October 7, 2011

When a Scalpel Becomes a Hammer

The death of Anwar al-Awlaki triggered three fundamental questions, in descending order of publicity: whether his killing was constitutionally legal, how much the cleric’s void damages al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and what the Obama administration should do about Yemen’s besieged strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The first debate, though valid and widely applicable, has consumed too much of the oxygen surrounding al-Awlaki’s demise. The remaining energy fuels a second debate between U.S. officials, journalists, editorial boards, think tanks and Yemeni analysts attempting to clarify al-Awlaki’s role and importance within AQAP.

His aftermath has buried the final question - whether the Obama administration should continue supporting Saleh’s violent regime - despite a direct correlation between AQAP’s ability to recruit and operate.

The American public has been led to believe that U.S. policy demands Saleh’s resignation, followed by a transition of power to his vice president, Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi. Numerous officials reinforced this political line after al-Awlaki’s death last Friday, insisting that the administration's position remains unchanged: Saleh must sign the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) “30-60” initiative and begin a transition of power. What no U.S. official is willing to tell the American people is that Yemeni protesters arranged a mock burial after the proposal was introduced in April, and are currently planning another. Drafted by U.S. and Gulf diplomats in consultation with Saleh’s representatives and the unpopular Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the GCC initiative favors Saleh’s regime at every point.

First, Saleh himself would receive an additional 30 days to resign, a clause designed to stall the revolution rather than facilitate a transition of power. A second clause, offered after push-back inside Saleh’s circle of security commanders, granted immunity for his family if they were willing to leave the country. A “unity” government composed of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and the JMP would assume executive authority under Hadi until elections could be scheduled in 60 days. The GPC, in conjunction with UN officials, later extended Saleh’s grace period and election schedule, however no party fully agrees on the GCC's terms. Although he promises to sign “at any moment,” Saleh’s more vocal tactic is to accuse protesters and the JMP of banditry.

Never has he displayed a sincere willingness to step down, instead pursuing a “constitutional” election organized under his supervision. For these reasons and many more (Yemen isn't an official member of the Saudi-bankrolled GCC), protesters view the initiative as a usurpation of their revolution, giving Saleh too much leeway while allocating too little time to organize politically. They also demand justice for 33 years of misrule.

Political cover aside, some observers still question the future of U.S. military support after al-Awlaki’s termination. Limited funding between 2005-2008 ($10 million in 2006) exploded in 2009 as AQAP grew its branch of al-Qaeda, jumping from $67 million to $150 million in 2010. The administration requested $106 million in military assistance for 2011, followed by $115 million in military/economic aid in 2012. These funds included upgrades for Saleh’s helicopter fleet, Hummers, night-vision devices, small arms and ammunition, but leave out the cost of covert U.S. activities. Even a portion of the State Department’s aid drains into Foreign Military Financing (FMF), including $35 million in 2011.

Throughout this time the Obama administration has ignored multiple flashing lights as the Pentagon and CIA chased al-Awlaki, fulfilling Saleh’s plot to keep himself useful. Personality was the first alarm. A wily political mind and duplicitous rhetorician, Saleh is distrusted by his own Hashid tribe, the majority of Yemenis and the Kingdom to his north. Not even the Obama administration possesses solid trust; during congressional testimony in July 2010, James Mattis warned that Yemen’s government and military was stretched to the “breaking point.” Having assumed command from David Petraeus, who negotiated America’s "secret" air campaign with Saleh, Central Command’s (CENTCOM) new chief explained that Yemen’s strongman, “has managed these crises through negotiation and by co-opting his opponents, but there are signs his ability to exert control is waning.”

U.S. funding continued precisely because the administration hoped to float Saleh until his term ended 2013, when his son Ahmed or a friendly leader could be installed. WikiLeaks eventually revealed that U.S. officials were aware of counterterrorism equipment being redirected towards Saleh’s political opponents, the northern Houthi sect and secessionist-minded Southern Movement (which maintains a militia). Human rights violations were repeatedly ignored; U.S. officials first denied, then admitted that counterterrorism support was flowing despite Saleh’s assault on peaceful protesters. Although a billion dollar package was suspended after Yemen’s revolution erupted in January, construction of a CIA base along the Saudi border accelerated from two years to eight months.

The drone that killed al-Awlaki and Samir Khan reportedly launched from this base, not Ethiopia or Djibouti.

Most recently, al-Awlaki’s death paved over news of a fatwā orchestrated by Saleh’s remaining religious allies, an order that outlaws protesting (haram). A U.S. statement following the UN Human Rights Council’s 18th session condemned ongoing violence in Sana’a and Ta’izz, but ultimately ignored a damning UNHRC catalog of Saleh’s abuses. The Obama administration continues to argue that counterterrorism units haven’t been deployed against protesters, when the majority of local accounts and the UNHRC's mission point to Saleh’s U.S.-trained units, the Republican Guard and Central Security Organization. The administration then waived Saleh’s child-soldier violation to keep aid flowing.

