May 21, 2011
Terror Alarms Drowning Out Yemen’s Revolution
With the U.S. media and parts of the international press biting on President Barack Obama’s rhetoric, Yemen’s front remains quiet despite a whirlwind of activity. Neither the White House, State Department nor U.S. Embassy have released further details on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s “commitment to transfer power,” which Obama summed up in a single line during his "Moment of Opportunity." Ominous threats of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) preemptively filled America’s information vacuum and, through no coincidence, these alarms continue to wail afterward.
Except U.S. neocons and those caught up in their menace still have a few lessons to learn from a real master of duplicity - and a practitioner of terror in his own right.
"This is a message I forward to our friends in the United States and the European Union that the following days would be much worse than what is happening now during my rule," Saleh told his remaining followers to mark Yemen’s 21st anniversary of reunification. “Al-Qaida would finish its mission by completely taking over major provinces of Marib, Hadramout, Shabwa, Abyan and Al-Jouf and all local residents would be forced to accept the new situations.”
According to U.S. officials, a compliant media and disconnected international outlets, Saleh intends to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) “30/60” proposal on Sunday after the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) inked on Saturday. These announcements follow weeks of backtracking, including sequential false alarms on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan tried to force a signature before Obama’s “Moment of Opportunity” - and misfired. Saleh then announced his intention to step down after Obama finished speaking, conforming to his lone statement. The following day Saleh called for snap elections, confident of his victory.
He has since flipped back to signing the GCC’s proposal after “intense U.S. and E.U. pressure” to submit. Hours later Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally decided to activate by honoring National Unity Day. After avoiding Yemen’s revolution for months, America’s chief diplomat reinforced Obama’s statement by urging Saleh to, “follow through on his commitment to transfer power. The government of Yemen must address the legitimate will of the people.”
Only Saleh’s “commitment” remains a myth.
Designed to bypass the revolution and restore the U.S-Yemeni military relationship to working order, the GCC’s proposal does not address the people’s aspirations or grievances. During his stalling Saleh has repeatedly crack downed on pro-democracy protesters, resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands of wounded. Most youth coalitions and the general opposition denounce the GCC for prolonging the regime's collapse.
Clinton nevertheless declared, “The United States will continue to support the Yemeni people as you work toward a unified, stable, democratic, and prosperous Yemen. We continue to call for a peaceful transition of power so that the citizens of Yemen may one day realize your aspirations.”
The Media Council in Change Square released a counter-statement shortly afterward: “We are the peaceful youth revolution, we are renewing our firm rejection to the Gulf Initiative that does not represent our revolution at all. We consider it a disregard to the rights of the Yemeni people and a clear convolution on the revolution. Signing the Gulf Initiative by the opposition is an insult to the blood of the martyrs and an underestimation to the demands of the youth's revolution for a political settlement shared by the regime and the opposition.”
Saleh personally claims to be ready to sign “at any time,” and GCC secretary-general Abdulatif al Zayani has once again landed in Sana’a to ensure a final approval. At face value, Saleh would receive another five weeks before transferring power to his vice president of 17 years, Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi. The subsequent 60-day transition to a national election will also be overseen by his ruling General People’s Party (GPC), which Saleh promised “will remain the party of all parties.”
The mask is already peeling off of Saleh’s hollow offer. Starting with 90 days as a baseline, the slightest misstep can extend this “power transfer” for days or weeks, potentially accumulating into months. The completion of an election could end in 2012, and corruption remains a high possibility. All the while AQAP can expand its operations, even if U.S. operations escalate to coincide with a “signed” agreement. Saleh’s deal with the GCC will simply reinforce the impression that America only concerns itself with its own interests, and sacrificed Yemen's revolution to protect them.
