By Patricia H. Kushlis
About four months ago, anti-regime demonstrations erupted in Sana, Yemen’s capital. The demonstrators were part of a non-violent civil society movement encouraged by previous demonstrations in Tunis and Cairo which had dramatically and in short order deposed long time corrupt, unpopular dictators.
In contrast to the hasty and largely nonviolent departures of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s 30 year veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh chose a different path.
Saleh fought back with threats, lies, deception, communications disruptions, intimidation, mass arrests, and ultimately fire-power, troops, and security forces to squelch the popular movement that arose to protest his continued authoritarian rule. Since then anti-government protests spurred by rampant government corruption in this very tribal, bifurcated and poor country flared up like wild fires after a lightening storm in provincial cities and the capital.
After Saleh used force against the protestors, his chief rivals from the Ahmar clan began to use violence against him. On June 4, he was severely wounded by a rocket attack while praying in the government compound’s mosque and evacuated to Saudi Arabia for treatment. Six of his closest advisors – also wounded in the attack – went with him. Chances are good that none will return to Yemen – the Saudis, the GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council) and the US have wanted him gone for weeks and will certainly help see that it happens.
A Broken Capital
The situation is politically confused. The capital is reportedly short of water, electricity, gas and cash and the government’s control over the countryside is tenuous.
Peaceful protestors were ultimately found on both sides of the intra-tribal clan warfare. Now that Saleh has departed the question is whether the Yemeni, the US and the international community – including the Saudis - can prevent complete anarchy from breaking out or the devolution of a country into its several previous parts. Yemen, after all, was not always a single entity.
The US initially refrained from publicly condemning Saleh because of his help over the years in fighting Al Qaeda. The administration abandoned this position when Saleh’s forces started to kill peaceful demonstrators in the streets.
Yemen in the news
Unlike many countries where western media coverage ranges from poor to nonexistent, reports of the continued clashes in Yemen make the front page of The New York Times, and US television news.
The June 3 edition of FP highlighted “To Save Yemen,” an article by Edmund Hull, US Ambassador to Yemen from 2001-4 and author of the book High-Value Target, released in April by Potomac.
This small, readable work – part memoir, part contextual analysis, and part prescription for US policy makers, couldn’t have come out at a more propitious time. Hull’s wise and experienced counsel should be taken seriously by those today faced with the rapidly moving situation. For a nuanced presentation of the historically complex and tense situation in this small country of major importance to the US in its fight against Al Qaeda, neither Hull nor High-Value Target should not be ignored.
As he explains, Yemen’s major importance to the US is its role in America’s struggle against Al Qaeda. This holds regardless of administration so it’s no surprise that Obama’s Counter-terrorism Czar John Brennan visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE to discuss Yemen just days before Saleh’s departure and also spoke with Yemeni Acting President Acting President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the hours since.
Here’s the dilemma: This small poor coastal country that abuts Saudi Arabia with outlying provinces under only questionable tenuous government control continues to be one of the most dangerous and unstable places in the world, a natural home for Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and location of one of this terrorist network’s most virulent nodes.
The Al Qaeda-Yemen link
In High-Value Target, Hull points out that “all recent Al Qaeda successes - the attacks against our East African embassies, the attack on the (USS) Cole, and even 9/11 – were linked to Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.” He also tells us that the first Al Qaeda cell in Yemen had been eradicated by the Saleh government when Hull was Ambassador but that by 2009, a more virulent strain had taken hold. These are among the most vicious terrorists now targeting the US and other countries today.
Because of the tribal, religious and social complexities of Yemen, western news reports have too often focused only on the skeletal “who shot whom” – all the while providing little context and analysis of the story and the people behind the clashes. From such incomplete characterizations, a reader would all too likely believe that this latest conflict is one of inter-tribal warfare in a country where tribes and tribalism are traditional driving forces.
That's Far from the truth
Yet as Hull explains it, Yemen has a civil society movement that the Congressionally-funded US National Endowment for Democracy, among others, has helped nurture over the years so no one should be surprised that the anti-Saleh protestors in Sana were so effective for so long. These modernizers learned the West’s democracy lessons well.
In terms of tribalism, however, the dispute is far more complicated: Saleh and the Ahmars come from the same northern tribe – the Hashids. During Hull’s time as Ambassador, Sheik Abdullah Al-Ahmar was Saleh’s main rival, speaker of the Yemeni General People’s Congress, leader of Islah (often described as the country’s chief Islamic opposition party) and head of the Hashid tribal hierarchy.
Abdullah’s son Sadiq took his father’s place as all but speaker of the Congress after Abdullah’s death in 2007. Sadiq resigned his own Congressional seat in February 2011 as the uprising against Saleh increased. In March, he called for Saleh to “respond to the demonstrators demands and leave office peacefully.” Fighting between the two rival camps broke out on May 24 after Saleh’s forces fired on the demonstrators.
Security and Development
Hull’s primary message in his 162 page book as well as his FP article is that for the US to help Yemen counter Al Qaeda effectively – America’s primary priority - the US needs to implement a sustained two pronged approach: security and development.
Hull amply demonstrates that during his tenure as Ambassador the security funds and training from the US military, CIA and FBI were forthcoming, but the equally important assistance for infrastructure development – schools, hospitals, roads, jobs - in the most vulnerable provinces (Ma’rib, Al Jawf and Sabwah) “Al Qaeda’s desired safe havens” – was woefully inadequate. Not that Hull didn’t try his best to obtain them.
Part of the dilemma is that without security, development cannot proceed. Yet neither can development occur without the funding or the expertise to help implementation. Both also require American officials who speak Arabic and, as Hull points out throughout his book, Arabic speakers were painfully lacking on both the security and development sides. And, as he also points out, the Embassy needed adequate staffing – civilian as well as military and key civilian officials were unavailable especially during his first year there.
Hull points to calcified budgetary intransigence in the State Department’s Middle East (NEA) Bureau for much of the financial development woes. But it seems to me that the White House could have overridden the bureaucracy if it had had the will to do so.
Despite Hull’s commendations of President George W. Bush’s assistance to him as Ambassador, I wonder whether the Bush administration missed that crucial point. The only sustained development aid that was forthcoming while Hull was Ambassador came through the sale of excess US agricultural produce in Yemen via the Department of Agriculture’s 416b program, These funds were used for development purposes in Yemen but they did not begin to meet the country’s multifaceted needs.
Neglect during the final years of the Bush presidency and ineffective program implementation under Obama has allowed the situation to deteriorate further providing Al Qaeda the space in which to regroup and strike yet again.
The US Coast Guard helped train the Yemeni Coast Guard needed to protect the coast from pirates and illegal immigrants as well as the country from Al Qaeda attacks by sea but also the US military helped train and equip Yemen's Special Forces. The latter, however, as The Christian Science Monitor recently reported were used during the current troubles– not for the purpose for which the US intended but against anti-Saleh tribal warriors.
With Saleh gone and perhaps the expansion of the Arab Spring to Yemen, the situation in the country suddenly changed over night. As Hull intimates in FP, the end of Saleh’s presidency is far from the end of Yemen’s troubles. But it could be the beginning of the end. That is if the US, the Saudis, the GCC, the United Nations and others help the Yemenis do what needs to be done. This will, as Hull has been recommending all along, require the twin prongs of sustained security and development.
Ambassador Edmund J. Hull (rtd), High Value Target: Countering Al Qaeda in Yemen, Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2011. An ASDT-DACOR Diplomats and Diplomacy Book.