As violence rises, U.S., allies pulled into Yemen
Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent
LONDON | Wed Jun 6, 2012 3:39pm EDT
LONDON (Reuters)- U.S. policymakers might talk down "boots on the ground" in
> Yemen but with military advisers and
contractors deployed and aid funding rising, Washington and its allies are
already being drawn ever deeper into the country.
Western security and intelligence officials have long seen Yemen as central
to their fight against Islamist militancy, viewing local franchise Al Qaeda
on the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) as the most dangerous single foreign group
plotting attacks against the West. U.S. officials say the group was behind a
thwarted airline attack plot last month, the latest of several such schemes.
But with a new Yemeni government seen providing the best chance in years to
stabilize the chaotic country, there are growing signs of a wider strategy.
U.S. and foreign involvement is increasing, moving beyond the long-running
but now also intensifying campaign of drone strikes.
Special forces advisers are now training Yemen's military, while financial
and humanitarian aid from Western and Gulf states has increased sharply. At
last week's "Friends of Yemen" meeting in Riyadh, foreign powers pledged
some $4 billion to the country. Britain said the country was at a "critical
The Pentagon will not discuss exact numbers, but says the number of armed
forces personnel in the country remains very small and that they are simply
ramping up numbers to the levels seen before last year's uprising. But many
others believe that involvement will continue to quietly creep up.
When U.S. and other intelligence operatives or contractors -- often funded
themselves by foreign or US aid -- are included, some experts estimate the
number of foreign military-style personnel in Yemen could run to the low
Last month, the U.S. said three civilian contractors helping train the
Yemeni coast guard were caught up in an attack by AQAP, escaping with minor
"The United States will continue to intensify its focus on the threats
coming from Yemen, while enabling its allies in the region to fight Al Qaeda
on the ground," said Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser
for countering terrorism under George W. Bush and now senior adviser at the
Washington DC-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
"Yemen represents the soft underbelly of the Arabian Gulf, with Al Qaeda
rooted in a country with deep economic and resource constraints and ongoing
political, demographic, and social upheaval."
The aim, foreign powers say, is to help the Yemeni government stand on its
own feet and avoid the country becoming a Somalia-style failed state.
That means not just ousting AQAP from territory it seized last year in
southern Yemen but also tackling a separate northern Shi'ite tribal revolt.
There is also an urgent need to address other longer-term problems including
widespread corruption and growing food and water shortages.
Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters there
was "no prospect" of "boots on the ground" in Yemen. Certainly, with a
presidential election a mere five months away and public fatigue with
long-running wars in <http://www.reuters.com/places/afghanistan
Afghanistan and Iraq, there is little enthusiasm for a major conventional
Instead, Yemen looks set to be the scene of the kind of largely clandestine,
barely publicly discussed U.S. intervention that many believe will be the
model for conflicts in the years to come.
"After Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a realization that large, troop-heavy
interventions are not the way forward," says Christopher Steinitz, an
analyst specializing in Yemen at the Centre for Naval Analysis, part of U.S.
government funded think tank CNA. "What you're seeing here is a very
different strategy using drones, advisers and local Yemeni forces."
Signs of success are mixed at best. While Yemeni security forces backed by
foreign air strikes have advanced against AQAP strongholds, a brutal suicide
attack against security forces in the capital Sanaa last month killed more
"The attack in the capital last week was certainly not a good sign," says
Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, an expert on Al Qaeda and Yemen at the Combating
Terrorism Centre at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "It's about
creating a perception that the government cannot protect its own."
LONG SHOT STRATEGY
The departure of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh late last year and
his replacement with former deputy Abd-Rabbu Hadi Mansour, western states
hope, will improve the government's legitimacy both at home and abroad.
It also opened the door to the kind of support that would have been
unthinkable while Saleh faced down a popular "Arab Spring"-inspired uprising
and was accused of heavy-handed tactics and abuses.
During last year's uprising, Saleh's government also pulled much of Yemen's
elite military - including key counterterrorism units - out of remote
provincial areas to reinforce the capital.
With the protests largely over, such units can now return to the battle
bolstered by U.S. training and weapons for use against AQAP or the ethnic
Shi'ite rebels along the border with
> Saudi Arabia fighting the
predominantly Sunni government.
