In response to today's Senate vote on the resolution to block the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, the Yemen Peace Project's director of policy and advocacy, Kate Kizer, issued the following statement:
The YPP, along with 40 other national and local organizations, sent the below letter urging Congress to vote in support of S.J.Res.42 to block the pending $510 million arms sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. Recently, bipartisan members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives introduced joint resolutions of disapproval to block the sale of these weapons due to their repeated use against civilians and civilian infrastructure in Yemen.
The YPP, along with 37 other advocacy, civil society, peace, and faith groups, sent a letter to President Trump today expressing our grave concern over the proposed Hudaydah offensive in Yemen. The White House is expected to sign off this week on the Pentagon's request to increase US involvement in a Saudi- and Emirati-led offensive that would cause extreme humanitarian suffering and risks sparking famine in Yemen, while eroding prospects for a political settlement to the conflict.
We urge President Trump to withhold US support and act to prevent the coalition from moving forward with the offensive. Instead, the Trump administration should focus on using diplomatic pressure to bring the warring parties to the peace table and allow unfettered humanitarian access to Yemen's ailing civilian population.
Today President Trump signed an executive order making changes to US immigration and refugee resettlement systems.
The Yemen Peace Project urges US lawmakers to halt the sale of tanks and armored vehicles to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Department of Defense notified Congress on August 8 of a possible sale of 153 M1A2 tanks, 20 M88Al/A2 armored vehicles, and related weapons systems and materiel, valued at $1.15 billion. Saudi Arabia plans to replace 20 tanks that have been lost in battle, and add 133 new tanks to its arsenal. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of states fighting to restore Yemen’s ousted president, Abdu Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, to power, and to destroy military forces loyal to the Houthi movement—also known as Ansar Allah—and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Coalition forces have waged an intensive air campaign in Yemen, and have fought on the ground alongside forces from allied states and a number of irregular Yemeni militias. The United Nations estimates that more than 3,500 civilians have been killed since March 2015, and almost twice as many wounded; the coalition has been responsible for roughly 75% of all civilian casualties. This sale, announced during an important working pause in the UN-sponsored peace talks and a troubling intensification of coalition airstrikes, sends a counterproductive message to all parties to the conflict in Yemen. It will be read by the Hadi government and the coalition as encouragement for further ground operations in Yemen’s north, which would be disastrous for Yemeni civilians. The Houthi-Saleh faction will see the sale as confirmation that America and its allies are not serious about seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict, and could use the sale as justification for their own attacks on Saudi Arabia and Yemeni citizens. This sale would also violate the spirit of Senate Resolution 524, as the concerns raised therein have not yet been addressed by the administration. Furthermore, because UN experts and NGOs have uncovered evidence of substantial violations of international and US law by the Saudi-led coalition, further arms transfers to Saudi Arabia could violate the Arms Export Control Act and the Leahy Law.
Once notified of a potential arms sale by the Department of Defense, Congress has a 30-day period during which it can block or modify the sale. Many members of Congress have been critical of previous arms transfers to Saudi Arabia. Due to the August recess and the likely impact of such a sale on the fragile peace process, the Yemen Peace Project calls upon concerned members of Congress to exercise their crucial oversight role and prevent this sale from taking place.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing today titled "The U.S. Role and Strategy in the Middle East: Yemen and the Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council." Chaired by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the hearing featured Stephen Seche and Mary Beth Long as expert witnesses. Seche served as the US ambassador to Yemen from 2007-2010 and currently serves as the VP of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a think-tank funded by GCC governments but staffed by some credible DC thinkers. Long served for several years in the Department of Defense, and is now the head of a private security firm with a Middle East focus. The senators present started out with questions on the current war in Yemen, the nature and purpose of American support for the Saudi-led coalition, and the role of Iran in the conflict. From there the hearing flailed into a discussion of Russia's relationship with the GCC states, with both committee members and witnesses undecided as to whether the GCC is wooing Russia to replace the US as their Most Important Ally, or planning to go to war against Russia in Syria. There was much talk of the "Russia-Iran alliance" as well. In fact, in some ways this was actually a hearing on Iran and what the US can and should do about Iranian influence in the region.
Those parts of the hearing that focused on Yemen were worth watching, however. Senator Corker and others on the committee pressed the witnesses on whether the US actually has any interests that are served by bombing Yemen, or whether America's involvement is purely motivated by Saudi/GCC interests. The eventual concensus seemed to be that the US was dragged, largely unprepared, into this conflict by Saudi Arabia, but that it is in America's interest to limit Iranian influence in Yemen. The witnesses disagreed on the actual extent of that influence, with Seche expressing the conventional wisdom of Yemen-watchers--that Iran isn't in charge of the Houthi-Saleh campaign for domination, or in his words, that "the Houthis are their own boss," but that Iran would benefit from a Houthi victory--while Long claimed that the Houthis are an outright Iranian proxy. Moreover, according to Long, Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah fighters are already on the ground in Yemen (she at one point said, with a straight face, "we don't know how many there are, but we know it's increasing.").
Ms. Long's testimony was essentially a set of Saudi-authored talking points, with her Main Point being that, if the US wants to see this war come to a positive conclusion with decreased civilian casualties, it needs to hurry up and sell Saudi Arabia a lot more smart bombs, OR ELSE. Seche's testimony was much more balanced, without a clear political or economic agenda, which was refreshing.
Toward the end of the hearing, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) raised quite forcefully the issue of Yemen's humanitarian catastrophe, and the fact that the Saudi-led bombing campaign and naval blockade have contributed to it, a point to which Seche agreed. Senator Markey went on to say that "our silence is complicity" in Saudi Arabia's violations of international humanitarian law. He further pointed out that US law forbids military assistance to military entities that have committed "gross violations" of international law and human rights, and suggests that KSA's actions in Yemen put it within the bounds of such prohibitions.
If Senator Markey defined one end of the spectrum of arguments presented at today's hearing--the empathetic, humanitarian, reasonable end, Mary Beth Long positioned herself firmly at the other. According to Long, the fact that Houthi-Saleh forces used a Russian-made missile against coalition forces proves that Russian and/or Iranian military advisors are on the front lines in Yemen, and that Iranian weapons shipments are practically pouring into Yemen on a daily basis. This disregards the fact that the missile in question was, as far as anyone can tell, part of the arsenal of the Yemeni army, and that the pro-Saleh military includes units trained in the use of such missiles.
The take-away: though both witnesses represent institutions with ties to GCC powers, Ambassador Seche offered thoughtful and earnest opinions based on his own experience, while Ms. Long parroted propaganda. When forced to boil down their recommendations for US policy, Seche urged US policy makers to make sure that any further arms transfers to Saudi Arabia come with "significant strings" in the form of commitments to engage productively in peace talks. Long, on the other hand, urged the US to deliver more and better munitions to Saudi Arabia as quickly as possible.
And one final exchange that I found very interesting: Senator Markey asked the witnesses if the US administration should be making more of a fuss about Saudi violations of international law. Seche said no; calling out the Saudis in public would be counterproductive, but the administration should speak to KSA "privately" about this. Markey then asked if the Senate, and specifically the FRC, should speak out publicly on the issue since the administration can't. Seche enthusiastically said yes, that a vocal Congress could be helpful in international negotiations. He even said that he had used the "help me get this pesky Congress off my back" approach in his own dealings with intransigent foreign governments in the past.
