Best Defense

Yemen on the brink of a breakdown

By J. Dana Stuster Best Defense Not-So-Felix Arabia bureau chief "Yemen is not a surprise," former National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones, USMC (Ret.) began by saying at a recent panel discussion on "Yemen: The Next Egypt?" "As a matter of fact, what it is is not yet completely defined." On the brink of a ...

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

By J. Dana Stuster
Best Defense Not-So-Felix Arabia bureau chief

"Yemen is not a surprise," former National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones, USMC (Ret.) began by saying at a recent panel discussion on "Yemen: The Next Egypt?" "As a matter of fact, what it is is not yet completely defined." On the brink of a potential coup, this remains true, and likely will for weeks or months to come.

Here in Washington, there are two major concerns about Yemen today: the ongoing threat from Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the governance of the embattled Gulf state. Yemen’ s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been the United States’ ambivalent ally in combating AQAP, but his regime is collapsing under pressure from a popular opposition movement that has gained momentum from Saleh’ s efforts to suppress it.

At the seminar, held by the Bipartisan Policy Center on March 1, Thomas Krajeski, senior vice president of the National Defense University and a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, gave Saleh 50/50 odds of finishing his term, which has two years remaining before he has pledged to step down. Now, three weeks later, it is questionable whether Saleh’ s term will extend through the end of this week. Since a violent assault on protesters in the capital on Friday, in which snipers shot at protesters from rooftops, leaving 52 dead as of Monday, Saleh’ s government has been decimated by high-level defections. Most notable have been announcements from the leader of the nation’ s largest tribal federation and the premier general in the Yemen Armed Forces that they have joined the opposition movement. Saleh has declared a state of emergency and the still-loyal Republican Guard, commanded by Saleh’s son, have deployed tanks in the streets of Sanaa.

Washington’ s concerns are linked. For the past decade, since the attack against the USS Cole at Aden in 2000, Saleh has been a reluctant ally in the war against al Qaeda. This commitment has been reaffirmed over the past couple years, since al Qaeda’ s Gulf affiliates consolidated to form AQAP and began attempting a new spate of attacks, including the failed assassination of the Saudi head of counterterrorism, the "underwear bombing" plot, and most recently, the October 2010 attempt to detonate parcel bombs disguised as printer cartridges.

The United States has contributed significant funds and resources to developing Yemen’ s counterterror capacity. The problems, though, are manifold, according to Garry Reid, deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism, who also spoke at the seminar. Despite training by U.S. special operations forces, the various Yemeni security forces have not shown marked improvement. The reason, says Reid, is that the leadership fails to institutionalize the training such that the progress made with troops is lost within a year. The Yemeni security forces also struggle to project effective counterterror force outside the capital. The United States has tried to help modernize their necessary aviation for counterterror operations, but Yemeni security forces are still reliant on decrepit Soviet-era helicopters — the few that have survived in good repair are allocated to the president’ s detail.

This demonstrates probably the primary problem with the counterterror effort in Yemen. Though the concerns in Washington are about AQAP and who the American ally in Yemen will be, the priorities in Yemen are much different. Yemen’ s on-again off-again war against the Houthi rebels in the north and suppression of the secessionist movement in the south have been distractions for Saleh, as have the anti-government protests of the past two months.

The current unrest in Yemen has provoked concern in the U.S. government that, if Saleh goes, so goes the fight against AQAP. Reid waved off this concern: "We’ re going to keep training and working with them, and just go where the political relationship takes us. But regardless of what happens, they’re going to need to be trained and equipped."

As for who will be in charge as the United States continues its counterterror relationship with Yemen, that remains uncertain, and probably will for a while yet. Though Saleh’ s exit looks inevitable, it is worth remembering that when the Yemeni Imamate was challenged by the military in 1962, it resulted in an eight-year-long civil war. War is a very real possibility in Sanaa — last night, skirmishing between the Republican Guard and opposition military forces left at least one dead and three wounded. Even if Saleh were to go quietly, what or who comes next is far from certain. "When change happens, if it happens," Krajeski concluded, "we’ ll be one of the last to know."

"Yemen: The Next Egypt?" can be watched online here.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1
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