United States foreign policy strategy will be tested in the months to come as a result of the recent turn of events in the Middle East. The protests in Tunisia and the continuation of protest in Egypt, coupled with the smaller protests in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Jordan, and now in Yemen where the North-South (socialists versus nationalists) division combined with anti-government protest has thrown Yemen into a quandary. The outcomes of these events are going to require major U.S. foreign policy planning for each of the states, and one of the ways to craft effective policy for the future is by looking at the past—I am going to explore the recent history of U.S. policy towards Yemen, which in my judgment requires much more focus than some of the other countries for reasons I will soon explain. I think it important to first gain a sense of Yemen’s domestic situation before moving on to the foreign policy related issues.
Yemeni President Abdullah Ali Saleh’s recent comment that he will not seek reelection in 2013 is, in my judgment, a failed attempt at appeasement. Yemen’s domestic social and political tribulations are exacerbated more so because of a deteriorating security situation. The Gulf State is on the verge of becoming a “failed state” primarily based on declining Gross Domestic Product (GDP), weak central government, and declining natural resources (water and oil). A Brookings Institute report also indicated, “Yemen has a large deficit in human development. The quality of and access to education is limited, school enrollment is low, retention is poor and illiteracy is widespread.”
Clearly, there are a number of domestic issues fueling the recent protest against President Saleh, but the motivational factors behind the 1990s Civil War between the North and the South are still very much alive. The detrimental domestic conditions when combined with Yemen’s geographic position proximity to pirate-ridden Somalia, on which Yemen expends resources combating, makes any attempts at achieving a robust civil society and security extremely difficult. These factors, combined with the influence of al Qaeda and other global jihadist groups, have created a very precarious state of affairs. Moving on to U.S. foreign policy, let us first identify the various threats posed to U.S. interests that emanate from Yemen. From a threat analysis perspective, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report:
• Some training camps may remain in Yemen.
• Al Qaeda has used, and continues to use, Yemen as planning grounds for future terrorist attacks.
From the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in a Yemeni harbor (attributed to al Qaeda) to the attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S.-Yemen relations were in flux. It was not until after the attacks in 2001 that Yemen’s “official” approach to U.S. engagement stabilized and Yemen “committed itself to joining the U.S. war against extremists groups” on the condition that the United States provide “training, military assistance, and aid.” After this concession, President Saleh allowed the CIA and U.S. Special Forces to begin counterterrorism operations on Yemeni soil and train domestic security forces for patrol. Saleh’s concession to the United States was premised on capturing al Qaeda operatives who were given safe-haven inside Yemen by local al Houthi tribesmen who were sympathetic to the global jihad or just simply anti-Saleh, a de facto anti-U.S. However, the Yemeni military, poorly trained and equipped to begin with, were not particularly motivated to launch military operations against citizens in their own country because they feared that another Civil War between could break out.
This policy created a problem for President Saleh: balancing domestic interests (opposition parties) and combating threats to international security (mainly al Qaeda). The most recent international threat was the explosive-packed plane leaving Sana’a airport in 2010 over which President Saleh expressed much concern. However, in 2004, the aforementioned balancing act turned reality. Yemen shifted its focus from combating the elements within Yemeni society that were a threat to other states, to essentially a war of attrition against domestic opposition to the Saleh regime. This shift happened for two reasons: building pressure from the al Houthi-led (who are not a global terroristic threat) resistance groups, and the growing presence of radicals who obtained positions in government, “as evidenced by the state's failure to thwart terrorist financing, media incitement, mosque incitement, material support and moral support for terrorism.” The failure of the Saleh regime to strike a balance between the two was only part of the problem; U.S. foreign policy also contributed to Yemen’s instability.
The United States has taken an active, but inconsistent role in working with the autocratic regime in trying to prevent Yemen from slipping deeper into failed state status. However, there are several flaws within U.S. policy that I want to identify. The first flaw in U.S. policy is using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, in Yemen. Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations committee in February 2009 advising against usage in Pakistan. He recommended using drones only in a last-case scenario, against a precise target, with very low collateral damage. He argued that if the United States increased drone usage, “the number and radicalism of Pakistanis who support extremism, and thus undermine the key strategic program of building a willing and capable partner in Pakistan.”
Kilcullen’s recommendations hold true for Yemen. The increase in support for extremism can be attributed chiefly to collateral damage, more specifically, innocent civilian casualties. It appears that Kilcullen’s recommendations were not taken as seriously as he had hoped by the Congress or the Administration. President Obama authorized the CIA to increase drone usage in Pakistan! This mistake cannot be repeated in Yemen.
The second flaw in U.S. foreign policy is the insistence on unilateral action; not only has the United States failed to work in conjunction with Yemeni security forces, but the U.S. has also failed to engage regional actors. From 2004 to 2009 over fifteen clashes (protest, killings, and bombings) between the Yemeni government(s) and al Qaeda operatives took place in Yemen. As I mentioned before, Yemeni troops remain hardly up to the task and it was not until 2009 that the United States, finally coordinated with Yemeni troops to repel the insurgent group. Prior to 2009, there was no coordination between forces and operations—how can we expect a training process to be successful without working in tandem on military operations?
In terms of regional engagement, Oman and Somalia are not viable candidates, but Saudi Arabia is. Saudi Arabia has been involved in almost every U.S. operation in the Middle East, except in situations involving Yemen. Why not use the Kingdom not just for quasi-military operations, but as a mediator between the various parties vying for power in Yemen.
