Inside Story America

Is US strategy in Yemen counter-productive?

As the US escalates its military operations, we ask if it can afford to ignore Yemen’s political and economic problems.

As Yemen grapples with the challenges of a fragile political transition, the US has escalated its military operations in the country.

“We have to be very measured in the way that we go about this. Because if we are too heavy-handed, if the approach is too broad then we risk creating more enemies than in fact we are eliminating.

– Robert Grenier, a former counter-terrorism official at the CIA

Since 2001, hundreds of people have been killed in US drone strikes in Yemen – dozens of them civilians. But, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organisation based at City University in London, there has been a surge in US military activity in the country since pro-democracy protests began in 2011.

In the last two weeks, there have been 10 suspected US drone strikes. The latest, on Tuesday, reportedly killed at least 12 civilians.

Drone strikes have been a central part of the US’ covert wars in both Pakistan and Yemen.

An estimated 322 drone strikes have been carried out in Pakistan, killing approximately 3,000 people, since 2004, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

But over the past year, the focus has appeared to shift to Yemen.

Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI, said last week that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, is the biggest terrorist threat facing the US.

“It is risky and indeed there will be bad consequences if we are not careful and we start hitting innocent civilians …. The options in this case, none of them are good. And the option of not going after these people, I think is something that you cannot expect the US government to do.

– David Newton, a former US ambassador to Yemen

Last week, the Pentagon announced that it had resumed sending troops to, it says, “train” Yemeni forces. The US military said it suspended such programmes during the uprising against the country’s longtime former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

But despite this increased focus on Yemen, al-Qaeda’s presence continues to grow there. The US says the group now has more than 1,000 members – more than three times the estimate for 2009.

Washington has thrown its weight behind Yemen’s current transitional government, which faces multiple challenges – including maintaining a fragile consensus between those loyal to the former president, members of the opposition and the country’s various tribal groups. It must also contend with independence movements in the north and the south of the country.

In addition to this, there are social and economic problems. According to the UN, about 44 per cent of Yemenis are food insecure. And in the last two months, unrest across the country has led to the displacement of 95,000 people.

So can the US afford to ignore Yemen’s larger political and economic problems while pursuing its covert military strategy? And what will be the consequences of this covert war?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, discusses with guests: Jeremy Scahill, a national security correspondent at the Nation Magazine; David Newton, a former US ambassador to Yemen; and Robert Grenier, a former counter-terrorism official at the CIA.

“We are actually making America less safe in our response in Yemen right now …. Our own policies, the drone strikes, the support for a corrupt regime, the lack of any substantial funding for civilian infrastructure … then all the money that’s needed for counter-terrorism, supporting military units in Yemen that are perceived as being the Saleh family military rather than the national military has sparked a response of blowback where you now have a situation
that people who would not have been inclined to support al-Qaeda are actually joining with the AQAP in a kind of marriage of convenience to rise up against the central government.”

Jeremy Scahill, a national security correspondent at the Nation Magazine



The US’ covert war in Yemen:

  • The US has been mounting aerial strikes in Yemen for years and has escalated drone strikes since 2011
  • A US drone strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011
  • At least 24 drone strikes have been reported in Yemen so far in 2012, killing dozens
  • Drone strikes were initially confined to Yemen’s Shabwa and Abyan’s provinces but have spread to Jawf, Lajh, Marib and Al-Bayda provinces in 2012
  • Yemeni military officials say the US is providing logistical support
  • The US also conducts cruise missile strikes in Yemen
  • Between 50 and 60 US troops are currently based in Yemen
  • There is a significant US naval presence in waters around Yemen
  • US special operations forces are training Yemeni soldiers
  • The Pentagon could give Yemen up to $75m in military aid this year

Yemen’s socio-economic problems:

  • Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world
  • Months of protests took place in 2011 against President Saleh’s rule, eventually forcing him to resign
  • Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi was elected unopposed as president in February 2012
  • Unemployment in Yemen stands at around 35%
  • Yemen’s government has been fighting Shia Houthi rebels in the north of the country
  • More than 40% of Yemen’s population is aged 14 or younger
  • Yemen faces high rates of childhood malnutrition
  • 43.1% of Yemeni children under the age of five are underweight
  • Roughly half of Yemen’s population is illiterate

US aid to Yemen:

  • In 2011, USAID gave about $40m for education, health and agriculture programmes
  • Yemen also received more than $26m in economic support funds and military aid worth $25m
  • Plans to send another $150m in military aid were suspended amid anti-government protests
  • US defence officials say Yemen could get up to $75m of this aid