Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yemen's accidental guerillas?

I've noticed a trend in the Yemen stories lately: there's almost always mention of someone -- putatively anti-extremist, often associated with the government or other traditional power structures -- saying that all of this trouble could be spared if we'd just let them bring the bad guys in peacefully, just have a chat with them and get them to stand down. Here are a couple of examples, first from an article entitled "Yemen's President Says Government is Willing to Talk to Disarmed Qaeda Fighters" from Monday's New York Times:

In the interview with Abu Dhabi TV, [Yemeni president Ali Abdullah] Saleh, 67, vowed that his security services would hunt down those Qaeda members who refused to renounce violence. But “dialogue is the best way,” he insisted, “even with Al Qaeda, if they set aside their weapons and return to reason.” He said that Yemen is “ready to reach understanding with anyone who renounces violence and terrorism.”

While apparently anodyne, Mr. Saleh’s comments were viewed with some skepticism by Western diplomats here. He has run Yemen for more than 30 years, and he has remained in power by balancing tribal, religious and political powers and often buying their loyalty — and that includes radical Islamic leaders as well as Al Qaeda.

The United States has complained that Yemen struck deals in the past with Qaeda followers and released them from prison for promises of peace, while some have returned to terrorism or later traveled to Iraq to fight against American forces. A large group involved in Al Qaeda’s attack on the American Navy destroyer Cole in 2000 escaped from a high-security prison in February 2006, reportedly with help from the security services. Two of them who evaded later government raids against the group have become key figures of Al Qaeda, including its leader here, Nasser al-Wuhayshi.

And another mention in an article today about the killing of a suspected al-Qaeda fighter in a raid by Yemeni security forces:

In a sign of the sensitivities such operations raise, the tribal chief of the Maysaa area complained about the raid, insisting that Mihzar and the others were not "active members" of al-Qaida. He warned that the use of force in tribal regions could spark a backlash.

"They were young men who went astray but I don't think they were really members of al-Qaida," Sheik Atiq Baadha told The Associated Press. "The authorities should have contacted the families and local leaders so we could hand them over. ... We're ready to talk to the government about this."

"If things continue like this, other tribes might become sympathetic with these people" against the government, he said of the raid.

We've gotten accustomed to talk like this in Afghanistan and Iraq, understanding that victory in counterinsurgency campaigns will almost always involve convincing a significant portion of the bad guys that continued resistance is a bad idea, and that they should integrate into mainstream society. But what about when we're talking about al-Qaeda? What about the one group that we all unashamedly and unequivocally call "terrorists," that we tend to identify as America's number one enemy right now? Can we talk to those guys? Can we bring them in?

This is where things start to get sticky, and why I think it's so important to be precise in the way we use language (particularly words like "terrorist"). No one is interested in dialogue with Osama bin Laden, that much is clear, and we're probably not going to have a conversation with anyone associated with "AQ Central." But what about these Yemeni guys, who -- if they were in Afghanistan or Pakistan -- would probably be considered Taliban rather than al-Qaeda? Who are most likely the sort of "accidental guerillas" that are attracted to the cause by myriad material grievances (perhaps with a little religious fundamentalism mixed in) rather than the animating spirit of Wahhabism and rejection of the modern global power structure? It's probably worth considering, as the tribal leader in the second article suggests, the impact of our actions on the appeal of al-Qaeda to an even larger segment of the population in Yemen and elsewhere.

The first article brings up a good point, too: the political leadership in many of the places from which al-Qaeda threats could emanate will often have risen to and maintained power through their ability to balance threats and concessions among a wide range of interest groups, including violent ones and those with which the U.S. will have no truck. If we're to base our foreign and security policies on a construct in which foreign governments are held responsible for securing their own territory, political maneuvering of this sort is often going to be essential. Can we hold it against a Yemeni president, for example, if he wants to negotiate? Can we draw a red line and say "no talks with anyone who calls themselves al-Qaeda," even if it advances our aims?

I guess the question is this: where do you draw the line between reconcilable and irreconcilable, or rather between those who we would be willing to reconcile and those who we're only interested in killing or imprisoning?

Sorry for all the question marks, but I don't have this one close to figured out.

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