To Save Yemen
With the right diplomatic approach, the situation in Yemen can be salvaged.
See a slide show on the turmoil in Yemen
On June 1, the White House dispatched John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism aide, to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to discuss options to address the worsening situation in Yemen.
Brennan’s mission is welcome: U.S. diplomacy is essential for effective counterterrorism, as was also the case in the aftermath of 9/11, when I was sent as ambassador to Yemen. His challenge will be to bring together forces inside Yemen, regional pressure, and more robust U.S. and international efforts to nudge out President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country in various forms since 1978.
U.S. counterterrorism officials, including Brennan, have rightly described al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the most dangerous node in the group’s global network. Since its formation in January 2009, AQAP has sought to find chinks in U.S. defenses through the use of "stealth" terrorists like Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and innovative tactics like last fall’s printer bombs on cargo planes.
Those plots were foiled, but largely due to efforts outside Yemen. The unfortunate truth is that, even before the current turmoil, counterterrorism efforts inside Yemen have been largely ineffective. It’s not because we don’t know how to do the job: From 2001-2004, a broad U.S.-Yemeni strategy linking security to development eliminated al Qaeda’s leadership and most of its cadres. Neglect at the end of George W. Bush’s administration and poor execution of the Obama administration’s reinvigorated strategy allowed AQAP’s leadership to reconstitute the organization and operate with relative impunity.
Since the onset of the Yemeni revolution in February, a bad situation has deteriorated rapidly. Focused above all on preserving his power, Saleh has pulled government forces back from the periphery, ceding vast operating space to AQAP in Yemen’s remote areas, including Marib, al-Jawf, Shabwa, and Abyan. Yemen’s premier counterterrorism unit, the Interior Ministry’s Central Security Force, commanded by the president’s nephew Yahya, has been dedicated, at least on occasions, to protecting the regime, as has long been the case for the special operation forces under his son Ahmed Saleh.
Whether Saleh has sought to exploit the very real threat of al Qaeda is subject to debate. Some reports suggest that security forces in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, recently acquiesced in the town’s takeover by Islamist militants. Saleh may have intended the single public incident of Yemeni-U.S. cooperation since the protests began — the Predator drone strike that eliminated two midlevel al Qaeda operatives on May 5 — as evidence of his continued relevance to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. If so, it’s not working: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s thinly veiled rebuke to Saleh on May 22 after he reneged on signing a deal orchestrated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Yemeni president’s subsequent bitter rejection of outside pressure indicate the old partnership has run its course.
So what now? Is Yemen doomed to chaos and civil war? Although the risks are real and the trends negative, Yemen’s current problems do not defy solution. However, a diplomatic strategy to move beyond the current impasse should be broader than the GCC efforts to date. It should focus on both sticks and carrots and coordinate Yemeni, regional, and international efforts.
Yemeni politics are the bedrock of any solution. The protesters camped out in town squares across the country have already frustrated Saleh’s ambition to be accepted as "president for life" and made succession by his son Ahmed inconceivable. The defection in March of Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the powerful commander of the 1st Armored Division, denied the regime overwhelming force to put down demonstrations and offered a modicum of protection to the protesters. Yemeni ambassadors throughout the world have resigned, undermining the regime’s legitimacy. Senior Yemeni leaders — Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, Abdulkarim al-Iryani, Shura Council speaker Abdul Ghani — have reportedly urged Saleh to step aside, and the president appears to be increasingly reliant on limited, but still substantial forces led by his family members. Saleh has also alienated the leadership of his own Hashid tribal grouping and possibly the even larger Bakil federation.
Yemen’s neighbors have also played a positive role. In the past, the GCC has rarely taken political initiative and often succumbed to Gulf rivalries. With Yemen, the GCC conceived and credibly promoted a plan — albeit a far from perfect one — to move Yemen into the post-Saleh era. Saudi Arabia has reportedly backed this Gulf diplomacy with a cutoff of economic assistance to the president, which puts Gulf money where its mouth is. Such pressure, if sustained over time, is likely to have a cumulative effect.
The United States and the international community have generally been supportive of Gulf diplomacy and Yemen’s revolution. Although the protesters themselves say the United States has moved too slowly, the U.S. government has steadily moved away from its sometime partner and toward a more principled position of support for democratic change.
More can and should be done. Time is an adversary, not an ally. Allowed to drift, Yemen may well move to civil war, which could engulf in violence the protests and the peaceful efforts of official and nonofficial reformers. Allowed to drift, Yemen will provide more of a safe haven to AQAP, with mounting risks to Yemeni interests, its neighbors, and the American homeland.
It is time to bring the U.N. Security Council into the picture, building on and supporting the efforts of the GCC and the Yemenis themselves. It should not lay a foundation for outside armed intervention as in Libya — that would be a disaster in mountainous, heavily armed Yemen — but rather chart a clearly nonviolent approach.
The pillars of that approach could be: a demand for Saleh to hand over power immediately to a caretaker government; targeted sanctions aimed at promoting further defections from the president’s power base and denying the president economic resources to sustain his rule; endorsement of early elections — Sept. 20, 2011, will mark five years since the last one — with international assistance in the significant effort required to prepare and monitor such elections; and early attention to Yemen’s burgeoning humanitarian needs, not as a substitute for a political settlement, but as a necessary support for one. The United Nations could also show its commitment to resolving the Yemeni crisis by appointing a special representative of the caliber of Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi or possibly Egyptian diplomat Nabil Fahmy.
Some may question whether all this diplomacy is necessary or productive. Can we not simply use Predators or SEAL teams? From my personal experience in Yemen and with al Qaeda there, I do not believe that episodic kinetic operations are the solution, though they are a necessary tool in our kit. Al Qaeda has been stifled before in Yemen by a broad and concerted strategy based on U.S. diplomacy. Left to its own devices, Yemen is unlikely to muddle through, with consequences that range far beyond the Arabian Peninsula. A concerted, multilayered diplomatic effort can succeed. Even a skilled political dancer like Ali Abdullah Saleh can’t defy gravity forever.