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Continued Unrest in Yemen Should Force U.S. to Reevaluate Strategy

Yemen, long a fragile state, appears to be on the brink of failure and hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment sent to Yemen, now gone missing, might be fanning the flames. Since 2007, the United States has been involved in a variety of counterterrorism activities in the strife-riven country of Yemen. This included not only U.S. drone strikes and special operations conducted against the major terrorist group encamped in the country’s barren southern expanses, Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), but also a substantial effort to train and equip Yemeni forces. This approach—which largely avoided the more difficult and costly tasks of improving governance and building more capable public institutions—is backfiring.

After the Iran-backed Houthi rebels overran the Yemeni capital in January and forced out the Yemeni government, the United States lost track of the military equipment it had given to Yemen—worth about $500 million. It includes small arms, ammunition, night vision goggles, patrol boats, vehicles, and other supplies. While rebel possession of U.S. equipment is worrisome enough, the instability surrounding the coup also causes concerns that AQAP may acquire some of the weaponry. In response, the U.S. Department of Defense has already halted $125 million in scheduled military deliveries to Yemen this year.

After being ousted from the northern capital of Sanaa, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled to the southern port of Aden, gathering forces there to combat the Houthis in the north. On Thursday, Hadi’s forces clashed with the Special Security Forces, a unit loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, at the international airport in Aden, shutting down the airport’s operations. Saleh, who was forced to resign following protests against his rule in 2011, had formerly clashed with the Houthis but has now apparently allied with them in a bid to regain power. After fighting that resulted in multiple casualties, Hadi’s forces were able to secure control of the airport.

With decades of chronic political violence and diminishing oil and water reserves resulting in subsequent economic weakness, Yemen is a prime-breeding ground for terrorist groups. Yemen has been tied to a number of terrorist attacks and plots: the USS Cole in 2000, Anwar al-Awlaki’s incitement to terror beginning in 2004, the “underwear bomber” in 2009 and the cargo plane plot in 2010. Most recently, AQAP took credit for the January attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Since Yemen’s inception in 1990, the General People’s Congress (GPC)—an Arab nationalist political party—has ruled the country with limited success. While far from a perfect ally, the GPC and the United States have had a mutual interest in diminishing the power of Al-Qaeda and Iran. In Yemen’s three-way power struggle between the GPC, AQAP and Houthi militants, the United States’ choice to provide substantial military support to the GPC served to limit the rise and spread of sub-state terrorism and Iranian power. However, the distribution of weapons to the Yemeni government has failed to stem the country’s endemic instability. Unfortunately, with the potential for weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists, the distribution may exacerbate it.

In a 2011 case study on Yemen, the Bipartisan Policy Center wrote that “nearly a decade after 9/11, terrorists with ties to Yemen reminded the world that global threats continue to emanate from fragile states, no matter how distant and remote.” Four years later, that continues to be the case.

The report went on to warn: “were the situation to deteriorate further, and Yemen to fail completely, the United States would likely witness a security vacuum on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. At best, this would mirror Somalia across the Red Sea; at worst the two could combine to destabilize the entire region.”

For a discussion of these issues, join the Bipartisan Policy Center on March 26 for “Fragility and Extremism in Yemen, Again,” a panel discussion featuring: Barbara Bodine, Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen; William D. Murray, Former Senior Executive at the Central Intelligence Agency; and Leslie Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs at the National Democratic Institute.

William Spach contributed to this post.

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