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6 January 2010

Yemen v Afghanistan

What to make of Gordon Brown's "confession"?

By Mehdi Hasan

I had a lie-in on Sunday, so I missed Gordon Brown’s appearance on the Marr show. I’ve only caught up with it now, via iPlayer and the transcript.

Here’s the bit that jumped out to me, as the PM talked tough on “terror” in the wake of the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack on a US airliner:

I think we’ve got to also get back to the source of this, and that is Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and we’ve got to recognise that we’ve got a group of young people who have been radicalised as a result of teaching by extreme clerics and we’ve got to recognise that we’re fighting a battle for hearts and minds here as much as everything else.

Hold on! The “source” is “Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan”? Isn’t there a country missing from that list? Y’know, the country that borders Pakistan? The one that has a ruler who stuffs ballot boxes, but who was also ranked as the tenth best-dressed man in the world by Esquire magazine? The one where we have about 10,000 troops, and where 108 British soldiers died last year? The one that begins with the letter “A”?

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Why on earth did the Prime Minister not see fit to include Afghanistan in his list of places that are the “source” of international terrorism? Could it be because, in his heart of hearts, he knows that the terror threat no longer emanates from the mountains and valleys of that country?

To be fair to the PM, earlier in the interview he had acknowledged that “this is a new threat, a new type of threat, and it’s from a new source which is obviously Yemen, but there are many other potential sources like Somalia as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan”. Yet I still find it odd that, when push comes to shove, he identifies the “source” of extremism and terrorism as being a list of only three countries, in which he couldn’t find the space to include the one country to which he has sent British troops to fight and die. Freudian slip?

Then, interestingly, later in the interview, Brown referred to the impact of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan being “much less and likely to be that much less in the future”; he then went on to argue that “it means we’ve got to be vigilant in every part of the world where there is a failed state or a failing state, which creates space for a terrorist group to operate”. What does this mean? Bombing, invading and/or occupying every failed state, every ungoverned space, every potential “safe haven” in the world?

As even Stephen Biddle, a pro-war policy wonk who happens to be a civilian adviser to General Stanley McChrystal, acknowledges:

If the current Afghan government collapsed and were replaced with a neo-Taliban regime, or if the Taliban were able to secure political control over some major contiguous fraction of Afghan territory, then perhaps al-Qaeda could re-establish a real haven there.

But the risk that al-Qaeda might succeed in doing this isn’t much different [from] the same happening in a wide range of weak states throughout the world, from Yemen to Somalia to Djibouti to Eritrea to Sudan to the Philippines to Uzbekistan, or even parts of Latin America or southern Africa. And of course Iraq and Pakistan could soon host regimes willing to put the state’s resources behind al-Qaeda if their current leaderships collapse under pressure.

. . . it is still important to deny al-Qaeda sanctuary on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. But the intrinsic importance of doing so is no greater than that of denying sanctuary in many other potential havens — and probably smaller than many. We clearly cannot afford to wage protracted warfare with multiple brigades of American ground forces simply to deny al-Qaeda access to every possible safe haven. We would run out of brigades long before Bin Laden ran out of prospective sanctuaries.

Exactly! We will never eliminate all the potential safe havens on earth. So why not, as the insurgency expert Dr John Mackinlay argues, tilt our policy away from counterproductive “expeditionary” wars against terrorists abroad towards credible, counter-extremism campaigns at home? I agree with Mackinlay when he says:

. . . the expeditionary campaign is antithetical to the domestic campaign, because it pisses off your average Muslim punter in Bolton. If you have to give one campaign primacy, as sure as night follows day it must be the domestic campaign. If there was an endless stream of people seeking to attack this country and they all came from Helmand Province you would certainly go to Helmand to shut them down. But out of the 90 people who are in the slammer at the moment on proven terrorist charges, not one single one of them comes from Helmand. Afghanistan is the recruiting sergeant for what is happening in the UK.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that further military action against Yemen will simply become another “recruiting sergeant” for al-Qaeda; another handy tool for terorrist recruiters at home and abroad.

By the way, check out Patrick Cockburn’s superb piece on Yemen, in which he says that threats to the Yemenis prove that the United States, even under Barack Obama, has not learned the lessons of history.

Oh, and here’s a great blog on Yemen.