Fighting Yemen's Terror Factory

Amid new calls from hawks to ramp up military efforts in Yemen, Matthew Yglesias on how to solve one of the War on Terror’s thorniest problems.

Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi / Reuters

Throughout the debate over sending additional troops to Afghanistan, skeptics of this course of action have been making the point that it’s hardly the only country in which al Qaeda could find safe haven. What about Yemen, we asked. What of Somalia? And what might happen down the road in Chad, or Nigeria or any of the other many countries around the world that suffer from civil conflict and have substantial Muslim populations.

America’s response to terrorist attacks is far more costly to the country than the damage caused by the attacks themselves.

The news that underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab appears to have had contact with the Arabian Peninsula branch of al Qaeda in Yemen brings some of these questions to a fore in a non-rhetorical way. Predictably enough, a certain brand of know-nothing militarist sees the need for yet another war. For example, Joe Lieberman took to the airwaves last week to argue that “Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war. That’s the danger we face.”

It’s difficult to argue with those for whom more war is always the answer. But, obviously, had hawks not started the war in Iraq, that wouldn’t have been yesterday’s war. And with Afghanistan not starved of crucial resources during the 2001-2003 period, it probably wouldn’t be today’s war. And had these failures in Afghanistan not let Osama bin Laden get away, it’s very possible that we would barely be worrying about al Qaeda at all—in Yemen or elsewhere—by this point.

Bruce Riedel: The Menace of YemenGerald Posner: The Terrorists' Secret WeaponMore to the point, Lieberman’s attitude reflects a failure to understand al Qaeda’s strategy, which is precisely to bleed America to bankruptcy by compelling us to overcommit our resources. As bin Laden boasted in 2004 all that we have to do is to send two mujahideen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.” In his version of history, “we, alongside the mujahideen, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.”

This is bad history and reflects a questionable understanding of economics. Realistically, the United States is not going to go “bankrupt” in Yemen or Afghanistan or anywhere else. That said, bin Laden’s strategic concept does reflect the reality that America’s response to terrorist attacks is far more costly to the country than the damage caused by the attacks themselves.

Under the circumstances, one of the most important things we can do to combat international terrorism is to think more seriously about cost-effective ways of dealing with it. It’s good that in response to years of failure in Iraq, the American defense policy community has become more familiar with the idea of practicing counterinsurgency warfare in foreign countries. But one of the clearest facts to emerge from this study is that putting the boots on the ground to conduct a proper population-centric military campaign is hideously expensive. Indeed, as best one can tell, this is high on the list of reasons why the Bush administration initially rejected such an approach to Iraq—they feared, rightly, that if the American people understood what would be required, they wouldn’t back invading in the first place. But the kind of war on the cheap preferred by Donald Rumsfeld didn’t work.

The sensible conclusion, of course, is that we never should have invaded Iraq in the first place. Meanwhile, whatever you make of the apparent success of the “surge” in Iraq or the prospects that the Obama administration’s new approach in Afghanistan will work, it’s not viable for the United States to fight an endless series of wars like this. Indefinitely spending over $100 billion a year on foreign military operations directed against the extremely small number of people willing and able to conduct terrorist attacks on American soil is a waste. And being properly comprehensive about conducting massive military operations in every potential safe haven would cost far more than that.

This is why people with a real understanding of defense policy, including leading counterinsurgency practitioners and theorists like Andrew Exum, say they hope the current era of counterinsurgency will end with Afghanistan. The future of American response to guerrilla conflicts will have to rely much more heavily on assisting local forces rather than directly intervening. In a poor country like Yemen, relatively small amounts of American money can make a big difference. We can also offer considerable technical expertise and high-tech intelligence (satellite surveillance, etc.) to local governments that we want to help. And of course we can share ideas about best counterinsurgency practices—suggestions for things that foreign governments should do themselves, rather than us doing it for them.

The great challenge for policymakers moving forward is to recognize the existence of American interests in countries like Yemen without overstating them. American foreign policy has never been comfortable with gray areas, and the press prefers table-pounding statements of resolve. But the idea of real, but limited, interests is completely coherent. Around the world we face a number of places where international terrorists can or might gain a toehold, and what’s needed is an approach that can realistically be applied in a broad way, not an endless series of wars as we play whack-a-mole with the latest would-be bomber.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.