WASHINGTON - As
President Barack Obama's administration becomes
further enmeshed in what many are calling an
undeclared war in Yemen, observers here are urging
the government to broaden its policy approach to
the country beyond counter-terrorism.
"This is not a state that has failed, but
rather a state that faces considerable challenges
and the time left to work with Yemen on starting
to turn this around is limited," Barbara Bodine, a
former US ambassador to Yemen, said. "It will take
the international community and specifically the
United States having a much broader focus of where
we are putting our assistance. It needs to be
broader and longer term, focused far more on
stability and sustainability challenges rather
than focusing solely on the
Bodine, speaking on Tuesday at a panel
discussion organized by the National Council on
US-Arab Relations, said that over a half-century
of relations, the US has never decided on what
sort of relationship it wants with Yemen.
Today, Yemen's 26 million people find
themselves saddled with an unemployment rate of
nearly 40%, still higher among the youth. One of
the poorest countries in the region despite its
oil-dependent economy, Yemen last week was singled
out by several humanitarian groups warning that
40% of the country's children are on the edge of
chronic malnutrition, the second highest such rate
in the world.
Over the decades, "US
attention and assistance has waxed and waned,
buffeted by events that have often had very little
bearing on Yemen itself," Bodine said.
"Our economic assistance swings wildly,
our military assistance has been very erratic, and
our diplomatic rhetoric towards Yemen has also
been inconsistent. Beyond cliched incantations of
current policy dynamics " and the most current is,
of course, counter-terrorism "the US has had a
hard time finding why and whether we need to be
On Monday, a group of Washington
policy analysts, including Bodine, sent an open
letter to Obama, noting that "A broader approach
that places emphasis on the underlying economic
and political problems will better serve the
stability of Yemen and, accordingly, (US) national
security interests, rather than a primary focus on
counter-terrorism efforts and direct military
It continues: "The US should
recalibrate its economic and governance assistance
so that it represents a greater proportion of
overall assistance compared with military and
security assistance. The US needs to ensure that
its focus is on achieving long-term goals, not
only short-term objectives."
Quicksand To a great extent, the
United States' short-term, invariably
security-focused approach to Yemen has been
epitomized by the Obama administration's
ratcheting-up of drone strikes in Yemen over the
past four months. Their aim is Al-Qaeda in the
Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni wing of the
On Monday, a US drone
reportedly killed three AQAP members near the
southern port of Aden. The strikes were the first
time the United States has launched attacks in the
province and constituted the 24th drone assault in
Yemen this year, according to the Long War
Journal, a reputed blog focused on the "war on
According to the same source,
this is more than the 23 such attacks in Pakistan
this year, despite the latter having received far
more coverage and public criticism.
much as in Pakistan, the public's strengthening
resentment at drone strikes "particularly the
killing of civilians" in Yemen suggests to many
that the consequences of such attacks are
outweighing the benefits.
The open letter
to Obama also highlights this issue, urging the US
government to "Re-evaluate [the] strategy of drone
strikes with the recognition that this approach is
generating significant anti-American sentiment and
could strengthen the appeal of extremist groups."
Indeed, AQAP has reportedly tripled in
size since drone strikes in Yemen began in 2009.
Those attacks have been ramped up
particularly since this February, when the
country's new president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur
al-Hadi, took over power. That event was a major
turning point in the country's tenuous and ongoing
transition from the three-and-a-half-decade rule
of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
is that both President Hadi and President Obama
are getting rather deep into a mutually dependent
relationship," Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at
Princeton University and another signatory to the
open letter, said on Tuesday.
came to power, Johnsen says, he did not have a
very deep support base in Yemen, and hence needed
significant support from the US and the
international community. At the same time, the US
needs Hadi in order to continue its targeting of
"Despite everything that President
Obama and his staff has attempted to do, I think
it finds itself in real danger of being in exactly
the position today that it wanted to avoid in
2009" that is, being in an open-ended conflict in
Yemen against Al-Qaeda with no real way of knowing
whether it's winning, Johnsen says.
fact, if you look at certain barometers, it seems
that the more it tries, the more it is sucked
deeper into this quicksand."
for the first time, Obama admitted in a letter to
congress that the US military had carried out "a
limited number" of strikes against AQAP. Beyond
this, however, there has been almost no officially
confirmed information on what is increasingly
looking like a full-blown war in Yemen.
"If this war is worth waging, it's worth
waging openly. And it's worth having a strategy
with a clearly defined, achievable goal," argue
commentators Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman
in a recent essay for the Danger Room blog.
"Does anyone know what that is in Yemen?
Is it the end of al-Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula? The containment of AQAP? A functional
Yemeni government that can fight AQAP without US
aid? We've gotten so used to fighting in the
shadows for so long, we barely even ask our
leadership what victory looks like."