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.