
Why is that? Why is Yemen so screwed up?
CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: The current situation in Yemen is a product of two phenomena, each of which is in tension with the other.
The first is Saleh’s attempt to build a centralized state based on the semi-autocratic model that emerged in Egypt and Iraq and elsewhere decades ago. This goal explains his emphasis on a central ruling party, a strong military and intelligence apparatus, and state intervention in many parts of the formal economy. In many respect, Saleh’s program is a legacy of pan-Arab nationalism.
The second phenomenon is Yemen’s own cultural and political climate. Yemen has historicly been highly decentralized, with the various tribal groups existing is shifting state of equilibrium with the central authority and one another. These formal and informal tribal networks can either work to strengthen and legitimize the state, as they did during the 1994 Yemeni Civil War, or they can be used to keep the central government in check, as we’re seeing now.
These two issues come together in two key areas: namely, patronage and local autonomy. Tribal authorities are happiest when they receive the patronage they want and operate with a high degree of autonomy. But Yemen’s dwindling natural resources and failing economy means that there’s a smaller and smaller pie for Saleh to distribute.
Likewise, the internal conflicts with the Houthis in the North and the Secessionists in the South mean that the autonomy that some tribal authorities once enjoyed has been increasingly curbed. The result has been a change in the equilibrium, and with it a diminishing of Saleh’s ability to control his own country.
PRINE OF DEPARTURE: That was a very smart answer.
One thing that I liked about your writings is that you’ve been hinting at this moment for some time. You’ve long discussed the petroleum crunch in Yemen, and recently, the nation was rocked by rising global grain prices.
Let’s say Yemen has about 25 million people or so. The birth rate is astronomical. The UN already is feeding 1.8 million Yemenis (about one in 12). There are an estimated 9.9 million small arms circulating in an increasingly younger population. Yemen’s oil and water resources are crashing.
How bad is it going to get in Yemen?
CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: In the West our focus has been largely on the security crisis in Yemen, be it the Houthi rebellion in the north, secessionist tensions in the former Communist south, or al-Qaeda’s attempt to re-colonize Yemeni society and establish a new sanctuary in the heart of the Arab world.
In recent weeks we’ve seen the West’s focus shift in favor of renewed focus on the political crisis in Sana’a, and the growing likelihood that Saleh’s regime may fall. It has been swept up in the wider excitement (and apprehension) over the ‘Arab Spring’ and its consequences for the future of the Middle East.
The security and political crises are only part of the picture in Yemen, however. Yemenis are also facing a demographic, economic, and even ecological crisis that is arguably unmatched anywhere in the greater Middle East.
Consider the following figures: one third of the Yemeni population is unemployed. Forty percent of Yemenis live below the United Nations’ poverty line.Seventy percent of the population is 25 or younger. And despite the fact that Yemen is facing a potentially catastrophic drop in its water table, some 60 percent of potable water in the country is used to cultivate qat, a narcotic that’s now ubiquitous in daily Yemeni life.
So it’s not just a political crisis we’ve facing in Yemen, or even a terrorist threat. It’s something more akin to an imminent social and political collapse. This perspective is often missing in recent reporting on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the current upheaval in Sana’a.
PRINE OF DEPARTURE: I’m glad you mentioned qat! I’m a vanilla loser who lives vicariously off of opium eaters and sex fiends! You’re the expert on Yemen — what’s qat chewing like? And have you ever killed a man with a jambiyah during a blood feud?
If not, then describe Zbigniew Brzezinski’s qat habit and his handiwork with the blade.
CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: (silence)…
PRINE OF DEPARTURE: You don’t have to answer that!
CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: I’m actually happy to answer that. First, I’ve never chewed qat and don’t ever intend to. I try to limit my diversions to really, really good coffee. The Turks say, “Coffee should be dark as night, sweet as love, and strong as death.” I couldn’t agree more.
I can’t speak to Dr. Brzezinski’s handiwork with the blade, though there are rumors than he’s quite deft with a tennis racket. But I think he’s best known for his handiwork with a much more subtle and powerful weapon: the mind.