But much still depends on the Yemeni authorities themselves. Not everyone
believes that they can prove equal to the task.
"U.S. resources are limited these days," says Hayat Alvi, lecturer in Middle
Eastern studies at the U.S. Naval War College. "As long as the Yemeni
military remains cooperative with the U.S., it might be able to prevent it
from descending into failed state status, but that's still a long shot."
Keeping U.S. military support largely unseen, some Yemen experts say, may be
key to its success. With their periodic civilian "collateral damage", U.S.
drone strikes are already unpopular within Yemen. The public deployment of
U.S. troops in combatant roles would produce an even greater alienation.
But perhaps just as important as winning the battle against militancy, some
Yemen experts say, is wider political reform to avoid a slide back into
wider instability and infighting.
In what was seen as a barely veiled warning to former President Saleh and
other prominent figures, the White House in May issued a far reaching
executive order giving the U.S. Treasury the power to seize US assets of
anyone "obstructing" the Yemeni political transition.
PART OF WIDER REGIONAL FACE-OFF?
That, many Yemen experts believe, could be enough to persuade Saleh and
former allies both inside and outside government to avoid trying to
exacerbate the situation for their own ends. Saleh himself had been supposed
to leave Yemen under the U.S.-negotiated political deal, but has so far
failed to do so.
For the Yemeni government, however, former Saleh loyalists and Al Qaeda
militants are just two threats amongst many. For Yemen and its Saudi
neighbors in particular, the northern uprising is seen as at least as much
of a concern. Allegations it might in part be backed by
> Iran have attracted some U.S.
attention, but conclusive evidence has proved largely elusive.
Experts say there is little or no sign of AQAP involvement in the northern
revolt, with the largely Sunni militant group periodically attacking Shi'ite
leaders in some of their bloodiest attacks so far.
"If Tehran were involved (in the northern uprising) ... that would be an
issue for the U.S. government (but) it still wouldn't be nearly as important
as the counterterrorism picture," said CNA's Steinitz.
AQAP's bomb makers are seen as among some of the most sophisticated in the
world, responsible for several unsuccessful attempted "underwear bombings"
of airliners and working on developing undetectable devices. Online
preachers are also believed to have radicalized individuals in the U.S. and
Some wonder whether AQAP's decision to seize territory and confront the
Yemeni government in conventional fighting might prove a mistake. Letters
seized from Osama bin Laden's compound after his killing last year show him
advising directly against such an approach, warning it might fail to deliver
on the expectations of local populations.
It also, security experts say, makes the militant forces much easier to
attack from both ground and air.
But whether the campaign against AQAP succeeds or fails, some including US
Naval War College expert Alvi warn that a "myopic" focus on counterterrorism
may be blinding it to other issues.
In particular, she suspects that in Yemen as elsewhere, the U.S. is being
quietly drawn into growing region-wide struggle between ethnic Sunni and
Shi' ite forces itself fuelled by growing confrontation between Saudi Arabia
Saudi's Yemen policy, she believes, is focused primarily not on Al Qaeda but
on crushing the northern Yemeni rebellion. That comes as Riyadh battles its
own Shi'ite uprising in eastern Saudi and attempts to shore up Bahrain's
Sunni rulers. Whether it wants to be or not, Washington is seen being
dragged into the same agenda.
"They are locked in a sectarian competition... and this will go on for a
long time, if not forever," Alvi says. "Anything Shi'ite is interpreted as
Iranian supported in the eyes of the Saudis... this is also the inspiration
for Gulf states to be so outspoken against the Assad regime in
> Syria, not because of the goodness of
their hearts but because of Assad's good relations with Iran."
Whatever the wider reality, however, some warn anyone hoping for rapid
change in Yemen could be sadly disappointed.
"Yemen is Yemen. It will sometimes improve, sometimes deteriorate but it's
unlikely to break out of the pattern it's been in for the past decade," said
CNA's Steinitz. "I don't think anyone in the U.S. government has unrealistic
expectations about this."
(Reporting By Peter Apps, Editing by Ralph Boulton)
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Received on Thu Jun 07 2012 - 06:56:19 EDT