Syria currently occupies center stage in the debate over international involvement in the Arab Awakening. Meanwhile, the United States is increasing its role in Yemen to an extent unmatched in any other Arab country since the opening phase of its intervention in Libya early last year. The level of violence in Yemen, while cause for serious concern, is a fraction of the bloodshed in Syria. Nevertheless, the potential threats to the United States emanating from Yemen – as well as the intractability of the country’s underlying problems – are at least as great.
BPC’s report on Yemen details the deep-seated and overlapping causes of fragility in the country, as well as the sporadic and halting nature of U.S. military and economic assistance. The Arab Awakening widened these internal political, economic and sectarian cleavages, eventually forcing long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power. In the process, these convulsions exacerbated preexisting vacuums of power nationwide, thereby granting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) greater freedom of maneuver and whetting its ambitions.
As a result, the United States has become more involved in Yemen than ever before. Politically, it backed the plan for Saleh to step down in favor of new president Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, and issued an executive order threatening sanctions against any officials undermining the new government. This is intended to stabilize the volatile transition of power process and encourage the Yemeni government to refocus its attention from regime infighting to the counteroffensive against AQAP. In parallel, U.S. military operations ramped up markedly in past months. Special forces resumed training Yemen’s security services and began helping coordinate their operations. Simultaneously the White House expanded the Pentagon’s and Central Intelligence Agency’s authorities to pursue AQAP-related targets, with the number of drone and other strikes rising proportionately.
These changes are somewhat effective on the operational level. Hadi is tenuously assembling the base of support he will need to build consensus for a new constitution, but still faces a wide range of strong opposition groups. Yemeni military forces are gradually retaking towns held by AQAP affiliates, and airstrikes have killed several key AQAP leaders, but this has alienated some local tribes and triggered an even more violent AQAP backlash. This short-term focus will continue to be counterproductive without a larger strategy addressing the root causes of instability. As BPC’s report on U.S. policy toward fragile states – of which Yemen was a case study – explains, military assistance tends to focus on traditional security sector reform (e.g., training and equipping counterterrorism units) at the expense of broader efforts to promote rule of law, democratic governance and economic opportunity. Until the United States and other international actors address systematically these deeper causes of fragility, Yemen will remain the poster child for the dangerous consequences of such neglect.