Why it's wrong to rule out nation-building in Yemen

Sunday, January 10, 2010

THE DISMAL socioeconomic state of Yemen inspires despair in some of those considering what can be done about al-Qaeda's base there. It's the same defeatism that infects the discussion of other hosts to terrorism -- Afghanistan, Pakistan or Somalia. Experts acknowledge that bad or nonexistent governance, extreme poverty, and unchecked proselytizing and intimidation by Islamic extremists create the conditions under which al-Qaeda can train and recruit fighters and prepare attacks against the United States. But there is little that can be done, they argue, other than mounting counterterrorism operations aimed at killing some of the militants. Attacking the root problems, they insist, is a fool's errand: The United States has neither the methods nor the means to turn Yemen or Somalia or Afghanistan into stable states.

President Obama at times seems infected with this attitude. He is clearly serious about fighting what he calls "the war against al-Qaeda" and recently ordered a major expansion of both military and civilian operations in Afghanistan. Yet in the same speech in which he announced that strategy, he said that he had rejected "goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost" and said he intended to shift the balance between investments in national security and the domestic economy. "We can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars," he said. "The nation that I'm most interested in building is our own."

The weariness with eight years of war spending is as understandable as the pessimism about a place such as Yemen, where the population is exploding, resources are running out, internal strife is mounting and what government exists is reluctant to work too closely with Washington. But the notion that the United States and its allies cannot or should not mount a concerted effort to build governance and economic development there or in the other failed or failing states is dangerously misguided. It ignores the fact that counterterrorism operations alone failed to stop al-Qaeda in Afghanistan before 2001 and have failed to prevent it from growing steadily stronger in Yemen and Somalia.

It also ignores the long and mostly successful U.S. history of combating national security threats with investments in foreign development and good government. The Marshall Plan after World War II rebuilt European countries from shambles; the Alliance for Progress helped prevent Latin American nations from succumbing to communism. Even now the Obama administration is committed to spending $6.7 billion this year alone to combat AIDS abroad -- mostly in countries where al-Qaeda is absent and which are in far better shape than Yemen or Somalia. In contrast, development and military aid to Yemen last year was less than $70 million.

As for Mr. Obama's concerns about balance and affordability, the United States still spends considerably less on defense, as a percentage of gross national product, than it did during the Cold War -- and war spending is due to drop considerably in the next several years as U.S. forces leave Iraq.

There is much that the United States and its Arab and European allies could do in Yemen. Little has been done to prepare the country for a future in which its supplies of both oil and water may disappear. Outside mediation could ease the government's war against Houthi rebels in the north and an increasingly violent conflict with political opponents in the south. Independent media and civil society groups seeking to broaden political freedoms could be supported and shielded. Government forces could be trained not just in counterterrorism operations but in the broader counterinsurgency mission, centered on protecting the population, that has become the model for Iraq and Afghanistan. All this could be costly and take time. But as in Afghanistan, the alternative is to pursue a policy that won't defeat al-Qaeda.

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