The Yemen Peace Project (YPP), in partnership with Resonate! Yemen and Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, has published a new report entitled United States Policy & Yemen’s Armed Conflict. The report examines the events leading up to the outbreak of the conflict in early 2015, assesses the successes and shortcomings of US foreign policy before and during the conflict, and presents realistic recommendations for a more peaceful and constructive American approach to Yemen’s crisis. The report focuses on five specific policy areas: diplomatic engagement, military intervention, humanitarian assistance, security and counterterrorism, and assistance to US citizens in Yemen, and it concludes with a set of additional recommendations for constructive US involvement in Yemen’s eventual post-conflict reconstruction effort. You can read the executive summary and priority recommendations below, and download the full report here (PDF). النسخة العربية
In March of this year, long-simmering regional and political tensions exploded into a full-fledged armed conflict in Yemen, with the Houthi movement and military forces loyal to former president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh fighting for control of the country’s major cities and key provinces. Arrayed against the Houthi-Saleh alliance are local militias allied with President ‘Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his government-in-exile, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, armed elements of the Southern Movement (al-Hirak), army units tied to General ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and the Islah Party, several powerful tribes, and an assortment of salafi and jihadi factions.
To date, more than 4,300 Yemenis have been killed in this conflict; at least half of these have been civilians. More than 1.4 million civilians have been forced to flee their homes. Most of the civilian casualties are the result of illegal indiscriminate attacks, carried out by both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi-Saleh alliance.
Although the United States has not committed combat forces to the conflict, it is playing an important role. On the diplomatic front, the United States has played an important and laudable role in working to bring the warring parties to the table. The Obama administration must now work with Yemen’s neighbors and the rest of the international community to establish secure routes for the delivery of humanitarian aid, push for an end to hostilities, reach an internationally-supported political settlement, and build a comprehensive material and economic reconstruction plan. The US must also work with other members of the United Nations Security Council, which has been circumvented by the Saudi-led coalition, to ensure that any further military intervention in Yemen complies with Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.
In contrast to its constructive diplomatic efforts, many of the US administration’s other activities and policies are contributing to the perpetuation of the conflict and the destabilization of Yemen. US military and intelligence personnel are supporting the Saudi-led coalition’s ongoing campaign of aerial bombardment, which has violated international humanitarian law by deliberately targeting civilian residences and infrastructure, and by failing to protect civilians from harm.
The United States has also continued to carry out its own airstrikes against suspected members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), killing at least 76 people in 2015. US counterterrorism efforts in Yemen have long attracted criticism for their emphasis on “kinetic” tactics—missile strikes and armed assaults on AQAP targets—rather than programs that address the causes and facilitating factors of extremism and violence. As the balance of power within Yemen changes, US strikes risk further destabilizing the situation, and contributing to militant groups’ recruitment efforts.
Yemen was already facing a humanitarian emergency before the present conflict broke out. Today the country is in the midst of a full-blown catastrophe. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), more than 80% of Yemen’s population is in need of some form of assistance. Millions of Yemenis are suffering from food insecurity and a lack of clean water; famine is just around the corner. Meanwhile, Yemen’s health care system has collapsed, and thousands of Yemenis are dying for lack of access to medicine and treatment. The UN’s emergency appeal for Yemen is only 18% funded. Early in the conflict Saudi Arabia pledged to cover the entirety of the previous appeal; none of the promised funds have been delivered. Both the coalition and the Houthi-Saleh alliance are preventing aid from reaching civilians, in violation of international law. Despite the presence of several US warships in the Gulf of Aden, the US has failed to assist in the evacuation of US citizens and other foreign nationals from Yemen, as required by a recent UNSC resolution.
- The US must urge Saudi Arabia and its allies to end their military intervention, and insist that any further international involvement in the conflict adhere to the restrictions of the UN Charter and international law. The US should push for a new UNSC resolution to that end.
- The US must work toward the inclusion of all parties and factions, including nonstate fighting groups, in the peace process. The participation of such groups in negotiations is essential to a lasting peace.
- The US must actively engage with regional actors outside the GCC—most importantly Iran—and with other global powers, with the aims of discouraging proxy support for factions in Yemen’s internal conflicts and creating a regional and international structure of support for an eventual peace agreement.
- The US must immediately suspend its logistical and technical support for Saudi and coalition airstrikes, which do not meet legal standards regarding the protection of civilians or distinction between combatants and noncombatants, and halt any pending transfers of ordnance or other materiel to coalition states.
- The US must take all measures at its disposal to discourage unlawful attacks against Yemeni civilians, or military actions which place civilians at undue risk.
- The US must act immediately to fund the UN’s humanitarian response plan, and to help establish safe routes for the delivery of aid.
- The US must urge Saudi Arabia to deliver the funds it has already pledged for humanitarian assistance, and allow UNOCHA to determine where and how those funds are used.
- The US must urge the Houthi-Saleh alliance, as well as the Saudi-led coalition, to allow the free passage and distribution of humanitarian assistance.
Security and counterterrorism:
- The United States must suspend its targeted killing program immediately, and put in place a system to evaluate the program’s effectiveness, as well as the potential effectiveness of alternative, non-kinetic programs.
- The White House, intelligence community, Department of State, and Department of Defense must establish a counterterrorism strategy prioritizing non-military solutions to long-term challenges.
- The Department of Defense must evaluate the effectiveness of past military aid to Yemen, and tie any future assistance to real institutional reforms.
Assistance to US citizens:
- State Department and military officials must take all possible measures to ensure the safe evacuation of any remaining US citizens who wish to leave the country, and ensure that citizens and their family members who have left Yemen already—many of whom are now in Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, or elsewhere in the region—are quickly and safely transported to the US.
Additional recommendations are included in the Policy Assessment and Recommendations section of the full report.
سياسة الولايات المتحدة والصراع المسلح في اليمن
في أواخر شهر مارس من هذا العام، أفضى التوتر السياسي الإقليمي المتأجج مُنذُ فترة طويلة إلى صراع مسلح شامل في اليمن ضد حركة الحوثيين والقوات المسلحة الموالية للرئيس السابق علي عبدالله صالح الذين يقاتلون في سبيل السيطرة على المدن الرئيسية والأقاليم الأهم في البلاد. وفي مواجهة تحالف الحوثي وصالح تشكل تحالف عربي بقيادة المملكة العربية السعودية ودولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة وعناصر مسلحة أخرى موالية للرئيس الحالي عبدربه منصور هادي وحكومته في الخارج، من الحراك الجنوبي ووحدات مسلحة تنتمي لحزب الإصلاح والجنرال علي محسن الأحمر وعديد القبائل ذات النفوذ وكذا جماعات متنوعة أخرى من فصائل السلفيين والجهاديين.
