Can Hillary Turn on Electricity in Yemen Better than AQAP?

Due to the vagaries of smart phone RSS feeds, I re-read this story over the weekend. In addition to describing Secretary of State Clinton’s speech before the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference–in which she described how special ops fit into her idea of really smart power–it also aired JSOC complaints about Hillary’s proposed closer ties between diplomacy and special ops.

But rumor has it Clinton’s vision has its detractors — and that its implementation in hotspots such as Yemen and Congo has made some Special Operations Forces officers very unhappy. In Yemen, in particular, some commando officers look upon the State Department’s expanding shadow-war powers as a bureaucratic intrusion on what should be military territory. A source tells Danger Room that in Yemen State has effectively hijacked all U.S. counter-terrorism funding, requiring a labyrinthine approval process for even small expenditures. According to detractors, the funding control is a way of cementing State’s expansion into the Special Operations Forces traditional remit.

McRaven does not share the officers’ objections. The admiral has enthusiastically widened and deepened his command’s alliances with commando forces from allied nations — all in a bid to build what he calls the “global SOF partnership.” The Army 10th Special Forces Group’s ongoing deployment to Afghanistan is a perfect example: 10th Group’s Afghanistan task force includes commandos from Poland, Romania and several other countries. In a sense, McRaven is becoming more of a diplomat as Clinton becomes more of a warrior. Meeting in the middle, they’ve apparently chosen to be allies instead of rivals.

In that context, Clinton’s appearance at an otherwise minor military trade show is an important signal. McRaven is showing his officers that if he and America’s top diplomat can get along, then they can get along with their own State Department counterparts, as well. An evolving vision of American warfare is counting on it.

This story came out on May 24, just a few days after this largely unnoticed AP story described John Brennan seizing control over targeting. One reason for Brennan to do so, it seemed, was to give State more direct influence over targeting.

The move concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones at the White House.

The process, which is about a month old, means Brennan’s staff consults the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies as to who should go on the list, making a previous military-run review process in place since 2009 less relevant, according to two current and three former U.S. officials aware of the evolution in how the government targets terrorists.


But some of the officials carrying out the policy are equally leery of “how easy it has become to kill someone,” one said. The U.S. is targeting al-Qaida operatives for reasons such as being heard in an intercepted conversation plotting to attack a U.S. ambassador overseas, the official said.[my emphasis]

That is, it seems like this process–which the AP dates to sometime in mid-April–allowed State to bypass DOD’s vetting process by submitting targeting suggestions directly to Brennan. And the AP story appeared to arise out of the same disgruntlement within JSOC as Wired’s story.

Now, I actually support Hillary’s efforts to strengthen State’s soft power efforts; we won the Cold War as much with soft power and oil price manipulation as we did by bankrupting Russia with an arms race. But we’ve sucked at it ever since. And while I maintain my grave concerns about running an unannounced counterinsurgency from within NSC, I admit that today the news from Yemen is good. Whoever’s leading this campaign, US and Saudi-backed Yemeni forces just took back two key cities that AQAP has held for more than a year.

Which brings us to the tricky part: providing not just security, but basic services at least as well as AQAP has been doing for the last year.

Travelling from Sana’a to the Tihama, Abyan to Hajjah, the one thing every Yemeni (and one grumbling foreign journalist) has repeatedly demanded is water and electricity. These two most basic services are severely lacking across most of the country, something Ansar al-Sharia benefited from as they set out to provide electricity, water and food for residents in towns across Abyan, where out-governing the state isn’t a tough challenge.

In Lawder the local power station was destroyed in the fighting. When asked what they’d do for electricity one of the commanders gave me a knowing look and smirked: “we wait for the government?”

As most of the country continues to ‘wait’ for regular electricity he and I joked about how ‘the men down the road’ [Ansar al-Sharia] could solve the problem, probably in a matter of days. But really this is no joke.

If Lawder is going to be held up as a shinning example of how to crush the insurgency then the state has to step in immediately and provide or renew basic services in order to convince people government rule is the better option. At the moment for many people across Yemen it’s not.

See also this story, which suggests how much tougher this problem is going to be in Yemen than in Iraq and probably even in Afghanistan. In Iraq, we threw money at the problem, which promptly went into US contractors’ bank accounts. In Afghanistan, we threw money at the problem, which promptly went into banks in Dubai and even to Taliban warlords.

We can match AQAP in propaganda volume, if not efficacy. But where we continue to lose is in our ability–exercised through a government with a least a shred of legitimacy–to improve people’s lives, which is the field on which we’re now fighting.

7 replies
  1. Duncan Hare says:

    Now, I actually support Hillary’s efforts to strengthen State’s soft power efforts; we won the Cold War as much with soft power and oil price manipulation as we did by bankrupting Russia with an arms race. But we’ve sucked at it ever since.

    No. The US has always sucked at “soft power.” As a happy recipient of Kissinger’s efforts in Southern Africa I got a first hand taste of “Soft Power.”

    The Locals got Mugabe, and that’s gone well.

  2. Adam Colligan says:

    Maybe the most interesting long-term question raised by this is the relationship between the SOCs and the CIA NCS. Haven’t we been reading for years now about the awkwardness of shifting kinetic operations away from the uniforms?

