US and Yemeni officials have staged show after show of unity since December 2009, when US air-strikes on several al-Qaeda targets internationally exposed the Obama administration’s policy. US counter-terrorism officials frequently visit Sana’a to reaffirm their support for Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, while Special Forces training is progressing. Why, then, if such coordination exists, is US-Yemen strategy so out of sync?
After drumming up Washington’s latest military package, an estimated 1.2$ billion in military hardware and training, Yemeni forces went and shelled a village that doubles as a safe haven for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Over 8,000 residents have evacuated. Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi, Shabwa’s provincial governor, vowed to eliminate the estimated 80-120 militants holed up Hawta, telling reporters, "The siege will remain until those elements hand themselves in and we manage to uproot terrorist groups from the region.”
The question is, will Yemeni forces spawn more militants than they kill?
It’s common knowledge that America and Yemen’s aligning military goals diverge at the political level. To actually win a counterinsurgency and shut down the factory of new al-Qaeda recruits, political freedoms must be protected and economic opportunities created. Saleh, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with retaining power amid a sea of disapproval and economic hardship - 40% unemployment mixed with oil and water shortages. Thus America’s strategy amounts to propping up a corrupt and heavy-handed regime.
This policy doesn’t qualify as counterinsurgency or even counter-terrorism, producing more insurgents at the local and international level and leaving both America and Yemen’s objectives unfulfilled.
But this isn’t the dark side. It’s one thing to escalate a war in silence, quite another to promise unity and democracy when division and totalitarianism are delivered. According to National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer, President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, forwarded a letter to Saleh from Obama “reiterating the United States' support for a unified, stable, democratic and prosperous Yemen.”
This is the true face of US policy in Yemen: a smile campaign hiding an ineffective strategy marked by a dark underbelly. Western officials beat the war drums (like MI5 director-general Jonathon Evans) and then sound a cautious note. The New York Times, who first reported Yemen’s arms deal, painted the impression of a “deeply divided” Washington, but this seems to be a ruse too.
Many US officials supposedly opposed a beefed-up military strategy, including previous Yemeni ambassador Stephen A. Seche, viewing it as overblown and potentially destabilizing. The State Department responded with an “alternative” that would tone down the military overtures and increase development aid, a wise decision only in the face of overwhelming militarism. One senior official seemingly spoke without knowledge of counterinsurgency when saying, “If we’re going to do this, we need to do it right, not dribble aid in and wonder why, if things worsen. It’s like a forest fire. You fight to put it out, not watch it.”
That kind of attitude - relying on military operations and overlooking the political pitfalls - fuels insurgencies.
But in either policy the bulk of funds will be directed towards military and logistics hardware. Both envision Yemeni forces hunting down al-Qaeda in what is often hostile territory, drastically underfund non-military programs that would reach the average Yemeni, and contain few political benchmarks for Saleh to meet, meaning aid is likely to be siphoned off anyway. General David Petraeus, having authored Yemen’s original directive while at Central Command (CENTCOM), enthusiastically backed the State Department's proposal because nothing significantly changed. And his reputation amongst the White House suggests that many officials agree with him.
US actions on the ground tell the real story. A large amount of hardware - helicopters, Hummers, and communications equipment - is supposedly due to restrictions placed on US air-strikes after an unsuccessful attack in May, when the deputy governor of Marib Province was killed while meeting an al-Qaeda operative. Political fallout from Saleh and Marib tribes allegedly shifted US strategy to more ground-oriented options, namely Special Forces training and supplying of Yemeni forces.
However, instead of collateral damage and civilian casualties, America must now promote Saleh’s oppression of the secessionist Southern Movement in the name of al-Qaeda. Divisions have only widened since US military activity increased. A massive arms deal between America and Saudi Arabia, part of which is designed for the Yemen border, also suggests that the northern Houthi tribe could meet a forceful response in the event of fresh conflict. If the alternative to errant and unpopular US air-strikes is supplying indiscriminate, unpopular sieges of towns and villages, Washington desperately needs a plan C.
Most telling, the White House plans to file legal charges against al-Qaeda cleric Anwar Al-Alwaki, a member the CIA's kill-list. Intended to satisfy those addressing the issue from a civil-liberties standpoint, killing al-Alwaki is the wrong counterinsurgency move regardless of its constitutional legality. Apprehension by Yemeni forces remains the only counterinsurgency option, as al-Alwaki’s tribe has vowed to declare war in the event of his execution. No one seems to be listening in Washington.
Among the many niceties in his letter, Obama appealed to the Yemeni people to, "overcome the threats that they face — they can build a future of greater peace and opportunity for their children." Yet Washington is one of those threats, continuing to lead with its military at the expense of Yemen's political, economic, and social realms. So long as US strategy remains dominated by military objectives and hitched to Saleh, Obama will enable an unsustainable cycle of repressing the Yemeni people and generating new al-Qaeda cells.
US officials should think again if they believe Yemenis can’t see America’s dark side - and why can’t they see it themselves?