US must review Yemen policy to stress reform – and security

The Obama administration should ditch its current security-focused approach to Yemen and adopt a long-term strategy that combats the “factors that allow extremist ideology to spread: the absence of basic social services, a worsening food shortage, and chronic unemployment,” according to a distinguished group of experts.

But Washington should be wary of neglecting security concerns that threaten the viability of the Yemeni state, and the administration should “press stakeholders to address not only reform, but also the ongoing al-Qaeda threat,” says another analysis.

In an open letter to President Barack Obama, thirty-one analysts, journalists and former diplomats call on the president and his national security team to leverage the US government’s relationship with President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi (left) to encourage his government to meet agreed reform benchmarks and address human rights violations. 

This letter, signed by former US ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine, former State Department policy planning director Anne-Marie Slaughter, analyst Emile Nakhleh, and Shuja Nawaz, Director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, among others, outlines a series of policy recommendations, including: 

Support the National Dialogue in ways that empower independent voices—not only political party elites—and include more extensive outreach to Southerners and Yemenis outside of Sanaa and other urban areas

Work within the Friends of Yemen group to ensure that the generous pledges committed to Yemen are delivered and that the government of Yemen has the capacity and resources it needs to implement projects

Implement a more robust public diplomacy strategy to demonstrate that US interests in Yemen are not limited to counterterrorism and security issues

Reevaluate reliance on drone strikes with the recognition that this approach generates significant anti-American sentiment and could strengthen the appeal of extremist groups

Ensure that security restructuring achieves a unified command structure under civilian leadership and that US military assistance does not perpetuate the same mistakes made during former President Saleh’s tenure

Increase economic assistance and draw upon regional funds to support Yemen, in addition to a bilateral assistance package

But Washington should be wary of neglecting security concerns that threaten the viability of the Yemeni state, and the administration should “press stakeholders to address not only reform, but also the ongoing al-Qaeda threat,” says another analysis.

“The legacy of former president Ali Saleh’s three decades of rule looms large over the National Dialogue,” writes Daniel Green, the Ira Weiner fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “His leadership style emphasized an inclusive authoritarianism whereby he co-opted political challengers by incorporating them into the state’s system of power and patronage.”

The National Dialogue Conference will give Yemen an opportunity to pursue fundamental reforms, he writes, but also provides the US with an opening to help local actors focus on defeating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

“Meeting that goal will require a nuanced reform effort that aligns the state’s interests with those of the tribes and other groups that have tolerated or supported al-Qaeda in the past,” writes Green, a military veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq:


To defeat AQAP, Washington must help Yemenis identify common interests between the reforming state and the tribes that have supported al-Qaeda. A proper approach to reform would incorporate each tribe’s interests in a way that prompts them to welcome an expanded state presence instead of using AQAP as a bargaining chip. Accordingly, Washington should back the following measures:

  • A comprehensive political and security strategy to pacify al-Qaeda safe havens. Due to the centralization of the Yemeni state, local political authority has often been limited, creating a democracy deficit and prompting excluded tribes to use violence to achieve their goals. The United States should encourage participants in the National Dialogue Conference to discuss greater local political autonomy and authority within a more democratic framework.
  • Efforts to legitimize tribal Popular Committees. Pacifying AQAP havens will require the assistance of tribal “Popular Committee” units, not just Yemeni army and police forces. As has been demonstrated in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Yemen itself, a part-time tribal security force that is defensively oriented but recruited, trained, paid, and logistically supported by the state is central for enduring security. Tribes will support such an effort because it can provide security, employment, and a means of checking any abuses of power by expanding government forces. Washington should encourage Sana to legitimize these local units.
  • Full accounting of al-Qaeda abuses. A great deal of emphasis has been placed on documenting abuses that Saleh’s forces perpetrated against protestors in 2011-2012. A similar effort must be undertaken to document al-Qaeda’s abuses, and to investigate whether security organizations colluded with the group when it expanded its presence in Yemen in 2011. The United States should encourage a full accounting on both fronts, including responsible prosecution of any security personnel who helped al-Qaeda.
  • Working group of tribal and security leaders. Washington should urge conference participants to establish a working group of tribal, political, and security leaders from the areas most affected by al-Qaeda. This forum would help them share lessons learned in confronting the group, present a united reform agenda to the wider conference, and promote improved cooperation on shared goals after the conference. 

The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Project for Middle East Democracy (a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy) lead the Yemen Policy Initiative, which last June sent a letter to the president endorsed by twenty-seven foreign policy experts, which prompted a response from John Brennan in a public address.

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Iraq – a decade of democratic transition

Iraq’s erratic democratization has achieved significant gains in “transferring some power to a previously disenfranchised population,” says Abbas Kadhim, a senior fellow at the Boston University Institute for Iraq Studies:

Since Iraqis reclaimed sovereignty in 2004 they have managed to write and ratify a constitution, hold regular provincial and general elections, and begin to establish a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power and parliamentary life. This is a very significant reversal of the authoritarian rule in Iraq between 1958 and 2003, when governments were only replaced by violence and coups.

“Although it is fashionable to condemn everything that happened in Iraq post-2003, there are signs of hope for a progress toward a successful democratization,” Kadhim writes for Foreign Policy:

The withdrawal of U.S. forces de-legitimized political violence; the judiciary is demonstrating some independence; and the armed forces are subject to civilian control.

He could also have added the vibrancy and resilience of Iraqi civil society.

But “the most disturbing negative aspects” of the post-2003 period are the three forms of corruption plaguing the country: political, administrative, and financial, says Kadhim, the author of Reclaiming Iraq:

Each form contributes in its own way, and in collaboration with the others, to the failure of the country in its pursuit of progress and development. The ultimate result of this failure to curb corruption can be seen in the rising apathy of Iraqis and their lack of confidence in their government

More dangerous still is the contribution of corruption to the country’s instability and the continued political violence. In addition to causing the lack of services, lack of economic progress, and poor governance, it is clear from the empirical evidence that all three forms of corruption have contributed greatly to the deterioration of security in post-2003 Iraq. Corrupt politicians at all governmental levels have sponsored terrorism, collaborated with insurgents, or looked the other way in exchange for political gains to themselves or their respective political parties.


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