Hadramawt, Yemen. (Photo by the Tenant. Available at Flickr.)

April 11, 2011

2011 Yemen Strategic Exercise

The United States has not developed a coherent strategic approach toward Yemen despite the presence in that country of an aggressive and entrenched al Qaeda affiliate that has already attempted to conduct attacks on American soil. In spite of the obvious need to formulate a strategy incorporating many policy instruments to address the enormous political, social, economic, and resource challenges in Yemen, both the Bush and Obama Administrations confined their efforts almost entirely to enhancing the counter-terrorism capacity of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and, until May 2010, the use of drone strikes against high-value targets. There have been no indications that that approach was likely to succeed, and now it seems destined to be swept aside as the Arab Spring arrives in Sana’a.


  Scenario 1, April 11, 2011

  Scenario 2, April 19, 2011

  Scenario 3, April 27, 2011

The initial reactions of the Obama administration appear to be natural—but doomed. The Administration is understandably unwilling to involve itself in a collapsing Arab state with a population the size of Iraq’s that has the highest birth-rate in the region and massive drug addiction, whose oil and water resources are projected to dry up within the decade. It seems to have been working quietly and behind-the-scenes, probably with Saudi Arabia and possibly other Gulf States, to manage a reasonably smooth transition of power in which Saleh leaves but the relatives in command of Yemen’s U.S.-supported counter-terrorism forces remain. The likelihood that this approach will succeed is negligible. Not only is Yemen unlikely to see a smooth transition to a stable new regime, but its new leaders are singularly unlikely to see pursuing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on America’s behalf as a high priority for some time. However much we all prefer to wish our Yemen problem away, we cannot.

The Critical Threats Project at AEI has therefore launched the Yemen Strategic Planning Exercise to explore likely scenarios of regime-transition and state-collapse in Yemen and the possible American responses to those scenarios. Because of the rapid evolution of events in Yemen, this exercise will take a different form from previous such undertakings at AEI. The CTP team, led in this effort by Research Analyst and Gulf of Aden Team Lead Katherine Zimmerman, will post estimates for three transition/collapse scenarios as they are completed over the next few weeks. It will then turn to the consideration of American policy options in response to these scenarios.

We seek and welcome input on both topics—the scenario estimates and U.S. policy options. Please address comments, questions, or feedback to ContactWe have concluded this exercise. Please reach us at [email protected] for further comments.[email protected].

The current structure of the exercise is below, but changing events in Yemen may cause revisions in scenarios or in the pace, and even structure, of the exercise. 


Objective: Evaluate threats to U.S. interests and possible American policy responses in various scenarios following the departure from power of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.


1) Peaceful transition of power from Saleh to some successor(s)

2) Forceful removal of Saleh and regime loyalists by elements of the Yemeni military (escalation ranging from bloodless coup to civil war)

3) State fragmentation with or without Saleh nominally in charge in Sana’a

Methods: Exercise conducted in two phases. First, develop a series of intelligence estimates for three possible scenarios. Second, consider American policy options in response to the most likely and most dangerous scenarios.

Phase I:

Questions for scenario 1:

  • Who are the most likely candidates to succeed Saleh either singly or jointly? Who will be involved in the transition negotiation?
  • Will the Yemeni government and armed forces remain intact, fragment, disintegrate, or fall into internal conflict?
  • Will Sana’a lose more control over parts of the country? If so, where?
  • How will the various major tribes and other formal/informal opposition element react?
  • Is any such transition likely to remain stable or is it likely to degrade and/or collapse? If the latter, how rapidly?

Questions for scenario 2:

  • Who is most likely to remove Saleh? 
  • Who is most likely to replace him?
  • Who would fight for him?
  • Who is most injured by Saleh’s removal? How will they react?
  • How will the rest of the opposition and other interested parties react?

Questions for scenario 3:

  • If Yemen fractures, what are the outlines of the major pieces?
  • What sources of conflict would state collapse lead to?
  • Who is likely to fill the power vacuums in each area, with what objectives, and what potential conflicts?
  • What factors would drive a stalemate or fragmentation toward reunification or transition?

Questions for all scenarios:

  • How will neighbors react?
  • How will al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula react?
  • How will other al Qaeda franchises and al Qaeda central react?
  • What events are likely to trigger mobilization of the population for significant communal conflict? Along tribal, sectarian, ideological, geographical, or other lines?
  • What are the humanitarian risks involved?

Estimates for scenario 1, updated April 11, 2011

Peaceful transition of power from Saleh to some successor(s)

Estimates for scenario 2, updated April 19, 2011

Forceful removal of Saleh and regime loyalists by elements of the Yemeni military (escalation ranging from bloodless coup to civil war)

Estimates for scenario 3, updated April 27, 2011

State fragmentation with or without Saleh nominally in charge in Sana’a