Saleh’s rhetoric also portends to conflict rather than a “peaceful transition.” Rather than demonstrate any semblance of rational thought, Yemen’s embattled president proceeded to contradict himself with his slander. Hitting the JMP first, Saleh declared that the opposition could never defeat him through “the ballot box.” Instead, the “Joint Conspiracy Parties want to reach power through rivers of blood.” He then blamed the JMP and AQAP for every death and injury.
Why, then, does he need an immunity clause if nothing is his fault?
Saleh’s harsh words haven’t stopped him from negotiating with the coalition, which he manipulates to circumvent the street protesters, the Houthis and Southern Movement. As for the masses marching against his regime, Saleh accused the JMP of dragging the youth to demonstrations, even though the youth is leading the revolution and has broken away from the JMP. He scapegoated the Muslim Brotherhood for funding the opposition through GCC countries, including “official” channels. Protesters have already responded by jokingly comparing Saleh's wages, a tactic he himself is accused of.
“In fact, this initiative, which we are dealing with positively for the sake of the country, is purely an attempt of coup,” Saleh continues. “However, we accept to deal with it [as heard] because it is brokered by foreign sides and follows a foreign agenda that started from Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Amman, and reached Yemen. This is the foreign agenda of a number of big international regimes which export their problems to others and claim custody of these helpless people.”
Inadvertently describing his own relationship with Washington, he then warned his followers, “This is a message I send for all to know that what is coming is worse than what is occurring now. Foreign regimes, particularly the greatest countries, seeks weak pro-regimes… to put them on the chair of authority.”
Thus after sniping the JMP and GCC, whose actions have prevented his downfall, Saleh turns on America itself. Because he is so prepared to sign the GCC’s proposal under U.S. and E.U. supervision!
As usual these developments come amid negligible debate in the U.S. political sphere. Obama’s speech didn’t offer much to break down, and U.S. media figures will continue exploiting his silence to trigger new terror alarms. Voice of America provides an uninterrupted flow of threats that have circulated as real information, rather than the inner workings of a propaganda outlet. Foreign Policy spouts threats of AQAP without providing solutions. Even General David Richards, Britain’s military chief, got in on the scare.
These officials and articles generally drown out Yemen’s political crisis with counter-terrorism talk.
Hyped as al-Qaeda’s future chief as soon as bin Laden had been dropped into the Arabian Sea, AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki remains a sharper point of focus than Saleh’s own actions. Four days after bin Laden’s death, a U.S drone missed al-Awlaki in separate strikes in Shabwah governorate. What the U.S. government and its media cohorts fail to explain is that eliminating al-Awlaki will drive another wedge into Yemeni society.
While al-Awlaki is a potent recruiter, savvy propagandist, and operational within AQAP’s planning cycle, he can also be replaced with new faces. Furthermore, al-Awlaki is legitimately plugged into Yemen’s society like few al-Qaeda leaders. As the son of a former Yemeni minister, Saleh’s government has protected al-Awlaki under Yemen’s constitution, refusing to turn him over to U.S. authorities if caught. Al-Awlaki's tribe has also pledged a war in the event of his assassination. Only when the revolution forced Saleh’s hand did he feed intel on al-Awlaki and green-light his kill. He knows the tribal price is heavy, but he’s already alienated much of the population in the south and east.
At this point the risk is worth the reward of staying in power.
America’s risk is calculated differently though. While al-Awlaki’s payoff is limited, the consequences of unilateral strikes are rendered more severe by Washington’s persistent support of Saleh. Yemenis have more contact with Predators than U.S. officials. This is counterinsurgency at its worst and doesn’t even qualify as competent counter-terrorism, a word that has no meaning against AQAP.
“In the end,” concludes Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “it doesn't help much to ask who the next bin Laden is, since the problem is bigger than any one man. Regardless of whose image captivates the world, al Qaeda figures, including Awlaki, are busy plotting terrorist mayhem. And Washington needs to do all it can to reduce the risk of another attack.”
He never explains how to reduce this risk or bring peace to Yemen.
