September 15, 2011

U.S. All In On Saleh’s Regime

Yemen’s revolutionaries admit that they aren’t the most organized movement. Politically suppressed by Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an umbrella of six parties with tribal backing and limited popular appeal, the young and old alike find themselves engulfed by violence and factionalism. Because of Yemen’s highly diverse environment, the street protesters, JMP and other political blocs didn’t announce their first transitional council until July, even then failing to fully unify.

Although the JMP and affiliated tribes declared a National Council of the Revolutionary Forces on August 18th, Yemen’s revolution remains without a proper head. Less than 24 hours ago the Organization Council (headed by the JMP’s main party, Islah) sparked a new round of confusion by canceling tomorrow’s “Friday Against Terrorism.”

Just as the Yemeni opposition’s personal struggles cannot be underestimated, neither can the influence of powerful external force. Whereas the Obama administration encourages Libya and Syria’s revolutionaries to merge into an inclusive council, Saleh’s personal style of governing has been emulated by pitting Yemen’s revolutionaries against each other. Supposedly fearing a tribal or al-Qaeda takeover from figures such as Sadiq and Hamid al-Ahmar, defected General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar or defected politician Abdul Majeed al-Zindani - all linked to the JMP - the White House has nevertheless negotiated with the JMP as Yemen’s sole oppositional representative.

Exploiting the JMP’s own disorganization and minimal popular appeal, Washington and Riyadh then dragged Yemen’s revolution through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to further drain the energy against Saleh’s regime. The tandem has refused to negotiate with Yemen’s street coalitions on the grounds of “disorganization.” The end result is perpetual competition and stalemate between the regime and opposition, as well as within the opposition.

Barring a dramatic, seemingly impossible turn of events, U.S. policy will ride Saleh’s regime until it totally collapses. The administration is wagering that its extra muscle (and the Saudis) will preserve a semblance of the old regime, and continues to throw its full weight behind Saleh’s Vice President, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Today Hadi received another phone call from White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan, who congratulated Yemeni security forces on “a great victory against al-Qaeda" in the southern governorates.

This “victory” is now being wielded to crush the life out of Yemen’s revolution.

With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton preoccupied in Libya and Syria - and now San Francisco’s Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) - the administration once again dispatched Brennan to take Yemen’s diplomatic lead. A direct violation of the principle of diplomacy, the White House has relied on Brennan to keep Yemen within a strict counter-terrorism construct. U.S. officials praise Saleh more often than criticize him, and the administration has yet to respond to a UNHRC mission condemning his regime for widespread human rights abuses, including those committed by the U.S.-trained Republican Guard and Central Security Organization.

Ignoring the UN’s warning to halt all violence against peaceful protesters, the Republican Guard dispersed multiple demonstrations with live fire during the last two days. Shells continue to fall on anti-government tribes in Arhab district (roughly 20 miles north of Sana’a), killing women and children in the process, while the Guard also launched another volley at Sadiq al-Ahmar’s neighborhood in Sana’a. Yet to Brennan and the administration in general, Yemen’s revolution is nothing more than a nuisance to ongoing U.S. military support for Saleh’s regime.

"The Yemenis have done a good job of finding and arresting and carrying out attacks against Al Qaeda types," Brennan recently told the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (which he previously chaired). "So even though Yemen is in the midst of this internal domestic turmoil … the information is flowing back and forth. We're sharing information."

Rather than reexamine or correct a politically and morally illegitimate policy, the Obama administrations is stepping progressively deeper into Saleh’s double-games. With no corresponding political updates to give context - the State Department has remained silent all week - the administration crafted a new line that Brennan would first deploy over a week ago: “cooperation with the Yemeni government is better than it’s been in months.” As Obama and Clinton praised America’s allies in the fight against al-Qaeda, a tacit recognition of Saleh’s “cooperation,” CIA Director David Petraeus repeated this phrase to the House Intelligence Committee.

Matt Olsen, the new head of the National Counterterrorism Center, separately told the committee on Tuesday, “Whether Yemen is a safe haven, we are very concerned about the ability of the Yemeni government at this point to sustain any strong counterterrorism efforts, given the governance challenges that it faces. So, AQAP has had the opportunity to recruit inside Yemen and to plan and plot inside Yemen in a way that - you know, so we've put extreme pressure on al Qaeda senior leadership. It's been more difficult for us to put that same pressure on AQAP leaders in Yemen.”

Once again Yemen’s revolution is treated as a burden, without any reflection on the unsustainable strategy that the administration has chosen.

Michael G. Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, speculated that, “within 18 to 24 months, core al-Qaeda’s cohesion and operational capabilities could be degraded to the point that the group could fragment.” First, al-Qaeda has already fragmented in line with its grand strategy. Second, the current U.S. strategy in Yemen will never defeat AQAP, whether in two years or ten. AQAP is recruiting off of Saleh’s inept, U.S.-Saudi backed regime more than Yemen’s eight-month revolution; if the administration was truly concerned about defeating AQAP, it would support the Yemeni people over Saleh’s regime.

That Washington is playing along with his double-games has led many Yemenis to accuse of America of enabling al-Qaeda’s presence.

Instead of fitting U.S. military operations into a legitimate political framework, the Pentagon and CIA continue to center U.S. policy around Saleh’s decaying regime. The GCC’s ongoing negotiations have unfolded as a background to southern Yemen’s plot, pushing the political sphere even further into the distance. Wielding Saleh’s “success” in the south - Zinjibar locals report ongoing fighting - the Obama administration continues to support the GCC’s initiative despite its disapproval amongst the revolutionaries. Even the JMP publicly opposes the GCC’s immunity clause and a 30-90 day grace period for Saleh’s resignation.

This plot serves as Washington’s only escape route from a morally reprehensible and politically unsustainable strategy against AQAP.

U.S. policy can be summarized as follows: block any UN mission, support the Saudi-backed GCC “dialogue,” use military officials over diplomatic officials, praise the government’s security forces when U.S.-trained units are attacking Yemenis instead of AQAP. Contrary to Western reports of “pressure,” all of these measures add up to total support for Saleh’s regime.

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