Check out my new article at Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel: “What if Obama’s Yemen policy works?”

In the past month, Yemen has returned to the spotlight. The CIA now believes that the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a larger security threat to the United States than al Qaeda Central in Pakistan. Since then, press accounts have stated that the United States government plans to carry out drone attacks in Yemen, and reported that U.S. Central Command plans to give $1.2 billion in aid to Yemen’s military over a five-year period. But such policies, no matter how well-intentioned, are unlikely to solve the very real challenges posed by al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen and may well make the situation worse.

It originally appeared that there was widespread consensus in the government on providing such military aid to Yemen. But a recent article in the New York Times highlights that there is a vigorous debate within the Obama administration about the efficacy of such aid. The Obama administration has been debating the legality of droning an American citizen (i.e. Anwar al-Awlaki). Before rushing into a major new program, it’s worth recalling the reasons why past U.S.-backed efforts aimed at eliminating al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen have failed.

Efforts to aid the Yemeni government against AQAP have done little to help solve some of Yemen’s larger societal problems, including water shortages, declining oil supplies, refugee and IDP problems, population growth, rebellion in the north, and a secessionist movement in the south. Indeed, increased military aid could actually exacerbate the already pervasive military culture in Yemen and cement the war economy, and intensify the grievances of citizens from the rebellion led by the Huthis in the north and the secessionist southern movement in the south. This is problematic because Yemen’s President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh views those conflicts as more of a threat to his power than AQAP and may well be tempted to use counterterrorism assistance against them. If this were the case, as Brian O’Neil argues, this would severely undermine the United States’ efforts.

Drone strikes are often proposed as an effective method for targeting AQAP’s leadership. But such strikes in Yemen could lead to many innocent civilian deaths without having a significant impact on AQAP’s leadership. The debate about their effect in Pakistan, which reveals a deep tension between military utility and potentially negative political effects, may be even more intense in Yemen.

The only reported drone strike in Yemen since President Obama came into office was the Dec. 17, 2009 strike on the community of al-Ma’jalah in the Abyan governorate in southern Yemen, which killed 41 civilians and 14 members of al Qaeda, but no one of importance. Consequently, AQAP used this drone strike as the reason for the attempted Christmas Day attack conducted by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, en route from Amsterdam to Detroit.

This, however, was not the first time drones have been used in Yemen. In November, 2002, the Bush administration conducted a drone strike which killed the leader of the group then known as al Qaeda in Yemen, Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, which also killed American citizen Kamal Derwish (Ahmed Hijazi). This reportedly hobbled the organization for some time, but as Gregory Johnsen points out: “this is not 2002 and if the U.S. thinks that by taking out [AQAP leaders] al-Wahayshi, al-Shihri or al-Raymi it can do what it did when it killed al-Harithi it is sadly mistaken. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will survive the deaths of any one of those individuals and possible the deaths of all three.”

The politics are treacherous. Launching drone strikes could hinder efforts to solve the northern and southern conflict peacefully. As Gregory Johnsen has warned, conducting drone strikes in Yemen could entangle the United States in tribal conflicts, which would further draw the United States into Yemen’s internal matters, as well as inflame other challenges to the Yemeni government such as the southern insurrection and the Huthi rebellion.

If the United States tried to target an AQAP operative in a Huthi stronghold in northern Yemen and accidentally killed individuals who sympathize with the Huthi cause, it would most likely break the fragile peace and lead to a resumption and major escalation of war between the Huthis and the Yemeni government. Further, in the past round of battle from August, 2009 to February, 2010, Saudi Arabia — which collects a large amount of American military aid — overtly entered the war. A small counterterrorism operation could quickly spiral into a regional war that has nothing to do with AQAP, but could further destabilize the security situation in Yemen and detract from the fight against AQAP.

One has to also consider the rise in recent months of violence between AQAP operatives and Yemeni security forces, which has mainly occurred in southern Yemen as well as the recent uptickin violence by the Yemeni government against the southern movement. This could potentially lead southerners to establish closer ties to AQAP, even though each group has different goals. AQAP has already tried to co-opt the southern movement’s banner for cessation, though, under the framework of an Islamic Emirate when releasing a message titled “Message to Our People in the South.” As the leader of AQAP, Nasir al-Wahayshi, states: “We in the al Qaeda network support what you are doing: your rejection of oppression practiced against you and others, your fight against the government and your defending yourself.”  As of now, there is no evidence of collusion between the two groups even if the Yemeni government argues otherwise. The southern movement has rejected overtures from AQAP in the past. But if the Yemeni government continues to conflate the southern movement with AQAP and further violence is directed toward the southern movement, it could lead to an alliance of convenience.

Another issue has to do with the legality of targeting an American citizen. How the Obama administration decides to handle the situation with Anwar al-Awlaki will shed light on the United States’ legal policy vis-à-vis the war on terror. Will it lead the United States down a slippery slope that further erodes the rule of law and its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community? Or, will it affirm Obama’s statement in his inaugural address: “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

Finally, the United States should not be surprised if AQAP tries to respond to drones by attacking the homeland as it nearly did with the Christmas Day failure. What if AQAP was successful? As Greg Scoblete succinctly points out: “the call for America to push aside its weak local partner and take care of the problem itself will only grow louder.” Will the United States then expand its aid to deal with Yemen’s other domestic issues – governance, infrastructure, education, healthcare, and economic development? Or potentially put boots on the ground? That would only further entrench the United States in a complex society that it truly does not understand; and, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, that leads to greater trouble.

But what if pouring $1.2 billion of military aid into Yemen buttressed by a drone offensive against AQAP works? Obviously, one hopes the United States is successful in dismantling AQAP and that it does not repeat the same mistakes it made in 2003 by taking its eyes off of al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen. But, it is hard to envision the United States completely succeeding since President Saleh has an incentive to keep AQAP alive. Between 2003 and 2006 the United States reduced its military aid significantly. As such, President Saleh views AQAP as a tool to continue to get attention from the United States even at the expense of his nation.

The United States should encourage Yemen to peacefully resolve the conflicts in the north and south as well as address the grievances these groups have, which would free up resources to tackle other pressing issues. The United States should also do the following: take a lead in a new international donor fund initiative for development and reducing poverty, but unlike in the pastmake sure donors follow through; continue its low-profile training of Yemen military officials; support efforts to diversify Yemen’s economy, which relies heavily on unsustainable depleting oil resources; promote international aid programs to help the more than 300,000 IDP’s and refugees; and stimulate reform efforts in the political, judicial, educational, infrastructural, and medical realm to better serve Yemen’s citizens. This may marginalize AQAP by taking away potential rhetorical points, leading to its eventual defeat.

Aaron Y. Zelin is a research assistant in the politics department at Brandeis University and blogs atJihadology.

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