Soft power doesn’t usually involve a body count

In the past I’ve labeled the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) as “neo-conservative,” and that was perhaps…well, actually it was pretty accurate. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and way back in January WINEP published a smart piece on Al-Qaeda’s activity in Yemen. Its author, Daniel Green, seems to know his stuff about the region and notes that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took advantage of the Arab Spring-related political turmoil in Yemen to actually seize parts of the country, within which it engaged in a ruthless campaign of…providing for basic human needs like food and fresh water, operating schools (ultra-religious, of course) and hospitals, protecting weaker tribes from stronger ones, and managing to arbitrate or muffle long-standing tribal conflicts that made life miserable for everybody. (This last item can be a powerful tool, particularly in Islam, which has an ideological antipathy toward anarchy; to wit, the very important 11th century Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali wrote that “the tyranny of a sultan for a hundred years causes less damage than one year’s tyranny exercised by the subjects against one another.” Also remember that Muhammad established himself in Medina essentially by agreeing to serve as an arbiter among feuding tribes.) AQAP also linked their cause to the secession movement in the southern part of the country, giving them political legitimacy with the public.

It seems AQAP has taken advantage of two lessons learned by other AQ affiliates in places like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan: first, that providing public services to populations whose government has failed them, while enforcing Shariʿa law on a limited number of provisions only, is more effective in furthering their mission than imposing hyper-restrictive Shariʿa across the board and dealing harshly with violators; and second, that winning local support is a lot easier if your group is itself mostly local. AQAP has its share of foreign fighters, but nowhere near to the degree that Main Al-Qaeda did (does?) in Afghanistan or ISIS has in Iraq and Syria, where the foreign-ness of those fighters can alienate them from the locals and can be used as propaganda fodder by Al-Qaeda’s enemies. Even in those places where AQAP’s strict interpretation of Shariʿa did manifest as oppression or mistreatment, the fact that it came with peace, food, water, and medicine still made it better than Sanaʿa’s failure to provide anything at all.

It’s no mystery why AQAP’s leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, is one of Al-Qaeda’s few remaining stars and has been appointed Main Al-Qaeda’s “general manager” by Ayman al-Zawahiri. For one thing, he still listens to Zawahiri, which can’t be said about the heads of some of Al-Qaeda’s other branches. But for another, AQAP is succeeding in ways that no other AQ branch is doing right now by winning popular support; after Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi took over as Yemeni president from the ousted Ali Abdullah Saleh, he reorganized the army and (with US aid), has dislodged AQAP from the areas where it had established control, but AQAP’s support remains. Moreover, it’s difficult for a government, let alone an outside power like the United States, to encourage a local populace to rise up to oust Al-Qaeda when those people see a sudden and marked improvement in their quality of life after Al-Qaeda moves in.

However, this “soft power” strategy also, as Green notes and as he recently reiterated here, is pretty easy to defeat if the political will exists to do so. AQAP is winning support from Yemenis who live in nightmarish poverty and deprivation, who live outside the authority of the Sanaʿa government such that they are subjected to uncontrolled tribal violence on a regular basis and who have a strong desire to secede from Sanaʿa largely because of how miserable their lives are. Well, what if their government actually started working to make their conditions better? What if Sanaʿa (with, say, American help) started making sure that food and clean water were available to even its poorest citizens, and that those people had access to schools and hospitals that met some minimum basic standards for services? What if it worked to improve governance and security at the local level, incorporating the people who have been affected by tribal violence into a system that helps to ameliorate and prevent that violence (which has the nifty side benefit of giving these impoverished folks some much-needed jobs)? AQAP’s opening into the hearts and minds of the southern Yemeni people would close.

Of course, I’m sure there’s more than one way to skin a cat, right?

Missiles fired by a U.S. drone slammed into a convoy of vehicles traveling to a wedding party in central Yemen on Thursday, killing at least 13 people, Yemeni security officials said.

The officials said the attack took place in the city of Radda, the capital of Bayda province, and left charred bodies and burnt out cars on the road. The city, a stronghold of al Qaeda militants, witnessed deadly clashes early last year between armed tribesmen backed by the military and al Qaeda gunmen in an attempt to drive them out of the city.

There were no immediate details on who was killed in the strike, and there were conflicting reports about whether there were militants traveling with the wedding convoy.

A military official said initial information indicated the drone mistook the wedding party for an al Qaeda convoy. He said tribesmen known to the villagers were among the dead.

One of the three security officials, however, said al Qaeda militants were suspected to have been traveling with the wedding convoy.

Yeah, um, about that. Even if it were true, and it probably isn’t, so what? Bombing a freaking wedding convoy and killing innocent civilians costs you far more in public support than you’ve won killing a militant or two. Leaving aside the moral implications of having just killed a bunch of mostly innocent folks, this is not how you counter your enemy’s effort to win popular support, you know? The Yemeni parliament went so far as to pass a resolution calling for an end to American drone strikes, a resolution that is obviously non-binding because Hadi can probably do whatever he wants on this, and the United States can certainly do whatever it wants. The pace of drone strikes may be dropping, but if we’re still blowing up wedding parties then it’s not dropping fast enough or far enough.

By the way, this same scenario applies in Gaza. Hamas didn’t win parliamentary victory in 2006, which it continues to use to justify its undemocratic rule in Gaza, because of its loathsome terrorist activities against Israel or its hyper-religiosity. It won those elections because it spent years providing basic social services that Fattah and the Palestinian Authority were too inept or corrupt to provide and that were made necessary because of the systemic poverty borne by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and/or blockade. If you want to undercut Hamas’ support in Gaza, then, you start treating the Palestinians better, meeting their basic human needs (PA) and/or relaxing your insane restrictions on their ability to meet those needs for themselves (Israel). You don’t create conditions in which the impacts of winter flooding simply cannot be remedied because your blockade won’t allow basic institutions to be created and to operate properly, nor will it allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need. In the long run, that kind of force costs more than it benefits.

One thought on “Soft power doesn’t usually involve a body count

  1. More like this, please.

    In fact, I think we should print up a few hundred thousand copies of this essay and drone it over the government zones of Washington, DC, and Tel Aviv, and maybe paste up copies on the front pages of the Daily Kos and the Free Republic.

    Seriously it’s that good and that important: stating the case clearly and cleanly, without irritating digs at opponents or the settling of ancient scores.

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