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YEMEN: U.S. Poised to Increase Aid

Charles Fromm

WASHINGTON, Jan 6 2010 (IPS) - In the wake of a botched Christmas Day airliner bombing claimed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the direction of what used to be called the “global war on terror” settled on Yemen this week, with the United States slated to escalate economic and military assistance to the country’s beleaguered government.

Yemen has long been on the brink of failed statehood, plagued by corruption, poverty and violence. More then a decade after its civil war and reunification, a secessionist movement in the south of the country still threatens stability, as does an insurgency on its northern border with Saudi Arabia, led by the Houthi, a powerful Shi’a militia.

But Washington wants the government of President Ali Abdallah Saleh to focus on AQAP, which President Barack Obama himself blamed this weekend for the Christmas Day attempted bombing by a Nigerian national of a U.S. commercial airliner bound from Amsterdam to Detroit.

“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack a plane heading for America.” Obama declared Sunday. “So as president, I’ve made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with Yemen.”

To spur Saleh to action, U.S. officials have announced a doubling of the current military and security aid package. According to Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, who met President Saleh last Friday in Sana’a, “We have, it’s well known, about 70 million dollars in security assistance last year,” said Petraeus. “That will more than double this coming year.”

Washington also plans to provide 63 million dollars in development aid, said State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly on Monday. This is in stark contrast to the 8.4 million dollars in the last year of George W. Bush’s tenure, 2008, and still a hefty increase from 40.3 million dollars in the 2009.

AQAP is an offshoot of al Qaeda and was formally created in 2009 by the consolidation of separate al Qaeda affiliates in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It was from the tribal areas of Yemen that al Qaeda militants were able to launch their first attack against U.S. interests in the Gulf, with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole warship that claimed the lives of 13 U.S. sailors.

AQAP has grown in strength in recent years, particularly after a February 2006 jailbreak that freed 23 militants in Sana’a, including its current leader, Nasser Abdul Karim al-Wuhayshi.

Its ranks have been bolstered by the enlistment of former Saudi and Yemeni Guantanamo detainees who were repatriated and enrolled in state-run de-radicalisation programmes. Among them was Said Ali al-Shiri, now believed to be al-Wuhayshi’s deputy. AQAP has struck alliances with various tribal groups that have historically defied the central government’s writ and appears keen to exploit the state’s declining authority, which currently does not extend far beyond the capital.

With Washington’s strong encouragement, President Saleh reportedly deployed 10,000 troops last weekend to suspected AQAP strongholds in areas east of the capital. A number of clashes were reported to have taken place Monday as well.

This new campaign follows joint Yemeni/ U.S. airstrikes on Dec. 17 and 24, which government officials claim killed AQAP militants, including senior operatives. Witnesses claim the majority of those killed in the first strike were women and children.

Some analysts believe the new offensive to be the latest example of the careful balancing act practiced by Saleh – gaining strong support from western governments and Saudi Arabia, while pursuing only low-level al Qaeda operatives, in order not to offend influential tribal chiefs whose support he needs to maintain power, but who are also allied with AQAP.

Saleh has retained ties with a host of militant Sunni groups that he enlisted to fight the southern secessionist movement in the country’s brief 1994 civil war, many of which were veterans of the mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Some of these groups are sympathetic to AQAP.

Faced with the Houthi insurgency in the north and the growing secessionist movement in the south, Yemen’s government “is worried about keeping Saleh in power at any cost,” wrote Middle East analyst Mark Lynch on his widely read blog on this week. “The Yemeni government will no doubt be happy to take American and international money and support to strike against its enemies, but don’t expect that it will do anything approaching what we want them to do.”

Saleh, whose government is also faced with falling oil revenues and rising unemployment, is receiving critical support from Saudi Arabia as well. The Saudis, eager to exert their influence next door while at the same time sending a message to its own Shi’a population, have obliged with military operations against Houthi rebels and two billion dollars worth of financial assistance.

In a report released last month, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) warned that Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, “rests today on a knife’s edge”. It called on Washington to significantly increase both military and development assistance as part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy to ensure the state’s survival and repel the growing AQAP threat.

CNAS, a think tank from which the Obama administration has recruited heavily, also called for the U.S. to seek a political settlement to the northern “Houthi” rebellion so that “the government [could] take more seriously the threat posed by transnational terrorists present on Yemeni soil.”

Washington appears to be coordinating its efforts with those of Britain, whose prime minister, Gordon Brown, called an international conference this month on Yemen, as many western governments fear it could become a staging ground for terrorist attacks on their soil.

The conference, scheduled for Jan. 28 in London, coincides with another on the future of Afghanistan, also to be held in the British capital. Both conferences will focus on how to deal with the threat posed by Islamist radicalisation through aid and reform.

British officials said London was expected to give 160 million dollars to Yemen for counterterrorism purposes through 2011. However, both the U.S. and British aid figures are dwarfed by Saudi support last year.

The U.S., Britain and France closed their embassies in Sana’a on Sunday, followed by Germany and Japan on Monday, citing intelligence reports that they were to be targeted in further attacks. The missions were reopened Tuesday after Yemeni forces claimed the AQAP militants responsible for the threats were killed or arrested.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday stressed the importance of a multinational approach to Yemen, during a press conference in Washington with Qatar’s prime minister, Hamid bin Jassem al Thani.

“We’re going to listen and consult with those who have long experience in Yemen, such as Qatar… and work together to try and encourage the government to take steps that will lead to a more lasting period of peace and stability,” she said.

“It’s time for the international community to make it clear to Yemen that there are expectations and conditions on our continuing support for the government so that they can take actions which will have a better chance to provide peace and stability in the region,” she added, alluding to the government’s reputation for corruption and collusion with militant Islamists.

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