September 25, 2011

Holding Ali Abdullah Saleh Accountable

John Brennan’s day doesn’t seem to end. Assigned to a platoon of defense officials led by Secretary Leon Panetta, the Obama administration’s counterterrorism adviser has been tasked with leading America’s post-bin Laden strategy against al-Qaeda. Flipping the group’s strength back and forth with David Petraeus (CIA Director), Michael Vickers (Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence) and Matt Olsen (head of the National Counterterrorism Center), U.S. officials are following “al-Qaeda 2.0” out of “AfPak” and into North Africa, Somalia and Yemen.

Although Yemen is squarely centered in the Pentagon and CIA’s crosshairs, none of their officials have spent any time examining their real fear: a loss of influence due to the country’s nine-month revolution.

By labeling AQAP as al-Qaeda’s most dangerous “node,” the administration has amplified domestic panic to obscure a collapse in foreign policy. Built on a single man - Ali Abdullah Saleh - and his familial circle of security commanders, U.S. counterterrorism operations are now crumbling on their unstable foundation. al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is organized to a relatively high degree and declared its intent to attack America in glossy magazines, except Saleh also decided to employ his U.S.-trained counterterrorism units against his political opponents. AQAP has feasted on his decaying regime and American alliance to recruit locally - and so have Yemen’s revolutionaries.

Speaking through a series of media events scheduled around 9/11’s 10th anniversary, Brennan attempted to squeeze an unbalanced military strategy inside “laws and values” during a recent address to Harvard Law School. Beginning with the priority of U.S. national security and references to drones, Brennan highlighted the less glamorous elements integral to counterterrorism: economic, legal and intelligence countermeasures, detention and interrogation. Counterterrorism is inherently complex and requires full-spectrum warfare - the use of all available tools, military and non-military - to employ on a sustainable basis. Many tools also lose their edge when deployed around a government, rather than in cooperation with it, and begin to break when paired with an autocratic regime.

This brings the White House’s counterterrorism chief to “capacity building abroad,” a main theme of the administration’s new Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF).

“These efforts are not a blank check,” Brennan clarifies. “As a condition of our funding, training, and cooperation, we require that our partners comply with certain legal and humanitarian standards. At times, we have curtailed or suspended security assistance when these standards are not met. We encourage these countries to build a more just, more transparent system that can gain the respect and support of their own people.”

The main problem in Yemen’s case is that the administration failed to hold Saleh’s regime accountable. Security assistance increased even though he failed to comply to international humanitarian standards, and abused U.S. military and economic funding to pursue his own gains. According to 2009-10 cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats ignored repeated warnings from Hamid al-Ahmar, a tribal leader in Saleh’s Hashid tribe and former strategic ally, who predicted an uprising if fair (or fairer) political conditions weren’t met (they weren’t). The Saudis refer to Saleh as “the devil that we know,” and WikiLeaks exposed a “secret” agreement with Petraeus to conduct air operations under cover of the Yemeni Air Force.

An errant cruise missile would kill the deputy governor of Marib governorate less than six months later, putting a temporarily lid on the strikes. However the Pentagon and CIA’s operational plan continued to expand off radar. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal both reported leaks on a potential CIA base inside the country, approved shortly after Yemen’s revolution began in January, and aerial operations resumed in May despite Saleh’s refusal to sign a U.S.-sponsored power transfer (complete with immunity). Counterterrorism support remains ongoing as U.S.-trained security forces open fire on peaceful protesters, and Pentagon officials openly express their approval of unilateral actions in Yemen. Defense officials now speak of learning from Pakistan’s mistakes - proactively engaging al-Qaeda branches before they mature - but unconditional support for Saleh’s regime is repeating the alienation of Pakistan’s population.

This relationship, while mutually beneficial in the short-term, validates al-Qaeda’s political ideology and sacrifices the local support needed to permanently dismantle AQAP. Brennan would reject the “false choice between security and values,” yet this dilemma has fully manifested on the Arabian Peninsula.

“A partnership with the people of Yemen, not dictators such as Saleh, is the most effective way to uproot and defeat extremists,” advises Yemen’s National Council of the Peaceful Revolutionary Forces (NCPRF). “Saleh has proven himself again to be an incapable and unreliable partner in the global efforts to promote regional security and combat terrorism.”

Unfortunately the Obama administration continues to repeat its errors through a series of “encouraging” statements, all voicing support for the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) unpopular initiative. Over 125 people are estimated to have been killed, and hundreds wounded, in the nine days since the State Department pressed for a political resolution - in “one week.” The administration would regret the loss of life and acknowledge the need for an investigation, but President Obama held out hope for “a peaceful and orderly transition of power” during his speech to the UN General Assembly. These statements were followed by a Washington meeting between Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, and a GCC meeting attended by Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Obama administration pleaded ignorance when Saleh landed in Sana’a on Friday, but these conferences tipped his “surprise” return from Riyadh.

Amid rumors that Saleh will delegate authority to his son, Ahmed, or hold snap elections, gunfire and artillery immediately marked his “triumphant” return home and continue despite rumors of a ceasefire. Fresh clashes have been instigated by Saleh’s Republican Guard and Central Security Organization, both trained and equipped by U.S. personnel, and protesters in Change Square have come under direct assault. Government sources explained that he came home to “put Yemen’s house in order” and prepare for elections, as stipulated by Western diplomats. Opponents believe he’s come home to play “hero" and squash his political opponents, defected General Ali Mohsen and the Al-Ahmar brothers.

Local accounts have Saleh's vice president, Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi, headed out of the country instead of receiving his executive authority through the GCC's initiative.

Either way Saleh’s presence has already snuffed out any hope for a legitimate representative process, and he wasted no time using “dialogue” and “understanding” to divert Yemen’s uprising. Another prevalent rumor speculates that he was booted from Saudi Arabia after refusing to sign the GCC’s initiative, but U.S. officials simply reiterated, "a political solution is the best way to avoid bloodshed.” On Saturday a global “silent protest” demonstrated against the international community’s silence, including a stop at the White House. The State Department would respond to the weekend's violence by embellishing its previous statements.

More than rhetoric is necessary to correct U.S. policy in Yemen and hold Saleh accountable for three decades of misrule; drastic recalibration is required now that he personally intends to out-maneuver Yemen’s popular revolutionaries. The U.S. must lead a genuine international campaign to isolate his regime, starting with the dissolution of the GCC’s initiative. The Obama administration is negotiating with a murderer, not the legitimate president of Yemen, and supporting any terms other than unconditional surrender will legitimize the regime. In seeking an alternative to the GCC, the administration must sever its military support for Saleh’s personal guards and begin to build relations with the Yemeni people. The UNHRC’s call for an impartial investigation into human rights abuses should be complied with.

Returning to Sana'a was Saleh’s worst mistake yet and he will eventually pay for his regime’s crimes. The White House can no longer protect him, and must also realize that Yemen’s people are waiting to stamp out AQAP. In its latest appeal to the international community, the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) promised, "The Yemeni people are committed to a peaceful struggle and nothing on the ground will change that."

Now more than ever is the time to support their fledgling democracy.


  1. There's only slightly less chance of the US holding Israel to account for their crimes.

  2. At first the gap between Saleh and Israel appears enormous, but both relationships are "unbreakable." The obvious difference is that America's relationship with Israel is much older and stronger. I still expect U.S. support for Saleh to break in the end, although this may be completely of his own doing, not any change in Washington.