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Analysts: US Must Expand Its Counterterrorism Focus on Yemen

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh (C) attends a rally held by pro-government supporters in Sana'a, May 13, 2011 (file photo)

While U.S. President Barack Obama has announced his broad vision for American policy in the Middle East, questions remain on his strategy for one country still wracked by political uncertainty, Yemen.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been a consistent U.S. partner in the fight against a major al-Qaida group based in his country. But he faces a fight for his very survival as he refuses the demands of anti-government activists and fellow Arab states to transfer power. