Flaws in America’s Yemen policy
Patrick Seale / Gulf News / First Published July 6 (author)
Some 150 militants are said to have been killed as well as unnumbered others who happened to be in the area of the strikes. It appears that any man of military age is automatically considered a ‘terrorist’. Large numbers of villagers have fled in terror from their homes.
The targeted killing of suspected ‘terrorists’ — the centerpiece of current U.S. strategy — has been at great political cost. It has aroused fierce anti-American sentiment among the local populations, largely because missile strikes inevitably cause the death of innocent civilians.
Far from defeating the radicals, these cruel and somewhat indiscriminate strikes by unmanned predator drones drive volunteer jihadis into ‘terrorist’ ranks while discrediting and delegitimising local political leaders who — since they feel compelled to back U.S. policies in exchange for financial aid — are seen as U.S. stooges.
Pakistan has tended to receive more attention than Yemen, because of its close links to the catastrophic war in Afghanistan, now in its 11th year. The U.S. needs the support of Pakistan — and indeed of Iran — if it is to manage something like an honourable withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. But the U.S. cannot cripple Iran with sanctions and expect it to lend a hand in Afghanistan.
In turn, U.S. relations with Pakistan have come under great strain because of the drone attacks and a host of other violent incidents in which the U.S. is seen as trampling on Pakistani sovereignty — such as the killing of Osama Bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in May 2011. The Pakistan Foreign Ministry has stated that drone attacks are “in total contradiction of international law and established norms of interstate relations”.
The breakdown in U.S.-Pakistan relations, and the corresponding support Islamabad is giving to certain militant Afghan groups, have greatly complicated NATO’s task in Afghanistan. Yemen is as important as Pakistan for regional peace, not least for the threat which its instability poses to the security of its northern neighbour, Saudi Arabia. Violent ripples from Yemen have also spread to Somalia, where the local Islamic militants, Al-Shabab, are said to have established close ties with their opposite numbers in the south of the region.
Yemen continues to be in the grip of intense political turmoil. It has by no means recovered from its long struggle to oust Ali Abdullah Saleh, its former president, who was in power for 33 years. Earlier this year, he was at last persuaded — and pressured — to step down in favour of the former vice-president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The new president inherits a number of tasks of extraordinary difficulty: he must relaunch the collapsed economy, set in train a much-needed process of national reconciliation, tame the sons and nephews of the former ruler who still occupy important commands in the army and security services, while at the same time fight a rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, and Ansar Al-Sharia, a militant group aligned with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
This AQAP franchise, if that is what it is, appears to have won considerable local support in and around the southern port of Aden and its neighbouring provinces by administering Islamic justice, helping the poor and giving the locals a taste of clean government.
The man President Hadi appointed to fight Ansar Al-Sharia, Maj Gen Salim Ali Qatn, was killed by a suicide bomber, said to be a Somali, in Aden last month after he claimed to have made some headway against militants in Abyan province.
These many conflicts apart, Yemen is in desperate need of economic aid. U.N. agencies say that famine threatens 44 per cent of the population. Nearly one million children are acutely malnourished. UNICEF says that half a million of them are likely to die in the coming months if immediate action is not taken. Water and oil are running out. The government’s budget deficit is estimated at $2.5 billion (Dh9.1 billion).
At this critical juncture, when President Hadi urgently needs international support, a donors conference, which had been due to be held in Riyadh at the end of June, has been displaced to New York and postponed until late September. This is a bitter blow to the new government. It is bound to undermine its legitimacy, increase instability, and play into the hands of the militants.
Instead of encouraging, coordinating and overseeing a large and much needed aid programme for Yemen — which in any event would be largely financed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States — the U.S. has over the past ten to fifteen years tended to view the country through the narrow prism of counter-terrorism. That remains the fundamental weakness of U.S. policy towards Yemen today.
The U.S. preoccupation with terrorism is understandable but wrong-headed. It suffered a severe shock when the USS Cole was attacked in Aden harbour on Oct. 12, 2000. A speedboat piloted by two members of Al-Qaeda exploded several hundred pounds of explosives into the hull of the vessel, killing 17 U.S. sailors. The U.S. has pursued the terrorists relentlessly ever since, but with only mixed results.
Regrettably, the U.S. has failed to ask itself why militants hate it and want to punish it. Even the devastating attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, failed to stimulate an American national debate of sufficient seriousness and depth into the motives for the assault. Many Americans seem to have contented themselves with the simplistic view that their country was ‘good’ and their Islamic enemies ‘evil.’
In Yemen, the emergence of a militant movement over 20 years ago was largely the work of the so-called ‘Afghan Arabs’ — that is to say of former mujahideen whom the U.S. had recruited, armed and trained to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but which it then callously abandoned once the Soviets withdrew. Another grievance which has fed anti-American sentiment in Yemen is the way the U.S. punished Iraq — a country which had very close ties with Yemen — after the first Gulf War of 1991. Crippling sanctions were imposed on Iraq for thirteen years, much like those now imposed on Iran. Needless to say, the destruction of Iraq by the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 and the horrors of the long occupation that followed have not made America many Arab friends. And then there is that other major factor, which is forever eating away at America’s reputation and standing: its blind support for Israel in its continued oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians.
Far from easing these grievances, drone attacks only make them worse. A radical policy rethink allied to a massive aid programme might go some way to restoring American authority. But, in Washington’s current political climate, this task would seem to be at least as daunting as that confronting Yemen’s new President, the luckless Abd Rabbu Mansour Al Hadi.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs, Al Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire