Small Wars Journal

Yemen: Always on the Brink?

Fri, 04/20/2012 - 2:47pm

The recent directive from Yemen President Abd Rabbu Mansur Al-Hadi to change some key military commanders is risky, but a wise step forward.  Not only has he appointed regional commanders with considerable local knowledge, he has more importantly taken significant measures to start the process of removing former President Saleh’s blood-relatives from positions of influence. He is taking a chance, but he is likely to win the popular support of the people at least in the short term.  Moving forward there are three future scenarios worth considering for Yemen.

First, the risk of a Saleh coup d'état.  Under this scenario Saleh or his son Ahmed Ali - who still commands the Republican Guard - initiate a coup.  They throw the current president out of power and impose martial law to prevent “further deterioration” of Yemen’s interests.  They would likely use the rising threat of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)/Ansar al Sharia as the excuse.  However, this scenario would not last long. The Yemen people would immediately rise up and protest a Saleh coup in very large numbers.  The U.S. might need to consider direct intervention if this scenario were to occur to protect the people.  To prevent this scenario, President Hadi must continue to neutralize the power retained by Saleh’s relatives in positions of influence by moving them to less strategic positions and ultimately press for their complete removal. Saleh will need cast iron guarantees from a regional or international envoy to assure him of the logic of his departure from Yemen; the UAE for the family has been mentioned as a possible place.

Second, Yemen divides into 2 or 3 new states.  Despite increasing southern representation in the new Yemeni government, the secessionists press for an independent south.  A prolonged economic and political crisis would increase calls to divide the state.  This would be far from ideal and would be at the expense of Yemen to address outstanding grievances from the forced 1990 unification and subsequent 1994 civil war.  There are oil reserves in the south currently held hostage by AQAP.  Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, if the south were to secede, AQAP would step forward further in providing governance in the southern Abyan and Shabwah provinces.  They might declare a caliphate and they would not stop there. Averting a division of Yemen into North, South and AQAP states requires a credible national dialogue which must be announced soon and which has already to some extent started during qat chews.  Talks about talks over qat, discussions in coffee houses and community groups is what is needed.  For national dialogue to succeed all groups must be represented i.e., Houthis, Secessionists, Youth and Women.  An effective mechanism to communicate with AQAP may also be needed.   

Third, Yemen presses on through this difficult transition period slowly, but generally in the right direction.  This is the most likely and best case scenario. Yemen can deteriorate further from where it is now.  The first and second scenarios are disasters. With likely 50 percent unemployment, 50 percent living on less than 2 dollars a day, 50 percent under the age of 25, the focus must change from security to development when conditions are right.  Under this third scenario the political system will likely remain fractured until at least 2014 and presidential elections after a re-write of the constitution, a national dialogue event and also military re-structuring.  This scenario requires President Hadi to retain U.S. support and for regional powers to help push out Saleh and his remaining relatives, then maybe Ali Mohsen and others.  That action and the necessary surge against AQAP for stability might help unify the fragmented Yemen Army and assure its loyalty to the new Yemen state and its President.   

The U.S. has a key role to play stabilizing Yemen.  Indirect and direct support is welcomed and has proved to be vital.  But the U.S. must take its time with Yemen.  Drones are already a serious concern for the Yemeni.  Collateral human damage so far appears to have been tolerable.  But the recent discussions in the open press about a CIA request to President Obama to extend powers for use of drones is precisely the wrong approach for Yemen at this time.  Now is the time for greater accuracy and less collateral damage, rather than opening the door to what will be perceived in Yemen as a turkey shoot.  AQAP feeds off of the drone fear.  If drones cause too much collateral damage and civilians are killed, as will most likely occur if the restrictions are lifted, the U.S. will have contributed directly to the collapse of an already fragile government and maybe be seen as enabling scenarios one or two. Then Yemen will have much larger challenges to confront.  Our Yemeni partners are already pressing us to not increase the drone attacks and we should trust them on this issue.

 The U.S. must stay engaged in Yemen to prevent AQAP from growing again into the future. But more important for the long-term, Yemen needs U.S. support for economic development.  Yemen must address long-standing destabilizing factors through resourced and enduring economic programs focused on stimulating more jobs and providing hope as the security situation improves.  This will be the real long-term challenge and that work can only start once the security situation is set through their initiative.

Categories: yemen - AQAP

About the Author(s)

Sterling Jensen is a senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Robert Sharp is an associate professor at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.  The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



Sat, 04/21/2012 - 5:46pm

The authors refer to: 'The U.S. has a key role to play stabilizing Yemen...Yemen needs U.S. support for economic development'.

I accept the Yemen's importance to the USA, its friends and neighbours is almost entirely due to geography.

The authors conclude the USA has a key role, I disagree and the oscillating stance taken of late by the USA mainly has not endeared them, or the West to the Yemeni people. It is easy to label the current US security role as "We're only here to kill with drones".

Nor is this the time to advocate 'enduring economic programs' which I assume are funded by the USA, unless the USA is brave enough to divert such aid from clients who have a greater claim and political clout - Israel for example.

Given the existing Yemeni diaspora whose remittances are vital and their abundant human skills they could be the deciding factor in long-term development - keep sending money home and come to help please.

For the USA I would contend that less is more.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 04/21/2012 - 10:01am

Yemen is not important because of AQAP. Yemen is important because of it's geo-strategic location.

"AQAP" is largely an exaggerated fiction of the intelligence community. A mix of Saudi and Yemenese insurgents (all with vary valid reasons for their insurgent proclivities given the nature of the governments they oppose) and a handful of actual AQ operatives there conducting unconventional warfare in an effort to egg on those nationalist movements, while at the same time seeking support for their larger regional agenda.

Governance in Yemen must make bold changes if it is to truly evolve beyond the stranglehold monopoly of two competing families for control, while the vast majority of the populace is largely without voice or equitable opportunity. Given the proximity, terrain, sympathetic populace, and general lack of governmental presence in the back country, Yemen will also be the best, closest place for Saudi dissidents to flee to to find sanctuary from the Saudi regime.

Stability is over rated in a region that is in such dire need of dramatic change. Many places will get worse before they get better, that is the nature of such evolution. But to attempt to force it to remain static or to comply to some external vison of what "right" looks like can only delay the inevitable, while at the same time creating powerful motivation for acts of transnational terrorism against those who seek to exert such controls.

Yemen is indeed important, but it has little to do with AQAP.