Apparently Iraq and Afghanistan are not enough for an exhausted military or its commander-in-chief. The United States has launched two missile attacks against insurgents in Yemen, on the tired pretext of attacking “al Qaeda bases in the provinces of Sana’a and Abyan,” presumed facilities of an organization invented by neoconservatives that never seems to really exist in any real numbers except where the U.S. creates it by massacring civilians.
“The government took pride in saying that some al Qaeda members have been targeted in this monstrous operation, while it knows very well where do these wanted elements move around,” [Ali Husayn] Ashal[, a member of Parliament and a leader in the opposition Islah Party,] said, according to Al Sahwah.net. “These elements move around openly and publicly before the government’s eyes. The government can, at any given time, target those who are believed to be outlaws, without inflicting dozens of innocent casualties.”
It’s entirely too convenient. A Nigerian man boards a plane in Lagos, changes planes in Amsterdam, and after clearing security at both airports, ridiculously bungles an attempt to blow up an airliner as it approaches Detroit. According to the Washington Post,
Federal officials have strongly suggested to lawmakers that the Nigerian man who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight has connections to the al Qaeda terrorist network in Yemen. . . . A Yemeni government official said his government is looking into claims that Abdulmutallab came to Yemen to pick up the explosive device and instructions on how and when to deploy it. But the official cautioned it could take time before Yemeni immigration authorities could determine if he entered the country. His name is relatively common and also can be spelled in different ways.
The story is developing: Juan Cole has pointed to a CNN report that, in Cole’s phrasing, “Sometime in late October [Abdul Mutallib] sent [his] family a text message that he was going off to Yemen and that the family would find it difficult to trace him because he was throwing away his phone’s sim card. So it appears that he was recruited into a radical Salafi cell in the United Arab Emirates that sent him to Yemen.”
I think Cole is being careful about using a message that Mutallib is “throwing away his phone’s sim card” as evidence that Mutallib joined up with al Qaeda. According to GlobalSecurity.org, “Salafi is a term often used to describe fundamentalist islamic thought. . . . However, ‘Salafism’ is not inherently synonymous with violence, terrorism, or radicalism.” The term is so generic that GlobalSecurity.org stresses the distinctions between four Salafist categories. Only one of these, the “Jihadist Salafis” include “followers of al-Qaeda and like-minded local groups.”
But according to a logic that all fundamentalist Muslims must be terrorists, and all terrorists are members of al Qaeda, it follows that the Shia insurgency in Yemen must be affiliated with al Qaeda. Never mind that Shi’ites and Wahhabis don’t get along; hence Saudi Arabia’s support for Yemen’s government. Never mind that the rebel group, the Houthi are not connected to al Qaeda. Never mind that Yemen is “a country tearing itself apart, with civil war raging in the north and armed demonstrations calling for independence in the south.” Never mind that al Qaeda sees Shi’ism as a greater threat than the Christians and the Jews and that the feeling is apparently mutual. Never mind that the Council on Foreign Relations puts the number of al Qaeda in Yemen only in the dozens. It would be al Qaeda that Mutallib hooked up with.
And indeed we have Mutallib’s word that he was an agent for al Qaeda. And though the Obama administration claims that Mutallib bought his ticket on the day before the missile attacks, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also claims responsibility, saying that Mutallib’s attack was in retaliation for the missile attacks. On the word of this lonely and conflicted (I had initially written, “bumbling, deranged”) idiot, and on the word of a group that has an interest in provoking the U.S. into massacring civilians, we massacre civilians and create a post hoc rationalization for involving ourselves in Yemen’s civil war. Indeed Senator Joe Lieberman is calling for a preemptive attack, saying “an administration official told him that ‘Iraq was yesterday’s war, Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.'”
So never mind a lot of things. I’ve got a correlation at least as valid as the logic for attacking Yemeni territory: George W. Bush was suffering in the public opinion surveys when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Barack Obama hasn’t been doing so well himself, lately.
And here’s another one: The economy was deteriorating rapidly in 2001; a recession officially started in March 2001. The economy now? Not so hot. Many economists think we’re climbing out of the recession that began in December 2007, but this has yet to appear for ordinary Americans. Yes, politicians have, even by political scientists, been suspected of using war to distract from domestic problems.
I’ve been updating this posting since early Saturday afternoon, as I’ve thought about this further, and as I’ve put together more information. And it seems really strange that now, out of the blue, the U.S. has involved itself in a remote civil war, in a country the West has largely ignored for decades, when the whole world knows that the U.S. cannot sustain another land campaign, which means that any contribution it will make will be aerial, which means that it will mostly kill civilians.
There is a geostrategic angle to this that is a little more than theoretical with a number of factors pointing at Iran. Yemen sits opposite the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, from which pirates have been raising havoc with shipping passes through the Red Sea en route to the Suez Canal. It’s close to the Persian Gulf and it very much appears the insurgency in Yemen is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. An earlier report suggested “that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites.” (Both Saudi Arabia and Israel have denied the report.) And the U.S., which also has been threatening Iran and which already counts Saudi Arabia as an ally, has–at least according to Yemen–signed a military cooperation deal with Yemen. (The U.S. has neither confirmed the deal nor disclosed the terms.)
If Mutallib was working for the Houthi insurgents rather than for al Qaeda, his attempt to blow up the airliner might be seen as a response from Iran or its proxy to the U.S. missile attacks. In the logic of asymmetric conflict, where the conventional power values the lives of its people much more highly than the insurgents value the lives of the people they’re supposedly fighting for (a phenomenon seen most visibly in the Israel-Palestinian conflict where Israel will exchange multitudes of Palestinians for a small number of Israelis), this can be seen as an escalation. In short and in poker terms, Iran is calling and raising the U.S. bluff.
There is some question where the U.S. will get the troops to sustain its present commitments. Its land forces are spent. It cannot even take on the Yemen conflict except under the illusion that aerial attacks will do any good. And it is playing with Iran. A poll taken in October suggests higher U.S. public support for an attack for Iran than under the Bush administration but Obama has been taking flak from progressives for among other things, his foolhardy escalation in Afghanistan, largely justified as a war against al Qaeda, which Obama conflates with the Taliban.
Obama conflates al Qaeda with the Taliban, and now his administration conflates the Houthi with al Qaeda. According the the New York Times, “administration officials and American lawmakers said Yemen could become Al Qaeda’s next operational and training hub, rivaling the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan where the organization’s top leaders operate.” The Washington Post explains that “the current AQAP generation has its roots in a February 2006 jailbreak of 23 prisoners from a maximum-security prison in Sanaa, the capital.” But neither story mentions the Shia insurgency. Neoconservatives will be delighted. And a lot of people are going to die for no good reason.