While John Brennan’s, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, recent speech on U.S. policy in Yemen still echoed in the halls of the Council of Foreign Relations, the rebel Houthi movement was busy planning an anti-American demonstration galvanizing hundreds of supporters across the country. Although the Houthis are by no means representative of the Yemeni public, they are tapping into a widespread sentiment in order to garner sympathy and support.
Originally emerging as a geographically-contained, rebellious movement seeking autonomy and independence from Sanaa’s central government and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, they are now positioning themselves as a revolutionary force that seeks to advocate for the downtrodden and overturn injustice.
Their tactics are not new, but what is notable is the wide disconnect between what Brennan asserts in Washington and what is felt in the hills and valleys throughout Yemen, not only among the Houthis, but among opposition party activists, youth activists, and the otherwise disgruntled masses. The gap is profound, despite concerted U.S. attempts to support Yemen’s democratic transition and provide emergency food assistance. To its credit, the Obama Administration has exerted great effort to increase the amount of non-military assistance for development and humanitarian aid — reaching more than $175 million of a total $337 million package for FY2012 — and has recognized the need for a long-term, development-focused strategy in Yemen not narrowly limited to drone strikes. The United States actually provides more humanitarian assistance to Yemen than any other country, and yet, the perception remains that the United States is focused solely on eliminating terrorist networks (which could alternatively be classified as a local insurgency) and sustaining a military arrangement that benefits its interest to the detriment of the Yemeni public.
When the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah visited Yemen in June, including a much appreciated trip to the southern war-torn Abyan province, he announced a new $52 million package in humanitarian assistance, a significant increase given the tight budget climate in Washington. This initiative should help demonstrate to Yemenis the seriousness of American intentions, but it will take time for the projects to get underway. As it does, the embassy and its interlocutors should not be shy about touting concrete projects that will help provide infrastructure, new wells, and electricity generators. Even with this positive overture, the international and local press is far more likely to place stories about drone strikes or military trainers on the front page instead of highlighting the softer success stories of bilateral partnership; the old truism sticks that what bleeds leads.
Part of the challenge in shifting this perception is that Yemenis have watched U.S. attention to Yemen rise and fall over the years, the ebb and flow of assistance rising to a peak, then nearly zeroing out, then rising again after the Christmas Day bombing attempt in 2009. In order to make the administration’s efforts credible, it must drive home the point that the United States has a long-term, sustained commitment to Yemen’s development that is not driven only by the presence of extremists in its midst. Many are still skeptical of U.S. intentions and see that former President Saleh used (and exaggerated) the al Qaeda card to manipulate support and money from the Americans, who were all too inclined to pour money into counterterrorism units. Now that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is actually a real and growing threat emanating from Yemen — not only to the U.S. homeland, but more immediately to Yemeni institutions, soldiers, and civilians — there is a renewed opportunity to forge a coordinated, comprehensive approach between Yemen and the United States to address what is clearly a shared priority.
While the United States may not be able to reverse anti-American sentiment in short order while drone strikes continue, there are a number of steps the administration can take at this extremely critical moment to build greater credibility and underscore its commitment to a successful political and military transition. To begin with, U.S. and Yemeni leadership must make consistently clear that the fight against AQAP and Ansar al Sharia is a Yemeni fight and that the United States is assisting efforts led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his military command. Targeted strikes by U.S. aircraft should be understood as a joint endeavor, and greater transparency to both the American and Yemeni publics about what is being done and why it is necessary. During a visit to Sanaa in early July, I spoke with many Yemenis who recognized the legitimacy of U.S. involvement, and even acknowledged the necessity of targeted strikes, but deeply resented what they felt as an American violation of its national sovereignty. The ability for Yemeni forces to “own” this campaign will undercut claims that the United States is overstepping.
President Hadi has started the painful process of upending the status quo and reorganizing the military and security establishment, and the United States has an important role to play in this particularly sensitive moment. This is perhaps the most dangerous and most important aspect of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deal that set forth a roadmap for Yemen’s transition and could bring about a genuine transition to a post-Saleh period. In the spring, Hadi removed the former president’s nephew, Tariq Saleh, and several other commanders connected to the family from their military positions. Just this week, he made an extremely bold move by transferring several units from the Republican Guards and the First Armored Division to alternative command, which serves to weaken the two most powerful centers of military power, that of General Ali Mohsen and Ahmed Ali, former President Saleh’s oldest son. In response, more than 200 Republican Guards surrounded the defense ministry and battled with government troops, a direct threat to Hadi’s authority and efforts at reorganization. This fight goes to the heart of privilege, power, and politics; it is a major undertaking that will require the fortitude to withstand significant internal pressure. The United States should continue to provide robust support to President Hadi in his efforts to restructure the security forces, both rhetorically and materially, as appropriate. The success of Yemen’s transition rests on his ability to wrest control from Saleh and his family.
However, even while supporting Hadi, the United States must ensure that the thrust of its support is oriented toward building strong military and civilian institutions to guarantee Yemen’s security, not individual figures in the security establishment. It would be far too easy to replace Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ahmed Ali, Tariq, Yahya, and the rest of the Saleh cohort with another set of thugs to fight AQAP, but that is not what hundreds of Yemeni youth died for in Change Square. Financial assistance to the military should be channeled through central institutions and not individual commanders, oriented to building their capacity, ultimately with an eye toward assuming operations that the United States is currently conducting.
Looking ahead to the coming month, the United States should use the opportunity of the upcoming donors meeting in Riyadh on September 4 and 5 and the Friends of Yemen meeting at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on September 27 to rally international financial and diplomatic support for Yemen’s precarious transition. The United States, its European allies, and other interested parties should provide assistance for an inclusive national dialogue process, constitutional development, the creation of a new voter registry, and elections support. Perhaps most importantly, the administration should pressure Gulf states and other allies to follow its lead and contribute significant economic and food resources to address Yemen’s critical humanitarian conditions. President Hadi has taken important steps to move the GCC process forward; now the United States, the European Union, and the GCC countries need to carry their end of the bargain to ensure that Yemen has the tools and resources to capitalize on this narrow opening.
Danya Greenfield is deputy director of the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy.