Friday, April 1, 2011

Spring Trap We can’t treat Yemen like the other Arab uprisings.

Michael Makovsky

March 31, 2011

The public uprisings spreading like wildfire from Tunisia to the Persian Gulf have been referred to collectively as the “Arab Spring.” But in fact, as the Obama administration crafts its policy responses, it should strive to avoid this unifying narrative, lest it obscure the unique challenges faced by each country, as well as the distinctive ramifications that each uprising has for U.S. interests. Today, this is nowhere more true than in Yemen, where a fractious mix of insurgents, tribes, Al Qaeda, and secessionists could spark violent chaos if the current president were to leave office, with significant strategic implications for the United States.

A year ago, in the aftermath of the Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt in Detroit, Yemen was branded the “next Afghanistan.” Unsurprisingly, the U.S. reaction focused on counterterrorism, increasing military assistance, and launching drone attacks against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). With the advent of popular anti-government protests against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Obama administration has kept a low profile.

Perhaps the administration has adopted this posture because it hopes Yemen will go the way of Egypt and Tunisia, where political transitions have been relatively organic and proceeded smoothly thus far. Indeed, it is tempting to see Yemen through this lens: From this perspective, an easy solution would be for Saleh to hand over power to some transitional caretaker authority. However, Yemen is not Egypt; it is a highly tribalized, fragile state, racked by poor governance, incipient separatism and violent extremism. Yet nor is it Afghanistan before September 11; Yemen boasts well-established religious and secular political parties, large youth-driven protest movements and a regime at least partially willing to partner against terrorism.

History, demography, and geography have bequeathed Yemen a legacy of factionalism, civil conflict, political distrust, and desperate resource competition. More cartographical construct than cohesive country, modern Yemen was cobbled together from the skeletons of empires past. Until the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, each of the many previous Yemeni political entities faced, and was eventually undone by, ideological, regional, and tribal cleavages. Six civil wars erupted in the past 50 years, and coups d’etat abounded. These divisions persist, manifesting themselves in the Sa’dah (“Houthi”) insurgency in the north and the secessionist struggle in the south. To maintain some semblance of order, Yemen’s rulers have historically resorted to playing various factions against each other so that none could ever challenge the regime. Saleh has continued this divide-and-conquer tradition, delaying political and economic reforms while perpetuating the divisions that plague the country.

For the past two decades, Islamic extremists have been a critical element of the government’s delicate balancing act. In the 1990s, mujahedin—religiously indoctrinated veterans of the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan—flocked to Yemen, becoming the country’s first generation of terrorists. Saleh’s government largely neglected their presence, even as they bombed the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. In turn, these extremists fought alongside the government in the 1994 civil war and other internal conflicts. But today’s Yemeni extremists are not the same as the mujahedin. AQAP represents a new generation of militants, hardened in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Guantánamo Bay. Rather than relying on the regime’s benign neglect, these fighters have allied with alienated tribes, even marrying into them, and found safe haven in the hinterlands.

Yemen has been eager to accept international military assistance, but slow to fully embrace the fight against terrorism. The country’s counterterrorist efforts were largely sporadic and ineffective until renewed American pressure last year. Indeed, Yemeni security forces have been much more aggressive against opposition in Sa’dah and the south than in rooting out extremists. Saleh remains an uneven ally against AQAP.

He is also no Jeffersonian democrat, and poor governance remains a pivotal problem. Joblessness among a bulging youth population, along with entrenched corruption and oil revenue-fueled patronage, has further undermined the state’s legitimacy. Few Yemenis place stock in the government’s ability to provide for them and instead rely on established tribal structures to secure basic services and justice. Yemen’s fragility is the root cause of, and is exacerbated by, the violent extremism of AQAP; together they form a vicious cycle that Saleh has been unable or unwilling to break.

Regardless of his significant shortcomings, however, Saleh appears to have few, if any, obvious successors who could plausibly hold the country together. The opposition remains a hodgepodge of democrats, socialists, tribal sheiks, Islamists, and secessionists who, in Saleh’s absence, would likely find little common cause. If Saleh does in fact resign, the resulting power vacuum, in a country with few democratic political institutions but numerous competing tribes and factions, will be a major challenge.

Given Yemen’s history of internal conflict, the possibility of yet another violent, destabilizing power struggle is quite real. Were Yemen’s transition to collapse into conflict, the ramifications for the region and the United States would be grave. Yemen could mirror Somalia across the Red Sea, allowing lawlessness to encircle a major chokepoint for international energy flows; Yemen’s 300,000 barrels per day of oil exports could be disrupted, further tightening global energy supplies; AQAP could gain greater freedom of maneuver; internal Yemeni conflicts could flare into a Saudi-Iranian proxy war; and Yemen’s already impoverished population could face a major humanitarian disaster.