وحتى الآن، قُتل أكثر من 4,300 يمني في هذا الصراع ، نصفهم على الأقل من المدنيين؛ كما نزح أكثر من 1.4 مليون مواطن. وتعود الإصابات بين المواطنين إلى الهجمات غير القانونية التي لا تفرق بين المقاتلين والمدنيين و المُنفذة من طرفي الصراع، سواءً التحالف العربي أو تحالف الحوثي وصالح. وبالرغم من عدم التزام الولايات المتحدة بأي قوات مقاتلة في هذا الصراع، إلا أنها تعلب دوراً محورياً فيه. وعلى الصعيد الدوبلوماسي، لعبت الولايات المتحدة دوراً هاماً وواضحاً في إعادة أطراف الصراع إلى طاولة الحوار. وعليه، فإن على حكومة أوباما أن تعمل مع دول الجوار في اليمن وبقية المجتمع الدولي من أجل تأمين طرق إيصال المساعدات الإنسانية، وإنهاء الصراع، والتوصل إلى تسوية سياسية بدعم دولي، وكذا وضع خطة إعادة إعمار مادية واقتصادية شاملة. كما يتوجب على الولايات المتحدة أن تعمل مع الدول الأعضاء في مجلس الأمن للأمم المتحدة، الذي تجاوزه التحالف العربي بقيادة السعودية، على ضمان أن أي تدخل عسكري آخر في اليمن سيكون وفقاً للفصل السابع في ميثاق الأمم المتحدة. وفي تناقض مع الجهود الدبلوماسية البناءة، تُساهم العديد من أنشطة وسياسات الإدارة الأمريكية في استمرار الصراع وزعزعة الأمن في اليمن. حيث تدعم الدوائر العسكري والاستخباراتية للولايات المتحدة الضربات الجوية التي يُنفذها التحالف العربي بقيادة السعودية في الوقت الراهن، والتي ارتكبت العديد من الاختراقات للقانون الإنساني الدولي عبر الاستهداف المتعمد للأحياء السكنية والبنى التحتية المدنية وكذا فشلها في حماية المدنين.
في حين استمرت الولايات المتحدة في تنفيذ ضرباتها الصاروخية ضد أعضاء مشتبهين من تنظيم القاعدة قُتل خلالها ما لا يقل عن 76 شخص في العام 2015 م، ولطالما جذبت جهود الولايات المتحدة لمكافحة الإرهاب في اليمن انتقادات لتركيزها على التكتيكات "الحركية" (“kinetic” tactics ) للضربات الصاروخية والهجمات المسلحة على مواقع القاعدة بدلاً من التركيز على البرامج التي تعالج الأسباب والعوامل المؤدية إلى التطرف والعنف. ونتيجة لتغير توازن القوى داخل اليمن، فإن الضربات الأمريكية قد تساهم في زعزعة استقرار الوضع وزيادة التجنيد في صفوف الجماعات المسلحة.وقبل إندلاع الصراع الراهن، كانت اليمن تواجه وضع إنساني حرج، الأمر الذي ترتب عليه حدوث كارثة إنسانية كبيرة في الوقت الحالي. ووفقاً لمكتب منسقية الأمم المتحدة للشئون الإنسانية (UNOCHA) فإن أكثر من 80% من إجمالي سكان اليمن في حاجة لشكل من أشكال المساعدة الإنسانية، ويعاني ملايين اليمنيين من إنعدام الأمن الغذائي والحاجة للمياة النظيفة؛ وتبدو البلاد على حافة الوقوع في مجاعة. في حين شهد النظام الصحي في اليمن إنهيار واضح، فإن آلاف اليمنيين يموتون بسبب القصور في تقديم الخدمات الطبية والعلاجية. كما أن نداء الطوارئ الذي قدمته الأمم المتحدة بخصوص دعم خطة الاستجابة الإنسانية في اليمن لم يتم تمويل سوى 18% منه. وفي بداية هذا الصراع تعهدت المملكة العربية السعودية بتغطية الخطة بشكل كامل؛ إلا أنها لم توفِ بذلك حتى الآن. بينما يعيق كلاً من التحالف العربي وتحالف الحوثي وصالح إيصال المساعدات الإنسانية للمدنيين في اختراق واضح للقانون الإنساني الدولي. وبالرغم من تواجد عدة سفن حربية تابعة للولايات المتحدة في خليج عدن، فشلت الولايات المتحدة في إخلاء المواطنين الأمريكيين والجنسيات الأخرى من اليمن، كما هو مطلوب في قرار مجلس الأمن الأخير.
توصيات متعلقة بالأولويات
التعامل الدبلوماسي: • على الولايات المتحدة حث المملكة العربية السعودية وحلفائها على إنهاء التدخل العسكري، والإصرار على أن يخضع أي تدخل دولي مستقبلي في اليمن لقيود القانون الدولي في ميثاق الأمم المتحدة. وعليه يتوجب على الولايات المتحدة أن تدفع نحو صياغة قرار صادر عن مجلس الأمن بهذا المحتوى. • على الولايات المتحدة أن تعمل على إشراك كل الأحزاب والفصائل، بما فيها من جماعات مقاتلة غير حكومية، في عملية السلام. إن مشاركة كل هذه الجماعات في المفاوضات أمر محوري من أجل بناء سلام دائم. • على الولايات المتحدة أن تعمل بشكل فعال مع اللاعبين الإقليميين خارج دول مجلس التعاون الخليجي، إيران على وجه الخصوص، والقوى الدولية الأخرى للحد من تغذية أطراف الصراع الداخلي في اليمن والسعي لإيجاد إطار إقليمي ودولي يفضي إلى إتفاق سلمي نهائي.
التدخل العسكري: • على الولايات المتحدة تعليق دعمها الفني واللوجستي لضربات التحالف العربي الجوية التي لا تتوافق مع المعايير القانونية فيما يخص حماية المدنيين أو التمييز بين الأفراد المحاربين من غيرهم، وإيقاف أي تحويلات معلقة من الذخائر أو المواد الأخرى لدول التحالف. • على الولايات المتحدة أن تتخذ جميع التدابير المتاحة لديها للحد من الهجمات غير القانونية ضد المدنيين اليمنيين، أو الأعمال العسكرية التي تعرض المدنيين لخطر لا مبرر له.
المساعدة الإنسانية: • على الولايات المتحدة أن تعمل فورا على تمويل خطة الاستجابة الإنسانية للأمم المتحدة، والمساعدة في تأمين طرق إيصال المساعدات الإنسانية. • على الولايات المتحدة حث المملكة العربية السعودية على الإيفاء بما تعهدت به من تمويل لخطة الاستجابة الإنسانية، والسماح لمنسقية الأمم المتحدة للشئون الإنسانية (UNOCHA) بتحدد كيف وأين يستخدم هذا التمويل. • على الولايات المتحدة حث تحالف الحوثي وصالح، والتحالف العربي أيضاً، على تأمين ممر حر والسماح بتوزيع المساعدات الإنسانية.
الأمن ومكافحة الإرهاب: • ينبغي على الولايات المتحدة تعليق برنامجها "القتل المستهدف"" targeted killing" على الفور، ووضع نظاماً لتقييم فعالية البرنامج، فضلا عن الفعالية المحتملة من البرامج البديلة، برامج"غير الحركية""“non-kinetic. • يتعين على البيت الأبيض، ومجتمع الاستخبارات، وزارة الخارجية، وزارة الدفاع وضع استراتيجية لمكافحة الإرهاب وإعطاء الأولوية للحلول غير العسكرية للتحديات طويلة المدى. • ينبغي على وزارة الدفاع تقييم فعالية المساعدات العسكرية السابقة لليمن، وربط أي مساعدة مستقبلية بإصلاحات مؤسسية حقيقية.
مساعدة مواطني الولايات المتحدة: • ينبغي على وزارة الخارجية والمسئولين العسكريين اتخاذ جميع التدابير الممكنة لضمان الإخلاء الآمن لأي من مواطني الولايات المتحدة المتبقين والراغبون في مغادرة البلاد، وضمان نقلهم وأفراد أسرهم الذين غادروا اليمن سابقاً، والذين لا يزالون حتى الآن في جيبوتي أو مصر أو في أي مكان آخر في المنطقة، على وجه السرعة وبشكل آمن إلى الولايات المتحدة.
