24 December 2009

Learning from Our Mistakes: Navigating Yemen

I'm gonna stick around the same region as yesterday for today's international security post...

Lots of news coming out Yemen recently as the US seems to be becoming drawn into that country to an increasing extent.--which is often lumped in with Somalia as something of a "future Af/Pak" region. Recent news reports have indicated that President Obama has personally issued orders for US forces to assist Yemeni forces with strikes and raids against the AQ-affiliate there, Islamic Jihad of Yemen. And today, news came out that a Yemeni air strike against that group may have killed the radical Yemeni cleric that the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hassan, was in contact with. In November, there were claims that the US signed a military agreement with Sanaa, but this wasn't confirmed by US government sources.

The beleaguered Saleh regime in Yemen may be in the most difficult position right now of any government in the world. It faces a 3-pronged attack:

1. The Houthi rebellion by members of the Zaidi sect of Shi'ism probably constitutes the biggest threat to the stability of the state right now. Recently, Saudi Arabia seems to have stepped in to support the Saleh regime against the Houthis, even by conducting air strikes across the border.

2. The periodic push for secession by southerners has re-ignited recently--South Yemen was formerly the only Marxist republic in the Middle East prior to reunification in 1990, followed by a brief civil war in '94. This has not devolved into armed conflict, but secessionist rallies have seen violence by state security forces.

3. The ongoing efforts of Islamic Jihad in Yemen.

Yesterday's post outlined 3 major lessons from US policy failures in East Africa:

the War on Terror mentality, the Bush Administration's "with us our against us" mentality, and the too-close relationship with Ethiopia

How can we apply these to the situation in Yemen in order to avoid creating the kinds of problems we have in East Africa? Some thoughts...

the War on Terror mentality, the Bush Administration's "with us our against us" mentality

With respect to this issue, I think it is best that the US needs to a) work with Sanaa only to the extent to which our interests coincide and b) realize that Yemen needs us way more than we need Yemen. As far as coinciding interests, of the three big threats to Sanaa, the only one that seems to be of any concern to the US is the third--the AQ-affiliate operating there. I don't see any compelling reason why we would need to help fight the Houthis or help Sanaa suppress the southern unrest. This would mean any assistance provided to the Yemeni forces should be clearly targeted toward the fight against Islamic Jihad in Yemen, if possible. Second, we have to realize that any one of these threats is a way bigger danger to the Saleh regime than to the US and our allies. To often we have let small client states hold our policies hostage because we inflate the dangers of these sort of things.

the too-close relationship with Ethiopia

I think either Sanaa or Riyadh could stand in for Ethiopia here. Just because Yemen is cooperating with us, as did Ethiopia, is no reason to unconditionally support all of their policies. The Saleh regime isn't particularly democratic or humane. We can leverage our assistance to try to improve this, but, again, there is no compelling reason to support the campaign against the Houthis or the southerners. And the Saudis may be important strategic allies, but our security and economic relationship doesn't mean we have to support their meddling in northern Yemen.

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