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U.S. Dangerously Short-Sighted on Yemen, Experts Warn

WASHINGTON, Jun 26 2012 (IPS) - As President Barack Obama’s administration becomes further enmeshed in what many are calling an undeclared war in Yemen, observers here are urging the government to broaden its policy approach to the country beyond counterterrorism.

“This is not a state that has failed, but rather a state that faces considerable challenges – and the time left to work with Yemen on starting to turn this around is limited,” Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said here on Tuesday.

“It will take the international community and specifically the United States having a much broader focus of where we are putting our assistance. It needs to be broader and longer term, focused far more on stability and sustainability challenges rather than focusing solely on the security challenges.”

Bodine, speaking at a panel discussion organised by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, said that over a half-century of relations, the U.S. has never decided on what sort of relationship it wants with Yemen.

Today, Yemen’s 26 million people find themselves saddled with an unemployment rate of nearly 40 percent, still higher among the youth. One of the poorest countries in the region despite an oil-dependent economy, Yemen last week was singled out by several humanitarian groups warning that 40 percent of the country’s children are on the edge of chronic malnutrition – the second highest such rate in the world.

Over the decades, “U.S. attention and assistance has waxed and waned, buffeted by events that have often had very little bearing on Yemen itself,” Bodine said.

“Our economic assistance swings wildly, our military assistance has been very erratic, and our diplomatic rhetoric towards Yemen has also been inconsistent. Beyond clichéd incantations of current policy dynamics – and the most current is, of course, counterterrorism – the U.S. has had a hard time finding why and whether we need to be there.”

On Monday, a group of Washington policy analysts, including Bodine, sent an open letter to President Obama, noting that “A broader approach that places emphasis on the underlying economic and political problems will better serve the stability of Yemen and, accordingly, (U.S.) national security interests, rather than a primary focus on counterterrorism efforts and direct military involvement.”

It continues: “The US should recalibrate its economic and governance assistance so that it represents a greater proportion of overall assistance compared with military and security assistance. The US needs to ensure that its focus is on achieving long-term goals, not only short-term objectives.”


To a great extent, the United States’ short-term, invariably security-focused approach to Yemen has been epitomised by the Obama administration’s ratcheting-up of drone strikes in Yemen over the past four months. Their aim is Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni wing of the terror network.

On Monday, a U.S. drone reportedly killed three AQAP members near the southern port of Aden. The strikes were the first time the United States has launched attacks in the province and constituted the 24th drone assault in Yemen this year, according to the Long War Journal, a reputed blog focused on the “war on terror”.

According to the same source, this is more than the 23 such attacks in Pakistan this year, despite the latter having received far more coverage and public criticism.

Yet much as in Pakistan, the public’s strengthening resentment at drone strikes – particularly the killing of civilians – in Yemen suggests to many that the consequences of such attacks are outweighing the benefits.

The open letter to President Obama also highlights this issue, urging the U.S. government to “Reevaluate (the) strategy of drone strikes with the recognition that this approach is generating significant anti-American sentiment and could strengthen the appeal of extremist groups.”

Indeed, AQAP has reportedly tripled in size since drone strikes in Yemen began in 2009.

Those attacks have been ramped up particularly since this February, when the country’s new president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi, took over power. That event was a major turning point in the country’s tenuous and ongoing transition from the three-and-a-half-decade rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“What’s happening is that both President Hadi and President Obama are getting rather deep into a mutually dependent relationship,” Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University and another signatory to the open letter, said on Tuesday.

When Hadi came to power, Johnsen says, he did not have a very deep support base in Yemen, and hence needed significant support from the U.S. and the international community. At the same time, the U.S. needs Hadi in order to continue its targeting of AQAP.

“Despite everything that President Obama and his staff has attempted to do, I think it finds itself in real danger of being in exactly the position today that it wanted to avoid in 2009 – that is, being in an open-ended conflict in Yemen against Al-Qaeda with no real way of knowing whether it’s winning,” Johnsen says.

“In fact, if you look at certain barometres, it seems that it’s losing – the more it tries, the more it is sucked deeper into this quicksand.”

Last week, for the first time, President Obama admitted in a letter to Congress that the U.S. military had carried out “a limited number” of strikes against AQAP. Beyond this, however, there has been almost no officially confirmed information on what is increasingly looking like a full-blown war in Yemen.

“If this war is worth waging, it’s worth waging openly. And it’s worth having a strategy with a clearly defined, achievable goal,” argue commentators Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman in a recent essay for the Danger Room blog.

“Does anyone know what that is in Yemen? Is it the end of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula? The containment of AQAP? A functional Yemeni government that can fight AQAP without U.S. aid? We’ve gotten so used to fighting in the shadows for so long, we barely even ask our leadership what victory looks like.”

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