Terms of Engagement

Nation-Building in the Yemen

Nation-Building in the Yemen

Last week, I wrote about the growing drone-ification of U.S. policy toward Yemen, and questioned the faith that drone strikes would not provoke the kind of backlash caused by less "targeted" forms of military intervention. At best, drones are an instrument of policy, not a policy in and of itself. Critics of the Obama administration’s emerging counterterrorism strategy in Yemen and elsewhere argue that the United States needs fewer drones, and more of something else. The question for this week is: What’s the "something else"?

It’s a very urgent question as Yemen is now the front line of the war against terrorism. John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism advisor, has said that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, has over 1,000 members, and is "the most active operational franchise" of al Qaeda. The 2010 underwear bomb plot originated in Yemen, as did the effort last month, foiled by a Saudi double agent, to plant an undetectable bomb on a plane. In recent months, AQAP has routed government troops to establish a statelet in southern Yemen, providing it far more operational space than it now has on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of the attractions of drones is that most of the time they do what they’re supposed to do — kill terrorists. And they do it very quickly. And that is precisely the point that the administration’s critics make. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar who blogs at the website Waq al-Waq, complains that the administration has been relying on "very quick and very simple solutions for Yemen" rather than the ones that take time and effort. Johnsen and others argue that the administration must give much more priority to the slow and tedious work of economic development and diplomatic engagement, including with the Yemeni opposition. "The U.S. has to focus more on the root causes of terrorism than the effects," as Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, recently said on CNN.

The "root causes" of terrorism are not so self-evident, but what is clear is that terrorists seek to exploit the empty spaces created by weak and ineffective governments. Thus the long-term solution to the growth of terrorism in places like Yemen is  to help the state become more effective, and more legitimate. American presidents since 9/11 have accepted this premise. In his second inaugural address, George W. Bush declared that the democratization of the Islamic world was in America’s deepest national security interest. As a candidate, Barak Obama argued that the United States needed to focus less on elections in fragile states, and more on boosting economic development and government capacity. The counterinsurgency strategy he adopted in Afghanistan had a large civilian component designed to do just that. It is fair to say that the Obama administration has not demonstrated its commitment to nation-building in Yemen. U.S. civilian assistance  this year amounts to a very modest $112 million, of which $73 million will go to humanitarian aid. That leaves only $39 million for development, or a little over $1.50 for each of Yemen’s 24 million people. This is a country which ranks 154th on the U.N. human development index, where households desperately need access to clean drinking water, electricity, and fuel oil, among other basic goods. Where’s the long-term solution?

The experience of Afghanistan — and Haiti, and plenty of other such places — has shown how hard it is to spend large amounts effectively in states where the government has very little presence beyond a few major cities. After years of effort and billions of dollars, the Afghan government remains very corrupt, very weak, and not very legitimate. Yemen is a more advanced country than Afghanistan, but 33 years of the personalized and deeply corrupt rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh enfeebled state institutions and turned much of the economy into a patronage network. The marginal value of additional dollars might drop off quickly.

What about democratic legitimacy? A recent article in FP claimed that by spurning advances from the youth movement — which took to the streets in Yemen’s version of the Arab Spring — the White House ended "any hopes of an authentic democratic revolution," and thus of "a more tolerant and stable Yemen."  The author predicted that more embittered young men will be driven into the arms of the AQAP. It’s possible; but the same argument has been made about the drone strikes, and so far there’s very little evidence on either front. There seem to be far fewer Yemenis who identify with the foreign fighters of al Qaeda than there are Pakistanis who identify with the Taliban, who are sons of the soil.

Again, it’s easy to claim that the Obama administration’s actions in Yemen belie its rhetorical commitment to democracy in the Arab world. Obama supported the plan advanced by Saudi Arabia — no great friend of democracy — to ease Saleh out of power in favor of his vice-president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a longtime Saleh loyalist. And yet staunch support for Hadi has proved to be the single greatest success of American policy in Yemen — far more important than, say, a decision to double development aid, or to halve drone strikes, would have been. I’ve heard again and again that the White House doesn’t have "a strategy" in Yemen, but in fact the strategy is to support President Hadi through all means possible — a resumption of aid, high-level visits, public statements of support, and last week’s announcement of a White House executive order freezing the assets of anyone who seeks to "obstruct the implementation" of the deal that transferred power to him — a shot across the bow to Saleh and his circle.

So far, Hadi has exceeded all expectations, and certainly those of Saleh, who counted on his compliance. He has sacked two Saleh family members who occupied senior military posts; both at first refused to go, and needed additional threats from Jamal Ben Omar, the U.N. emissary, who has worked closely with American officials. "He has really been able to consolidate the political center," according to James Fallon of the Eurasia Group. "Inside the GPC" — Saleh’s party — "there’s been a gradual isolation of Saleh and the closest of his circle." Checkpoints have come down from the main streets of the capital, Sanaa, and youth activists have not challenged his authority. In recent days, Hadi has also sent the army back into the south in the hopes of retaking the towns and villages now held by AQAP. The fighting is reported to be fierce, if so far inconclusive.

Hadi enjoys support in part because he is an interim figure whose writ runs out in 18 months. And Saleh, who remains in Sanaa, could upend the deal at any time. But he would have to pay a very serious cost, both with the United States and with the U.N. Security Council. Right now, U.S. policy in Yemen is looking better than it’s reputed to be. Les Campbell, Middle East director of the National Democratic Institute and a veteran of Yemeni politics, says, "The U.S. has to a great extent handled Yemen very, very well. They’re working very closely with the president, but they haven’t really alienated the protestors. That’s a pretty good feat."

Yemen is still a disaster area. There is an indigenous rebellion in the south, as well as a sectarian war in the north. Rebels regularly attack the electric grid as well as oil and gas pipelines. Jamal Benomar recently said that as many as 700,000 children could die this year from malnutrition. Yemen seems to be running out of everything — above all, oil, its chief export, and water. But the ultimate source of its problems, as a recent report notes, is not scarcity but political failure. What Yemen needs most is a political system which all factions are prepared to buy into. America’s vast investment in Afghanistan has failed because Afghan politics has failed. There’s very little Washington can do about, or around or against, a feckless and corrupt regime. If the White House is pushing all its chips on Hadi, it’s because right now he represents Yemen’s best chance to survive its current crisis, and for it to begin to rebuild. President Hadi may not be much of a democrat, or even a liberal; but he may be just good enough.