As I talked with a group of 30 Yemeni youth leaders recently, the message came across loud and clear: US drone attacks against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are short-sighted, ill-fated and create more enemies than they destroy.
While there was broad ideological and political diversity among the group, the youths universally agreed on the ineffectiveness of US counterterrorism policy. They recognize that AQAP is a real and growing threat — in fact, more so to Yemen than to the United States — but contend that more harm than good is being done by the unmanned drone strikes that often hit civilians by mistake.
I met the group through a workshop convened by Chatham House and Resonate! Yemen near the desert town of Madaba, Jordan two weeks ago as part of an effort to empower youth leaders and connect them to international policy makers.
A prominent political activist, a dynamic young woman from Taiz, explained that the tribes in the targeted areas tend to be pragmatic, building alliances opportunistically on the basis of shared interest. When a tribe member is killed by an errant drone strike, this generates enormous hostility toward the United States and sympathy for AQAP and its anti-American agenda, she said.
Neglected tribal areas such as Abyan that lack resources and infrastructure are, in her words, a “fertile nature reserve” for extremists to gain new supporters. Recent news reports give credence to the idea that US strikes create sympathy for Ansar Al Sharia, as the Yemen branch of Al Qaeda is known.
Yemenis are deeply skeptical about American intentions, due to decades of US support for Ali Abdullah Saleh’s autocratic regime. While it may be tempting to dismiss these feelings as the typical anti-American sentiment which is pervasive across the region, in Yemen this animosity, when transformed into action, has a concrete impact on US security.
Prior to the American engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, which brought the war on terror to their doorstep, most Yemenis were relatively neutral toward to the United States. However, US actions over the past decade has shifted sentiment and radicalized a small core. The infamous Christmas 2009 underwear bomber, the lethal packages bound for Chicago last year and the recently foiled airline bombing plot were all planned from the hills and valleys of Yemen. What is equally worrisome is that AQAP is exploiting the impact of US drone attacks both internally to garner sympathy and attract new recruits and externally to inspire lone wolves abroad to launch attacks against Western targets.
Given their recognition of the threat, yet vehement opposition to current US strategy, I asked this group of Yemeni youth leaders to put themselves in the place of military planners at the Pentagon and outline what they would do differently. In a matter of minutes, one participant developed several concrete action items:
- Give the task of fighting AQAP to the regular Yemeni army; equip and train it for this mandate.
- Redeploy elite counterterrorism forces in the south, where the threat is greatest.
- Halt drone attacks because they are counterproductive.
- Remove former president Saleh’s relatives from military leadership.
- Address the poor economic situation in the south.
- Engage the tribes and begin a rehabilitation program targeting vulnerable youth in Abyan.
- Begin a dialogue with Islamists who tend toward extremism, which Yemen has experience in doing.
The US is trying to undertake most of these goals in some fashion, except for halting the air strikes, yet the perception is that Americans only provide support to the elite counterterrorism units (in which Saleh’s family members hold leadership positions) and rain down drone attacks with impunity.
The US embassy in Sana has recently developed a two-year strategy that focuses on four main goals:
- addressing the humanitarian crisis
- assisting with military restructuring
- supporting the political transition
- resuscitating the economy
These are exactly the right elements to ensure a stable and prosperous future for Yemen and to advance US national-security imperatives, but the problem is that most Yemenis perceive US objectives as singularly focused on fighting extremists and routing out Ansar Al Sharia.
Part of this disconnect could be addressed with better outreach and public diplomacy. While USAID and the Office of Transitional Initiatives (OTI) are investing millions of dollars in development and good-governance projects throughout the country, this story does not find itself on the front page or capture the public’s attention.
American efforts to combat AQAP should be contextualized in the larger picture of Yemen’s long-term development and investment in building political, military and economic institutions that will sustain that future. Instead of highlighting visits from US counterterrorism officials — an approach that has made John Brennan the face of US engagement in Yemen — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-level State Department officials should make regular visits to affirm our deep and lasting commitment to Yemen’s future and sustainable development.
My discussions with these youth leaders reflected an inherent tension that exists across Yemeni society between criticizing foreign influence and interference and actively seeking outside help in minimizing the influence of Saleh and his family and resolving military standoffs.
During workshop sessions on Yemen’s transition, it was clear they want this to be a Yemeni-led process, yet turned eagerly to representatives from Western embassies in Sana’a to gain insight into the national dialogue and military restructuring required by the Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored agreement that paved the way for Saleh’s departure in November 2011.
They may resent past US support for the Saleh regime and current bombing campaigns, but are acutely aware of the dangers ahead and how much they need US involvement if there is to be any hope of success for a democratic transition.
The role that the United States and other international powers play in this critical period could have a profound impact on Yemen’s future, as well as setting the stage for a more positive relationship between the US and the Yemeni people. If the US insists that the Saleh clan give up their hold on power, and ensures broad representation in the national dialogue — including youth, women, and other marginalized populations — it could help restore some confidence in America and send the message that the US cares not only about destroying extremists but also building a brighter future for the next generation of Yemeni youth.
Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. She was previously with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), where she managed projects in Yemen and traveled there frequently between 2007-2010.