If you follow the news about the US-led war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), you're probably familiar with the phenomenon of the zombie mujahid. In several cases, US or Yemeni officials have announced the death of certain AQAP operatives, only to have the men in question appear alive and well weeks or months later. A recent study by the UK-based NGO Reprieve looked at this issue, and also tried to figure out who the US had actually killed in place of the intended targets. Reprieve released a report based on the study on Monday. Among their key findings, Reprieve identified 41 individuals who appear to be US-designated "high-value targets," and who have each been reported killed multiple times. "Each was targeted and/or reported killed more than three times on average before they were actually killed. In one instance, a person was targeted seven times before eventually being killed. Two others were killed six times and one is believed to still be alive today."
Reprieve staff attorney Jennifer Gibson collected data on US air strikes in Yemen and Pakistan for the study, which also found that:
Strikes targeting the above  individuals killed on average 28 other people each before they actually succeeded in killing their target. In total, as many as 1,147 people may have been killed during attempts to kill just these 41 men, accounting for a quarter of all possible drone strike casualties. Yet, evidence suggests that despite multiple attempts, at least seven of these forty-one men are likely still alive and a further individual died not from drone strikes but rather natural causes.
Seventeen of the high-value targets the study identifies were/are in Yemen. According to Reprieve:
Missile strikes on these men killed 273 other people and accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties and 100% of all recorded child deaths. Each [of the 17 HVTs] was killed on average well over three times each. Strikes against these 17 targets accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties in Yemen. Yet, evidence suggests that at least four of these 17 men are still alive (Qassim al-Raimi, Nasser Abdul Karim al-Wuhayshi, Ibrahim al-Asiri, and Abdulraouf al-Dahab).
Of course, reliable data on US air strikes are hard to come by, since the targeted killing program is covert. In particular, it's hard for researchers to determine who is a civilian and who is a "militant." You can read the methodology section of the report to get a sense of how Reprieve arrived at these numbers, and how they established who was killed in which strikes. Reprieve's press release, with a link to a PDF of the full report, is here.
Some in the media interpreted this week's big speech by President Barack Obama as a watershed moment in the development of US counter-terrorism and foreign policy. I say "interpreted"; what I mean is that White House officials worked throughout the week to push this understanding upon journalists and pundits, and some of them obliged by regurgitating this concept to their audiences. The White House pitched the speech as one part of a process of increasing transparency; it was anything but. You can read the full text of the speech for yourself, but in the mean time, allow me to summarize the important points as I understood them.
- The United States will continue to use targeted killing as its primary tool in dealing with known or suspected "terrorists" in Yemen and elsewhere. It will, however, continue to claim that it prefers to capture suspects whenever possible.
- The US will claim that it only kills individuals who it is certain pose a "continuing and imminent threat" to America, without ever informing America what any of those threats are or how they were discovered.
- The president is sickened by the very idea of civilian casualties; the civilians who have died keep him awake at night. But the president will not apologize for those who have already been killed, nor will he make reparations to their families.
- The US would really, really like to narrow the scope of its counter-terrorism operations and not get involved in any more wars, but we'll just have to see how the chips fall.
- The president of the United States would really like to close the extra-legal prison at Guantanamo Bay, but he may or may not be allowed by Congress and his own Defense and Justice departments to do this.
- The president will no longer forbid the courts or the military from ordering the repatriation of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen; however, those detainees already cleared for release by the courts and the military will not be repatriated yet. They will have to have their cases reviewed, again. The criteria by which those cases will be evaluated will not be made public.
If you heard or read something different, please comment.
The day before the speech, President Obama apparently signed a document that contains more detailed guidance for the country's intelligence and security apparatuses, but we don't know what that guidance is because the document is--wait for it--classified. So as far as I can tell, the president's idea of "being more transparent" consists of telling the public that he has written and signed another classified document. Impressive.
This has been the problem since the day Mr. Obama took the reins of America's counter-terrorism programs: every time the public, the press, or the courts has asked for information about how he and his team make decisions, he tells us to just trust that he's doing the right thing. These life-and-death decisions, these policies that determine the use of lethal force, all of this is being done with the utmost regard for the rule of law and the good of the nation, we are told. Our national path is being charted according to the president's unwavering moral compass. He has gone so far as to say that the constitutional guarantee of due process can be safely met by him and his close advisors, behind closed doors.
If that were the spirit behind the concept of due process, we would not have courts, or judges, or juries. We would not need laws concerning the powers of the president or the use of force if every president knew and instinctively carried out the most righteous and strategically sound policy at all times. It may well be that Mr. Obama has impeccable morals (I don't believe that to be the case, but I'm in no position to judge); but that is not the issue. Without laws, without a clear and transparent legal framework, there is no accountability, and no way to assess the justice or the utility of the administration's counter-terrorism policy.
Here's an actual quote from the background briefing a few "senior White House officials" held before the speech, in order to get the press and the assembled experts on the right page (emphasis added):
...you’ll also see that there are criteria listed, and some of them will be slightly different than the criteria, for example, that John Brennan noted in his Wilson Center speech. And it’s a sort of — it’s an [evolving] process. So one of the differences is we were looking at significant threats in the Wilson Center speech, and now we’re looking at continuing and imminent threats. And so that is, in a sense, one of the standards that has evolved.
That's right. This senior White House official is telling us that the White House has DECIDED TO START USING DIFFERENT ADJECTIVES, and that we should believe, from that decision, that the actual standards underlying the targeted killing program have changed. The problem is that the White House has never defined (in an unclassified document, say) any of those three adjectives, nor has it explained how the president decides to which individuals or actions they apply.
This "just trust me" approach was unacceptable before the president's "game changing" speech, and it is still unacceptable today. The president's deployment of strategic adjectives will not defeat al-Qa‘idah or protect America's interests; only drastic and comprehensive changes to America's foreign policy can do that. Maybe such changes really are in the works. As usual, I would absolutely love to be proved wrong. But for that to happen, the administration would have to actually tell us what it's planning to do, and submit those plans to legal and practical review.
*The title of this post is an inversion of my old university's Latin motto, "Leges sine moribus vanae," which, I'm told, comes from a line from the Roman poet Horace, and which (loosely) means "laws without morals are useless." My correlate, then, translates roughly to "morals without laws are useless."
This week began with the second inauguration of Barack Obama here in the US, and with a series of air strikes--likely carried out by American drones--in Yemen. In fact, there have been six or seven strikes within the last week, though the exact number of resultant casualties is unknown. Along with these "kinetic" events, recent weeks have featured another kind of activity from President Obama. Mr. Obama has announced his nominations for CIA Director and Secretary of Defense. If things go according to plan, John O. Brennan--who has been Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor and is generally thought to be the most important man in Washington for Yemen policy--will take over the CIA, and Chuck Hagel will head to the Pentagon. Obama's nominee for Secretary of State, John Kerry, breezed through confirmation hearings yesteday. Mr. Kerry said during his hearings that he wants to see a demilitarization of US foreign policy, that "we cannot afford a diplomacy that is defined by troops or drones or confrontation." I couldn't agree more, as any reader of this blog knows. I wish Mr. Kerry the best, and I do expect that he'll try to redirect this country's foreign policy priorities to some extent. But it'll be an uphill battle, especially when it comes to Yemen. Within his own department, the rising trend of the fortress embassy (exemplified by the growing "Green Zone" around the embassy in San‘a) is a major hindrance to this objective. And Kerry will have to claw back control of the Yemen portfolio from the NSC, DoD, and CIA , if he even wants it. While I'd love to see him really shake things up at State, I don't know that Kerry is willing to take the kind of risks that might disqualify him from higher office in the future.
