March 28, 2012

Yemen's Usual Scapegoats: al-Qaeda and Iran

He claims to have come in peace.

In Sana'a to reaffirm Washington's grip on Yemen's two-year transitional period and the country in general, America's Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs needed to point his fingers at someone else. Jeffrey Feltman and his handlers knew just who to blame too. “Iran operations are similar to those (of) al-Qaeda,” he told reporters on Wednesday. "Iran tries to exploit uncertainty and unhappiness in countries of the region."

The Secretary's remarks are likely to be consumed with minimal resistance from Washington and the American public, both of which accept U.S. hegemony in Yemen as the cost of doing business in the war against al-Qaeda. Feltman's calculated statements are also pervaded by the invisible errors of a failed policy, one that has left America nearly as unpopular as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Obama administration placed itself on the wrong side of history by strongly backing Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime just before the revolution took off in January 2011. A billion dollar aid packaged was reluctantly put on hold to create minor distance wit the regime, but the construction of a now-finished drone base was accelerated from two years to eight months. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia then enlisted their powerful friends, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and European Union (EU), to manipulate Yemen's transition, improving on Egypt's original contingency by replacing Saleh with his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Saleh would eventually sign the GCC's power-sharing proposal in Riyadh, far from Yemen's revolutionary protests, in November 2011. Three months later, the United Nations hailed Hadi's ascension to the presidency following a single-candidate vote.

Of course U.S. officials will never admit that Washington is one of Yemen's leading importers of instability, but most Yemenis cannot be blinded to this reality. Supporting Saleh's regime in reaction to AQAP's expansion has generated a vast amount of chaos, starting with the errant round of cruise missiles that killed dozens of civilians in December 2009. From here the Obama administration justified all of its undemocratic and criminal acts with the threat of AQAP, contributing to the common belief that America values its national security above human rights. Worse still, many Yemenis accuse Saleh of encouraging AQAP's growth as a means of securing Washington's favor, in turn yielding new air-strikes and counterterrorism support. This pattern is vividly imprinted on Abyan governorate, where AQAP took control of the local capital under suspicious circumstances. For months Saleh's U.S.-funded counterterrorism units, the Republican Guard and Central Security Organization, abandoned Zinjibar to a depleted brigade of the military, resulting in an escalation drone strikes.

Throughout this time Saleh's counterterrorism units terrorized Yemen's revolutionaries in the streets.

As part of his plan to retain Washington's protection, Saleh would later commit new forces to Zinjibar after numerous appeals from the Obama administration. Although fighting in the area continues to this day, the strongman and U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein emerged the day before 9/11 to declare victory against AQAP. Around the same time John Brennan, the White House's counterterrorism chief and informal ambassador to Yemen, began to tell the media that cooperation with Saleh's regime was "better than it's been in years." By no coincidence a similar takeover of Rada'a followed Hadi's promotion to the presidency; AQAP's attack on a base near Zinjibar also bore evidence of military subversion. The strategy of exploiting al-Qaeda's growth to maintain authority is thus employed by Saleh and Washington alike.

This strategy is further manifested in the GCC's power-sharing agreement, which manipulated a power-starved opposition to isolate Yemen's pro-democracy movement. Although sold as the only alternative to civil war, the U.S.-sponsored initiative was designed to end Yemen's revolution (labeled a political crisis by the international community) as quickly as possible. AQAP cannot be allowed to operate with relative freedom, U.S. officials argue, so Yemen's people again took the blame for Saleh's action. "The details of the restructure and dialogue will be decided by the Yemeni people," Feltmen told reporters, but all available evidence indicates the opposite outcome.

The Pentagon has spent months searching for new middlemen in the Yemeni military and, if Washington gets its way again, the U.S. will function as the real decider.

On top of placing a controllable figure in Yemen's presidential office, Saleh himself remains in the country and is predictably asserting what's left of his authority. His son and nephew - Ahmed and Yayha - still lead the Republican Guard and CSO while his General People's Congress controls half of the government ministries. Saleh sits at the GPC's head and recently threatened to jail the JMP's Mohammed Saleh Basendowah, Yemen's new Prime Minister, after he visited the revolutionaries in Change Square. These developments prompted the Obama administration to task Brennan and Feltman on Saleh's detail, but their mild warnings couldn't even name the strongman. Shortly beforehand, the unpopular Feierstein began to stir the Iranian rumors that Feltman would replay with reporters.

In sum, the Obama administration has pivoted from Saleh's own instability to Iran in a few propaganda steps. Feltman even attempted to defend his active politicking by adding, "Saleh would not be an ordinary citizen, but a former president." Other reports claim that Feierstein signed off on allowing Ahmed to run in 2014's presidential election, a rumor that is as good as truth until conclusively refuted. Feltman concludes with his deadliest fallacy of all, saying the Obama administration is “convinced in the long term, a managed transition plan to a democratic election in February 2014... is the best long-term policy against al-Qaeda.”

America's "best long-term policy" would support the will of Yemen's people, not manage the remnants of a despotic government that survives on AQAP's growth.

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