U.S.-Yemeni Terror Obsession Will Not Solve Yemen’s Woes

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Among the world leaders who congratulated President Barack Obama for winning a second term last week was the Yemeni president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. From the Yemeni leader’s point of view, the most important aspect of Mr Obama’s reelection is perhaps the issue of the continuation of a U.S.-Yemeni war on terrorism.

In the congratulatory cable, President Hadi “reiterated that the Yemeni-American partnership will continue to advance and the cooperation in the fight against terrorism will progress.” Mr. Hadi praised his American counterparts’ “achievements in curtailing the threat of terrorism and highlighted the linkage between global interests with the performance of the U.S. administration”. No other Yemeni subjects were raised in the cable.

The prominence given to antiterrorism efforts in the U.S.-Yemeni relationship recalls the days of the old regime. Under Ali Abdullah Saleh, there was consistent controversy about whether the former president was sincere in his fight against Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), or was just manipulating the cause to secure more military aid and support to his regime.

This is not to suggest in any way that Mr. Hadi is manipulating the security cause, but to mention “terrorism” twice in a short note of congratulation raises questions about Mr Hadi’s approach to the challenges facing Yemen and his strategies for moving the country forward.

Mr. Hadi’s appetite for tighter collaboration on security and antiterrorism seems to be motivated by his successes in the Abyan province, where AQAP militants have been driven out of several cities they’d controlled during the uprising against Mr. Saleh (including Lawdar, Jaar, Zinjibar and Shaqra).

AQAP moved into the remote province during the uprising in Sanaa, taking advantage of a collapse of security beyond the capital. Then, for probably the first time in its history (it was formed in 2009), AQAP abandoned its traditionally secretive approach and expanded into civil governance in Abyan. AQAP controlled police stations, regulated traffic and solved local disputes.

A collaboration of Yemeni boots on the ground, along with American drones overhead, led to the decisive collapse of this experiment in AQAP governance.

It also brought promises of even more antiterrorism funding from the U.S. The Washington Post reported in July that to consolidate this U.S.-Yemeni security collaboration, “the U.S. military is preparing to give more than $100 million in counterterrorism and security aid to [Yemen] this year”.

Before President Hadi reiterates his commitment to taking security collaboration to the next level, he, along with the U.S., should be assessing to what extent the collaborated effort has indeed been successful.

First of all, the collapse of AQAP governance in Abyan does not weaken the organisation in terms of its ability to attack. It only returns the organisation to its previous state, as a clandestine group that plans and hits selected targets, either in Yemen or abroad. Governance has never been part of organisation’s mandate. Renouncing its hold on Abyan may actually even end up strengthening AQAP, as it relieves the group from the burden of governance.

Furthermore, the Yemeni army did not provide the full protection needed after the fighting and left the local tribes who fought as part of the alliance with the U.S. military vulnerable, in particular to retaliatory attacks from AQAP. In fact, AQAP responded in August with a suicide bombing that targeted a funeral in the city of Jaar, killing 45 people.

If the Yemeni-American security alliance does not address the needs of the local tribes, it is unlikely they will be around when the next fighting begins. In other words, providing security and maintaining order takes more than just drone attacks with no strings attached.

In Northwest Pakistan, the same model has led to the alienation of local communities and turned them to easy recruiting targets for Al Qaeda. In Yemen, an estimated 200,000 people displaced by the fighting are still unable to return to their homes.

President Hadi’s emphasis on “the Yemeni-American partnership in the fight against terrorism” should deal with the root causes of the problem rather than treating it merely as a matter of military aid and arms. That is the failed model that his predecessor used for years.

At the top of the list of root causes for the spread of terrorism is poverty. The UN’s World Food Programme reports that food insecurity in Yemen had doubled in the last two years, leaving approximately 45 per cent of the population short of food. An estimated 300,000 children are facing malnutrition, while unemployment exceeds 46 per cent.

Equally important are the challenges facing President Hadi on the political front. The political settlement – or GCC initiative – that brought him to power is facing serious obstacles almost one year on from its signing in Saudi Arabia. Loyalists of the former president are still actively advancing their own agenda. The national dialogue process that was supposed to take place months after the signing has not even started. And there is now talk of the Southern movement boycotting the dialogue. Unless the political settlement produces result soon, Yemenis will begin to question where the political process is really taking them.

The results the Yemeni people expect are definitely not those emphasised by President Hadi in his cable to the American president. Rather, the focus from both Mr. Hadi and his American counterparts should be on meeting serious development objectives.

Yemenis need to see hope, not drones. Failure to reorient the U.S.-Yemeni relationship in this way will only add further pressure to the fraught political settlement, and bring its collapse one step closer, an outcome that would damage the ability of both the U.S. and Yemen to advance security, stability and development in the country.