Gregory Johnsen and Micah Zenko, among others, have made the case against John Brennan as CIA director (and indeed, against John Brennan as decent human being), based in large part on his handling of America's war in Yemen. There are others who argue in Brennan's favor. Some say he has worked within the president's CT team to limit the use of targeted killings, and that he will work to demilitarize the CIA. Joshua Foust gives Brennan the benefit of the doubt on that issue and explains the choices Brennan will face at CIA in this brief piece.
Chuck Hagel will be, if confirmed, the first former enlisted soldier to serve as Secretary of Defense. As a young man at war in Vietnam, he was wounded and decorated multiple times. Critics in congress see Hagel as not hawkish enough to lead the country's military. Hagel himself says that he is not a pacifist, but will do anything in his power to avoid involving America in a new ground war. This conviction sounds like a pretty good fit with Obama's idea of war; this administration favors a "small footprint" in foreign operations, hence the focus on air power and cooperation with local forces in Yemen.
It's doubtful that any of these men will push the Obama Administration toward any major changes in its policy toward Yemen if status quo is what the president has in mind. It is possible, however, that Mr. Obama himself is interested in trying a new strategy in Yemen and elsewhere. His administration is notoriously opaque, so if he and his team are planning to significantly change their approach to certain foreign policy challenges, the public shouldn't expect to hear it from the president until such plans have been implemented and appear to be bearing fruit.
This was a big week for President Hadi. The annual UN General Assembly general debate was his first big-time outing as a head of state; his first official visit to the White House as president came yesterday (he met with VP Joe Biden and John Brennan); he co-chaired the Friends of Yemen meeting at the UN; and in his absence, Yemen celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1962 revolution, which established the Yemen Arab Republic. I would like to say it was a good week, and that President Hadi represented Yemen well. I would really like to say that, but I won't. In my opinion, Hadi did a poor job of representing the interests of the Yemeni people, and failed to set appropriate and useful priorities for international involvement in Yemen.
This afternoon President Hadi spoke at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Rather than re-hash the speech and question-and-answer session, I'll let you read my tweets (and a few by analyst Katherine Zimmerman) about it. You can also watch the video here.
I was seriously disappointed by Hadi's performance today, but I think I understand what he was trying to do, and it's important to understand. When foreign leaders come to the US, they generally come to ask for something. The smart ones know that the best way to plead their case is to stay "on-message" at all times. By focusing on security and counter-terrorism, Hadi was telling his American backers what he believes they want to hear. In fact, I think his comments told us a good deal more about American priorities and interests than we ever learn from listening to US officials.
US State Department officials, along with President Obama's counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, have insisted that the US approach to Yemen's multitude of problems is "comprehensive," and have even tried to convince us that the humanitarian situation in Yemen is America's foremost concern. Yet President Hadi did not once use the word "humanitarian" in his remarks. He said nothing about the critical food insecurity that faces 45% of his countrymen, or the water shortage that threatens the entire country's future, or the lack of health services that is costing hundreds of lives throughout Yemen. He focused entirely on security threats, mainly the threat posed by AQAP, but also the nefarious actions of Iran, just in case American audiences are bored with al-Qa‘idah. Even the economic crisis was phrased as a security threat. Hadi repeatedly brought up Yemen's high unemployment figures, but suggested that the reason to worry about unemployment is that it leaves young people vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists.
The take-away is that, no matter what John Brennan and his buddies tell us, the president of Yemen firmly believes that security and counter-terrorism are America's only concerns in Yemen, and the only causes that will draw American (financial) assistance. And if that's what President Hadi believes--after a week of meeting with high-level US and international officials--I think we should take his word for it.
Of course it's no news flash that the Obama administration prioritizes these things; we and most other observers have been saying that for ages. But it is very important to understand that Hadi feels his relationship with outside powers is limited to these issues. The pressure he's getting from the US (and other allies as well) is defining his presidency, and it may very well cost him what legitimacy he has in the eyes of the Yemeni people.
One final note: the part of Hadi's remarks that has garnered the most attention thus far is the brief segment of the Q&A session in which he talked about American drones. Foreign Policy has already rushed out what I think is a misleading and sensationalist blog post saying that Hadi "expressed unwavering support for the controversial CIA drone program in his country." This is simply not true. Hadi praised the US for sharing information in the fight for Abyan, and he praised drones for their "pinpoint precision." He admitted that the Yemeni air force can't carry out nighttime operations, and that drones do things his forces can't. (I don't think this made anyone at the White House very happy, since Obama's people never acknowledge drone strikes in Yemen or elsewhere, and have encouraged Hadi and his predecessor to take "credit" for American strikes in the past.) But at no point did he say a single word about US drone policy, or about the CIA and US military programs that operate drones in Yemen. It should also be said that his answers were all very poorly prepared and delivered in a rambling fashion that at times bordered on non-nonsensical.
I understand that many people, including many Yemenis, will interpret Hadi's rather off-the-cuff comments on drones as "unwavering support" for lethal American operations in Yemen, just as Foreign Policy has done (and this goes to the heart of what I said above concerning Hadi's legitimacy). But I think the record should show what the man said, as well as what everyone else said about what he said.
If anything, the fact that Hadi said what he said should demonstrate how out of sync he is with Washington. The first rule of Obama's drone policy has always been "try not to talk about drone policy," and when that fails, it's "absolutely don't ever take responsibility for specific actions." Now President Hadi has gone in front of the whole world and said that any time someone gets blown up after dark in Yemen, the Americans did it. This is hardly a man in lockstep with the US administration.
UPDATE 9/29/2012: Today Foreign Policy Managing Editor Blake Hounshell has published his notes from an interview he conducted with Hadi yesterday. In the interview, Hadi "confirmed that he personally signs off on all drone strikes conducted by his American ally." In my book, that counts as an endorsement of US drone policy, even if the stuff he said during the Wilson Center Q&A didn't. I seriously doubt the statement is true, but if that's what he wants people to think, then he'll have a hard time avoiding blame for all future civilian casualties in Yemen.
Today I and many other Yemeni and Yemen-watching Tweeters spent a chunk of our day watching and critiquing John Brennan's speech and Q&A session at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Brennan is President Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor, and seen by many as the man in charge of the Yemen portfolio, though of course that file officially resides with the Department of State. Brennan's speech was rather short, and not very informative. He outlined what he claims is America's multi-faceted, "comprehensive" approach to Yemen's current "challenges," and stressed that so-called kinetic counter-terrorism (i.e. killing people) is only the last of several pillars of American policy in Yemen. Mr. Brennan has been saying the same thing for more than two years, as have officials at the State Department. At the same time, a number of other government officials have admitted (usually off the record or anonymously) that the Obama administration is, in fact, only concerned with dealing with AQAP, and views Yemen solely through the counter-terrorism lens.
