By Francisco Martin-Rayo
Though Yemen’s internal politics have changed dramatically since January 2011, U.S. strategy there has remained single-mindedly focused on eradicating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Democracy promotion, and the hopes of millions of Yemenis who supported the revolution, do not appear to be among the Obama Administration’s concerns in the country.
Since the beginning of the demonstrations against President Saleh’s regime, the U.S. has signally failed to support the pro-democracy youth movement, a group that consists largely of the young and dissatisfied men that AQAP recruits so assiduously. In 2011, the youth movement publicly petitioned the U.S. for support twice, only to be ignored as the U.S. instead supported the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) negotiations with the old regime, squashing any hopes of an authentic democratic revolution and antagonizing Washington’s most likely local allies. The lack of U.S. support means that these young men and women, who effectively ousted Saleh and continue to call for democratic institutions, have broadly failed to have a voice in the formation of Yemen’s new government or have their legitimate concerns be taken seriously.
I traveled to Yemen in 2010, thanks to a grant from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, to study terrorist recruitment and U.S. counter-radicalization strategies in the region. The book I wrote on the subject, Winning the Minds: Travels through terrorist recruiting grounds in Yemen, Pakistan and the Somali border, will be published in late June 2012, and I’ve written a longer piece on the transition in Yemen to democracy in Foreign Policy magazine. While in Yemen, I met with a number of people who explained to me their disdain for the central government, especially those who lived near Aden, but who also held favorable opinions of the U.S. I recently spoke with a number of these individuals again, who now hold much less favorable views of U.S. involvement in their country.
Yemen’s pro-democracy activists largely blame the U.S. for failing to live up to its rhetoric – a disillusionment that potentially makes them vulnerable to recruitment by other well-organized forces that are against the existing regime, namely extremist groups like AQAP and separatist movements. From their perspective, the only real changes in Yemen — the establishment of a semi-autonomous region by the Houthis and the propagation of sharia law in various cities in southern Yemen by Ansar al-Sharia — have come through violence.
A true democratic transition, messy and likely to leave even more of a power vacuum, could indeed complicate the CIA’s relationship with Yemeni intelligence, a partner it relies on for intelligence to combat AQAP strongholds. Yet the most recent expansion of CIA capabilities compromises its role even further. How will U.S. analysts be able to tell the difference between Yemeni tribes that are plotting against the central government and AQAP members that are stockpiling weapons (remember the new framework allows the CIA to target individuals without verifying their identity)? How is the U.S. able to protect itself from taking sides in a civil war when it depends on a self-interested central government for targeting intelligence?
The Obama Administration has dramatically ramped up drone strikes in Yemen, with some success at killing suspected terrorists. Unfortunately, the administration has not followed up these short-term security gains with counter-radicalization programs or an engagement of the communities being targeted. Counter-terrorism is a tactic — not a strategy — that is meant to yield short-term security gains. In Yemen, however, the U.S. relies almost exclusively on counterterrorism without providing a successful competing narrative against extremism at the same time.
It is clear, more today than ever before, that counter-terrorism victories alone will not solve America’s problems with Yemen. Even though a drone strike successfully targeted the leader of al-Qaeda Yemen in 2002, and the Yemeni government arrested his successor in 2003, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is a greater threat today than ever before. Targeting the group’s leadership has clearly failed to reduce Yemeni support for terrorist organizations and prevent radicalization. It is time for the U.S. to stop undermining democratic values and long-term stability in Yemen in exchange for short term counter-terrorism gains and a half-hearted continuation of the status quo. If Washington continues on this path, it will end up at best with another Somalia; at worse, another Afghanistan.
Francisco Martin-Rayo earned a master in public policy degree from Harvard Kennedy School in 2011, and was a Belfer Center student fellow in the International and Global Affairs concentration. His forthcoming book is Winning the Minds: Travels Through Terrorist Recruiting Grounds in Yemen, Pakistan, and the Somali Border.
A longer version of this article first appeared on the ForeignPolicy,com website.