The Middle East Channel

Special operations in Yemen

Special operations in Yemen

Yemenis and Americans who once imagined that Barack Obama’s administration would pressure the country’s longtime ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to respect freedom of the press, stick to a regular elections schedule, respect human rights, and abide by the rules of war have had their hopes dashed. Washington has seemingly rewarded arbitrary arrests of journalists reporting from two domestic war zones, indefinite postponement of elections, brutal tactics against protesters as well as armed rebels, and a wave of heightened repression during the past 12 months in the name of counterterrorism. The United States seems to be backing the Saleh government with military assistance not only in its war against a few hundred al Qaeda militants, but also in its suppression of the popular uprising in the former South Yemen as well as the al-Huthi rebellion in the North. This short-term approach will only harm U.S. interests and values in the long run. 

Until December, when Yemen was carried into the American publicity limelight as a new haven for al Qaeda terrorists, the United States treated Yemen to stretches of benign neglect punctuated by moments of contempt. South Yemen’s independence struggle against Britain and North Yemen’s civil war between royalists backed by Saudi Arabia and republicans fighting with Egyptian support in the 1960s were barely a blip on the U.S. radar screen. In the next two decades when independent South Yemen’s ruling Socialist Party inclined toward the Soviet Union, anti-communist North Yemen (host to only a small USAID mission) was regarded as a Saudi sphere of influence. Unification in 1990 and the political opening of multiparty competition it introduced attracted little attention from either the American press or the State Department.  

Washington did notice when Yemen’s U.N. ambassador, who happened in 1990 to occupy the rotating chairmanship of the Security Council, refrained from voting for the U.S.-led military campaign to dislodge Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, however, and cut off the paltry $30 million to $35 million per year or so heretofore doled out in USAID project assistance. In the intervening two decades, assistance gradually crept up to about that level again in military and development aid combined. Terrorism emanating from Yemeni soil is evidently the only thing capable of attracting U.S. attention. As Washington’s concerns about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula mounted, the total more than doubled to over $60 million. But even as U.S. support for the Yemeni regime grew, that government suspended an electoral schedule in place since 1990, waged indiscriminate battle against two homegrown insurgencies, and clamped down on the press. This year, security-related aid is expected to top $150 million.  

This is not the first time that terrorism has driven the U.S. agenda toward Yemen. Even before an amateur underwear bomber tried to ruin last Christmas in Detroit, the United States had occasionally taken the war on terrorism to Yemen. Detectives and FBI agents swarmed Aden after the attack on the USS Cole in the harbor there in 2000, looking for clues and suspects. In November 2002, a remote-controlled Predator drone fired on a vehicle in the eastern province of Marib, killing the accused mastermind of the Cole attack, an U.S. citizen, and several others traveling with him — one of the first salvos in what would become a signature feature of the global war on terror in both the Bush and Obama administrations. The week before Christmas 2009, in another remote-controlled operation, President Obama authorized the use of U.S. firepower and targeting for what was said to be a Yemeni attack on an al Qaeda encampment in Abyan. This operation, which reportedly killed 34 suspects, sent a double message, warning al Qaeda that America will locate and fire on its hideouts and signaling to anti-government protesters in Abyan and the rest of South Yemen that the United States supports Sanaa’s military.  While the view from Washington was of a successful strike, internally it seemed like part of Saleh’s army’s use of disproportionate force and extralegal tactics against insurgents, demonstrators, opponents, and even journalists reporting on legitimate grievances concerning rampant unemployment, poverty, corruption, and negligence.

The Nigerian who attempted to set off explosives aboard a plane on Dec. 25 had not only gotten al Qaeda training in Yemen, but had also been in contact with the same Yemeni-American radical cleric, Anwar Nasir al-Awlaki, who had corresponded with the Fort Hood bomber, Maj. Nidal Hassan. The day before Christmas, the Yemeni air force had reportedly bombed a location in Shabwa province, also in the South, where Awlaki was thought to be; he was not among the dead. Since then, most recently on April 13, the United States has made clear its intention to target him, whereas even the Yemeni government has insisted that it has a warrant for his arrest but no court order for his execution. The response has primarily focused on supporting counterterrorism and security forces, rather than on addressing the human rights, democracy, and governance shortcomings of the Yemeni state.  

A policy dictated by the punctuated, unpredictable rhythm of terrorism is not likely to create a long-term, stable Yemen that aligns with U.S. interests or values. The United States has not been a patron of Yemeni democratization. Nor has it been a major donor of socioeconomic or humanitarian aid to combat grinding poverty or catastrophic ecological degradation. To the contrary, America has turned a blind eye to both human rights and human needs. The current policy of ignoring acute social, economic, and political problems while bolstering special operations forces, offering satellite surveillance, and rationalizing extrajudicial executions might possibly net a few terrorist suspects but will not stabilize the country, encourage the democratic opposition, or advance the rule of law.

Sheila Carapico is professor of political science at the University of Richmond and the American University in Cairo.