US Policy in Yemen: Shortsighted Focus Yields Limited Results

With a heavy reliance on shortsighted tactical strikes on terrorists, the US counterterrorism policy in Yemen ignores the underlying reasons that drive extremism and instability in the country. Danya Greenfield, deputy director for the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East recently examined the impact of drone strikes and the efficacy of the US counterterrorism approach in two new Atlantic Council publications, “Do Drone Strikes in Yemen Undermine US Security Objectives?” and “A Blueprint for a Comprehensive US Counterterrorism Strategy in Yemen.” She recently discussed with Rafat Al-Akhali, nonresident fellow with the Center based in Sana’a, the Yemeni perspective towards US policy, the underlying drivers for militancy and how the Yemeni government and the United States could rethink the security framework needed to address extremism.

Al-Akhali noted that Yemeni government support for US drone strikes illustrates how limited the approach to dealing with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has become. While recognizing the need, the government often cannot or will not prioritize the provision of basic service to Yemenis in areas where extremist groups are active, leaving a serious gap in human security that builds resentment and promotes cooperation with extremist militants.

One of the main drivers for militancy include economic reasons. High unemployment renders young Yemenis highly susceptible to recruitment by militant groups. Although a common ideology may drive some, the potential for income, housing, marriage, and a sense of purpose for young recruits is a far stronger motivation for joining extremists in their cause.

Al-Akhali’s advice for the United States is to continue fighting immediate threats, but also focus on long term priorities that go beyond emergency humanitarian aid and tactical drone strikes. The need for comprehensive development that helps to legitimize the government and provide options and security to ordinary Yemenis will alleviate the pressures to join well-funded armed groups.

Interestingly, for Yemenis, AQAP is not the top priority. Fears have grown as organized armed Houthi militancy in Sanaa (and elsewhere) presents a larger threat to ordinary Yemenis and the government. Al-Akhali discussed the need to implement the peace agreement, including withdrawal and surrender of weapons, to reestablish government control.

Greenfield also notes how US counterterrorism tactics, in its focus on AQAP and others, do not adequately consider how groups such as the Houthis could use the resulting security void to strengthen their position. If the United States hopes to protect its interests and address the threat of extremism in Yemen, it needs a new security paradigm to fill strategic gaps otherwise filled by militant groups.

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Image: (Photo: Flickr/Rod Waddington)