Is “people power” contagious? It’s easy to find examples of journalists, policymakers and/or analysts, and some scholars arguing that opposition to authoritarian rule is spreading like a winter virus from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen. In this case, many optimists argue (though some merely hope) that the viral idea will result in more democratic governance for millions of people that have long lived under autocratic rule. Moreover, many think (or hope) that the contagion will spread to other similar states with large Arab or Muslim populations.
However, the skeptics and pessimists have keyboards too. IR realists have already provided plenty of reasons for skepticism. For example, even during the so-called “third wave” of democratization some years ago, many states merely transitioned from authoritarian to semi-authoritarian rule.
The worriers are concerned about the fact that Egypt has long been the second largest recipient of American foreign aid. Indeed, many believe that the American government is quite cautious and fairly openly favors the status quo. Egypt has received substantial aid in large part because of its continued support for the Jimmy Carter-brokered Camp David peace agreement; thus, many friends of Israel are more than a little concerned about the current situation.
In any case, I have been thinking about the prospects for internal upheaval spreading to Pakistan — ground zero in the current war and a nuclear-armed state with a history of conflict with its neighbors. Vice President Joe Biden, who like me sometimes worries about the relationship between Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and its internal stability, largely dismisses the prospects of contagion effects. However, he acknowledged to PBS interviewer Jim Lehrer on January 27 that “there’s a lot going on across that part of the continent, from Tunisia into — all the way to Pakistan, actually.” Lehrer explicitly asked Biden to compare the situation in Tunisia and Egypt to events in Eastern Europe more than 20 years ago.
…the difference between Tunisia and Egypt is real, beyond the fact that Egypt’s the largest Arab country in the world.
So, I don’t see any direct relationship…But I don’t — I think it’s a stretch at this point. But I could be proven wrong. But I think it’s a stretch to compare it to Eastern Europe.
However, in a weekend Press TV news report (from Iran) about the continued unpopularity of American drone attacks, a man identified by name as a human rights activist openly declares (in English): “There will be an uprising in Pakistan. After Tunis example, after Yemen…I think so, now it is our turn. Now is Pakistanis turn.” See about 1 minute into this report, which differs somewhat from the one linked above that is currently on Press TV’s website:
Obviously, any mass uprising in Pakistan would be important for a large number of reasons, but today’s Washington Post centers on one key concern — Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal:
Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal now totals more than 100 deployed weapons, a doubling of its stockpile over the past several years in one of the world’s most unstable regions, according to estimates by nongovernment analysts.
As the article notes, U.S. policymakers frequently “voice confidence in its [Pakistan’s] strong internal safeguards, with warheads kept separate from delivery vehicles.”
Perhaps these policymakers are simply whistling past the graveyard as a number of Wikileaks documents highlight genuine US and British concern about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. As the BBC reported in December:
senior UK Foreign Office official Mariot Leslie told US diplomats in September 2009 that Britain had “deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”.
In another cable seven months earlier, then-US ambassador Anne Patterson told Washington: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in the government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”
Potentially, that smuggling task would be easier in a context of internal disorder. Imagine if the state security apparatus is distracted by mass upheaval.
The 22 September 2009 cable quoting Leslie was written in London by Ellen Tauscher, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. It is available at the Wikileaks collection on The Guardian website and is quite intriguing for another reason. It suggests that Pakistan is fearful of an entirely new form of American counterproliferation:
The UK has deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and Pakistan has accepted nuclear safety help, but under the IAEA flag (albeit British technicians). The Pakistanis worry that the U.S. “will drop in and take their nukes,” Leslie said.
Could the U.S. really “drop in and take” Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?
Granted, it seems foolhardy to speculate about second and third-order consequences of internal upheaval in Pakistan. The drone attacks in Pakistan have long been unpopular, but it is possible that Biden is correct and that neither Washington nor Islamabad have anything to fear from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Perhaps readers should take solace in the words of Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK Wajid Shamsul Hasan, who told the BBC in December that his government “had a very successful, foolproof control and command system looking after the nuclear arsenal.”
Maybe we should keep on whistling.