The United States has competing interests of democracy, stability, and counterterrorism in Yemen, and it is not easy to balance them all. But we should not feel compelled to choose between freedom and stability in Yemen. The two are intrinsically intertwined, and a coherent policy must pursue both simultaneously. While we ought not precipitate events in Yemen, we must plan for all eventualities and be prepared to protect our interests. If Saleh maintains power, we should leverage U.S. military and economic assistance to push for meaningful political reforms. Should he actually resign, we must ensure that our security interests are not compromised in the ensuing transition.

Unlike in Afghanistan, we cannot be driven by security concerns alone. Unlike in Egypt, we cannot be swept up in feverish hopes for dramatic political change. The only hope for a stable and secure Yemen is if the United States assists the Yemeni government in pursuing political reforms, defeating AQAP, and better addressing enduring secessionism. Yemen is not Afghanistan or Egypt, but, with careful and well-considered U.S. support, it has a chance of remaining Yemen.

Michael Makovsky, Blaise Misztal, and Jonathan Ruhe are the foreign policy director, associate director, and policy analyst, respectively, at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and authors of the recent report Fragilityand Extremism in Yemen.

YEMEN: Opposition Says The 'Al Qaeda Islamic Emirate' Is A Ruse That The Western Media Is Swallowing Whole

Gus Lubin | Apr. 1, 2011

This has been a terrifying week in Yemen, starting with the looting of an ammunition factory, massive explosions that killed 150 and Al Qaeda declaring certain provinces an Islamic emirate. It's almost enough to make you want to keep President Saleh in power.

But opposition groups say this chaos was manufactured by Saleh for the benefit of Western media.

From The Jawa Report:

After the tragedy in Abyan, Yemenis across the nation accused Saleh of playing the Al Qaeda card to spin the western media and US, a frequent practice. They say that the state fosters and deploys al Qaeda mercenaries to elicit counter-terror funds, equipment and training, which are then used against internal opposition...

The leaders of the raid on the ammo factory, Khaledabdul Nabi and Sami Dhayan, have worked for the state for years. Nabi, of the Abyan Aden Islamic Army, trained and led jihaddists into battle on behalf of the Saleh regime during the Saada Wars (2004-2010) against northern Shia rebels who claim religious discrimination. Nabi's group, not AQAP, made the radio announcement. The residents in Ja’ar formed a local security committee which now has control of the area.

The PR battle continues in Yemen today as groups compete to hold the biggest rally in Sanaa.

After accusing the state newspaper of Photoshopping a pro-regime rally, we got a first-hand taste of Yemen's adept PR. A regime spokesman emailed us dozens of photos from the rally and asked if we thought these were photoshopped.

Opposition contend the state is paying supporters to show up.

Rival rallies add heat to Yemeni standoff


April 02, 2011

HUGE rival protests split Yemen's capital last night as security forces deployed in unprecedented strength for another Friday showdown on the streets between President Ali Abdullah Saleh's backers and foes.

"I pledge . . . to sacrifice myself for the people, with my blood and with everything I hold dear," Mr Saleh told the crowd in Sabine Square, near his palace in Sanaa.

Despite fears of an outbreak of violence, tens of thousands of pro-regime supporters waving flags and banners packed squares around Sanaa, passing through checkpoints set up by security forces kitted with guns and batons. Tanks and armoured cars were stationed at the city's entry points.

The army, many of whose officers have rallied with the pro-democracy camp led by youths, controlled access to the "Change Square" renamed by anti-regime protesters holding a sit-in near Sana'a University.

The demonstrators, who also numbered tens of thousands on the weekly day of prayers and rest, have set up camp there since February, but appeared to have been put on the back foot last night.

Talks between Mr Saleh and opponents, who want him to resign, have reached a stalemate over his demand for a guarantee that his relatives won't be shut out of the military and politics after he quits. In the past 10 days, amid acrimonious talks, the President has rejected at least seven deals offered in hopes of heading off a civil war in the strategically important Arab country.

Mr Saleh, who has ruled uncontested for three decades, and his close relatives hold virtually all levers of power in Yemen. Mr Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed, commands the US-funded and trained Republican Guard, and two nephews, Yahya and Ammar, head the internal security forces and another elite counter-terrorism unit. The three men are the leading counter-terrorism liaisons for the US. At least half a dozen other family members control other military commands.

Soldiers who have defected to the opposition have faced off for days in Sanaa against troops still loyal to the government.

"Saleh must leave while he still has a chance . . . He needs to know that we will not bear any more of his games," said Nasr Ahmed, a senior official in the Joint Meetings Party, an umbrella group of political opposition parties.

Mr Saleh said last week in a televised address that he would give up power only to responsible individuals.

He has also criticised the opposition leaders and Major General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, whose defection with other military officials on March 21 revived the flagging protest movement.

Some opposition leaders said they believed their dedication to a negotiated solution had backfired. They see Mr Saleh gaining leverage in talks because he knows the opposition is reluctant to use force against him.

