January 20, 2010

Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing

Yemen: Confronting al Qaeda, Preventing State Failure on Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Nothing about Yemen is easy.  The challenges are manifold and hard to describe.  They interact in complex ways that defy full comprehension.  There are no simple solutions.  It is possible, indeed, that there are no solutions at all.  A small handful of people, including my distinguished colleagues on this panel, are conversant enough with the situation on the ground to be called experts in Yemen.  The rest of us who are concerned about America’s interests and security will have to learn quickly.

For the one thing that stands out clearly is that danger in Yemen is real, likely, and even imminent.  The state is deeply corrupt and ineffective.  Its civilian and military leadership is a patronage network as much as (perhaps more than) a government.  President Ali Abdallah Salih has ruled for three decades and is the only leader the re-unified Yemeni state has had.  His General People’s Congress holds an overwhelming majority in the elected house of parliament (Salih selects the members of the upper house) and is a reliable rubber-stamp.  Salih has concentrated power in his own hands to such an extent that participation in the Yemeni political process is not an attractive option for his opponents.

Salih faces two potentially existential challenges to his rule:  the al Houthi insurgency in the north and the southern secessionist movement.  The al Houthi movement challenges the legitimacy of Salih’s rule.  Putting a very complex issue simply, al Houthi founders and core members believe that only direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammad (Hashemites) are legitimate rulers in the state.  Salih is not a Hashemite; the al Houthi family members are.  From Salih’s perspective, the al Houthi claims are probably the most dangerous single domestic challenge he could face.  If the al Houthis could persuade their fellow Zaydis of their viewpoint, the basis for Salih’s rule among the very people on whom it depends would be destroyed.  Whatever the intentions of Hussein Badr al Din al Houthi, the movement’s founder, and whatever the likelihood of the triumph of his interpretation of religion and tradition, Salih has shown a hyper-sensitivity to the movement that belies a real fear of this threat.

The southern secessionist movement is less violent and, possibly, less threatening to Salih.  It stems from the grievances of some of the inhabitants of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen who believe that Salih has discriminated against them, impoverished their region, and excluded them from any of the benefits they expected that the 1990 unification of the country would bring.  In principle, the movement—some of whose leaders call for the re-partitioning of the country—threatens Yemen’s integrity and, indeed, survival.  Salih has shown significant concern for this threat, but not as much as he has shown for the al Houthi threat, either because the secessionist movement has so far been less violent or because he is confident in his ability to defeat the southerners having already done so decisively in the brief 1994 civil war.

These two threats have occupied much of Salih’s attention at the expense of the impending economic crises Yemen faces, which include the rapid depletion of its oil and water resources.  He has spent a significant proportion of Yemen’s small GDP on his military forces, including signing multi-billion dollar contracts to purchase advanced tanks and aircraft from the Russian Federation.  He has also enlisted the support of tribes hostile to the al Houthis and of Salafist groups and individuals, including some who are members or supporters of al Qaeda.

The combination of state ineffectiveness, corruption, and penetration by Salafists has contributed to a Yemeni counter-terrorism approach that has been at best ineffective and at worst ambivalent.  Since 9/11, Yemen has captured a number of al Qaeda leaders and received a number transferred from U.S. custody.  Many have either escaped or been freed.  Recently, the Yemeni military has worked more aggressively on targeting (often killing) al Qaeda leaders and cooperating with the American military, but we may have seen this pattern before:  after 9/11 Salih also cooperated with the U.S. to take apart the al Qaeda network in his country, but he was unwilling or unable to prevent it from reconstituting.

The prospect of pushing forward with such a cycle of cooperation and neglect would be distressing in any case, but might be the lesser evil if it seemed to be sustainable.  Yemen’s other internal crises make it unacceptable.  Salih has been unable to end the al Houthi insurgency in the north or the secessionist movement in the south.  Yemen spends a large portion of its GDP on the military, but cannot maintain internal security.  The al Houthi insurgency has grown enough to trigger the military intervention of Saudi Arabia.  Unconfirmed reports suggest that the insurgents receive aid from Iran.  Yemen also faces the prospect of imminent economic catastrophe, as both its oil and water reserves are projected to run out within a decade.  Its oil production is already declining, significantly reducing the government’s ability to maintain even the unstable equilibrium it has been literally buying over the past few decades with the oil revenue.  If current trends continue, there is every likelihood that the Yemeni state will fail.  State failure will likely result in internal violence in which Yemen’s neighbors become involved and which provides an environment conducive to the establishment of a serious al Qaeda safe-haven.

American military intervention in Yemen is extraordinarily undesirable for reasons that require no elaboration.  Yet the U.S. cannot view with equanimity the creation of a new terrorist stronghold in a chaotic and violent failed state—particularly when the terrorist group has already made one attempt to attack America directly.  The best course of action is to mobilize all of the resources of the U.S. and the international community to avert the disaster before it is upon us and our choices are constrained.  If ever there were a time and place for the aggressive application of “smart power,” this is it.

