No Blank Checks for Yemen

Yemen's president is no U.S. yes-man -- and U.S. military aid is no panacea.

Marcel Mettelsiefen/Getty Images
Marcel Mettelsiefen/Getty Images

It would barely be an exaggeration to say that the only Yemeni truly excited by the prospect of expanded U.S. military aid to Yemen is President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

From the outside, it appears that Yemen could use the military aid, to be sure. Would-be terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab reportedly trained in Yemen, and the country unquestionably suffers from al Qaeda’s presence. Concerned about generating a local backlash, Saleh has indicated that he would prefer to crack down selectively, favoring dialogue with some al Qaeda members over the use of force. Fighting between the government and rebels in both the north and the south is intensifying. Given these circumstances, the Pentagon has boosted its aid to the country from $4.6 million in 2006 to $67 million this year. Now, Washington is considering doubling that number, as well as training an elite unit of Yemeni security forces and improving intelligence-sharing.

On Jan. 6, NBC News correspondent Richard Engel reported from Sanaa that Yemenis welcome increased aid. But in this context, "Yemenis" does not mean the Yemeni people: It means Saleh and a small number of his closest associates. The president came to power in a military coup and has installed cronies and family members throughout the government. In Yemen, aid means aid to Saleh.


Saleh was president of North Yemen from 1977 to 1990 and has been president of the unified country since then. Since the introduction of multiparty elections following unification, he has channeled political competition to his benefit, pitting Yemen’s Islamists against its socialists to maintain power. In the past decade, his grasp has weakened somewhat, as he has fought an armed insurgency in the northern Saada province since 2004 and a regional opposition movement in the south since 2007. Moreover, Saleh must cope with an increasingly independent media, despite his attempts to quash it. Still, pervasive corruption and the suppression of civil liberties have kept Saleh comfortably in charge.

An increase in aid and intelligence will provide him with more fungible resources to use as he sees fit. In contrast, the democrats struggling to challenge him stand to suffer irrevocable damage. "What [Washington] doesn’t understand is that Yemen doesn’t need more arms or equipment to monitor the telephone lines and Internet connections," one senior official critical of Saleh explained via email. "Saleh sucked hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget to buy arms that were [only] used for internal purposes to secure his rule and his family. We need a better government and more real democracy."

Simply put, providing more aid to Yemen will make the situation worse. The war on terrorism has already provided Saleh with a pretext for the surveillance and persecution of journalists and opposition activists. Plus, he has cultivated ties with radical clerics despite paying lip service to working with the United States.

For instance, Saleh has developed a close relationship with Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Zindani, the rector of al-Iman University, a documented al Qaeda recruiting ground. (The U.S. Treasury Department has for years listed Zindani as a financier of terrorism.) In the early part of this decade, Zindani’s political party started moving to the center, eventually forming an opposition alliance with the Yemeni Socialist Party. In a bid to maintain his own relevance, Zindani reached out to Saleh. The president supported his creation of an organization to "enjoin the good and forbid the evil": promoting extreme interpretations of religious law, self-censorship by the press, vigilantism against moderate critics, and limits on women’s freedom.

This willingness to cozy up with people committed to radicalizing Yemeni youth and encouraging violence suggests that Saleh will do little to help the United States fight terrorism. Rather, Saleh will use U.S. funds to continue to monitor and repress his domestic opponents.

There are committed democrats in Yemen, from a variety of ideological backgrounds, from inside the regime and the opposition. And there are people ready to tackle Yemen’s development challenges and promote a climate of moderation. I’ve been traveling regularly to Yemen since 2004, conducting research on the relationship between Islamists and leftists in Yemen’s opposition parties. Throughout this time, I have maintained correspondence with Yemeni journalists and political activists from a wide range of ideological positions. They are united in their concern about expanding U.S. involvement in Yemen, understanding just how badly it is likely to turn out for them and their country.

In part, Yemeni reformers are wary because such assistance has already contributed to radicalization. The use of unmanned drones, for example, goes back to 2002 at least. The combination of the perceived infringement on Yemeni sovereignty and high civilian death tolls caused by drone strikes has unquestionably helped fuel anti-American sentiment. Now, my Yemeni sources worry the Saleh regime will use additional military funds to crack down on legitimate political dissent and pad its coffers, rather than fighting actual terrorists and providing desperately needed services and infrastructure.

"Saleh is worried about his own survival, along with his family," writes one embittered politician. "The Yemeni people have never been a worry for him." Instead, they worry that Saleh will continue to fuel radicalism even while "fighting" it, thereby creating the very threat that keeps U.S. dollars flowing.

The United States’ interest in Yemen has clearly been piqued. But information and analysis lag far behind this interest. As a Yemeni official told me, "The guys in D.C. aren’t creative"; they throw money at the problem rather than working to solve it. In Yemen, Saleh is part of the problem. Clear policy alternatives might not be available yet — but writing a blank check will certainly do nothing but fuel the radicalization the United States seeks to fight.

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