Coming Apart

April 1, 2011: President Saleh has been discussing leaving power, but one of his concerns is to not leave anarchy in his wake. Saleh came to power 32 years ago after years of civil war, and apparently does not want to see the country go back to that. But halting another civil war may already be out of Saleh's control. There will be a large demonstration in the capital today, seeking to drive Saleh out. But Saleh supporters have called for large rallies in the capital supporting the president. In the south, there are demonstrations calling for the country to be partitioned into northern and southern parts. For decades, before 1990, the country was divided into two states: North and South Yemen. An opinion poll in the south a year ago showed that over 70 percent of southerners wanted the country partitioned again. But most of the demonstrators in the capital are calling for a democratic, not a divided, Yemen.

For the United States and Saudi Arabia, the growing chaos in Yemen is a big problem. Yemen is where the local (Arabian Peninsula) al Qaeda went and established its headquarters five years ago. Driven out of Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda found sanctuary among some Yemeni tribes. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia persuaded the Yemeni government to go after the Yemeni based al Qaeda, and this had some success. But it caused discontent among some of the southern tribes, and contributed to the current situation (which is mainly about corruption and poor government). If Saleh is forced out, as seems increasingly likely, a deal will have to be made with the new president (assuming there isn't a civil war that divides the country) to handle al Qaeda. But if there is an extended period of chaos, al Qaeda will have freedom to recruit and train new terrorists and plan new attacks. This is similar to the situation in the Pakistani tribal territories, and Somalia.

For over three decades, Saleh took advantage of the tribal divisions in Yemen, to prevent the formation of tribal coalitions that could again tear the country apart, or toss him out of power. But that effort was always a work in progress. There was no end to the constant balancing act. Saleh finally dropped too many balls and now the country is taking sides and splitting up again. This is encouraged by growing economic problems and water shortages. There are too many people and too few jobs. There are also Islamic radical factions (al Qaeda, mostly) and several political parties, willing to fight for their version of Yemen's future. The tribes are not really organized for war, as they serve largely to assist in local security and settling disputes within the tribe.

General Ali Muhsin al Ahmar, and other rebellious officers who have deserted the government in the last ten days, have been able to get some of their troops to join rebel factions. But most troops and police appear to be standing aside, to await a change of government. With the government forces largely inactive, various tribal militias, not all of them in agreement with each other, are seizing control of provinces, or parts of provinces. Muhsin has made a lot of money in the last few years from smuggling, an operation that his high military rank protected from prosecution. No new leaders are going to appear who are completely clean (free of corruption).

Half the oil production has halted, because a pipeline damaged (by tribal rebels) two weeks ago, has not been repaired. In the north, Saada province has been taken over by a wealthy local arms dealer. The former governor left a few days ago on a charter aircraft, along with large quantities of cash taken from a local bank. But the north is not at peace, as the new, self-proclaimed, governor has to deal with feuding tribes (some of them used to be pro-government.)

March 31, 2011: The government has lost control in six of 18 provinces. This includes the Shia north and the most rebellious provinces in the south. There, some tribal militias have declared themselves loyal to al Qaeda and have proclaimed several provinces to be under the control of a new Islamic government.

Tribesmen attacked the electrical power transmission lines outside the capital and the port of Aden, causing blackouts for several hours.

The British embassy advised all British citizens in Yemen to leave immediately, as it might not be possible to conduct emergency evacuations later if the country lurched into civil war and commercial flights were halted.

March 29, 2011: President Saleh offered to step back, and transfer power to a caretaker government until new elections were held later this year. Saleh is trying to keep his party, and his key supporters, in power. Since many of these supporters come from powerful tribes, this has a chance of succeeding. But most Yemenis just want Saleh, and his corrupt cronies, gone. The corrupt cronies still have lots of guns, and a desire to hang on to their loot. That's why this process is dragging on for so long.

March 27, 2011: In Abyan province, rebels attacked an ammunition factory, driving away the guards and stealing weapons and ammunition. After the rebels left, hundreds of local villagers descended on the factory, to steal what was left. But someone flipped a lit cigarette onto the floor, igniting some spilled explosive material. The fire and explosions quickly spread. Over 150 people died, half of them women and children.

East of the capital, an army patrol was attacked, leaving six soldiers dead and four wounded. Al Qaeda was suspected, as they are the primary group involved in such attacks.

March 26, 2011: Battalions of the Republican Guard were withdrawn to the capital. Without these units to maintain the loyalty and resolve of police and army units, rebel groups (usually tribal militias) have taken control of the Shia north and most rebellious provinces (like Abyan) in the south.

Source: Strategy Page

Saleh followers flood Yemeni Capital

Sana'a, April 1, 2011- Hundreds of thousands of pro Saleh supporters gathered in Sana’a near the presidential palace in support of Saleh. The followers have been flowing since last night to Sana’a after the ruling party called on them to protest in favor of Saleh after opposition forces are trying to go against democracy and against the constitutional president according to governmental media.

President Saleh attended giving his gratitude those who support him saying “I will sacrifice my blood and everything valuable to be for the sake of my great people.”

During the speech he also advised the opposition to be wise when giving comments to the media. “I will not reply to the opposition criticism and I call them to be mature and wise.”