BPC Releases Case Study on Yemen’s Security Risks and Recommendations for U.S. Policy
March 3, 2011
Washington, DC—The Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) National Security Project (NSP) this week released a new case study entitled, Fragility and Extremism in Yemen, which argues that meaningful security gains in Yemen need to be tied to genuine political and economic reforms not just counter-terrorism efforts. To date, the U.S. has focused much of its efforts on providing Yemen military assistance to combat the rise of al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), yet the country remains plagued by social and political divisions that could result in state failure. During a timely panel discussion on March 2 at the BPC, leading policy experts discussed U.S. policy towards Yemen and the significance of recent political unrest there. Both the forum and case study are part of the NSP’s Stabilizing Fragile States Initiative. NSP will release a final report this spring.
Former National Security Advisor and BPC Senior Fellow General (ret.) Jim Jones opened Tuesday’s discussion and stressed, “Yemen becomes increasingly important to U.S. national security with every day that passes. The recent developments in that country should galvanize our commitment to creating a U.S. policy that focuses not simply on terrorism, but on the broader issues of democracy and stability for Yemen.” He warned, “Yemen’s crisis could deepen the current vacuum of power in Yemen on which al-Qaida has thrived.”
Yemen sits at the center of popular protests across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the fight against global terrorism and extremism. A year ago, many began to fear that Yemen would become the “next Afghanistan” following the attempted Christmas Day bombing in 2009 and the failed attempt to ship explosives to Chicago religious sites in October 2010. Both events were traced back to al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. Now, with anti-government protests erupting in that country, Tuesday’s panel discussed the possibility of Yemen becoming the next Egypt.
Ambassador Thomas Krajeski, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, who just returned from a trip there, participated in the forum and stated that if Yemen were to become the next Egypt it would be a positive outcome for the country. “If we had a Yemen with a professional well-trained military with close ties to the U.S., an active educated civil society, a fairly open and modern press, and a growing economy at nine percent a year, that would not be a bad outcome for Yemen whether president Ali Abdullah Saleh is in charge or not.” He added, “Despite Saleh’s thirty years in power and his skill as a tribal deal-maker, I’d give him a 50-50 chance of staying in power.”
Growing protests for Saleh’s ouster now include key tribal leaders and even some of Saleh’s allies. Last week, prominent radical cleric Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, who once mentored Osama bin Laden and supported Saleh, demanded the president step down and called for an Islamic state. “That’s a big deal. If Zindani is breaking with him that is another knock at his base,” said Ambassador Krajeski. “However, I don’t think radical Islam is a huge factor in the current unrest, although it was part of the general opposition to Saleh’s government.”
According to the new BPC case study, terrorists continue to use Yemen as a base of operations, not because the government is weak militarily but because little has been done to ensure the broad viability of the Yemeni government. U.S. policy has tended to focus on counter-terrorism cooperation, while doing little to resolve the deep social, economic, and political divisions within the country.
A decade of U.S. military assistance has done little to stem the tide of growing extremism within Yemen. Panel moderator Ambassador Paula Dobriansky asserted that, “for the United States, building Yemen’s security capacity cannot mean simply supplying weapons or training security forces. We must help that country build a strong government with public support that enables it to resist extremist challenges.”
Garry Reid, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, also joined the discussion and said the current approach to Yemen is to receive U.S assistance but not in an overt “in your face” fashion. “We don’t want to alienate more people on the street then we do damage to al-Qaida. It’s a very low visibility posture working in the Embassy. We try to establish regular contact with key leaders, run regular training programs and provide assistance packages. We are trying to help guide them to succeed against al-Qaida.” Given Saleh’s cooperation on U.S. operations against al-Qaida, Reid sees no alternative to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. “He’s the best partner we’ll have, and hopefully he’ll survive.”
NSP’s case study argues that the country’s economy and civil society are built largely on patronage and corruption, and do not provide services and security even-handedly across the country’s many geographic, ethnic, and economic divisions. The current government faces an insurgency in northern Yemen and a secessionist movement in the south; a growing al-Qaida presence in the southern and eastern parts of the country; and increased piracy in the adjacent Gulf of Aden and Red Sea.
David Kramer, executive director of Freedom House, stressed to the audience that with Yemen’s severe social and economic challenges and increased violence against protesters and journalists, the U.S. should be cautious in supporting Saleh. “I think we should think carefully about supporting a leader who has vowed to defend his regime “with every drop of blood.” He added, “It’s very important that we not become so dependent on one person. But that dependence should give us pause and make us think about the people in the streets and the cause they are fighting for.”
BPC policy analyst and fellow panelist Jonathan Ruhe also emphasized that a long-term strategy toward Yemen is essential to keep the country from failing. “Only a pragmatic, long-term policy that seeks to address the deep and abiding causes of fragility in Yemen and helps to ease its internal conflicts can turn the tide on terror threats originating from that country.” Ruhe added, “It’s kind of hard to imagine a post-Saleh world. If he should fall, the future is wide open.”
Foreign Policy Project, Stabilizing Fragile States Initiative