“Unfortunately, the USA sees Yemen only as a security threat and let its policy decided by counter terror experts, who understandably, would not appreciate our aspirations,” Dr. Abdulkader Alguneid, a leading activist in Ta’izz, wrote in a personal letter to President Obama.

Any speculation that Washington will sever its aid to Saleh’s regime ignores the fact that AQAP as a whole justifies this support, and one dead propagandist won’t change a shady arrangement. Some observers suspect that U.S. funding could dry up if Saleh flatly refuses to sign the GCC’s proposal, with U.S. forces simply flying over his head. His nephew, Yahya, is among those pushing this theory, but his reverse psychology cannot be taken at face value. As commander of the Central Security Organization, a unit accused of pulling out of the southern Abyan governorate to enable AQAP, the failures of U.S. policy can be viewed through his eyes.

“There’s no more training,” Yahya told The Washington Post, which also carried Saleh’s latest interview. “There has been no more ammunition or equipment. Gradually, their [U.S.] support is becoming less and less.”

That U.S. operations have ceased in Abyan would be laughable if not for the resulting loss of life and humanitarian crisis. In May Saleh had Yahya’s unit abandon Zinjibar, the local capital, in order to highlight AQAP's “chaos” and his ability to clean it up. Counterterrorism units were pulled back into urban protest centers and U.S. air-strikes in the south soon escalated. Once a regular military operation was mounted in late July, supposedly at the administration's urging, U.S. and Yemeni officials declared victory on the eve of 9/11. However the fighting in Zinjibar - and U.S. operations - refuse to abate.

Despite the administration's apparent caution in staying out of Yemen’s southern conflict - Saleh has long attempted to use foreign power against his political opponents - bleed-over is inevitable. While one administration official insists, “we’re not going to get enmeshed in that type of domestic situation,” the U.S. is already sunk to the waist. Strikes against al-Qaeda’s southern cadres have, on occasion, hit local militants and civilians instead. The administration’s definition of Yemen’s battlefield is too narrow; Washington's entire campaign in Abyan is considered an extension of Saleh’s repression. Ongoing cooperation gives figures like Yahya confidence when declaring, “Unfortunately the (American) president is influenced by reports without checking what the reality is. Maybe he was lied to. This is all lies... We do not have political ambitions and are not clinging to power.”

"Bored" with Yemen's revolution, Yahya concluded that the GCC initiative was unconstitutional and invalid.

Three weeks ago the State Department released a statement expressing “encouragement” that a political agreement could be reached within “one week.” Saleh responded with a massacre that left over 150 protesters dead and promptly returned from Riyadh to faux surprise from the White House. Fast forward two weeks - pressuring Saleh to sign the GCC initiative is equivalent to letting him remain in power. Administration officials reject a connection between his return and al-Awlaki’s death, but denial further erodes U.S. credibility in Yemen. Perception often becomes reality in counterinsurgency and U.S. policy is operating under vastly skewed impressions.

What is perceived as a surgical “scalpel” has become the flattening hammer that “offshore” counterterrorism supposedly avoids, damaging long-term U.S-Yemeni relations and inhibiting a sustainable strategy against AQAP.

Yemen’s youth movement and popular opposition remain peaceful, pro-democracy and open to working with the West in the event of genuine regime change. Unfortunately the administration has made the worst impression possible. Throughout seven months of hardened demonstrations and bloodshed, Yemen’s Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) has personally implored President Obama to support their struggle. Soon after the UNHRC’s mission was shelved and al-Awlaki burned away from a Hellfire missile, CCYRC released a statement cautioning, “Obviously the international community is turning its back to the millions of Yemeni youth seeking freedom!”


  1. "Yemen’s youth movement and popular opposition remain peaceful, pro-democracy and open to working with the West in the event of genuine regime change."

    These "revolutionaries" seem to believe that Saudi Arabia & The US will hand them power on a silver platter on the grounds that the revolutionaries can best advance their security interests.

    The youth and opposition have limited their political program to demands primarily for democracy. While this is a necessary demand/slogan, it isn´t enough to motivate many people to fight and risk death. A truly revolutionary political program must include land reform and democratization of concentrated wealth. The absence of such a program would necesitate reliance on a foreign military intervention.Futhermore, the avoidance of both a revolutionary program and the means of a revolution: revolutionary violence, are symptoms of the organic opportunism of the leadership of both the youth and formal opposition.

    The current dual power situation in Yemen is unsustainable. One side will prevail and one side will be crushed. Unless the popular pressure of the yemeni people sweeps away the cowardly and opportunist leadership, the revolution will be slowly strangled by the greater resourses of the state.

  2. I don't think protesters believe the U.S. and Riyadh will help them with anything. Requesting Western assistance is more of a formality, otherwise they would be isolated even further. I do agree with everything you say on creating a broad political platform to live and die for.

    An unresolved power struggle may be the ultimate outcome, but it's not the most sustainable. If the revolutionaries/civil coalitions cannot promise greater security than Saleh's regime or the opposition, it's hard to picture them delivering less.