POMED Notes: Crisis Yemen: Going Where?
On Tuesday, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations cohosted an event with the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies called “Crisis Yemen: Going Where?” Dr. John Duke Anthony moderated the panel discussion that featured former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine, author Gregory Johnsen, President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies Dr. Charles Schmitz, and Professor Robert Sharp of the Department of Defense National Defense University
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
Dr. Anthony started the discussion by listing what he called the “roots of pessimism” in Yemen: a high population, unemployment between 35 and 40%, the over 130,000 villages of less than 200 people that lack basic infrastructure, and the government change taking place over all of this.
Ambassador Bodine then gave a broad overview of recent history in Yemen in which she called the U.S. relative newcomers that have been defined by incomplete projects and inconsistent commitments. Bodine argued that the U.S. has done Yemenis a disservice by never defining their relationship with Yemen, and by pursuing vague goals that only address the symptoms and not the causes of the country’s challenges. The “always almost failing state” nevertheless has weathered assassinations, invasions, coup attempts, humanitarian crisis, and not only has avoided total state failure, but has doubled in size and experimented in democracy. Bodine quoted a friend in saying the U.S. should not shift away from security concerns in Yemen, but should instead “open its aperture” to the long-term needs of Yemenis.
Greg Johnsen followed by describing the U.S.’s response to al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP) which has been marred by botched strikes killing civilians that has been a boon to AQAP propaganda. Johnsen said it can be hard to tell who has done what strike, as the Yemeni government, with the U.S.’s consent, often takes credit for U.S. attacks. Since Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi became president, there has been a dramatic increase in strikes as part of what Johnsen called the U.S.-Yemen mutually dependent relationship. Johnsen also said that the U.S. has significantly loosened its criteria for targets from the top two dozen AQAP leaders, but there is no way to tell if the U.S. is “winning.”
Johnsen went on to describe al-Qaeda’s growth, having gone from near non-existent in 2005, to around 1,000 now with the capacity to hold territory. Johnsen blamed this resurgence on the collapse of Yemen’s military, civilian deaths in air strikes, and recent successes attracting more support from around the Gulf. On the question of what can be done, Johnsen argued that the U.S.’s fight against AQAP should be framed as Yemen versus AQAP with the U.S. as an ally, that the U.S. should recognize its strategy of trying to keep al-Qaeda “off-balance” to prevent terrorism as unsustainable, and that a space should be opened up to include tribes and clerics in the fight. Johnsen finished by warning that the U.S. relies too heavily on drone strikes and that the environment in Yemen today is more radical than in the 1990’s when the current generation of AQAP leaders came of age.
Dr. Schmitz discussed Yemen’s economy, saying that despite being one of the poorest Arab states, the country is not “a basket-case” and has had some major achievements in infrastructure and women’s literacy. With oil running out, however, Schmitz underscored the need to develop Yemen’s labor productivity as the key to the future. He also highlighted the importance of sustained domestic investment in light of the reticence of foreign investors, the need to develop state capacity to perform effective taxation, and for investment in education. Schmitz also called on the Gulf states to boost labor training, as well as on the U.S. to use its political power to in get Yemeni labor back into the Gulf.
Mr. Sharp spoke last on the difficult choices the U.S. will have to make in what to efforts to support, particularly in the context of the Defense Department’s strategic rebalancing in the Indian Ocean. Sharp supported in particular partnerships with Yemen’s Coast Guard to combat piracy and investment in reviving the port of Aden. He then listed Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the U.S. in order of importance to combatting AQAP and developing Yemen. Sharp said that the U.S. does not have the political will to invest the resources required but that the Saudis have already proven willing to invest billions. The U.S.’s role can be one of marshaling international support, particularly in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), while also providing scholarships and grants to educate Yemenis. Sharp also said involving Yemen’s army in the distribution of humanitarian assistance will help reconnect Yemen’s military to the people, while also fostering a national dialogue.
When asked about the viability of revitalizing the port of Aden, Bodine called the project very feasible, recalling that in the 1960’s it was the second busiest port in the world. Bodine called the port’s potential the greatest resource in Yemen aside from the human capital.
In response to a question on the transfer of power in February, Johnsen criticized the GCC and the U.S. for “papering over” the internal political conflicts in the country and for putting forth a voter referendum with only one real choice. Johnsen called the Obama Administration’s preemptive sanctions against those who obstruct Yemen’s transition “a dangerous game,” in contrast to Bodine who had called it a “remarkable step.”
Schmitz then discussed the growth of broader identities in Yemen as local ties loosen, adding that Islamists in Yemen have called only for their own religious freedom and not the imposition of their views on anyone else. Johnsen and Bodine both concluded by emphasizing the need for long-term solutions that use resources more intelligently.