How to stabilise Yemen

In today’s fractured Yemen, the solution is not with Hellfire missiles, it is with fixing the economy.

The Houthi rebels in the north deeply mistrust the elites in the capital, writes Sloan [EPA]

Recent developments in Yemen demonstrate that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is restive, capable and emboldened, but the militaristic approach of the United States is only worsening the situation.

According to the UK charity Reprieve, which has campaigned against the use of drone strikes, 10 provinces (roughly half the country) live under the hum of “unarmed aerial vehicles”. The technology might look impressive to the top brass when it’s being flown around an airfield in Virginia, but once deployed, these weapons create more problems than they solve.

One of the under-appreciated reasons to stop the drone strikes is the impact they have on Yemen’s fragile transition process. The attacks have been technically illegal in Yemen since 2013, but their continued deployment by the CIA, leaning heavily on intelligence from the Yemeni security services, dangerously delegitimises a beleaguered Sanaa government. The Houthi rebels in the north, the secessionist south and numerous tribal interests already deeply mistrust the elites in the capital. To be sure, cronyism and corruption are their principal gripes – but collaborating with foreign powers, particularly on such a tendentious issue, puts President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi in an extremely awkward position.

People & Power – Attack of the Drones

Drone strikes are also the military equivalent of jabbing a large stick into a hornet’s nest – hornets which are relatively well-armed, well-funded and dangerously indoctrinated. In one infamous botched attack, 12 wedding guests lost their lives under fire from US missiles. A mid-level al-Qaeda leader, who was the intended target, escaped on foot. Similar tragedies have claimed the lives of up to 70 others since the CIA programme began, according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism. The Pentagon nicknamed these unfortunate incidents “bugsplats”, and has yet to make apologies. The official position is that drone strikes are a secret programme – and as such will rarely be discussed publicly.

Hornet’s nest and bugsplats

In both Yemen and the US this position needs to be questioned vigorously. The drone strikes are no longer a secret. Simply moving the programme from the CIA to the Department of Defense would make the operation acceptably transparent. And officials in Sanaa should be questioning whether involvement in the assassinations will help or hinder a delicate reform process.

With no remorse from the US for innocent lives lost, the government in Sanaa typically steps in with compensation. It has also announced investigations into the most severe civilian bombings. But persuasive AQAP recruiters are also appearing around the smoking craters too. For those who have lost family members, recruiters offer far larger compensation packages, as well as the opportunity to become fighters, and avenge their families’ deaths. This is the most compelling reason to stop the CIA from taking out al-Qaeda targets in this fashion. They provide a short-term fix, but long-term they radicalise more Yemenis.

Inside Story – The new Yemen: United or divided?

Instead, the US and regional partners should properly address economic issues and help build civil institutions that strengthen the rule of law. Yemen has the youngest population in the world, with an unemployment rate as high as 40 percent. A quarter of the Yemeni economy rests on oil – which will probably run out by 2017, and much-needed rebalancing plans have been overshadowed by unrest.

Half the population still lives below the poverty line. The International Monetary Fund has effectively offered a medium-term financing deal to Sanaa; the issue is that no economic body yet exists to receive and manage the loan. Helping to set up this body would play to key capabilities within either the US or the UN, and should be done as a matter of priority. The US could also lean more heavily on local partners – Saudi Arabia has done a good job of marshalling aid and recently stepped in with $3bn.

The planned federalisation of Yemen, agreed in December and ratified in February, is undoubtedly a major development. It might be that localised governments are seen as more legitimate, reducing unrest. Or the move may encourage southern secessionists, or Houthis in the north, to break away completely.

Either way, federalisation should be seen as an opportunity for the US to stitch up some of the wounds laid bare in the last 20 years. Concerns have already been raised over the lack of detail in the plan – especially with regard to how civil institutions will be set up in each state to manage the local government. In fact, Washington is well positioned to assist Sanaa with filling in the details of their federalisation scheme.

Yemen isn’t a failed state yet, but it’s come close too many times to mention. What can be ascertained with some confidence is that the new government is weak. President Hadi must contend with powerful elite interests, an economy that barely meets the needs of the people, let alone the government, and even ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who still maintains influence over some parts of the military. The latter are stretched between an al-Houthi insurgency in the north and policing unrest in the south. Al-Qaeda is constantly antagonistic and their activity further threatens the peace process.

Just last week, AQAP announced the formation of a new armed unit – specifically tasked with attacking Houthi rebels, whose leaders already suspect that Sanaa politicians have stronger links with al-Qaeda than they are admitting. These suspicions will only worsen when AQAP attacks on the Houthis begin.

Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia bear out a poignant hypothesis for the 21st century: Where there is chaos, there is blood. In today’s fractured Yemen, a terrorist group could not choose a better place to call its home. But the answer to removing them is not with Hellfire missiles, it is with fixing Yemen.

Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK, and international affairs including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.