Monday’s suicide bombing in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, which killed nearly 100 people, gives pause to the optimism that surrounded the US drone strike that killed Fahd al-Quso, a key al Qaeda leader, and the successful thwarting of an al Qaeda bomb plot against the United States. Now is the opportune time for a sober analysis of how to address the growing al Qaeda threat in Yemen. The reality is that a significant number of people, including senior Yemeni officials, believe that America's one-dimensional focus on counter-terrorism is destabilizing the country further.
During my recent assessment visit to Yemen, I met with members of President Abdo Rabu Mansour Hadi's cabinet, pro-government and opposition leaders, tribal chiefs, and civil society activists. I was told repeatedly that US drone strikes are serving as an al Qaeda recruiting tool. This comes at a time when the White House has given increased authority to the CIA and US Joint Special Operations Command to conduct drone strikes against suspected al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. While drone strikes can be effective and necessary, the failure of the Yemeni government and international community to address the core issues driving instability — such as deficiencies in effective governance, economic development, the availability of goods and services, and youth engagement — undermines the security situation and facilitates the rise of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
I conducted numerous similar fact-finding assessments over the past 14 years while working on democratic development and stabilization programs in the Middle East and Eurasia, but this assessment produced some of the most troubling findings. Local perceptions that US policy towards Yemen is one-dimensional and harmful should not be ignored. This approach is eroding and undermining the ability to make progress in other areas. A robust US counter-terrorism program must be balanced with effective assistance to institutions and emerging leaders in the political, military, youth, and civil society sectors that could serve as allies to the U.S. and work to stabilize Yemen.
Without a comprehensive approach, the U.S. will continue to alienate the population and create an increasingly unstable and fragmented country, hostile to US national interests. US drone strikes are helping to radicalize a growing segment of the population. To counter this, a subtle mix of diplomacy, institutional support and development that leverages the holistic experiences over the past decade is required.
Globally, the results of US democracy and development support have been mixed, as have those of our counter-terrorism efforts since 9/11. I worked on US assistance programs in post-transition/revolution countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Afghanistan and saw how those respective governments could not meet the public’s expectations of better governance, delivery of services, less corruption, and economic gain. The new governments ultimately failed, or are failing, to maintain support and legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. Likewise, in post-revolution Egypt people admitted to me that they lacked faith in their country’s political transition and were skeptical of US long-term interests. As Yemen finds itself at a critical transitional period, these examples and warnings should serve as lessons for the U.S.
With former President Abdullah Saleh’s removal from office after 33 years, many Yemenis still hold a grudge at the failure of the US, during the massive protests last year, to promptly distance itself from Saleh. Although the US now fully supports the transitional process and government, the public’s trust in the US has weakened. To counter this trend, the U.S. must provide more support to Yemen’s long-term political and economic development, while simultaneously routing out AQAP.
Moving forward, there are clear issues that can be addressed. The youth are yearning for leadership, capacity development, and greater involvement in the political process. Every sector in Yemen’s political, military, civic, and economic sphere is desperate for technical assistance and effective, sustainable support. Some good work has been done, but more assistance is needed.
Indeed, the US is trying to address such concerns. The Congressional Budget Justification for FY 2013 allocates additional funds to Yemen and calls for supporting the transitional process, empowering youth and women, developing civil society, improving governance, and addressing the root causes of instability. (In 2011, USAID and the State Department allocated $3.8 million for democracy, human rights, and governance assistance and $8.3 million for economic development. For 2013, these figures are slated to rise to $13.5 million and $14.5 million, respectively.) Overall, the Obama administration has allocated more development assistance than the previous administration. This is a start, but despite the increase in spending for development assistance, this approach — or perceived approach — vis-à-vis a significant increase in counter-terrorism programs remains woefully unbalanced and will not alleviate the belief that US actions and rhetoric on counter-terrorism damage the local trust and potential benefit of assistance programs.
When viewed in isolation, eliminating Yemen’s terrorism threat is significantly more important to US national security interests than strengthening Yemen’s institutions and economy. But in Yemen, these issues are inextricably linked. The US must continue trying to eliminate the threat of terrorism, but only within the context of understanding and addressing the sources of instability and root causes of conflict and discontent. Some Yemeni citizens are joining AQAP because they lack hope in the current system and are increasingly furious over US drone strikes.
Without a proper balance between a strong counter-terrorism campaign and support to the areas that need help the most — namely the energized but disgruntled youth, the transitional government, the creation of a stronger and decentralized economy, and the national dialog process — the US will encounter a greater threat brewing in Yemen.
Timothy Fairbank is co-founder and managing director of Development Transformations, an organization specializing in stabilization and development in countries in transition.