SHAFAQNA – The United States is continuing its full-throated support for the government of Yemen, despite an uprising in the country that threatens the hold on power of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whom the White House considers a critical counter-terrorism ally.
Administration officials say there has been has no dropoff in backing for Hadi, days after Shia minorities, who have endured a brutal crackdown, took hold of government and military installations in the capital of Sana’a. Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism chief, a critical manager of the relationship with Yemen, passed along the US president’s “strong support” for Hadi in a phone call to him earlier this week.
Obama, in announcing air strikes against the Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria earlier this month, referred to Yemen as one of his models for successful counter-terrorism. “He’s always made clear that we need to take the fight to terrorists and that’s what he’s done in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia,” Ben Rhodes, a top foreign-policy aide, said Thursday.
As Houthi protesters have backed Hadi’s government to a precipice, the State Department on Thursday moved non-essential staff out of its Sana’a embassy and warned US citizens against travel to the country. It characterized the move in a statement as resulting from an “abundance of caution” over the “changing, unpredictable security situation in Yemen.”
But US praise for Hadi remains robust. On Wednesday, assistant secretary of state Anne Patterson said that the “fragile moment” in Yemen made it “more important than ever that we sustain practical, unified and coordinated support” for Hadi and his “unwavering commitment to difficult political and economic reforms.”
In a call to Hadi that day, Lisa Monaco, the White House counter-terrorism director, reaffirmed that the US-Yemen counter-terrorism partnership remained central to the bilateral relationship. She blasted Hadi’s adversaries in what the White House said was a “strong condemnation of members of the Houthi movement and other parties who have resorted to violence.”
Obama made the Yemeni president’s enemies his own through an executive order issued shortly after Hadi took office in 2012. The order banned any US-based financial transactions of anyone found to be “obstructing the political process in Yemen,” which Obama considered an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”.
Eclipsing human rights concerns, the US sees an interest in a strong Yemeni leader as a bulwark against al-Qaida’s local affiliate, known as Aqap, which has attempted to plant bombs on US-bound aircraft. The US considered Hadi’s predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh a mercurial proxy, but worked closely with him until Arab spring demonstrations drove him out of power after three decades.
Saleh’s departure paved the way for a restoration of security aid to Yemen. The country is the single largest recipient of US aid for training and equipping foreign partner militaries, which Obama describes as the cornerstone of his counter-terrorism approach.
A congressional report from April tallied $147m in funding for modernizing Yemen’s security services between fiscal 2012 and 2014, an increase of some $400m since 2006. The money provides Yemeni security forces with everything from enhanced intelligence gear to drones to night-vision equipment to enhancements for its US-trained commandos.
That aid is a component of total security funding to Yemen, which reached $500,000 from 2007 to 2012, according to a March 2013 government report. Washington considers the expenditure a worthwhile nvestment, building a local force capable of attacking Aqap and minimizing direct US involvement.
Yet direct involvement is evident in the skies above Yemen, where US drones have launched 18 strikes so far in 2014. The total strikes are on the decline after Obama announced new restrictions on drone attacks last year – 26 in 2013, down from a 2012 high of 41, according to the Long War Journal website – but there have been at least two thus far this month. The most recent, on Thursday, targeted an Aqap commander, according to a tweet from a spokesman for Yemen’s embassy in Washington.
It is unknown how many civilians US drone and cruise missile strikes have killed, but the New America Foundation estimates they have caused between 798 and 1043 total fatalities.
Even with the rise of Isis, US security officials routinely describe Aqap as the al-Qaida affiliate most devoted to attacking the US domestically. This week’s unexpected strikes on the Khorasan group, a cell within al-Qaida’s Syria-based affiliate, followed concerns of bombmaking expertise learned from Aqap.
Monaco frequently calls Hadi and visits Yemen to maintain Yemeni pressure on Aqap, as did her predecessor at the White House, John Brennan, currently the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Monaco, Patterson and other US officials point to US support for Yemeni political and economic development, which Patterson totalled at $875m since Saleh agreed to leave power.
But centrality of counterterrorism to the US approach to Yemen has yielded repeated criticism for subordinating human rights and exacerbating the country’s internal instability, a concern driven home by Hadi’s uncertain future, analysts said.
“The Obama administration has precious few options in Yemen, having poured most of its energies into its drones campaign and the man, Hadi, whom it thought would unquestionably do its bidding in the fight against Aqap,” said Letta Tayler, a counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The current crisis in Yemen underscores the need for the US to start fostering political inclusion and democracy in Yemen, rather than trying to solve the country’s problems primarily through drones.”