Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?

It’s a poorly kept secret in Washington that the Obama administration is deeply rifted over Yemen; as budgets come due, intelligence hawks and veteran commanders are sparring with development-aid workers and career foreign-service officers. The central question is, which Yemen first? Or more desperately: development projects or weapons?

American military aid to Yemen in 2006 was just over $4 million, all of it targeted at counterterrorism. By last year, that number had increased more than thirtyfold, to $155 million. In September, the U.S. military’s Central Command announced its intention to provide another $1.2 billion in assistance—weapons, equipment, training—to Yemen over the next six years, or about $240 million a year, according to Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (To put that figure in perspective, he pointed to the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund, a $400-million coffer—refilled annually—through which the U.S. buys Pakistani support for coalition operations in Afghanistan. Says Boucek: “Pakistan has been getting billions of dollars a year with no strings attached practically.”)

The Achilles’ heel of military aid is not knowing how it will eventually be used, as the CIA learned in the eighties when it flooded Afghanistan with thousands of Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet aircraft, and then spent the next decade trying unsuccessfully to buy back the unspent ones from rogue mujahideen commanders. President Saleh has shown a willingness to use brutal violence to repress his detractors—the Houthis in the north, the secessionists in the south. As Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton, told the New York Times, “If we’re just pouring money and equipment into the Yemeni military in the hopes that it will be used against al-Qaeda, that hope doesn’t match either with history or current reality.” Saleh claims that Iran is secretly funding the Houthis and regularly blurs the distinction between terrorists and southern political agitators with legitimate grievances. “If he can get things out of the West by talking up the threat of AQAP, he’ll do it,” Mecham said. “And he usually can.”

Compared to military aid, development aid provided by the State Department has lagged. From 2006 to 2010, funding rose from less than $20 million to $67 million, and this year State has promised just $106 million, nearly half of which is military and security assistance. As Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, has put it, “The amount of aid going to Yemen is a rounding error.”

Where some in the Pentagon see Yemen as a proving ground for the “new” war on terror—clandestine teams of  Special Forces, precision drone strikes, a small footprint on the ground—many at State, like Mecham, hope it will be just the opposite: a proving ground for “smart aid.” The term has become a hallmark of the Clinton State Department and has everything to do with who receives aid. American foreign policy is not aimed specifically at “picking winners,” but development officials have found that by carefully targeting aid, they can boost its efficacy, for the same reason that you tend your flower garden with a watering can and not a fire hose.

Much of Mecham’s work in policy planning involved identifying important, nonstate actors that the U.S. could partner with abroad. As he explained, Yemen needs aid that doesn’t go directly to the government but to actors who are “relatively independent from the political machinations of President Saleh—and they still exist—and to nongovernmental organizations. There’s only so much capacity to absorb what Yemen currently has. You can’t just write a check for a billion dollars and find people to spend it on. But we can do more than we’ve historically done.” He pointed to Yemen’s relatively robust class of technocrats—nonexistent in Afghanistan—as civil servants. “They actually know something, and they’re skilled,” he said. “There is a future to invest in in the Yemeni state, in ways that I can’t see happening as easily in Afghanistan. There are people who have good educations, who are very competent, who are relatively untouched by state patronage networks.” In other words, these are prime targets for smart aid.

Despite President Saleh’s assertion that Yemen would not tolerate the presence of foreign troops on its soil, the number of U.S. Special Forces secretly training Yemeni military commanders in the mountains west of Sana’a is said to have climbed past a hundred, and they’re now being joined by CIA teams. In November, the Washington Post reported that Predator drones had been patrolling Yemeni airspace for months, hunting AQAP leaders. Increasingly, Mecham’s observation that the guy seeking refuge in Hadramout is both an al-Qaeda member and somebody’s cousin feels ominously prescient. “When you send a drone strike to kill somebody in a camp, you’re not killing the al-Qaeda guy—you’re killing the cousin.”

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