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Why Obama needs to show Israelis that he feels their pain

Why Obama needs to show Israelis that he feels their pain

An OpEd that was published in the Times of Israel


Turning the tide against Islamic militants in southern Yemen

By Gabriel Avner

Recent weeks have seen a heating up of the fight against cells of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operating in the southern provinces of Yemen. During the unrest that began in the 2011 uprising, the Islamists succeeded in making considerable gains both on the battlefield against the lackluster troops of the military and in captured territory that was to form the new Arabian caliphate. However in the past month, the administration of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi appears to have turned the tide, inflicting heavy casualties on the militants and retaking lost territory as was seen the battle for Lawder that left over 200 militants dead from the fighting.

These victories can be chalked up to a combination of renewed determination on the part of the government, partial resolution of internal political spats with remnants of the former regime, increased military involvement of the United States, and perhaps most interestingly a stepping up of the local tribes in the south who have been deeply affected by the fighting.

Ansar al-Sharia (Image via AFP)

What can possibly be inferred from the numerous cases where tribesmen have picked up arms against the militants is that AQAP has perhaps pushed too far. As in any form of insurgency, the Islamists are dependent on a modicum of public support in order to survive. This can be for either logistical, recruiting or a host of other basic needs if the organization hopes to continue their activities against the government. Their killing of local leaders who have openly criticized them was possibly the line that was crossed, can be clearly viewed as a strategic error for which they must now compensate for.

To that end, the recent release of 73 captured Yemeni soldiers on April 29 supposedly out of respect for the tribal leaders involved in the negotiations can be taken as an attempt to placate the residents of the south and adjust their image to the public. The men have made a point of vocalizing the decent treatment that they received at the hands of their captors. Freeing the soldiers, especially in such numbers is atypical of the militants who have built a reputation for their ferocity. Ansar al-Sharia, the largest AQAP affiliate has been reported to have executed hundreds of captured military personnel, leaving their decapitated bodies strewn around the south. It should not be forgotten that just days before the men were allowed to return home, the militants had threatened to kill ten a day until their demands were met. At this point, it is too early to determine the genuine reasons behind the release.

As the Islamists find themselves becoming increasingly unpopular, the question remains as to whether damage control is still an option. The people of the south have grown weary of the conflict and yearn for a return to normalcy. If given the choice between the radical remnants of AQAP or that of the government promising them reforms, then it is fair to assess that the people will continue to side with the government in the push against the militants. This is not to say that the Islamists are on their last legs. Yemen is likely to see months of hard fighting, and the survival of an active militant movement for the years to come. However for now, it would seem that a shift has occurred that many hope will lead the country back to the path of stability and recovery.

Why the US is likely to step up their use of drones in Yemen even if it makes things worse

By Gabriel Avner

The United States’ preference for drone warfare in dealing with insurgencies in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan invasion era has become increasingly apparent when viewing their approach to their involvement in the tumultuous state of Yemen. In the month of March, the US launched at least seven strikes against Islamist militants operating against the government in the southern provinces. More strikes have since followed in April leaving close to 30 dead, further highlighting


US Drone

the deteriorating security conditions in the country. However in spite of its effectiveness, drones come with hidden costs that in the end, might prove to affect their usage in the Yemeni conflict.

Drones provide the US with a seemingly painless method of tracking and killing militants in countries where they are hard pressed to justify a serious involvement. With drones, there is no risk to pilots, no rescue missions and no need for Jessie Jackson. The avoidance of having to put boots on the ground can be highly appealing to both the public and decision makers. These birds of prey are known to be used in conflicts in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and Afghanistan for both surveillance and kinetic missions. They allow the US to enter into countries where the government is either unwilling or unable to cope with the militant threat.

Yemen falls squarely in the middle of these two categories. While their military has had a modicum of success in fighting back the Islamist expansion that has grown during the unrest that began with the uprising against the regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, militant expansion appears to continue unabated. Coupled with the lack of a well organized military, it has been widely reported that the former president is attempting to undercut the fight against the militants to serve internal political struggles for power. These factors have made relying on the Yemenis to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) linked cells a difficult option.