Dr. Brzezinski has been ahead of the curve on major world-changing trends for decades. And he’s always emphasized both the moral and strategic elements of the decisions we must make. Working for him was the best tutorial in national security one could hope to have.
PRINE OF DEPARTURE: And he seems like a very nice person, too!
CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: Yes, he’s very principled. I was always impressed by the fact that Dr. Brzezinski showed the same courtesy to the janitorial staff at CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies) that he did to visiting Foreign Ministers. That’s a rare trait in Washington, where the climate seems to encourage a ‘kiss up — kick down’ mentality.
I took a very important lesson from this: Namely, that your means and ends must always be aligned. In the long run, doing good means being good, or at least trying to be good. That insight applies to personal relationships just as much as it does in international affairs. Everything falls off the rail when these two items aren’t aligned.
PRINE OF DEPARTURE: Saudi troops stormed across the causeway into Bahrain, following concerns that the Sunni minority government might collapse.
KSA, however, has not shown the same interest in Yemen, even if one could make a cogent argument that instability there is more important to the Family Saud’s future than what transpires in Bahrain and there’s an active guerrilla organization in the ungoverned spaces of Yemen that wants to overthrown Riyadh.
What am I missing here? Has Family Saud washed their hands of Saleh?
CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: You raise a good question about the distinction between Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain and its relatively light footprint in Yemen. I think this distinction turns on two issues: first, what the Saudi’s perceive as threatening, and second, what the Saudi’s believe is possible.
Looking at the first question, the Kingdom appears to have a great deal of anxiety toward Shi’a uprisings anywhere in the Persian Gulf. This is due in part to longstanding apprehension towards Iran.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia — and the region’s other hereditary Sunni monarchies — came of age during the Iranian revolution of 1979. And lest we forget, Iran allegedly sponsored the failed 1981 coup attempt by Shi’a militants against the King of Bahrain.
So the fear of Iranian-backed Shi’a subversion has been with them for a long time, and in many respect it has poisoned the Gulf States’ relationships with their own Shi’a communities. The Saudi intervention in Bahrain appears to be following the same script.
This is unfortunate because the protests in Bahrain were primarily about economic and political inequity. That fight fell among sectarian lines, in part because sectarian divisions in the Gulf have long been a proxy for class distinctions. But the roots of this dispute initially had little to do with religion, at least not from a doctrinal perspective.
The Shi’a protestors in Bahrain have been calling for a constitutional monarchy, not a repeat of the Iranian revolution. In my opinion, the Saudi concern about Iran blinded them to these essential local dynamics.
The tragedy is that by intervening militarily, the Kingdom may be inadvertently encouraging Iran to support to radical within the Bahraini protests movement, thus turning a local dispute that could be solved through political reform into a regional crisis defined along sectarian lines.
This is one of the dangers of depending on historical analogies when making policy. Mutually-assured paranoia tends to create self-fulfilling prophecies.
The situation is different in Yemen. Here there is less fear about an Iranian-sponsored Shi’a uprising (the Houthis are ‘Fiver’ as opposed to ‘Twelver’ Shi’as) and greater concern about economic collapse leading to a mass migration.
Yemen and Saudi Arabia are similar in size from a population standpoint, but Saudi Arabia is much bigger geographically and substantially wealthier economically. So to day the Saudi approach here has focused on supporting Saleh’s regime economically, be it through the Friends of Yemen consortium or direct bilateral assistance.
PRINE OF DEPARTURE: OK, so KSA hasn’t been as meddlesome in Yemen as Family Saud has been in Bahrain. We’re still left with the problem of governing — such as it is — Yemen.
Over the past few weeks, as the protests have grown and key leaders in his government have defected to the opposition, Saleh appears to have been buying time by promising concessions.
He said initially that he would leave in 2013. Then it became at the end of this year and it would follow the constitutional process. Now he wants to just dump it into “safe hands” sooner rather than later.
How have these statements been read by the opposition? What will the president’s exit look like in Yemen? How much time do you think he has left?
CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: The situation in Sana’s is very fluid. Earlier this week, Saleh offered to leave office by the end of 2011, provided a suitable successor could be found. Earlier today he withdrew that proposal. So it’s difficult to make predictions. I think it’s very likely that he will depart, and depart soon.
