Twilight of a Strongman
How will the U.S. fight al Qaeda without local tyrants like Ali Abdullah Saleh?
Over the past decade, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been the quintessential U.S. ally in the Middle East -- a useful, mercurial dictator who rules through a combination of repression and shrewd domestic diplomacy. He has been an increasingly close counterterrorism partner in a country that ranks behind only Pakistan's tribal areas as a safe haven for al Qaeda operatives plotting attacks against Americans. His government has permitted the United States to launch missile strikes on its territory, share intelligence, and train and equip Yemeni counterterrorism forces. And it looks today like his time in office is measured in days, if not hours. So now what? Saleh's departure will undoubtedly be a short-term setback for U.S. counterterrorism efforts. But a new, more representative Yemeni government might also give Washington an opportunity to build a strategy that's bigger than one man.
Over the past decade, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been the quintessential U.S. ally in the Middle East — a useful, mercurial dictator who rules through a combination of repression and shrewd domestic diplomacy. He has been an increasingly close counterterrorism partner in a country that ranks behind only Pakistan’s tribal areas as a safe haven for al Qaeda operatives plotting attacks against Americans. His government has permitted the United States to launch missile strikes on its territory, share intelligence, and train and equip Yemeni counterterrorism forces. And it looks today like his time in office is measured in days, if not hours. So now what? Saleh’s departure will undoubtedly be a short-term setback for U.S. counterterrorism efforts. But a new, more representative Yemeni government might also give Washington an opportunity to build a strategy that’s bigger than one man.
U.S. attention on Yemen has, in recent years, focused relentlessly on the country’s terrorism problem — and with good reason: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has used the country as a base to launch attacks against the Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. AQAP is credited with planning the 2009 Christmas Day bombing plot in which a young Nigerian radical, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to ignite explosives on a commercial airliner. The group was also implicated in the attempt to blow up U.S.-bound cargo planes with bombs placed in printer cartridges. Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American who serves as AQAP’s English-language spokesman, communicated repeatedly with the U.S. Army major who, in November 2009, opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding another 30. Faisal Shahzad, the attempted 2010 Times Square bomber, said that he was inspired by Awlaki, who churns out a steady stream of online videos and publications exhorting Muslims to attack Americans. Awlaki is reported to be the first U.S. citizen placed on the government’s "kill/capture" list. And more than 100 Yemenis have been incarcerated at the U.S. prison facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002.
In light of all this, Michael Leiter, a top administration counterterrorism official, recently told Congress that Awlaki and AQAP pose "probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland." James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, added that the group will probably grow stronger unless there are more effective and sustained steps taken against it.
As the drumbeat of threats has increased in tempo over the past year and a half, so too has the U.S. partnership with Saleh’s government. In January 2010, the United States announced it would double its security aid to Yemen in 2010 to roughly $150 million, most of it focused on counterterrorism. (A separate, smaller fraction is dedicated to development assistance.) U.S. Special Forces are present in the country for training and partnership with Yemeni forces, and the British and Saudis have had a presence as well.
But as a result of the political turmoil in Yemen, all of the cooperation has stalled. The U.S.-sponsored train-and-equip efforts are on hold, and most of Yemen’s counterterrorism units are not out fighting al Qaeda but in the capital, Sanaa, protecting their embattled president. The military itself is split after Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the country’s most powerful officer, defected to the protesters. The universal focus is on political turmoil, not al Qaeda. In the meantime, Shiite separatists in the north have seized a provincial capital. In the south, al Qaeda claims to have established an "Islamic emirate" in the province of Abyan. That claim is probably laughable, but it may illustrate the great limits to the central government’s current reach. The economy, already in terrible shape, is crumbling, the country’s currency is losing value, and food prices are rising.
Barack Obama’s administration, having clung for weeks to the hope that Saleh might broker a political compromise that would save his government, has concluded that his day is done. On April 5, White House press secretary Jay Carney stated that the United States "strongly condemns" the violence in Yemen, reminded Saleh of his responsibility to ensure safety, called for "meaningful political change," and stated that all sides need to put Yemen’s unity and progress ahead of "individual agendas." That’s not the kind of language a White House uses with a future partner. The Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have come to the same conclusion and have backed a plan that would ease Saleh out in favor of a transitional government.
But then what? Will the country slide into chaos? After all, civil society is virtually nonexistent and the protesters are united by little more than a desire to see Saleh go. Civil war? North-south war has engulfed Yemen before, and restive provinces in the north and south make it a real possibility should a government even weaker than Saleh’s emerge. Perhaps the likeliest outcome is a successor government that includes a number of current officials plus some representation from the opposition. But even then, would the new regime be as willing as Saleh has been to partner with the United States?
Saleh has had great control over which kinds of cooperation take place and which do not. It is not at all clear that a successor government will be willing — or feel politically able — to allow the United States to conduct drone patrols over its territory, carry out missile strikes against Yemeni citizens, maintain a special operations presence, and continue the pattern of training, equipping, and intelligence sharing that has so accelerated over the past 18 months. Even Saleh has faced domestic pressures; he seems to have banned U.S. airstrikes since last May, when a deputy governor was killed. Further reticence by a new government might coincide with AQAP’s attempts to take advantage of the situation; Awlaki has already boasted that a weaker government would permit al Qaeda more freedom of action.
This bleak outcome isn’t inevitable, however. The fall of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and the chaos in Libya have vividly demonstrated that Saleh’s brand of corrupt authoritarianism is not sustainable. If a transition to a more democratic form of government takes place, it is possible (though by no means assured) that Yemeni politics could reach a more stable footing and, through a new openness, undermine the appeal of extremism. After all, the protesters are calling for democratic freedoms, not shouting jeremiads against the United States or praise for al Qaeda. Saleh’s ouster could also at long last align American values and interests in its relations with Yemen. Instead of partnering with a mercurial dictator in the hopes of eliminating terrorist threats, Washington might pursue a broad relationship that extends beyond security cooperation and aid to active support of a budding democracy.
That, of course, is the best-case scenario and one that is hardly guaranteed. Any new government, moreover, will face enormous, nearly insoluble, long-term problems. The Yemeni economy is heavily dependent on oil production, and the vast majority of government revenue comes from oil taxes. That oil will run out — completely — within the next six years. The plan for the post-oil economy? There isn’t one. The country is already the poorest on the Arabian Peninsula, and the population is expected to double by 2035. Nearly half the population is under 15 years old, and unemployment — before the current political turmoil — was running at least 35 percent. The country is also running out of groundwater, much of it used to grow khat, the mildly narcotic plant chewed by the majority of Yemeni men. Given that 90 percent of the country’s water is used for agriculture, this portends disaster.
An economy in free fall, key resources drying up, a terrorist safe haven, an active insurgency, political turmoil, and terrible governance — all these things and more plague Yemen today. It will take some skillful diplomacy and a good deal of luck to see a government emerge in Sanaa with the will to partner with the United States and the capacity to tackle some of these many problems. About only one thing can we be clear: Americans haven’t heard the last from Yemen.
Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. He worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @RHFontaine
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