Before we decide what to do, we must be clear about what needs to be done.  So far, much of the reaction to the Christmas bombing attempt has focused narrowly on pressing President Salih to pursue al Qaeda more aggressively.  Some commentary has suggested that the U.S. carefully craft its policies to avoid entanglement in Yemen’s internal problems—and the U.S. has historically worked to prevent Salih from using American aid to combat his other internal enemies.

The trouble is that the U.S. is hopelessly entangled in Yemen’s internal problems the moment we decide that we must act against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Targeted airstrikes are a form of intervention in Yemen’s (or any country’s) internal affairs.  Pressing Yemen (or any state) to adopt particular counter-terrorism laws, policies, strategies, and tactics is a form of entanglement.  The U.S. may desire to restrict the conversation to those issues alone, but the Yemeni government will be both unable and unwilling to do so. 

President Salih will not consider the requirements for using his security services against al Qaeda separately from the problem of fighting the al Houthi rebels or the southern secessionists, no matter how much we might wish him to do so.  He will not separate our demands that he target Salafists affiliated with or supportive of al Qaeda from his own relationships with them.  He will not separate our insistence that he fight our enemies on his soil from what he perceives to be the requirements of maintaining himself in power.  The only question we face is whether we choose to engage with President Salih on the basis of a common understanding of the situation and both sides’ equities or whether we develop strategies based on false assumptions that are bound to fail.

America’s objective in Yemen can be stated more simply than it can be achieved:  the U.S. and its international partners must seek to defeat al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula by, with, and through the legitimate Yemeni government and security forces and to create conditions that will avert the collapse of Yemen and/or the re-emergence of a terrorist safe-haven there in the future.  The U.S. should make every possible effort to achieve this objective without introducing American military forces into Yemen—indeed, the strategy should take avoiding the necessity for such a deployment as a secondary objective in itself.

U.S. policy must be clear about the internal challenges to President Salih’s rule.  We cannot expect Salih to serve our interests in fighting al Qaeda while we remain agnostic about the outcome of the armed insurgency now underway in the north.  We need not—and should not—attempt to resolve the conflict ourselves, impose terms, mediate, or simply help Salih crush the Houthis militarily.  We can—and should—pressure Salih to make reforms and concessions to address at least some of the Houthi demands, as well as those of other increasingly restive and potentially violent sources of opposition within his state. 

But we must recognize that we have already chosen sides.  If our strategy is based on the assumption that Salih will be our partner, then we must be prepared to help him end the violent armed insurgency within his state.  If we are not prepared to do so—and one could argue the undesirability of doing so—then we cannot base our strategy on the assumption that he will be our ally.  Put simply and brutally, we cannot expect Salih to commit to supporting us if we refuse to support him.  If we decide, therefore, that we simply cannot commit to helping Salih end the armed insurgency for whatever reason, then we must develop a strategy that does not require his assistance.  It is hard to see how such a strategy could be other than one of two things:  allowing the likely growth of AQAP to continue for some time or choosing to use American military force directly in Yemen.  Neither option is desirable if there is any alternative.

Let us try to find an alternative strategy.  Its contours are clear, if the means of accomplishing it are not.  The key challenges are:

  • Helping the Yemeni government establish its legitimacy with its population, including the reconcilable elements of the al Houthi insurgency and the southern secessionist movement;

  • Helping, encouraging, and cajoling the Yemeni government and security services to separate themselves from Salafist extremists who support al Qaeda and its aims;

  • Working with the Yemeni government to disentangle al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from the reconcilable tribal elements that now support and shelter them;

  • Improve the capacity of the Yemeni security services to combat al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and irreconcilable elements engaged in armed insurgency against the state;

  • Help Sana’a and the international community develop and implement plans to avert the immediate crises of impending oil and water shortages;

  • Work with the international community to encourage and cajole the Yemeni government to establish a functioning state structure that meets the minimum standards of effectiveness and transparency required to secure its legitimacy in the eyes of its people;

  • Encourage and cajole the Yemeni government to make reasonable concessions in pursuit of peaceful resolution of internal conflicts while assisting it in efforts to defeat irreconcilable elements who insist on using organized violence to pursue their aims;

  • Work with Yemen and its neighbors to integrate Yemen into the GCC and the international community.

The U.S. does not have a recent successful model for the development and execution of such a strategy.  Examples in Iraq and Afghanistan are of dubious utility because the civilian efforts there have depended heavily on the presence of large numbers of American and international military forces and planning staffs.  It might be tempting to view Yemen through the prism of the military’s foreign internal defense model (FID), but this temptation must be resisted.  The problem is much greater than improving the capabilities of Yemen’s military, and FID doctrine does not extend to reforming the host nation’s government and state apparatus.  The U.S. government will have to design and implement a new model for accomplishing this important mission, and fast.

Photo by Eesti.  Available at Flickr.