I've long said that the State Department's plan for Yemen looks good on paper. That was true before the revolution, and it's still somewhat true. But anyone who is honest about it can tell you that what's on paper is not what's going on on the ground. Even the most well-intended policies are worthless if they cannot be implemented. More importantly, the Yemeni people no longer believe a word of what Brennan and his colleagues have to say. I almost choked when Brennan said the following (quoted also by Gregory Johnsen):
"Contrary to the conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits of AQAP."
Well, Mr. Brennan, there's a reason why that wisdom is conventional. I have no idea--literally none--how Brennan arrived at his conclusion. There has, to my knowledge, been no polling done on the subject recently. Mr. Brennan doesn't talk to ordinary Yemenis when he goes over there, and neither do the embassy staff. But I do, and I can tell you that Yemeni public opinion about America and American policies has never been lower than is is right now. Go ask a Yemeni if you don't believe me. Yemenis I've talked to recently about this topic include intellectuals, activists, western-educated scholars, shop-keepers, bus drivers, students, and unemployed college graduates. They all believe that US CT efforts are killing innocent civilians on a regular basis, that the US has never stopped supporting 'Ali Saleh, and that John Brennan and Ambassador Feierstein are essentially operating as imperial viceroys of the country. What's more, most of the Yemenis I've talked to believe wholeheartedly that the ill consequences of US policy are completely intended, and that the US is driving the total mess that passes for a transition in post-revolutionary Yemen.
Now, it's my belief that most of the negative consequences of US policy are unintended, but this doesn't mean they're unpredictable. The Obama administration knows the following things: 1) much of the Yemeni public, especially the revolutionary factions, despise Ambassador Feierstein, and think that he's far too close to 'Ali Saleh; 2) targeted killings and other violent operations alienate local populations; 3) the mere presence of American armed forces in a country often alienate local populations; 4) the United States has neither the capability nor the political will to serve as midwife for Yemen's transition; 5) AQAP has gotten stronger* and has diversified its operations since Obama began his kinetic campaign against them in 2009 (Brennan denied that US operations are driving AQAP recruitment, but he also said that outside of the hundreds of hardcore AQAP operatives in Yemen, there are now "thousands" of non-members who the organization can rally to arms in certain situations. This may be more a result of San'a's policies than of Washington's, but the correlation shouldn't be dismissed). I could go on.
Knowing those five things (and many more), the administration must understand that its Yemen policy, in its current form, will result in neither the defeat of AQAP nor the stabilization of Yemen's political situation. But the administration also knows that it's under very little domestic pressure to change these policies. Today's CFR event, which was billed as solely Yemen-centric, featured more questions about Syria, cyber-security, and other random crap than about Yemen. And that's at a venue that draws some of Washington's most well-informed foreign policy buffs. So the administration knows that the domestic audience doesn't care what it does in Yemen, so long as there are no more AQAP-initiated attacks on the "homeland."
In the light of those observations, we can more easily read the subtext of Brennan's rhetoric. Part of that subtext is that there is a serious lack of critical, creative thinking going on in the foreign policy wing of the Obama administration. Its treatment of Yemen and of the other "Arab Spring" countries has been predictable and extremely sloppy. Obama's team is fudging its way through the Yemeni "transition" and the war against AQAP because it doesn't have a better idea and doesn't have the energy to come up with one.
The other part of that subtext is a method of management that has become a hallmark of Obama's foreign policy and CT: the method of keeping all high-level decision processes behind closed doors, while assuring the public, the media, and the legislature that these processes are being handled with the utmost sensitivity. Every question is met with the condescending promise that "we're taking care of it, just don't ask us how."
Only if this extreme opacity around the policy-making process is reversed can we hope to see any measure of change in the policies themselves. This being an election year, we can, I suppose, hope that such change is on the horizon. It's much more likely, in the absence of any real pressure, that Brennan's next Yemen speech will be a near-verbatim replay of this one. In the meantime, let's hope the audience comes up with better questions.
*Some would argue that while AQAP has become stronger in some respects, it has been weakened in others, particularly in terms of its ability to launch attacks outside of Yemen. This is an argument that is very difficult to prove, as such operations have always been rare and sporadic.
Over the past few days, most Yemen-watchers (both Yemeni and foreign) on the internets have expressed dismay over the possibility that the United States would allow President/Former President/Honorary President 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh into this country. As of yesterday, if the New York Times' sources are to be believed, the Obama administration had as good as made up its security-addled mind to grant Saleh a visa "for legitimate medical treatment" in New York City. I've talked to a few people this week who don't understand why I think this is a terrible idea. If you're one of these people, I suggest you read Andrew Exum's post from last night on the subject, because I don't feel like repeating what's already been well said. The main points I'd like to make are that, while we all know by now that Obama's CT advisor John Brennan has more say on Yemen policy than the entire State Department, the US government has been pursuing a full-court press of stupidness when it comes to Yemen and Arabia in general, and that the administration is not prepared for the consequences of this stupidity.
On Friday and Saturday the Saleh regime's security forces attacked protesters who had made a five-day march from Ta‘iz to San‘a, killing at least 10 and injuring dozens. US Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein decided this would be a good time to say publicly and on the record that the marchers were not, in fact, peaceful protesters, but agents of chaos and violence. Even for Yemenis accustomed to America's arrogance and wrongheadedness, this statement was shocking.
The administration officials quoted in the NYT article above are quick to blow off any suggested parallels between their decision to host Saleh now and the Carter administration's welcoming of the Shah of Iran in 1979. They've got all kinds of justifications for the decision, which might even sound convincing to some Americans. These justifications are misguided and dangerous. Let me spell this out in terms simple enough for John Brennan to understand: for 11 months, Yemenis have demanded the ouster of Saleh and the establishment of a democratic government. For 11 months, the US has refused to support those demands; has refused to condemn Saleh's murderous repression of his people; has tried to force unwelcome, Saudi-crafted false solutions down Yemen's throat; has repeatedly blamed protesters for the regime's violence against them; has continued to kill innocent Yemeni civilians in ill-conceived and poorly-executed CT efforts; has continued to support the regime's military; and now appears ready to allow Saleh to take a free vacation in New York while his children continue to murder Yemenis. In short, the Obama administration is treating the people of Yemen as The Enemy. Can any of us really expect Yemenis not to return the favor?
Mr. Brennan, how do you think this will end?
The word "Yemen" has not been spoken very often in State Department press briefings of late. Two weeks ago (the last time a question about Yemen was asked in such a briefing) DoS spokesperson Victoria Nuland seemed completely disinterested in answering questions about President Saleh's possible return. "Whether he stays, whether he comes back," she said, "we need him to sign this GCC agreement and move on, allow his country to move on. So our position is unchanged." Readers of this blog already know how I feel about the GCC deal. It's insulting to the people of Yemen, and completely irrelevant to the political process, because it excludes most of the factions that need to be included for a real resolution of the current situation. The US administration's continuing insistence is basically an admission that the US is not interested in playing any role in such a resolution, and a slap in the face to Yemen's protesters. Unfortunately, the US is still involved in Yemen in other ways.
Just over a month ago, back when 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh still looked frail and beaten, President Obama's CT advisor, John Brennan, went to visit him in Riyadh. The White House assured us that Brennan was trying to convince Saleh to step down. We were told that the US insisted on a peaceful and immediate transfer of power in Yemen. We were told that Brennan even takallum-ed a little 'arabiyah to drive the point home. But the evidence suggests that the administration's mind was elsewhere. While Brennan was doing his "y‘ani shwayah mumkin" routine in Riyadh, the Pentagon and CIA were supposedly hard at work ramping up their "covert" war against AQAP (by "covert" I mean "constantly leaked to the press in order to make the administration look proactive").