The “analysis” of Frederick Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, is even more frightening. Kagan, a neocon usually busy promoting the war in Afghanistan or Israel’s agenda, has demonstrated just how clueless he is by sticking his hands into Yemen. At first reasoning, "Al-Qaida is not the number one problem facing the Yemenis these days," he then falls off the cliff of rationality.
"And we're going to have to work on bringing interest together. And that means we're going to have to do things for the Yemenis that aren't directly related to killing al-Qaida."
As if helping Yemenis was a bad thing.
Kagan is likely recoiling from the prospect of nation-building, an extreme version of counterinsurgency proposed in the most fragile states. Nation-building is a costly and undependable concept that rarely achieves great success in the middle of a war (as opposed to afterward). But this is the reason why insurgencies are so difficult to combat, not an excuse to avoid counterinsurgency. Real counterinsurgency concentrates on preventing insurgencies from developing by promoting a sustainable relationship with the populace.
U.S. policy has done the opposite, focusing primarily on military operations and leaving the non-military factors to explode.
Kagan and similar minds would prefer to conduct expanding military operations in a vacuum, picking off “terrorists” as though they won’t grow back in an impoverished land like Yemen. These actors advocate continual support for Saleh or, as the Obama administration is currently setting up, a gradual transition that favors his party. Hoping to replace Saleh with a remnant of his regime, this “new” government will have a convenient need for U.S. military aid - and more Special Forces.
These actors also favor unilateral operations if the opposition is unwilling to provide a similar client relationship. They disregard the revolution’s purity, cry extremism as women lead the protests, and ignore the revolution’s pledge to offer a more stable partner against terrorism than Saleh. Yemen’s president of 33 years is widely accused of feigning interest in AQAP, which benefits him through U.S. military aid and political protection.
Saleh actually has reason to see another attack on U.S. soil; two failed plots generated new capital and were about to pay even bigger before the revolution derailed the Obama administration's billion dollar carrot. Although he would oppose the deployment of U.S. troops, an option threatened by Pentagon officials in the event of another attempted strike, he could very well dissuade Washington from this extreme measure. AQAP’s threat would then continue to sustain his rule, as it currently does.
That these pundits align with Saleh’s threats provides further evidence of how unrealistic their strategies are.
It’s not as though AQAP poses no threat to the U.S. homeland. An attack is possible at any time. Yet AQAP is at war with America in part because of U.S. policy in Yemen and the wider Middle East. Much of AQAP’s leadership came out of Guantanamo and already hold a grudge. Now America’s blind support for Saleh has fulfilled AQAP's dreams even though the protesters reject its ideology. If AQAP does sweep across the country, its rise will be aided by a U.S. policy that supported Saleh to the end - and induced a massive security vacuum in the process.
According to Yassir Noman, leader of the Yemeni Socialist Party and current president of the JMP, a commission is due to be formed upon Saleh’s signature. Made up of GPC and JMP officials, the United States, European Union and United Nations, this commission will be tasked to "supervise the application of the agreement over 30 days." This could be interpreted as a constant watch or, judging by Saleh’s persistent defiance, political cover for his next moves.
Jamal Nasser, a spokesman for the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC), warned, "The political opposition have lost credibility by signing. I don't believe [Saleh] will sign tomorrow… but if he does it will be fake, something to allow more maneuvering."
While Obama claims to see beyond the false dilemma of “security” or “democracy,” AQAP’s threat remains the common denominator of U.S. policy in Yemen. His administration is shunning the streets at great risk; the youth have scant representation in GCC negotiations or the transition process. If they don't reject the agreement outright, their representatives must be seated on a transitional commission for it to have any credibility whatsoever. Not to be discouraged, street protesters vow to complete their revolution with or without the international community's support.
Yet as Saleh asks of the JMP, “Who can trust them?" so many Yemenis are asking why Washington still trusts him.
[Updates: Saleh gives mixed signals ahead of signing
Saleh loyalists block roads in Sana'a to protest Gulf plan]