US behind the scenes of Yemen terrorism fight
The US is stepping up its efforts in Yemen quietly, giving the country tools and money to comabt terrorism without fanfare. The strategy is the result of lessons learned in Pakistan, in particular.
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In response, the US has established a security program with Yemen that is small but has expanded significantly since last year. The Pentagon has given $70 million in military aid – training and equipment – in an attempt to get a foot in the door and strengthen goodwill. The US Coast Guard is also working to assist the Yemeni government in safeguarding a choke point in the Gulf of Aden that is in Western shipping interests.
But the US must strike a balanced approach to Yemen, where experts warn it must navigate a complex political terrain and not be too heavy-handed.
This is where the US can draw lessons from its relationship with Pakistan, say security and congressional experts. The US is keen on pushing Yemen to fight the Al Qaeda cell within its borders. But Al Qaeda is not the biggest threat to Yemeni stability. That is posed by the al-Houthi separatist movement in the north. The group’s aims are not well articulated, but it appears to want to topple the Yemeni government or at least foment an unrest from which it can draw strength.
The US has learned the hard way that if it does not focus on the internal dynamics of a country from which it wants favors, the results can be counterproductive.
Pakistan is a case in point. As in Yemen, Pakistan’s greatest threat does not come from Al Qaeda but from a domestic menace. The Pakistani Army is focused on the Pakistani Taliban. The US, however, wants Pakistan to confront the Afghan Taliban, who are based in Pakistan but attack US and allied forces in Afghanistan.
Learning from mistakes in Pakistan
Much of what the US learned in its terse relationship with Pakistan should be applied to Yemen in order to avoid the same mistakes, says one congressional staffer who traveled to Yemen this year and agreed to speak on background, as he was not officially authorized to speak on the topic.
“A lot of those answers should inform what we do in Yemen,” he says, adding that the US should focus on a long-term relationship that is not all about counterterrorism. Pakistanis have accused the US of only using Pakistan when it serves American interests.
To avoid that perception in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh will seek “affirmation” from the US in a big way – financial aid and also trips to the White House and validation from wealthier neighbors like Saudi Arabia. “We need to create incentives for the Yemeni government to step up,” the staffer says.
The US may already be learning to tread more carefully. When the Pentagon publicized a US drone attack against Al Qaeda in November 2002, it inadvertently undermined the credibility of the Yemeni government. Last month, when the US assisted in a series of drone attacks against Al Qaeda, the US would not acknowledge its role, saying only that it “applauded” Yemeni efforts.