Yemen: Opening A New “Front” in the Long War Nicht Schwerpunkt as a Prescription for Defeat by a 1000 Cuts by Chuck Spinney
Recent events like the Fort Hood Massacre and the bungled attempt to fire bomb the airliner bound for Detroit have focused attention on and encouraged our escalating intervention in Yemen, which has been taking place quietly, as if Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were not enough to keep our strategic planners and stretched out military forces occupied. Our reactions to events in the so-called Long War on Terror suggest an aimless spreading of effort throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. This aimlessness brings to mind a comment General Hermann Balck, a highly decorated German officer in WWII, made to a small group of reformers in the Pentagon in the early 1980s.
The subject was Operation Barbarossa, or Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Balck pithily dismissed the German strategy shaping that invasion with the words: “Nicht Schwerpunkt.” Balck was saying there was no focus or main effort to the German invasion, and without a focus, there was no way to harmonize the thousands of subordinate efforts. The result was a spreading of effort that led to eventual overextension as can be seen in the following map. Now the Eastern Front of WWII is very different from the ridiculously misleading label of a Central Front in the Long War on Terror. But the idea of schwerpunkt is germane to both efforts, and the US is showing all the signs of spreading and over extending its efforts which accompany a nicht schwerpunkt. This is no small thing.
As the American strategist Colonel John Boyd showed in his famous briefing, Patterns of Conflict, the idea of a schwerpunkt is central to organizing all effective military operations. It is far more than a simple question of concentrating forces. According to Boyd, the idea of a “Schwerpunkt represents a unifying medium that provides a directed way to tie initiative of many subordinate actions with superior intent as a basis to diminish friction and compress time in order to generate a favorable mismatch in time/ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances.”
Now this is a very compressed statement, pregnant with information, and based on a lot of research, but it nevertheless makes it self evident that there is no comparable unifying medium in America’s Long War on Terror. Our failure to form a schwerpunkt is just as much a prescription for paralysis and defeat by a thousand cuts in a guerrilla war as it is in a mechanized conventional war between standing armies.
To see why, consider please the following three attachments:
Attachment #1 is slide 64 of Patterns of Conflict on which Boyd summarizes T.E. Lawrence’s art of guerrilla warfare — i.e., his unifying medium (or schwerpunkt) around which he shaped his operations. Lawrence’s operations had the effect of spreading out and paralyzing the Turkish forces in Arabia, Palestine, and Syria, forcing them to defend everywhere and therefore nowhere — in other words, Lawrence’s schwerpunkt seduced the Turkish army into fighting a guerrilla army in a war of disconnected reactions without a Turkish schwerpunkt. Many Turkish officers regarded Lawrence as a murderous terrorist inciting the Arabs to revolt against their rule and they viewed the Arabs contemptuously as an unruly mob.
Attachment #2 beneath it is a Counterpunch report by Patrick Cockburn describing the deterioration of the situation in Yemen and the escalating involvement of the US in this theater of the Long War on Terror. Cockburn paints a portrait of a hornets nest about to be poked by a US stick.
Attachment #3 is a recent note by Steve Clemmons in Talking Points Memo in which he reminds the reader that bin Laden’s aim (schwerpunkt?) in bin Laden’s own words (as reported by Peter Bergen) was to “draw the US deeply into the Middle East, and by its presence — destabilize the governments in the region.”
After reading and thinking about the disparate ideas in these three attachments, bring them together by returning to Boyd’s slide on Lawrence and asking yourself the following questions:
Who is inside who’s head?
Whose operations are more consistent an idea, floating around like a gas?
Who is tipping and running, striking with the smallest force at the farthest place? Who is fighting a “war” of detachment and never on the defensive or affording a target, except by accident or error?
And with the answers to these questions in mind, ask yourself on final question with respect to the so-called Long War on Terror:
Who is behaving more like Lawrence, or alternatively, who is being spread out like the Turks? The United States or Al Qaeda or, for that matter, the Taliban?
Attachment #1 ———————————————
Attachment #2 December 29, 2009 Multiple Crises Yemen Next By PATRICK COCKBURN
Yemen is the Afghanistan of the Arab world. It is the poorest Arab country, its government is weak, its people are armed, it already faces a serious rebellion, it is strongly tribal and its mountain ranges are a natural refuge for groups like al-Qa’ida. There is nothing new about the growing political, social and economic crisis in Yemen, but the world is waking up to it only since the attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound plane has been linked to al-Qa’ida in Yemen. Last night the regional wing of the group claimed responsibility for training and arming Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with the Christmas Day bomb.
Yemen has been becoming increasingly unstable over the past two decades, ever since Saudi Arabia expelled a million Yemeni workers because Yemen refused to support the US-led war to expel Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1990. Osama bin Laden’s family comes in part from Yemen. Yemenis played a role in the formation of al-Qa’ida. A significant number of the suicide bombers in Iraq come from there. It has been a convenient bolt-hole for Saudi militants under pressure at home to escape to.
The would-be Christmas Day bomber’s personal connection to Yemen will be probed over coming days. But it is clear that al-Qa’ida in Yemen has become stronger and is operating in a sympathetic environment – in a country in which the mass of the population strongly opposes the US invasion of Iraq and intervention in Afghanistan. There have long been signs of al-Qa’ida activity. The most spectacular was in 2000, when a boat packed with explosives rammed the USS Cole in Aden port, blowing a hole in its side and killing 17 US sailors.