The real signal that the US administration is not, in fact, committed to a peaceful transition in Yemen came at the beginning of this month, when Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers visited San‘a to meet with the chief of staff of Yemen's (regime-loyal) army. Neither DoD nor the White House felt like talking about this meeting, so we don't have much to go on other than the Yemeni state media's account, according to which the two men discussed military cooperation and the ongoing fight against AQAP.
The optimist in me wants to believe that Vickers was talking to the chief of staff about how Yemen's army can stop killing civilians and play a positive role in the dismantling of the Saleh regime. But I don't think that's what happened. Were the US committed to Saleh's removal, Saleh would be gone. Were the US committed to Yemeni self-determination, the process of forming a new government, free of the Saleh family and the regime's inner circle, would be much further along. Clearly the Obama administration isn't supporting President Saleh, but its confused policy is enabling his persistence.
But there's more to hate about America's current confused policy than its impact on the Yemeni people. The Obama administration and congress should be looking at how their short-sighted decisions affect American security and interests in the Middle East. Since the start of the "Arab Spring," Saudi Arabia has been flexing its muscle and showing the world that it has the capability and the will to pursue a regional policy that may be at odds with those of its western allies. Al Saud has always seen Yemen as its plaything, and has an interest in a certain level of continued instability in Yemen which is directly at odds with American interests. By thoughtlessly promoting the GCC deal instead of trying to engage with the various anti-regime factions in Yemen, the US is effectively letting the KSA dictate the terms for future engagement with Yemen.
It's also pretty clear that the escalation of the "covert war" against AQAP is designed mainly to bolster Obama's counter-terror cred in the run-up to the 2012 elections. Otherwise the super-secret plan to build a new airbase in Yemen wouldn't have been leaked to every single journalist in the world before the lease has even been typed up. There has already been plenty of debate among analysts over the effectiveness of drones in Yemen. To my mind the most obvious argument against the current US drone/missile campaign is that it has killed far more civilians than AQAP operatives (I would estimate the ratio at about 10:1). Aside from the simple fact that killing people is wrong and should be avoided whenever possible, the killing of innocent, non-terrorist Yemenis has several negative effects on the counter-terrorism effort in general.
One of these effects is that it hands AQAP a ready-made recruiting tool even without launching a single missile. Obama et al. seem to have forgotten that Bin Laden's original rallying cry back in the 1990s was the expulsion of infidel armies from the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. The presence of US troops and military facilities in Saudi Arabia inspired many of al-Qa‘idah's early recruits. Do the policy makers in Washington not think that AQAP will use the construction of new US bases on Yemeni soil to recruit Yemenis? I admit I don't know the miles-per-gallon figures for Predators and Reapers, but would the tactical advantages of launching drones from Hodaydah instead of Djibouti really outweigh the rhetorical advantages this move has already given AQAP?
What the US needs to do is stop running its mouth in all directions, and put together a policy toward Yemen--the real Yemen, not the boogeyman Yemen of congressional hearings and campaign speeches--that considers American interests and the needs of the Yemeni people. If we wait until after the 2012 elections, it may be too late.
My previous post presented a Storified version of the live-tweeting of yesterday's Senate hearings on US Yemen policy. Here I'd just like to add a little bit of analysis. As is often the case with these things, one of the most notable things about the hearings was what wasn't heard. The witnesses testifying included several individuals from the Department of State, and two think-tankers who commented on US involvement in Yemen more broadly. But there was no one among the witnesses from the CIA or the Joint Special Operations Command, the two organizations involved in so-called "kinetic" operations in Yemen--that is, targeted counter-terrorism strikes.
What this means is that while US diplomatic and humanitarian efforts were put on trial (very politely, of course), US military operations were not. At a time when the Congress is looking for programs to cut, and politicians are looking to score points ahead of elections, this discrepancy is particularly noteworthy. The Obama administration loves drones and special ops (as does much of the public), and Congress is much more willing to fund military projects than diplomatic ones. A hearing like this one, in which senators challenged witnesses to prove the effectiveness of "soft" assistance to Yemen, could certainly aid in explaining the prioritization of the kinetic approach to America's problems in Yemen, while still maintaining the fiction that this country cares about the plight of the Yemeni people. I doubt it's a coincidence that on the same day, someone from the military/intelligence community fed ABC news a very sexy and impossible to verify story on just how close US operators have come to killing the dreaded Anwar al-Awlaqi.
President Obama's counter-terrorism advisor, John O. Brennan, visited President Saleh in Riyadh recently. Almost nothing new was said in this meeting, but in that "almost" hides a great deal of trouble. The penultimate sentence of the White House press statement on the matter reads:
Mr. Brennan said that the United States is working closely with Yemen's friends and supporters in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Europe, and elsewhere to ensure that much needed assistance will flow to Yemen as soon as the GCC proposal is signed and implemented.
The Yemen Peace Project has, since its inception, called upon the US to cut off aid to the Saleh regime, or to make such aid contingent upon political reform. The contingency Brennan suggests, though, is absolutely contrary to the objective of reform. There are two major dangers with this formulation.
First, foreign aid to Yemen has always gone through Saleh himself, or members of his inner circle. Saleh has appropriated foreign military aid to fight his own political enemies, while non-military aid has mostly gone into the president's own pocket. The US administration thinks it's offering Saleh a way to help his country, but the fact is that President Saleh has absolutely no interest in securing the welfare of the Yemeni people, only in protecting his own wealth and power (though the latter is now greatly diminished). Right now, that means keeping his closest allies, particularly his son and nephew, in Yemen and in power. The continued presence of Ahmad and Yahya Saleh in Yemen is the main cause for the current stalemate, and the continuing loss of life in Yemen. But telling Saleh that aid will start pouring in once the GCC deal is signed only gives him more incentive to keep his relatives in place, directing a new flow of funds and perhaps a measure of power back into his own hands.
Second, this formulation denies the demands of Yemen's revolutionaries, the only ones in the equation that actually do care about their country. The White House is essentially telling them (despite the embassy's effort to reinterpret the message) that to secure foreign aid for Yemen, they must give up their movement for democracy and reform.
Gregory Johnsen called Saleh (before the assassination attempt) a warlord with half an army. He may never return to Yemen, and the dynamics within his inner circle may change if and when he finally signs the GCC deal. But whether Ahmad and Yahya continue to serve the interests of 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh, or whether the inner circle fragments after the president steps aside with each member pursuing his own goals, the result for the Yemeni people will be the same.
We have argued, along with many in Yemen, that the GCC deal represented an attempt to maintain the status quo. In fact its result could be much worse. What the US wants is a quick fix for Yemen, one that will allow the administration to pursue its stated objective of fighting al-Qa‘idah, and allow Mr. Obama to enter the 2012 election having not "lost Yemen." But if the deal goes ahead as envisioned, it will once again place power and foreign money in the hands of the most irresponsible, destructive elements in Yemen, leaving the country in tatters, and the Yemeni people at the mercy of the same warlords, newly empowered and rearmed.
I'm working on a series of elaborate, analytical posts for this blog. But in the meantime, please just read this recent post by our friend Woman From Yemen. The peaceful revolution for change in Yemen, for the sake of which hundreds have given their lives already, is under significant threat today, as factions within Yemen connive and maneuver for position, and foreign powers worry about their own domestic politics at the expense of the Yemeni people.