But it’s too early — and the situation is still much too opaque — to predict exactly when he will go.
In any event, the question of ‘how’ Saleh’s departs is ultimately much more important than when. It’s unlikely that the Yemeni opposition would accept a transition of power to military authorities.
Unlike the Egyptian military, which is a national institution that is highly revered, the Yemeni military is intimately associated with the Saleh regime. This is particularly true in the South, where the Army, Interior Ministry, Political Security Organization (PSO) and others have been actively repressing groups aligned with the secessionist movement.
A Tunisia-style abdication and evacuation is equally problematic, however. The Yemeni opposition does not have a common ideology or political agenda. The Joint Meetings Party (JMP) was formed in 2005 is an umbrella group formed to coordinate opposition to Saleh’s ruling General Congress Party (GCP) in the Yemeni Parliament. That coalition contains hard-core leftist parties, the Yemeni Socialist Party (which has secessionist tendencies), and the Islamist al-Islah party.
Al-Islah, in turn, is comprised of Ikhwani groups who see Islam as a modernizing force, and doctrinaire Salafists calling for a return to Islam’s patristic past. Its other members include a loose federation of tribal leaders opposed to Saleh and eager to maximize their own autonomy.
So while it’s tempting to view the Yemeni opposition through the eyes of the Westernized academics and students leading the change in Sana, the country’s political taxonomy is much more complicated.
PRINE OF DEPARTURE: I’m glad that you mentioned those Western eyes, because for nearly two decades we’ve been looking at Yemen through a solitary, terrorism-tinged monocle.
OK, so let’s say the Mayor of Sana’a leaves and the Arab Spring finally washes over Yemen — whatever that means given the fractured nature of the opposition movements and militias. What does that mean to AQAP?
The whole point of AQ and the franchises was the message – written often in blood – that Muslims were victims, alienated by the dynastic or secular dictatorships (the “near” enemies) that ruled the region, and that the power of the people could be achieved by knocking out the key support for these noxious regimes, the U.S. (the “far” enemy).
The Arab Spring seems to have turned that message upside down, right? Or is that naive? Would multiparty political reform retard the growth of AQAP? Or are they in Yemen to stay for some time?
CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: Let’s break that question down into two parts: general and specific. First, there’s the issue of whether the Arab Spring undermines al-Qaeda’s global insurgency. Second, there’s the question of how a revolution in Yemen might affect AQAP in particular.
The first question depends on indigenous conditions. We’ve heard a lot about the Arab Spring being a repudiation of dictatorships. But one of the most exciting things about the Arab Spring is just how local this regional phenomenon is.
The grievances are local, the discourse is local, and most importantly, the organization is local. The protestors in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and now Syria weren’t railing against Western imperialism or an imaged ‘Crusader-Zionist alliance’. Instead, they were fighting against the lack of accountability, opportunity and transparency in their own societies.
This distinction is crucial. On one level, it suggests that the rising generation of Arab leaders is abandoning the pan-Arab nationalism that arose in the wake of European colonialism, and from the pan-Islamic Salafism that emerged as an alternative to it. More importantly, it shows that they’re focusing on practical, consensual politics, rather than the narrative of repression and historical resentment that Arab rules have used to check their people’s legitimate aspirations.
Ironically, al-Qaeda relies on many of these tropes and resentments. Rather than articulating a political program grounded in local needs and aspirations, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri try appropriate and repackage local struggles as part of an existential, metaphysical battle between Islam and the West. At the end of the day, they’re not much different from the alleged ‘apostate’ regimes they seek to depose. Much like Arab rulers, they’re using global narratives to justify their own drive for power. More significantly, they’re not authentic. They’re pontificating from a cave in Waziristan, not engaged in the day-to-day lives of real people.
The situation is Yemen could be very different. Since 2001, al-Qaeda has been fighting on the Muslim world’s cultural and geographic periphery. They’re working in non-Arab societies with different languages, different cultures, and religious practices. This creates tension, even when al-Qaeda and indigenous militants share common enemies and objectives.
