February 25, 2012
Tom Finn: The first thing I want to ask you about is the timing and content of military reform, because I think it’s probably one of the most pressing issues.
Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein: Absolutely, yeah.
Finn: Do you expect Saleh’s relatives to give up their positions in power and, if so, when do you see it happening? Just the feelings you’re getting.
Feierstein: Well, I think that the way we’re looking at it, and we’ve been having discussions with the political leadership and the military leadership for quite a while now, just trying to think through how to do this, and we do anticipate that the U.S. is going to be a full partner with the Yemeni leadership and in accomplishing this, we hope that we will begin the process in the next few weeks. It is of course one of the requirements of the second phase of the transition to do this military and security reorganization, so we’ll proceed with that. I think that what we’re trying to do, rather than look at this as a personality-driven issue, is really look at it as an institutional issue. How can we develop a military and security capacity in Yemen that is capable of carrying out key objectives, like guarding the borders, controlling territory, hopefully working with the coalition in things like anti-piracy activities in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, maybe working more closely with GCC partners in developing interoperable and integrated approaches? So within that context, within the context of developing a clear military structure that is hierarchical, that of course responds to civilian control, and that is structured logically in a way that meets Yemeni needs. We think that issues of personalities will sort out as part of the institution –
Finn: Any idea of the time frame roughly? Are we talking weeks here or months, you know, for this restructuring?
Feierstein: Well, I think that the completion of the process will really be years because it is a fairly complicated process.
Feierstein: We’ve told the Yemenis that we think if we’re going to do this, that we need to do it right. We need to begin with a clear understanding of what the security objectives are, what are the challenges that the Yemeni military and security organizations confront, how do you build an organization, what are your manpower requirements, what are your equipment requirements, and how do you do all that? Plus, at the same time, modernizing the basic structure of the military, I mean, how do you modernize the personnel system, how do you modernize the payroll system? It’s an issue. So, all of those things. I hope that we have a good plan done in the next months, and then we’ll work over a period of a year, two years to actually implement.
Finn: Why do you think that the Houthis have become more sectarian and do you fear an Iranian influence? And if so, do you have any evidence of Iranian influence in Yemen?
Feierstein: Well, we’re concerned. I think that we do see Iran trying to increase its presence here in ways that we think are unhelpful to Yemeni stability and security. For the Houthis, I think that certainly, I mean, we see two trends. There’s a more positive trend with the Houthis as well, and that is that they have indicated their willingness to participate in the national dialogue to try to resolve their concerns and the nature of their role in a unified Yemen through a political engagement and dialogue. That’s a positive thing. But we’re also concerned about conflicts between Houthis and others in the north and you know, a fairly aggressive effort on their part to expand their territory and their control, and so we hope that through this process of national dialogue, they will engage politically and work in a positive way that will end this conflict.
Finn:When you talk about fearing increasing Iranian influence, do you have any specific examples? Are we talking about money, are we talking about influence, are we talking about weapons? Do you have any examples of that Iranian influence?
Feierstein: Well, I think that we are seeing increasing Iranian outreach to various actors. We do definitely see a rise in Iranian – finance efforts on the part of Iran to increase its influence, not only with Zaydi Shia elements but with Sunni elements as well. We do think that we have evidence of Iranian activities that would build up military capabilities as well. So, yeah, we’re seeing –
Finn: Is that a recent phenomenon, I mean, something we’re seeing a sharp increase in recent weeks?
Feierstein: Yeah, I think that we would say that that’s relatively recent.
Finn: Why do you think that is?
Feierstein: They’re taking advantage of this period of political instability and loss of government control over large parts of the country.
Finn: Okay. I wanted to ask whether or not you’ve seen any significant changes in U.S. counterterrorism policy in 2012 as a direct result of what you witnessed in 2011. I mean, has the Arab Spring changed ideas of U.S. counterterrorism, or is to going to remain the same as it was?
Feierstein: No, I think that at least in terms of Yemen, I can’t speak for the entire region, but in terms of Yemen, I would say that we would continue along the lines that we have been pursuing. I think that there is a recognition that many of the components of the GCC initiative and the various elements that we’re working on as part of this political position would also strengthen our counterterrorism and counter-extremism programs as well. So, addressing the grievances of the south, and resolving the Houthi issues of the north, improving economic growth, undertaking economic reform, the military and security reorganization that would lead to more effective government control of the territory, guarding the borders, all of that will also achieve successes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other violent extremist groups.