The Yemen Peace Project is still working to support the work of volunteer health workers in Yemen, and the work of those helping to resettle and care for internally displaced people within the country. Help us help them.
Yesterday the Yemen Peace Project had a chance to talk at length with a US State Department official about US policy toward Yemen and the current political and security situation there. I began by mentioning the March 8/9 incident in which security forces identified by witnesses as Republican Guard units attacked protesters at Sanʻa University with live ammunition and gas. I asked if the State Department or the White House would be issuing a formal condemnation of this attack, or the previous attacks on protesters in Ibb (thugs with guns and clubs) or ‘Amran (tanks and small arms). The official said that no such statement would come from the State Department, but that DoS would urge an investigation into the incident. I can’t quote my source, but DoS spokesman Mark Toner matched him almost ver batim in yesterday’s press briefing:
We’re still working to establish the facts of what happened. We’re aware that there was an altercation where security forces reportedly used tear gas and live fire to disperse protestors. We understand there was one fatality, and we certainly extend our condolences to that individual’s family. And we urge the Government of Yemen to investigate and hold accountable those who appear to have utilized excessive force.
Again, we’ve seen security forces in Sana’a. They’ve made efforts to improve security by preventing clashes between the demonstrators and the – screening demonstrators for weapons. But they need to do more to prevent these kinds of incidents in the future. We remain deeply concerned about ongoing violence in Yemen, and we continue to call on security forces and demonstrators alike to exercise restraint and to refrain from violence.
The laughable part of this statement is the idea that US officials are diligently “working to establish what happened.” US embassy staff in Sanʻa don’t go outside on a good day, much less head to the center of anti-government protests to conduct interviews. Bottom line, the US is going to strongly urge that an investigation be carried out by the same Yemeni forces who did the shooting. That investigation will (already has done) conclude that it was really the protesters who started the shooting. This will be a lie. The US will not raise the issue again.
More troubling is this insistence that Yemen’s security forces have been trying really hard to prevent violence. While the incident in question was the first instance of uniformed personnel firing on protesters in Sanʻa, they have been doing so with regularity, and horrific effect, in ‘Aden, and more recently in ‘Amran and maybe Saʻdah. And as Greg Johnsen and most of the Western freelance journalists currently in Yemen have made clear, the thugs responsible for most of the violence thus far in Sanʻa—the ones DoS thinks security forces are doing a great job of restraining—are largely plain-clothes soldiers and other government employees.
I stressed the fact that if it is Republican Guard and—as witnesses have reported in other cases—Counter-Terror units attacking protesters, that would mean that US funding and training is being used, in a very direct and undeniable way, in the repression of what President Obama has said are legitimate popular demonstrations. My source fell back on the statement that DoS does not have enough information to have an opinion on this.
I asked my source about the embassy’s ability to investigate incidents like this, or really to know anything about what’s going on in Yemen, from within the walls of their compound. He assured me that they do have their ways of gathering information, including asking other foreign missions in San‘a what’s going on. I was less than reassured by this.
I asked about Secretary Clinton’s statements on Iranian involvement in protests in Yemen and elsewhere. My source, strangely, was not aware of the Secretary’s claims, but was sure that the DoS does not have any reason to believe that Iran is involved in protests. We were also able to agree on the complete falsehood of prior claims by the Saleh regime of Iranian involvement in the Huthi movement. I have since emailed to my source copies of news articles quoting Clinton on this subject. I await a response.
The big take-away from this interview can be summed up this way: the US supports democracy everywhere, and insists that the rights of assembly and free speech are universal human rights. The US further insists that it is up to the Yemeni people to decide how and by whom they are governed. However, the US will only support a process of peaceful dialogue between the government and the opposition parties. This position essentially ignores the will of the Yemeni people. Protesters in all of Yemen’s cities have made it clear that most of them don’t trust the JMP to represent them, and the JMP, smartly recognizing this fact, has said that dialogue with the government is impossible while Saleh remains in power. I asked if, using the case of Egypt as a parallel, the US could foresee a point at which it may change its position and call for Saleh’s resignation. The clear message I got back was that US support for Saleh is essentially unconditional, and that the US really, really wants Saleh to stick around. DoS also insists that Saleh is sincere in his calls for dialogue and that it’s the opposition and the protesters who are preventing or sabotaging progress and reform.
Given the position stated above on the right of the Yemeni people to choose their own government, I felt it made sense to ask if the US position on the question of Southern secession might change, in light of the fact that over 70% of southerners support independence. The answer was a simple no. The US will continue to support Yemeni unity, essentially at any cost.
I can't say I was surprised by what I heard yesterday, but I was disappointed by the State Department's conviction that Saleh is leading the way forward, and that the opposition had better get on board or be left behind. This is willful ignorance. The US government isn't stupid. They know that no one is going to be punished in Yemen for killing protesters, and they know that Saleh isn't interested in sharing power or restructuring his rule in any meaningful way. That the US insists on pretending to believe otherwise makes it complicit, in my opinion, in the violent repression of protests and the trampling of democratic expression.
If you read the international papers, you've surely noticed that a day no longer goes by without a story of "suspected US drone strikes" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These strikes are always "suspected" because, even though everyone in the world knows about them, they are the work of the CIA's "clandestine" services, and thus officially secret. September was an especially busy time for the drones, with over 20 separate attacks reported in the media. Occasionally the US or Pakistani authorities will announce the death of a major militant figure in such a strike, but more often, it seems, America's robotic killers take innocent lives. Jason Ditz at antiwar.com puts it this way:
President Obama has made the drone strikes the centerpiece of his foreign policy, and has killed well over a thousand people inside Pakistan since taking office. The vast majority of those killed have turned out to be innocent civilians, while large numbers of others remain unidentified but classified as “suspects.”
Obviously, with so many victims to its credit, the impact of these clandestine weapons is only too visible to most Pakistanis and Afghans. But in the United States, drone warfare seems immune to the kinds of scrutiny and criticism that other elements of the president's military policy have faced. Politicians and generals in this country have long understood that the public will stand in their way if American lives are at stake; as long as the only people dying are foreign nationals, we as a people will keep quiet. This sense of safety, even from their enemies in the Republican Party, has allowed the Obama administration to develop a severe addiction to robotic warfare.
Given all of that, it should be obvious why I'm writing about AfPak policy in a blog about Yemen. Obama has already increased US military aid to President Saleh's government, and sent more covert CIA and Special Forces operatives to Yemen; the drones cannot be far behind. Right now, the American public knows almost nothing about Yemen, and is willing to believe anything about it. Aside from a few hardcore pacifists and Yemen-philes like us, Americans seem to be completely at ease with the expansion of the "War on Terror" to a new front. What this means is that Yemen will be an ideal killing ground for Obama's Predators and Reapers. American apathy, if left unchecked, will ensure that thousands of Yemenis are added to the civilian death toll that the US government touts as progress.
Obviously, the Yemen Peace Project opposes the use of drones in Yemen, just as we oppose all American military action in the country. But as the American presence grows and becomes more and more costly for the Yemeni people, we must increase our efforts to bring their suffering to the attention of the world. We'll want the help of our readers and friends, as well, to make sure that every death is counted, that the American public that funds and encourages this pointless war is forced to reckon with the true cost of their decisions.
Stay tuned for updates on this subject, and on our efforts to change America's policy toward Yemen.