by Michael Shank
This piece was first published by USA Today.
President Trump, who promised as a candidate to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” authorized a military raid in Yemen during his first couple of weeks in office and is sending more U.S. ground troops to Syria. All indications are that he plans a hardline approach to armed extremism.
He’s not the first president to lean on militarism to fight terrorists. George W. Bush with his two wars and Barack Obama with his escalating drone use and increasing involvement in Yemen are ample evidence of that. But Trump takes this aggressive hard-power approach further, with a budget that ramps up defense spending while slashing diplomacy and development programs at the State Department, the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Institute of Peace and other agencies.
That is the wrong way to fight terrorism. The Defense Department’s affiliated think tank, the Rand Corporation, studied this issue closely in a report about how to end terrorist groups. The researchers found that the military approach wasn’t the winner, not even close. In reality, terrorist groups ended 43% of the time with a transition to the political process and 40% of the time with better policing.
This worked with ISIS-type terrorism groups in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen and Algeria, including al Nawaz, Abu Nidal Organization, al-Intiqami al-Pakistani, Guardsmen of Islam, Islamic Salvation Front, Mohammed’s Army and many more. Military means worked only 7% percent of the time — and yet that remains the Pentagon’s primary strategy in Yemen.
Furthermore, ignoring the Rand report’s advice in Yemen, and relying instead on U.S. and Saudi Arabian firepower, creates awful optics on the ground and throughout the region. The State Department made that worse by announcing it had approved resumption of weapons sales to the Saudis, the country that’s leading the bombing of Yemeni civilians. Yemen is experiencing a humanitarian crisis and instead of helping them we’re hurting them. Each American airstrike costs an average of more than $2 million, factoring in direct and related expenses (such as surveillance, reconnaissance, gas for strikers and tankers.) What the famine-afflicted population sees is an America more inclined to escalate the military conflict than to ease the human suffering. Even the drone monitoring of civilians is causing post-traumatic stress disorder.
When I was in Yemen in 2014, to assess the conflict on behalf of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the warning signs were everywhere. The famine was brewing for years, providing ample time for the U.S. government to organize a response. The majority of the country was malnourished, poverty was pervasive and illiteracy was ever-present — all the factors that set the stage for violence and extremism. And yet amidst this, the Obama administration was primarily engaged in air wars, with little attention to much-needed development aid. The administration even suspended aid for a full year. We didn’t help then and we’re not helping now.
Add to this combustible mix the fact that Yemen is running out of water, with speculation that the water crisis will be even more problematic than the war. The price of water is rising quickly and the public is paying more than 30% of their income for water. The capital city of Sana’a, which has a population of 2 million, could run out of water this year; the rest of Yemen could be out of water within the decade. The likelihood of a mass migration of water refugees, and the potential for more chaos as conflicts over limited essential resources mount, is very real.
This is exactly how the Syrian crisis started, with water scarcity and subsequent migration. The U.S. also had an opportunity then to intervene with aid but decided against it. Now, years later, the Syrian conflict has escalated out of control, while the Pentagon employs more unproductive American military tactics.
The tens of thousands of American airstrikes in Syria over the past few years are a harbinger of what’s to come in Yemen if we don’t change course quickly. And the coordinates for a new course aren’t hard to decipher. Every country that the U.S. is bombing, whether under the Obama administration or the Trump administration, shares similar characteristics: high rates of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and lack of access to essential resources. The basic needs in Yemen are the same as those in Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Airstrikes won’t meet them.
Politics in Yemen is about local power sharing and access to natural resources. These should be our top priorities, along with supporting the new United Nation Secretary General’s high-level talks between Yemeni and Saudi officials.
Furthermore, if we truly want to end insecurity in Yemen, we’d help fix the highly politicized food and fuel crises. The same goes for water. This is doable, undoubtedly less expensive than airstrikes, and assuredly more effective in winning Yemeni hearts and minds. Before another 40 airstrikes fan the flames of a war-torn, famine-afflicted Yemen, let’s revisit the Rand report and do what works, before Yemen becomes Syria.