Finn: Do you foresee an increase in funding, for the amount of money you are getting from the U.S. State Department?
Feierstein: Well, I think that overall there is a recognition that Yemen’s needs are great and that I would anticipate that there would be an increase [in the] level of financial support for Yemen absolutely, not only from the United States but from the entire international community.
Finn: I imagine that the U.S. will be coordinating closely with Yemen and China, as you said, you touched on the economic recovery, how important that is for all sorts of issues, including counter-terrorism. I was wondering why the U.S. is not using its political leverage to get Yemeni workers into the GCC countries, there has been a lot of opposition from those countries; they are not letting workers go there.
Feierstein: Well, I wouldn’t say that there’s been opposition. I think that it is an issue that is on the table. The new Yemeni government has raised it, and has expressed their interest in it. I think that what we’ve seen from the GCC is a willingness to consider it. They haven’t actually moved forward on it yet, but that is something that I think they will do on a bilateral basis, and of course the decisions of accepting guest workers and how you do that is a sovereign decision of a GCC state. So, we don’t really see that we would have a direct role. I think that we have a direct role in encouraging the GCC states, along with ourselves and everybody else, to be more supportive of economic issues.
Finn: Have you been in contact with Ali Mohsen over the last weeks and months, and what is the impression that you are getting from him? Does he seem supportive? Does he seem like he’s going to be stepping down?
Feierstein: Well, is he supportive of the transition? He has certainly said not only to us but in public and to others that he supports a transition. I think he actually put out a statement the other day, urging Yemenis to vote in the election. So he has been positive on that score. We have, also, certainly engaged with him as part of a cooperation that we have with the military and security committee in the new government as part of the GCC initiative, to encourage him to work with the military and security committee, to reduce the tension, to remove his forces from…
Finn: Has he done that?
Feierstein: Well, he has done it part way. I wouldn’t say he’s doesn’t it the full way. But overall, I think that the security conditions in the country are improved, and that, in part, is a result of the steps he’s taken.
Finn: Do you anticipate the U.S. having a major role in trying to bring those two sides together? It seems like that is a serious issue at the moment.
Feierstein: The reintegration of the military is one of the GCC principles. That should be happening now.
Finn: Why is it not happening?
Feierstein: Well, I think that there is still a high level of distrust and a lack of confidence between the two sides that’s limiting it, and again, I think that each side has taken positive steps to implement the main principles of the GCC initiative. They don’t get an A, but I would think that they do get a B.
Feierstein: Well, B, B-. But, overall a positive change in the atmosphere and I think that a reduced likelihood that this is going to disintegrate into some kind of armed conflict, which was the concern six to eight months ago. So, we’ve made some progress, but much more needs to be done. Again, as part of the military and security reorganization, there is an understanding that the continuation of basically three different Yemeni military structures, the regular military, the republican guard, the first armored division, cannot be sustained. We have to have a reintegrated and unified military with unified military leadership, and everybody has to work through the chain of command leading up to civilian control.
Finn: Talking to both sides, who do you feel is more onboard here? Ali Mohsen’s first armored division, or Saleh’s relatives?
Feierstein: I think that on both sides we’ve seen positive engagements. I wouldn’t say one more than the other. I think that we have reason to be satisfied with the performance both sides have made. The Republic Guard has, I think, been a little bit more aggressive in implementing the directives of the military and security committee, and has done a little bit more in pulling some of its people back to its [unintelligible].
Finn: Very last question, you’ve touched on how policies do not rely on individuals but on institutions. Do you have some other individuals in mind that you feel like you could work with if Saleh’s relatives were to renounce their positions?
Feierstein: Of course we have the military leadership. General al Ashwal is the chief of staff and of course the minister of defense, and we do have joint staff on the Yemeni side, and we certainly anticipate working with them.
Finn: Specifically on the counter-terrorism issue, though?
Feierstein: Well, on counter-terrorism, I think that the institutional relationships that we have right now are good. We would anticipate continuing to work with them. But also, I would hope that it would become more of a whole government effort on the Yemeni part. Not only would we continue to work with the units that we’ve worked with, which has worked out very well, but that we’d expand and broaden our relationships so that even within the military structure, conventional military structures also have a role to play.
Finn: In counter-terrorism? So, there is an opportunity to broaden the scope of counter-terrorism?
Feierstein: Absolutely, and to improve capability. At the end of the day, what we’d like to see is a military and security structure that is capable of controlling territory, and if you can control territory then you can defeat al Qaeda.