In Yemen, however, AQAP operates in its own indigenous social and cultural environment. It has a home team advantage, so to say. So the United States still needs to find ways of marginalizing AQAP within Yemeni society, regardless of how the drama in Sana’a unfolds.
Let’s be careful not to overstate the point, though. AQAP is not poised to take over Yemen. At the moment they are one of several armed actors in a complex and highly dynamic society. But they are ideally positioned to harness the chaos in Yemen for their own purposes. Rather than colonizing the local conflict, as al-Qaeda failed to do in Iraq, they’re simply re-integrating themselves back into pre-existing social structures. More importantly, they’re achieving a balance between the practical realities of local insurgency and the doctrinal dictates of global jihad.
This is something other al-Qaeda franchises have consistently failed to do.
PRINE OF DEPARTURE: You were one of the first analysts to ask serious questions about the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from Britain and the US that flooded into Yemen after the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit.
Not only if it would be enough to overcome both the drastic short– and long-term problems of Yemen, but also whether it would make Saleh appear as the beggar to the West, tied to Al Qaeda’s enemies and appearing to be little more than their stooge.
You also cautioned that military efforts targeting Al Qaeda and other rebels threatened “an indigenous backlash that may undermine the government,” whilst the lengthy, generational investments in education, economic development, basic social services and other aspects of international aid appeared unlikely due to the West’s economic problems and the overall uncoordinated and inconsistent international policies toward Yemen.
So how did we contribute to all this instability? How much blame can we put on the US, EU, UN and UK? Could a more tribally-based development and diplomatic (and military) effort bring more results and ultimately help Yemen more? Or does that also retard the development of state institutions to bring Yemen into a regional concert of nations?
CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: Your question points to a broader problem in how the U.S. and its allies approach security and state building. There’s a widespread recognition that many of the challenges we face in Yemen, Afghanistan and other crisis zones are not purely political. This is why I’ve been encouraged by the Obama administration’s efforts to integrate development into our broader approach to diplomacy and defense. It’s not a panacea, but it’s my opinion that they right kinds of investments can have a palliative or even preventive effect, even in Yemen.
The problem is aligning our political, military, and foreign assistance with realities on the ground. In some countries, the government is simply one of several factions competing for control. In others, the regime may govern through patronage systems and other informal networks.
This means that our usual state-to-state mode of operations is not always the most efficient or effective means of addressing these challenges. It hard to engage in state building when there isn’t much historical precedent for centralized political authority. Or when the ‘state’ is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a powerful political faction.
We see the consequences of this misalignment in places like Yemen and Afghanistan. On one level, we’re trying to build strong national regimes that are able to address, if not ultimately prevent, the threats of Salafi/jihadi terrorism. Yet by focusing our energies at the national level, the United States, European Union, and other donors are often priming the patronage pump that keeps corrupt and ineffective regimes in power.
This sort of assistance interrupts the natural equilibrium between national leaders and their own societies. The same is true for military interventions, which feed the impression (false or otherwise) that the leadership is little more than a proxy for foreign interests.
This doesn’t mean we should disengage, far from it. But what I’ve been advocating is a more nuanced, dual-track engagement.
At the national level, we need to focus on institutional development rather than underwriting political leaders. But more significantly, we need to develop creative ways of engaging local leaders — tribal and otherwise — in the sort of discourse that helps knit the frayed social fabric of these countries back together. Engagement with village jirgas and maliks has produced some success in Afghanistan, particularly when it comes to developing local police forces and establishing legitimate self-sustaining institutions.
A similar approach is desperately needed in Yemen, where our engagement has been largely limited to the government, the security services, and the westernized, urbanized elite.
This idea isn’t particularly novel. The United States has a federal system and a strong tradition of local control. Even the normally bureaucratic European Union talks about subsidiarity — the principle that public decisions should be made at the most effective level of government.
Engaging decentralized societies shouldn’t be a challenge, as long as we can do it with the requisite degree of nuance. Most importantly, its something we can do with the help of businesses and non-governmental organizations who can operate in creative ways that governments can’t.
As for Yemen specifically, I believe local policing and economic development projects are the best places to start. Most importantly, they are the most likely to produce the kinds of tangible benefits that allow people to improve their own condition.