    Maybe Clinton thinks that the counter-terror dynamic of the future will center on State partnerships with formal military assets, both US and partner ones, rather than (just) more sprawl and mission creep in the intelligence community. If that’s the case, I’m not surprised to see McRaven welcoming the sentiment, even if it might mean trading some independence in exchange for future relevance.

  3. Arbusto says:

    Reading this, my mind-warped to Mad Magazine and Poachers poaching Poachers pitching Pitchers. How many departments,agencies, nations, NGO’s and free-lancers can fit into Yemen? Christ we’ve got the White House, CIA, Army, State, JSOC with Poland and Romania in training bras, and Saudi and Israeli groups mucking up the works in their own special way. What a clusterfuck!

  4. thatvisionthing says:

    See also this story, which suggests how much tougher this problem is going to be in Yemen than in Iraq and probably even in Afghanistan

    “this story” is Yemen and the Two Clocks (

    Christopher Swift: Look, I drove down roads that I thought were pretty well-constructed roads. And I’d ask the question, “Gee, when did this road get built? This is sort of an odd location for a road out here in the countryside.”

    And they would say, “Oh, well, 10 years ago this road used to be a river.”

    There is no water for irrigation. There’s no food in certain districts. The soil there, Carl, is so dry that you can’t wear contact lenses very long in Yemen before you have trouble with your eyes. The soil, outside the coastal regions, is so dry that it’s very difficult to get stuff to grow. And it’s just getting drier and drier and drier.

    Less than 3 percent of Yemen’s surface is adequate for any kind of cultivation currently.

    Carl Prine: Yeah, but I still see those parallel clocks. I don’t know how much time Yemen has left. I think that they run out of oil in 2017ish.

    Christopher Swift: And the capital runs out of water in the next five to 10 years.

    Carl Prine: Yeah. And within the Arab world, it has the highest population growth rate. The only other place comparable is Gaza. Yemen has an amazingly high fertility rate.

    Say Yemen does get electricity from AQ or us, military or state dept. Where’s it going to get water from? Talk about buried lede.

  5. thatvisionthing says:

    Also, Harry Shearer played excerpts from an IEEE trade podcast on his radio program Le Show in April:

    We bring electricity to Afghanistan, incredibly badly:

    HARRY SHEARER: Today from Spectrum, aptly named trade publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, you will hear from, they put out a podcast — it’s a tradecast I guess you’d call it — and Glenn Zorpette of the IEEE, or the I triple E, spent 3 weeks in Afghanistan and discusses — and see if this sounds familiar to you, ladies and gentlemen, like another war we just had, discusses our project to bring more electricity to Afghanistan. Here’s Glenn Zorpette.

    GLENN ZORPETTE: In much of northern Afghanistan outside of the immediate area of Kabul, electricity is something that Afghanis see for a few hours a day—a few being, well, anywhere from, say, 2 to 6. … What we know is that roughly $55 billion has been spent on reconstruction. And that’s reconstruction of all kinds. That’s roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, lots of things. … A single large diesel plant, which has turned out to be largely useless, cost just over 300 million dollars, by everyone’s account. A 105-megawatt plant just outside Kabul at a place called Tarakhil. And that cost, that plant cost a little over $300 million, as I say. … They’re now trying to give southern Afghanistan an electrical network of sorts—transmission lines that would actually connect the north and south of the country. These projects, to give Afghanistan something like a modern electric grid, are budgeted at $1.2 billion, and they’ve started spending money on those. … The famous Tarakhil power plant…was built at a place northeast of Kabul, a little village called Tarakhil. And the idea was proposed that bringing power to Kabul would have helped get Hamid Karzai reelected. And an academic who studies Afghanistan later told me that this was a complete misreading of Afghan politics—that no one would really attribute this success to Karzai. But indeed this was lost on the USAID, the chief U.S. government development agency in Afghanistan. And so plans were drawn up to build a 105-megawatt plant. Things went wrong almost from the start. It was a sort of a comedy of errors. The plants wound up being in metric units rather than imperial. The blueprints for the plants were riddled with errors, according to the subcontractor, Symbion, that was supposed to build it. There were problems with the lease for the land on which the plant was built which took a long time to get straightened out. And then finally, when all these things were straightened out and they were ready to go, it was the beginning of Ramadan and the Afghan workers who were supposed to build the plant couldn’t work. … And this led to a dispute between the subcontractor that was supposed to be building the plant, which was Symbion, and the prime contractor, which is Black & Veatch, which was working for USAID. So what happened was that Black & Veatch and Symbion sort of fired each other … and Black & Veatch ultimately took over and built the plant itself. The plant wound up being about two years late and nearly $200 million over budget. It’s a 105-megawatt plant that uses diesel fuel to generate electricity. Diesel fuel is … extremely expensive in a war zone. It has to be trucked in through dangerous areas and so on. It has to probably, as far as I know, probably be brought through Karachi, Pakistan, then trucked in. So the end result is that electricity from the Tarakhil plant costs 42 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is stratospherically high; it would be high even in the northeast United States. Whereas power that is freely available from transmission lines from former Soviet republics—Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and so on—that electricity is available for 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. … The upshot is that Tarakhil is hardly ever used. It’s a brand new plant, it probably cost more than any other 105-megawatt, 100-megawatt plant ever built, at over $300 million, and it’s almost never used. … There was no need for this plant on any count.

    From IEEE’s No Power To The People:

Comments are closed.