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A New Counterinsurgency Front?

Inter Press Service

As President Barack Obama ponders escalating Washington’s military and political investment in Afghanistan, a think tank close to his administration is urging Washington to ramp up U.S. aid and involvement in strife-torn Yemen, as well.

In a report released late last week, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) warned that Yemen “rests today on a knife’s edge” and called on Washington to increase both military and development assistance to the government as part of a larger strategy to ensure the state’s survival.

“The consequences of instability in Yemen reach far beyond this troubled land, and pose serious challenges to vital U.S. interests,” according to the report, which was co-authored by a prominent counterinsurgency specialist and a former senior aide to Sen. John McCain.

“A destabilized Arabian Peninsula would shatter regional security, disrupt trade routes, and obstruct access to fossil fuels,” it noted, stressing that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), among other anti-government groups, poses a growing threat to the regime.

“(W)hile Americans may pay little attention to Yemen, al-Qaeda leadership devotes much more: Internet message boards linked to al-Qaeda are encouraging fighters from across the Islamic world to flock to Yemen,” it warned.

The Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen has drawn growing attention here in recent weeks primarily due to Saudi Arabia’s military intervention against the Houthi insurgency in the northern Saada region of the country and charges by both Riyadh and the government of Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh that Iran is providing military aid to the rebels.

Those accusations, which U.S. analysts have largely discounted until now, have been strongly denied both by Iran and the Houthi leadership, although pressure from hard-liners in Tehran to support the rebels has been growing in recent weeks.

The Houthis, militant members of the Zaydi Shia sect that until 1962 ruled over northern Yemen for more than 1,000 years and make up a third of the country’s rapidly growing population of 23 million, took up arms in 2004 to protest alleged discrimination and under-development. Saleh, however, has claimed they are trying to overthrow the government and establish a Shia theocracy.

Government forces ended the latest of five ceasefires in August when they launched “Operation Scorched Earth” – a name suggestive of the kinds of tactics that have been used – against the Houthis, seriously aggravating a humanitarian crisis that has seen some 175,000 displaced from their homes since 2004.

The conflict expanded earlier this month when, after a reported incursion into Saudi Arabia by Houthi fighters, Saudi warplanes began bombing rebel positions along the border, raising fears that Riyadh could become mired in a conflict that most analysts believe has no military solution.

But the Houthi insurgency is just one – albeit the most serious – of several violent challenges to a central government that also faces a secessionist movement in what was until 1990 South Yemen, as well as a resurgent AQAP which, according to Greg Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, “is stronger now than it has ever been in the past”.

Since the attack on the U.S. warship, the U.S.S. Cole, in October 2000, Washington’s top concern in Yemen, whose pervasive poverty has proved fertile ground for recruitment by extremist groups, has been al Qaeda’s operations there.

After the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. the following year, Saleh cooperated closely with Washington in return for which his government received substantial economic as well as military aid.

But after the effective decapitation of al Qaeda’s leadership there by 2004 and amid reports of rampant government corruption, “U.S. policymakers lost interest, abandoning or curtailing development projects in the country,” according to the CNAS report.

Aided by the government’s preoccupation with the Houthi insurgency in the north and the secession threat in the south, as well as a sharp decline in the economy, al Qaeda has rebounded in the last few years.

Since 2006, it has carried out a series of attacks on oil and gas facilities and international targets, culminating in assaults in March and September 2008 on the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a itself.

And while the group does not constitute nearly as potent a threat to the government as the two regional rebellions, “Al-Qaeda has learned that the more chaotic Yemen is, the better it is for al-Qaeda,” said Johnson, whose blog, “Waq al-Waq”, is widely read by Yemen specialists here.

Curbing that chaos “demands immediate U.S. attention”, according to the CNAS report, much of which echoes a longer study by Yemen expert Christopher Boucek released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in September, who, like the CNAS authors, sees the government’s “scorched-earth” tactics in the north as having boosted the ranks of the rebels.

Moreover, “(t)he conflict’s strain on the Yemeni army has led to questions about the military’s ability to simultaneously engage in other operations,” noted Boucek this week. “Islamic militants or other disaffected groups could mount attacks on other fronts while the government is distracted by the war in Saada.”

Last year’s embassy attacks served as a wake-up call in Washington, which increased its economic aid programme from less than 10 million dollars that year to 24 million dollars in 2009. The administration is asking for nearly 40 million dollars for 2010. Military and security aid is also set to increase from current levels of some 65 million dollars.

The report by CNAS, a organization led by retired military officer John Nagl which in its mere three years of existence has become the most important advocate of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine in Washington, argues for a more comprehensive approach to U.S. strategy that would significantly increase both counterterrorism assistance and development aid well beyond current or planned levels.

Washington should also work to improve coordination among Yemen’s international donors, who in 2006 pledged nearly five billion dollars in assistance through 2010 but have since delivered less than fifth of that sum, according to the report.

The report, co-authored by Andrew Exum, a former Army officer who has advised the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) on COIN, and Richard Fontaine, a former top McCain adviser, also urges Washington to push Sana’a to adopt the “population-centric” COIN strategy developed by Centcom, and to seek a political settlement to the Houthi conflict, possibly through “external mediation” by an “honest broker”, such as the European Union.

“An easing of tensions between the government and Houthi separatists would free the government to take more seriously the threat posed by transnational terrorists present on Yemeni soil,” they write.

For the time being, however, both Sana’a and Riyadh, which appear to be coordinating their operations, seem determined to achieve a military solution in the Saada, according to Philip McCrum, contributing Yemen editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), who also noted that the administration’s current position on the conflict appears “ambiguous”.

“The U.S. has been reluctant to condemn outright Yemen’s military assault, (and) a letter sent in September by President Obama to Saleh pointedly failed to mention the conflict in Saada at all, instead stating baldly that ‘the security of Yemen is vital for the security of the United States’,” he noted, adding that this raised the question of whether Washington tacitly approved of the ongoing Saudi-Yemeni offensive despite the wider risks of regional destabilisation.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).

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