For a time the government in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, appeared to have arranged an unspoken ceasefire with the local branch of al-Qa’ida. But the invasion of Iraq by the US led to a more militant leadership taking over the group. They were reinforced in 2006, when 23 prisoners escaped from prison in Sanaa, reportedly with the aid of sympathetic Yemeni security officers. The escapees included Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a leader of al- Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Ever since, attacks have been increasing on foreign tourists, missionaries and oil installations. In September 2008 a car bomb outside the heavily fortified US embassy in Sanaa killed 16 people, including six well-armed attackers. In spring 2008, Saudi commanders of al-Qa’ida told their militants to move to Yemen, and in January 2009 the Saudi and Yemeni wings merged. Saudi Arabia announced a list of its 85 most wanted militant suspects, of whom it said 26 were in Yemen. This is probably the overall membership of AQAP, whose small size makes it difficult to find and eliminate. Last August a suicide bomber almost killed the Saudi anti-terrorism chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
Last month AQAP killed three senior Yemeni security officers, with their bodyguards, in south Yemen. The Yemeni security chief, Ali Mohammad al-Ansi, says 29 al-Qa’ida members who had been planning to attack the British embassy and oil installations have been arrested. Washington has quietly been supplying military equipment, intelligence and training to Yemeni forces, who have raided suspected al-Qa’ida hideouts. On Christmas Eve, Yemeni forces targeted a gathering of top militant leaders, possibly killing a radical cleric linked to the US Army major accused of the Fort Hood shooting in the US in November.
Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, admitted yesterday that the growing US presence in Yemen includes Special Operations, Green Berets and intelligence. In 2009, the Pentagon provided Yemen with $67m in overt counter-terrorism assistance; officials have proposed expanding that in 2010. Mr Lieberman, who recently visited Sanaa, said a US official there told him that “Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act pre-emptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.”
The Yemeni government will do what it can to show the US it is willing to go after al-Qa’ida. But the threat to its own existence comes from various directions: first, the civil war it is fighting with Shia revivalists – who it claims are backed by Iran – in the northern province of Saada; then secessionism in the south sparked by discontent over the outcome of Yemeni unification in 1990 and the civil war that followed; and finally a growing economic crisis as Yemen’s small oilfields, which provide revenue, are running out. Pressure from the US to pursue al-Qa’ida will be one extra strain on a government which has been unable to cope with these multiple crises.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq’ and ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq
——————– Attachment #3 The Yemen Brief: Expanding Scope of US Military Engagement Exactly What Bin Laden Wants By Steve Clemons – Talking Points Memo December 28, 2009, 7:34PM
Below the break follows the official statement from Yemen’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Yemen is in a very complicated place when it comes to its efforts against al Qaeda, other rebel tribes, and managing the lines of its sovereignty against explicit foreign intrusion. Despite the Obama administration’s strange non-denial denial regarding military activities inside Yemen in which passions are running strongly inside Yemen against the US, the US is working with the Yemeni government in trying to identify and attack al Qaeda operations.
Some are arguing that a quid pro quo is developing in which the administration is now engaged in a covert war against Houthi rebels, which the US has refused to identify as a terrorist group, in partial exchange for more kinetic action from the Yemen government against al Qaeda operations. The Obama administration has to step back at some point and ask itself what the dangers and downsides are of an ever-widening military span of operations.
Some neocons in addition to Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) are now pointing to Yemen as “threat next” and agitating for a much more aggressive American presence there. National security officials in the administration need to go back and read Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden in which he recounts many aspects of bin Laden’s plan from the Islamic extremist uber-guru’s own words – which was to draw the US deeply into the Middle East, and by its presence — destabilize the governments in the region. Bin Laden, hiding somewhere in Pakistan, remains the single most significant sculptor of global affairs today, pushing the buttons of an American superpower as well as other regimes, so that they engage in emotional, knee jerk crusades that undermine what is left of a global equilibrium and the perception of American power.
Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and enemies yet to be named win with each new soldier deployed to the Middle East and South Asia. President Obama must step back and think about America’s current strategic course. Here is the official statement from the Yemen Foreign Ministry about the Nigerian well-heeled, educated, would-be bomber:
Embassy of the Republic of Yemen Washington, DC Office of Media & Public Affairs Press Statement — December 28, 2009
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Yemen has issued a statement condemning the recent attempted terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national charged with attempting to blow up an American aircraft on route from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Detroit, United States of America. Yemen has long suffered from terrorism and condemns such criminal acts that kill innocent civilians. Yemen is and remains an active partner of the international community in the war against terrorism. Efforts of Yemeni security agencies to continue ongoing operations and prosecutions against terrorist operatives from Al-Qaeda will not falter.
The Immigration and Passport Agency has confirmed that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was in Yemen during the period from early August to early December 2009 after obtaining a visa to study Arabic at a language institute. He has previously studied in the same institute. His passport had a valid U.S. visa and other foreign visas. There was nothing suspicious about his intentions to visit Yemen, especially considering he had also visited the U.S. in the past. The statement reasserted that investigations are being conducted by Yemeni Security Agencies to identify any other individuals who may be linked to him, and immediate action will be taken against any accomplice(s) determined.
The outcome of the investigation will be shared with the appropriate U.S. authorities. Indeed, the scope of US-Yemen bilateral law enforcement cooperation has been substantial and continues to deepen. The statement reiterated the importance of international cooperation in the areas of intelligence sharing amongst nations; particularly for those linked to combating terrorism. Furthermore, the official statement expressed the crucial need to enhance security procedures at airports and border posts to prevent terrorist operatives from carrying on their destructive plans that could undermine global security and stability.
December 28, 2009 Ministry of the Foreign Affairs Sana’a, Republic of Yemen — Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, Washington Note