Thirdly, but no less important, is President Saleh’s willingness (and U.S. acceptance) to essentially suspend Habeas Corpus and continually violate the civil liberties of the Yemeni citizenry. These conditions are evident in the 2011 protests against the Saleh regime. The existence of tyranny in Yemen is feeding into anti-Western and anti-government ideology, and perhaps more detrimental, the lack of civil rights is increasing pro-extremist sentiments within the population. If President Saleh continues to be seen as a “puppet” of the United States by embracing policies that are viewed as unjust by the Yemeni citizenry, then how can the United States help Yemen marshal stability? It cannot.
The final and the largest strategic problem that the United States has to address is the effectiveness of foreign aid allocated to Yemen. In 2010, according to the Consolidated Appropriations Act, a total of $52.5 million [up from $30 million in 2005] in economic and military assistance was given to Yemen.” However, former ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine explained, the amount “works out to $1.60 per Yemeni…that won’t even buy you a cup of coffee in Yemen…and they invented coffee.’” As the tax dollar amount skyrockets, the conditions on the ground continue on a downward spiral; the money has been mismanaged by the government and not targeted toward education, economic reform and growth, and addressing security concerns—not to mention political reform.
If the United States is committed to assisting Yemen in achieving relative stability, participating in the free market, creating a representative government, and combating extremism through foreign aid and military support, it will ensure that its policy is not flawed: economically, simply flooding funds to a corrupt government; militarily, uninterested in collateral damage and lacking coordination with Yemen’s forces; politically, in light of the 2011 opposition to President Saleh and active protest, perhaps it is time for the United States to sit back and wait. If the money is not reaching the population and counterterrorism operations have had more negative consequences than positive results—what policy should be prescribed? Stop the drones, engage the regional actors, create economic transparency, and, in lieu of the opposition parties’ protest, do not take a side—practice reactionary policy, do not dictate policy. Once the internal matters have been stabilized by the Yemeni people, U.S. foreign policy will come back into form, hopefully using history as its guide for the future.
Patrick Corcoran is a Doctoral Student of world politics at The Catholic University of America
Navtej Dhillon, “Addressing Yemen's Twin Deficits: Human and Natural Resources,” Middle East Youth Initiative, the Brookings Institute, September, 20, 2008.
Bill Varner, “Yemen’s Civil War displaces more than 200,000, U.N. agency says,” Bloomberg, January 2010. Mohammed Jamjoom, “U.N.: Yemen’s Civil War spreads to Saudi Arabia,” CNN World News, November 2010.
----- “Yemen: Somali pirates threaten fishermen's lives, livelihoods,” IRIN Middle East Humanitarian News and Analysis, December 29, 2010.
Jeremy M. Sharp, “Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Report, July 28, 2010. For more information, see the CRS report.
Julie Cohn, “Islamist Radicalism in Yemen,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 29, 2010 and A Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, January 21, 2010 and Jason Ditz, “Al-Qaeda Ambushes Kill 17 Soldiers in Yemen,” Anti-War.com, January 7, 2011.
------, “Terrorism Havens: Yemen,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 2005. Also in the report: Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad are recognized groups in Yemen and Yemenis make up the largest number of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Associated Press, “US TO Train Yemeni Soldiers in Hunt for Al Qaeda,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2002.
Jamestown Foundation Report.
Marc Landler, “US Has Few Resources to Face Threats in Yemen,” New York Times, January 8, 2010.
----- “Yemen Arrests Air Cargo Bomb Suspect, President Saleh Discusses Security with Britain, U.S. and Saudi Arabia,” Before its News, October 2010.
Jane Novak, “The Cole Bombing in Yemen: A Seven Year Perspective,” Global Politician, October 12, 2007.
I spoke at a panel on the current situation in the Af-Pak region in November 2010 at The Catholic University of America where I disagreed with Jeff Smith, fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council who argued that the Pakistanis do not engage in COIN against Afghani Taliban members, therefore drones were the only effective way to combat them.
David Kilcullen quoted in Noah Schactman, “Call off Drone War, Influential US Adviser Says,” Danger Room, What’s Next in National Security, February 10, 2009.
Jane Mayer, “The Predator War: What are the risks of the CIA’s covert drone program?” The New Yorker, October 2009.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, David Kilcullen, February 5, 2009.
Scott Shane, “CIA to Expand Use of Drones in Pakistan,” New York Times, December 3, 2009 and Hola Gorani, “U.S. drones operating in Yemen, foreign minister says,” CNN, November 2009.
-------, “Yemen-Timeline,” BBC Chronology of Events, April 28, 2010.
------, “US Fighter Jets Attack Yemeni Fighters,” PRESS TV, December 14, 2009.
Heidi Hautala, Chairwoman of Human Rights Diary wrote in a letter to the Ambassador of Yemen in Belgium, January 31, 2011.
Arnaud de Borchgrave, “Commentary, AQAP: Fact and myth,” UPI, November 5, 2010.
Alfred B. Prados and Jeremy Sharp, “Yemen: Current Conditions and U.S, Relations,” CRS Report for Congress, January 2007.
“US Fighter Jets Attack Yemeni Fighters,” PRESS TV, December 14, 2009.
Faisal Darem, “Ineffective aid management hinders Yemen’s growth,” Al-Shorfa, March 3, 2010. and -----, “American Foreign Policy,” Princeton Student Editorials on Global Politics and Oliver Holmes, “Yemen’s biggest threat,” Al- Jazeera English, November 1, 2010.
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