Obama must step carefully in Yemen

The closing of the US Embassy in Yemen shows the difficulty of beefing up the American counterterrorist effort in the Arab world’s poorest country.

The failed bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day has pushed President Obama to make a stronger US commitment to Yemen, a pivotal Muslim country where the alleged jet bomber from Nigeria was trained. 

The US will now more than double its military aid to Yemen while also possibly providing millions more for government reform and economic uplift to the poorest nation in the Arab world.

But coming after costly US actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, Congress and the American people need to ask: Is Yemen really a country ripe for the kind of nation building that will quell support for radical Islam?

A key lesson since 9/11 is that US military action and security assistance alone will not force a Muslim country to act boldly against militants. And overreacting with force can cause more harm than benefits. Each country’s unique characteristics – such as the strength of its tribal sheikhs, its history of democratic rule, the influence of neighboring states – must be weighed carefully in designing a counterinsurgency strategy.

Most of all, without public confidence of success in a new strategy toward Yemen, US lawmakers may not support a long-term effort to expel the militants. Several hundred Al Qaeda operatives are presumed to be active in this largely lawless nation of 23 million that is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden

The fact that the US had to close its embassy in the Yemeni capital this week under the threat of a bombing attack gives a clue to the long and complex struggle ahead.

Wisely, Britain has announced plans for an international meeting in London Jan. 28 to define a collective strategy toward Yemen that will include both Western countries and a few Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. And this past weekend, Gen. David Petraeus, the US general who oversees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, made a surprise visit to Yemen, seeing President Ali Abdullah Saleh

Short of sending combat troops, the US is already providing police training and intelligence support to Yemen’s Army. The Saleh government is an ally in the struggle against Al Qaeda – but a weak one as it lacks the support of powerful tribal groups that allow Al Qaeda to operate in the country’s vast rural areas.

Winning the allegiance of these tribes must be the central focus of US efforts. Any military action by Yemeni forces conducted with American help must not lead to civilian casualties that will turn tribal people against the government. The US learned that difficult lesson in Pakistan with its predator drone attacks that often led to many civilian deaths because of inadequate intelligence.

Economic aid can help win over Yemen’s tribal areas, although the country’s culture of corruption and its history of lawlessness won’t make the task easy. In fact, US aid to Yemen was cut in half last year because of concerns about losses from graft.

Yemen’s economy is highly dependent on oil exports, but those supplies are estimated to run out in a few years. And the country faces both a water crisis and civil unrest in the north and south. 

Building up Yemen would likely take a US commitment beyond Obama’s time in office. His initial reaction to bolster Yemen’s struggle against Al Qaeda deserves support. This country on the Arabian Peninsula has long been a source of terrorist attacks against Americans going back to the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole

But a well-calibrated US response with careful planning is needed in coming weeks – one that Congress and the public can endorse. 

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