In spite of these appealing advantages to using drones, recent weeks have seen some of the unforeseen consequences of their application. Due to the fact that the militants are unable to shoot down the drones or otherwise strike at the Americans operating them, they have chosen to respond with reprisal attacks against Yemeni troops and infrastructure. Following a pair of drone strikes in late March, militants struck back with attacks that left 30 soldiers dead and a crucial gas pipeline severely damaged. An additional factor is the backlash from instances of collateral damage against civilians that can quickly turn public opinion against the Yemeni government. Should the leadership feel too much pressure from either the hits against their soldiers or their public, they might decide to order the US out thus ending the important operations against the Islamists.

While the drone appears to have become the weapon of choice for the US, it is a tool whose use must be balanced in accordance with the overall regional policy as well as local political considerations with the host country. That said, it is easily arguable that as Pentagon budgets become smaller and the US public further looses its taste for war, drone strikes will likely continue to rise in prominence in the US’s global anti-insurgency policy.

Disturbing Questions on Nuclear Deterrence

Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Image via Wikipedia)

By Gabriel Avner

Frequently when a state finds itself in a position of genuine weakness, it will seek out courses of actions that it believes will best secure its interests at the lowest possible cost. Since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has attempted to ensure its status as a dominant regional power. In addition to its considerable conventional military forces and heavy handed influences in the affairs of regional states, many in the international community now contend that the Shia regime is attempting to achieve nuclear weapons capabilities. With a rapidly deteriorating economy and a deadly fear of Western backed regime change, the leadership is desperately seeking the proper balance to ensure the continuance of their regime. While it would stand to reason that a regime on the defensive would choose to pursue nuclear deterrence, an analysis of the costs and benefits might explain why certain policies might prove to be less practical than they might appear upon first glance.

The Islamic Republic now faces its greatest perceived threats in recent memory. The economy has been hard hit with high levels of unemployment and inflation. In 2010, the rial was valued at around 9,000 rials to the dollar. It now trades for somewhere between 12,000 to 19,000 according to the inflated official and black market rates respectively. Sanctions from the West aimed at raising the cost of nuclear development have significantly affected the price of imports and are rapidly depleting crucial foreign currency reserves. The American led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan along with the decade of neoconservative political rhetoric have further convinced the Shia theocracy that the longevity of their domestically unpopular regime is under threat.

More often than not, a regime will misplay their nuclear hand. Possession of nuclear weapons comes with certain advantages. In the case of the Islamic Republic and other semi-isolated states, it can mean a veto against foreign intervention within their sphere of influence. For some, it has ensured the continuance of their regime that otherwise would have been overthrown long ago. However these advantages often come at a great cost, turning a contentious regime into a pariah state. At the same time, abandoning one’s nuclear weapons program can severely weaken a leadership that lacking their key bargaining chip, becomes vulnerable to overthrow. The two ideal cases of these principles can be seen in the dealings between the West and North Korea as well as the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. The North Korean dictatorship inherited by Kim Jung Il was a starving state facing the combined South Korean and American military forces sitting on its border threatening regime change. Kim realized that he could ensure his regime’s security through developing nuclear weapons. While it is true that he has managed to secure monetary aid and assurances against intervention, Kim further established North Korea as a pariah state cut off from most of the international community. On the other side of the spectrum is Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. In the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi opted to surrender his weapons of mass destruction programs in hopes of avoiding a fate similar to the Iraqi leader. This strategy appeared to be successful until the 2011 uprising by his people that was aided by Western powers, most of whom would never have considered confronting Gaddafi had he maintained his arsenal of deterrence.

In considering these cases of cost benefit analysis gone wrong, the parameters of actions open to Iran assists in assessing how the regime is likely to proceed with their program. Iran cannot afford to become a total pariah due to its dependency to access global energy markets. Oil exports are estimated to comprise over 60% of state revenues. Iran is also unlikely to give up what is a nationally popular program while fears of Western imposed regime change appear to be imminent. There is perhaps a third middle ground option that would allow both sides to save face while maintaining their primary objectives. Whether the course will include IAEA inspectors at nuclear sites or assurances for continued low level enrichment, there are numerous creative solutions that could be expected to rise out of a negotiated agreement is yet to be seen. What is certain is that a continuance of the status quo is untenable for all sides involved. With the effects of sanctions biting away at the economy and the threat of an oft predicted Israeli air strike in the spring, the clock is ticking for such a compromise to be found. One can only hope that the regime will be able to sort out their internal calculations in time.