Al Qaeda haven? Yemen fights concerns with strikes, 10-point plan.

Yemen reportedly killed 34 Al Qaeda suspects today. Such steps, together with a new 10-point plan for reform, aim to reverse the Arab nation’s downward trajectory.

By , Correspondent

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    Armed men travel on a vehicle on a road near the Saudi border in the western Yemeni province of Hajja, October 10.
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Facing growing international concern that Yemen is becoming a new haven for Al Qaeda operatives, Yemeni security forces struck back hard today against suspected militants. In separate attacks, they arrested 17 Al Qaeda suspects and killed 34, including a top leader and four operatives who had planned suicide bombings abroad, according to press reports and a statement by Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.

Yemen’s central government has been severely tested in the past year by multiple domestic crises, as well as an acute economic downturn. There’s a war raging in the north that has recently spilled into Saudi Arabia, a secessionist movement in the south with alleged ties to the local branch of Al Qaeda, and 35 percent of Yemen’s population is living on less than $1 a day. The central government has little control beyond the outskirts of Yemen’s major cities – areas where tribal sheikhs traditionally wield the most power. Foreign Policy magazine recently ranked Yemen 18th of 177 countries in its 2009 Failed States Index, commenting dryly that “refugees and extremists were perhaps Yemen’s most noteworthy imports in 2008.”

However, one US-educated Yemeni government official has created a 10-step plan that aims to reverse the trajectory of this Arab nation over the next two years. Commended by President Obama but characterized as superficial by some Yemenis, it focuses on increasing the the government’s legitimacy by weeding out corruption and enhancing competence within government ranks.

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“The cause of the majority of the problems facing Yemen today is the low level of services provided by the Yemeni government,” says Jalal Yaqoub, deputy minister of finance and the plan’s author, during an interview. “If you think the government is weak then you will take advantage of it, but if you see that the government is strong then you will think twice.”

100 new hires for top government positions

Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh ratified the 10-step agenda – the first completely homegrown road map for reform to come out of the country – in August, and set a 24-month time-line for its implementation.

The plan prioritizes specific areas for reform, which he hopes will have a ripple effect on broader difficulties the country is facing, Mr. Yaqoub said.

The first point of the agenda is to hire 100 Yemenis from inside and outside the country based solely on qualifications – not favors or connections – who will replace those in high-level posts within several key ministries.

Another is to utilize the strategic location of the port city Aden in order to create more jobs. The former capital of South Yemen, it sits at the crossroads of Africa and Asia, something Yaqoub hopes will be an economic asset. Job creation, he expects, will be a disincentive for Adenis to join the southern separatist movement.

However, the plan does not address security concerns in Aden that could present an obstacle to significant investment. Al Qaeda, which perpetrated the 2000 attack on the USS Cole – one of the biggest pre-9/11 attacks – off Aden’s coast, is believed to have a strong presence in southern Yemen.

Analyst: A Band-Aid that doesn't go far enough

President Barack Obama commended the “far-reaching economic reforms” of the 10-point agenda in a September letter to President Saleh.

“Prompt and tangible progress is needed to persuade the people of Yemen and the international community that your government is determined to deliver essential services, strengthen the rule of law, and create economic opportunity in every region of the country,” said Mr. Obama. “As you take steps to achieve these goals, be assured of the support of the United States.”

But independent Yemeni political consultant Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, who has been involved in Yemen’s reform efforts in the past, likened the 10-step plan to a Band-Aid that doesn’t go to the root of Yemen’s woes. For example, he says, one of the 10 points is to decrease regulation and make oil exploration more efficient, yet the plan does not address oil smuggling – a problem that affects half the country's supplies, says Mr. Iryani.

“[President Saleh] has a wish list of things he would like to see happen, but he doesn’t want to make the concessions that would make that possible. The concentration of power in his hand is the biggest obstacle to everything,” says Iryani, who has done consulting work for the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

“For every symptom there is an underlying cause. These guys will keep dancing around the real issue and will never address it,” he said. "When they are forced to address it, it will be too late.”

“If the government has not been able to do much in 14 years [since the beginning of reform efforts], despite the support and pressure from the international donor community, how is it that they will do everything in 20 months? What has changed? Who is holding the magic wand?” asks Iryani.

Yaqoub didn't refute critics' claims that past attempts have failed, but asserted that this plan will work because it has Saleh's full support and Yemen has hired international consultants – including the development consulting firm Chemonics – to help implement it.

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