Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

What Happened to Yemen?

Posted in Middle East and North Africa by Dan on March 4, 2010

Last week, the Pentagon unveiled its plan to send $150 million in direct military assistance to the Yemeni Government.  Most of this will be used to expand Yemen’s air-force, the branch of the Yemeni Military that has done the most work thus far against the country’s main enemies.  Yemeni warplanes have been particularly useful against the al-Houthi insurgency, a tribal group that has battled the state for close to six years (right now, Yemen and al-Houthi are at a much needed ceasefire).

From the Pentagon’s standpoint, the logic of this plan is pretty straightforward; give the Yemenis a few million dollars in exchange for a resurgent campaign against Al’Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The problem with this line of thinking is its unwarranted optimism.  Will President Ali Abdullah Saleh actually find it in his interest to crack down on AQAP?   And with so much money is Saleh’s pocket, who is to say that the funds won’t be diverted to another conflict…say, to Yemen number one threat, the Shia rebellion?

Most of these questions remain unanswered, yet the Pentagon is still content with handing over hard-earned taxpayer dollars.  Unfortunately, this is the same exact policy that the United States endorsed before an American jetliner was almost brought down on Christmas Day by a Yemeni-based Al’Qaeda cell.

Before the attack was conducted, Yemen was viewed by the United States as a failed state on the Saudi Peninsula that could be largely contained through intelligence sharing and covert operations. The fact that the U.S. relied on drone-strikes over Yemeni territory time and again is a testament to how simplistic American policy towards the country was prior to last Christmas. The hope was that a few targeted strikes and a few well placed bombs could magically eviscerate Al’Qaeda from the scene. But as everyone now knows, such a limited approach failed to accomplish this goal.

Now, the U.S. and the international community is donating billions upon billions of dollars to President Saleh’s government, in the hopes that all of the funds will be used to curtail some of Yemen’s most serious problems. From the beginning, I applauded this effort. The War on Terrorism cannot be won by military force alone. Economic development, local government that is free and fair, the creation of jobs, and (above all) the rise of education are also required for the fight. But in a nation as decentralized, poor, and fragmented as Yemen, is this effort a lose-lose for Barack Obama?

President Saleh may seem sincere in his desire to start clamping-down on Islamic extremism, but appearing sincere is not the same thing as actually backing words with concrete action.

In the past, Yemen routinely partnered up with Sunni militants (like Al’Qaeda) against Shia groups that the state deemed an existential threat. The Saleh-AQ alliance was a mutually beneficial relationship; AQ fighters were promised immunity and the freedom to operate in exchange for killing Shia rebels along the Yemeni-Saudi border.  And from what I can gather, this alliance is still holding firm.  What on earth would prompt Saleh to suddenly alter this dynamic?

The first priority for Saleh is defeating the Houthi rebellion. The second concern is suppressing a secessionist movement in the south that is rapidly growing. Battling Al’Qaeda is a distant third. At this point in time, the Yemeni Government may not want to embroil itself in a third domestic struggle.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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