Whack-a-Mole in Yemen

President Saleh’s return to Yemen Highlights Error of U.S. Focus on Counterterrorism

Single-minded effort to counter AQAP will only allow conditions to deteriorate further, enabling AQAP gains, write Ken Gude and Ken Sofer.

A defected soldier stands guard while protestors attend a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday, September 23, 2011. The president made a surprise return to Yemen on Friday after more than three months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. (AP/Mohammed al-Sayaghi)
A defected soldier stands guard while protestors attend a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday, September 23, 2011. The president made a surprise return to Yemen on Friday after more than three months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. (AP/Mohammed al-Sayaghi)

No one knows what the impact of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s surprise return to Yemen after four months in Saudi Arabia recovering from an assassination attempt will be because it seems hardly anyone expected it—even his supporters. But this latest turn coming amid a particularly violent week in Yemen’s months-long political crisis highlights the lack of progress while Saleh was gone and underscores the error in the Obama administration’s decision to emphasize counterterrorism cooperation over diplomatic efforts to broker a resolution in Sana’a.

The Arab Spring reached Yemen on January 27 when some 16,000 Yemenis filled the streets of Sana’a to protest against the aging autocratic President Saleh’s more than 30-year rule. The government’s attempts to crack down on the protests grew increasingly violent and led to defections from several of his senior military commanders, including General Ali Moshen al-Ahmar, the most powerful figure in the Yemeni military prior to the protests.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, a regional body composed of several of Yemen’s oil-rich neighbors, brokered a power-transition deal in April, only to see Saleh back away from the deal on three separate occasions. The protests turned into a full-scale crisis following Saleh’s third refusal to sign the deal. The powerful Hashed tribal alliance led by Sadeq al-Ahmar (no relation to Gen. Ali Moshen al-Ahmar) declared their allegiance to the protesters and began to openly fight government forces.

Then, on June 3, a bomb in the presidential palace, likely planted by someone within the president’s inner circle, nearly killed Saleh and forced him to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a conciliatory figure in the regime, obtained executive authority in Saleh’s absence, although his lack of a power base and Saleh’s repeated claims of an imminent return to Yemen complicated Hadi’s control over the government.

For Yemenis, the political crisis since Saleh’s departure must have felt like a horribly disillusioning groundhog day. Throughout the summer, Saleh made grand statements that he would return to Yemen in the next few days, only to be followed by an American or Saudi official declaring that Saleh agreed to not return, only to be followed by yet another claim by Saleh that he would return to Yemen in the next few days. This compounded the delicate tight-rope act of Vice President Hadi, who needed to move the country forward, but continually received mixed signals if he had the authority to do so.

But now Yemenis have finally woken up to a new day and Saleh’s dramatic return caught virtually everyone by surprise. The one constant in Yemen’s history over the last three-plus decades has been the incredible capacity of Saleh to survive one crisis after another and retain power. It is virtually inconceivable that he would make his return to the capital only to then relinquish power in any kind of negotiated deal. He has come back to Yemen to retake control and believes that he can survive, and why not because after his near death experience and exile he is still the president of Yemen.

Whatever the result of Saleh’s return, the ongoing political stalemate has exacerbated an already dire economic, security, and humanitarian situation in Yemen. Unemployment has doubled since the crisis began in earnest, and inflation is currently at 35 percent. More than half of the country lives below the poverty line. The violence interrupted the country’s only economic lifeline, oil production, which has led to dwindling cash reserves in the country, frequent power outages, and most importantly, water shortages.

The crisis has also opened up a space for groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, rival tribes, northern Shiites, and southern separatists, most of whom were kept in a tenuous peace through a combination of threats and patronage under Saleh, to reignite long-simmering conflicts. The violence and turmoil across the country today is less about the youthful, pro-democracy protestors of the Arab Spring, and more about a rehashing of tribal, sectarian, and political battles from the past few decades.

In the week preceding Saleh’s comeback, renewed attention has been focused on Yemen after government security forces have killed more than 90 antigovernment protestors since last Sunday. Reports indicate that troops in plain clothes commanded by President Saleh’s nephew, Chief of the Central Security Forces General Yahya Saleh, fired sniper rifles from rooftops and sprayed a demonstration with random mortar fire. A key concern for the protesters—and a major failing of the diplomatic effort to broker a transition—has been that even while President Saleh remained in Saudi Arabia, his son and nephews still commanded the security forces, which rendered the nominal leader of the transition, Vice President Hadi, irrelevant.

Though it failed to prevent Saleh’s return, the Obama administration appears to be getting what it wants from its Yemen policy. Just a few days before the latest spasm of violence rocked Yemen’s capital Sana’a, top U.S. counterterrorism official John Brennan said, “Counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure.” The United States has legitimate interests in preventing the Yemen-based terrorist group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from taking advantage of the political crisis. Limiting U.S. engagement in Yemen to counterterrorism, however, will likely only result in a continuation of the multiple ongoing crises that plague the Yemeni people and help fuel AQAP’s gains.

Let’s be clear, the United States cannot resolve all the problems of Yemen or even this latest political crisis on its own. We will need the help of Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries, who have so far failed to use their political leverage over Yemen to help end this crisis. Equally clear, however, is that the United States does have the capacity to engage in Yemen, and has been doing so since this crisis began. Unfortunately, it appears that the lion’s share of the effort has been focused on the narrow U.S. interests of beating back AQAP rather than on either a strong push for a political settlement or any measures aimed at addressing the pressing humanitarian and economic crises gripping this fractured country.

We have called repeatedly for a greater emphasis to be placed on addressing the challenges that Yemenis face every day in addition to U.S. efforts to fight AQAP. This does not have to be a choice of one or the other. We understand that there are constraints on both available resources and attention, but the last time we checked drone strikes were neither free nor did they require no planning or preparation from U.S. government officials.

The only conclusion to be drawn from the actions of the Obama administration in Yemen since the political crisis began in January is that it has made a conscious choice to place all its eggs in the drone campaign basket and practically ignore any diplomatic or humanitarian response. Such an approach is woefully inadequate to the challenges of Yemen and has left the United States and the international community lurching from flashpoint to flashpoint throughout this crisis. Now with Saleh’s return and likely bid to stay in power, we fear that however much tactical success is obtained from drone strikes, the United States will find itself in a perpetual game of whack-a-mole with AQAP or other militant groups as Yemen slides further into disintegration.

Ken Gude is the Managing Director for National Security and Ken Sofer is the Special Assistant at the Center for American Progress.

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Ken Gude

Senior Fellow

Ken Sofer

Senior Policy Adviser