Was supporting Saleh worth it?

This weekend, the U.S. government finally threw Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh under the bus, with administration officials telling the New York Times on background that it was increasingly clear Saleh was incapable of reforming his government and had to go. On Tuesday, the Pentagon made it official, with spokesman Geoff Morrell saying the United ...

A Yemeni looks at a poster of his president Ali Abdullah Saleh displayed outside a shop in Sanaa on January 6, 2010. Yemeni security forces, under US pressure to rein in extremists, Wednesday captured a key Al-Qaeda leader believed to be behind threats that saw foreign embassies in Sanaa closing their doors, police said. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI (Photo credit should read AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

This weekend, the U.S. government finally threw Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh under the bus, with administration officials telling the New York Times on background that it was increasingly clear Saleh was incapable of reforming his government and had to go. On Tuesday, the Pentagon made it official, with spokesman Geoff Morrell saying the United States was "urging a negotiated transition [of power] as quickly as possible."

All of this would have been unthinkable even a month ago, when it seemed relatively likely that Saleh would survive the wave of unrest sweeping his country, at least through the end of his current term. The Yemeni president is a Hosni Mubarak-style survivor, who has managed to hold onto power for three decades in one of the Arab world’s most reliably restive countries — a longevity that is in no small part guaranteed by the United States, which has viewed Saleh as a crucial, if unreliable, ally in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

No one ever pretended it was an uncomplicated relationship, and the WikiLeaks cables show the United States making extraordinary, often unreasonable demands of counterterrorism allies such as Saleh. But you don’t have to agree with the U.S. government’s actions here to ask whether the $155 million the United States gave Yemen in military aid last year alone was worth the investment. A tour through the WikiLeaks cables from the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa — of which the Times offered a very good overview in December — is instructive. The cables, of course, present the State Department’s view of the situation, not the U.S. intelligence community’s — but the diplomats seem to have trusted Saleh about as far as they could throw him.

There were, it’s true, a couple of now-well-reported incidents in which Saleh covered for the Americans. When a U.S. unmanned drone washed up on the Yemeni coast in 2007, he had his official media call it an "Iranian spy plane"; and a 2010 cable reports the Yemeni president offering to take credit for clandestine U.S. bombing campaigns inside his country during a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus.

But in general there’s a uniquely sardonic tone to the 31 Sanaa embassy cables released so far. The embassy’s interactions with Saleh documented here — and as always, keep in mind that it’s a very selective record — mostly fall into two categories. One is diplomats receiving assurances from Saleh that some sort of progress is being made against AQAP, following immediately by demands for more weapons — a routine that happens so often that the diplomats treat it as a running joke. Following the arrest of a suspected terrorist in 2005, one cable reports,

Saleh did not waste time for his usual quid-pro-quo tactics. "So, where’s my stuff? We have requested equipment and weapons for our CSF counter terrorism unit," said Saleh. "We have suffered important and costly losses in Saada and we need your help. Please tell Washington that this is urgent." "I respond to you immediately when you need something," added Saleh, "and now, you must do the same for me."

The diplomats don’t seem overly convinced that Saleh is holding up his end of the bargain. In a 2007 meeting with Saleh in the port city of Aden, White House counterterrorism adviser Frances Townsend asked after the whereabouts of Jamal al-Badawi, who had been convicted of planning the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Saleh replied that his government had let al-Badawi go, and that he was under house arrest on a farm near Aden, where Saleh had met with him recently. "Al-Badawi promised to give up terrorism and I told him that his actions damaged Yemen and its image; he began to understand," the president said. The Americans were less than thrilled about this.

The other category of Yemen cable finds U.S. officials trying fruitlessly to get Saleh to do something about his country’s enormous black market in small arms, which is contributing to Yemen’s own instability and to conflicts in troubled countries elsewhere in the region, such as Somalia — a situation that is complicated by their ostensible alliance with Saleh on matters of counterterrorism. Asked in 2004 about one arms dealer that the U.S. Justice Department believed had links to Al Qaeda, Saleh replied dismissively that "if we arrest every arms dealer in the country, we will have hundreds of them in prison." In 2008, U.S. officials grumbled about an alleged $78 million deal between Saleh and Serbian illegal arms traffickers.

But the best account by far ("you can’t make this stuff up," the cable’s author notes at one point) is from the 2007 meeting between Saleh and Townsend, during which Saleh invited one of Yemen’s most notorious black-market arms barons to join them for lunch. "Hey FBI," Saleh joked during the meeting, "if he does not behave properly, you can take him… back to Washington in Townsend’s plane or to Guantanamo."

"He has donated weapons to the nation’s military — he can be considered a patriot now," Townsend jokingly replied. "No, he  is a double agent — he also gave weapons to the al-Houthi rebels," Saleh responded, laughing.

All of this stands in contrast to neighboring Saudi Arabia, whose intelligence about Yemen American diplomats seem to take with far fewer grains of salt in the WikiLeaks cables. While Al Qaeda made it clear in 2009 that it had no particular beef with the Yemeni state, the organization and its local affiliates have been gunning for the Saudis for years, including a 2009 attempt on Saudi counterterrorism chief Mohammad bin Nayef’s life. The Saudis — who have been publicly skeptical of Yemen in matters of counterterrorism since at least 2002, when Saudi officials claimed to have seen Yemen’s deputy director of intelligence out and about in Sanaa with high-ranking Al Qaeda operative Abdal-Rahim al-Nashiri — responded by beefing up their network of informants across the border in Saleh’s country. It’s not surprising, then, that one of the few substantial WikiLeaked reports on terrorists in Yemen comes from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, not Sanaa, in a 2009 cable describing a meeting between bin Nayef and the late U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke. "We have a problem called Yemen," bin Nayef told Holbrooke:

[Bin Nayef] described Yemen as a failed state that is "very, very, extremely dangerous," and required focus. […] This was a threat forming around Saudi Arabia that required action now. The Saudis would like Saleh to be a strong leader, [bin Nayef] said, but "his vision of Yemen has shrunk to Sana’a," and he was losing control over the rest of the country. Saleh’s old advisors were gone and now he relied on his son and other younger men who did not have good connections with the Yemeni tribes. In contrast, Saudi Arabia had good connections with the tribes, [bin Nayef] said.

This was a Saudi official talking, of course, but it’s worth noting that it was the Saudis, not the Yemenis, who tipped off U.S. officials to AQAP’s Yemen-originating package bomb plot in October.

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