Yesterday, the New York Times had a story about huge proposed increases in military assistance to Yemen, framed around the “war on terror.” Since the Christmas day 2009 attempted airliner bombing that was linked to Yemen, the U.S. was allocated about $155 million in military aid for FY 2010 — up from about $5 million in FY 2006.
The Pentagon’s latest plan calls for $1.2 billion in the next six years, about $200 million annually. That’s nearly a 25% increase from 2010 and an enormous change in commitment over a short period of time.
Apparently, by comparison, Aghanistan is so 2009:
“Yemen is the most dangerous place,” said Representative Jane Harman, a senior California Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee who visited Yemen in March. “We’re much more likely to be attacked in the U.S. by someone inspired by, or trained by, people in Yemen than anything that comes out of Afghanistan.”
Since the Pentagon claims that there are only about 100 al Qaeda personnel in Afghanistan, this quote may well be literally true.
Of course, Harman says nothing about Pakistan, which has for some time been the real ground zero in the war on terrorism. The unpopular drone strikes demonstrate how that part of the AfPak war is being fought.
Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said in a policy talk last week that American-backed assaults by Yemeni forces on Al Qaeda may “deny it the time and space it needs to organize, plan and train for operations.” But in the long term, he added, countering extremism in Yemen “must involve the development of credible institutions that can deliver real economic and social progress.”
There is another big problem with the Pentagon’s plan — Yemen’s relative disinterest in the mission:
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton…said the priorities of President Saleh, an autocrat whose family has ruled [Yemen] for three decades, do not coincide with those of the United States.
“If we’re just pouring money and equipment into the Yemeni military in the hopes that it will be used against Al Qaeda,” Mr. Johnsen said, “that hope doesn’t match either with history or current reality.”
The whack-a-mole metaphor has been widely used by critics of U.S. foreign policy — to describe outcomes in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
My friend, Stacey Philbrick Yadav, has just posted an interesting take on American policy in Yemen at Foreign Policy. She writes:
I’ve been traveling regularly to Yemen since 2004, conducting research on the relationship between Islamists and leftists in Yemen’s opposition parties. Throughout this time, I have maintained correspondence with Yemeni journalists and political activists from a wide range of ideological positions. They are united in their concern about expanding U.S. involvement in Yemen, understanding just how badly it is likely to turn out for them and their country.
In part, Yemeni reformers are wary because such assistance has already contributed to radicalization. The use of unmanned drones, for example, goes back to 2002 at least. The combination of the perceived infringement on Yemeni sovereignty and high civilian death tolls caused by drone strikes has unquestionably helped fuel anti-American sentiment. Now, my Yemeni sources worry the Saleh regime will use additional military funds to crack down on legitimate political dissent and pad its coffers, rather than fighting actual terrorists and providing desperately needed services and infrastructure….
…The United States’ interest in Yemen has clearly been piqued. But information and analysis lag far behind this interest. As a Yemeni official told me, “The guys in D.C. aren’t creative”; they throw money at the problem rather than working to solve it. In Yemen, Saleh is part of the problem. Clear policy alternatives might not be available yet — but writing a blank check will certainly do nothing but fuel the radicalization the United States seeks to fight.
I think the last point is telling. We’ve now seen a lot of the “War on Terror” talking heads follow the headlines to the Yemen situation peddling their standard fare: more U.S. military assistance and support. But the early reporting on Yemen in the past few weeks reveals how little the US seems to know about the country.
Mark Landler wrote a piece over the weekend in the NYTimes and added this:
In an overburdened State Department, there are only a handful of Yemen experts, compared with 30 people from nine government agencies who are assigned just to the administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke.
Washington’s limited insight into Yemen was on display Thursday, when the White House’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, expressed surprise that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was sophisticated enough to carry out a plot against an American jetliner. In fact, Mr. Brennan, a onetime C.I.A. station chief in neighboring Saudi Arabia, is widely regarded as one of the administration’s most knowledgeable officials about the country.
I’m sure we’ll see more of the standard talking heads surface and repeat the last thing they heard on Yemen. For my money, I’ll be waiting to read more from Stacey and from Gregory Johnsen and Brian O’Neill over at Waq Al-Waq. Stacey is a gifted scholar and Johnsen and O’Neill have been blogging on Yemen for the past couple of years and know the country and region well.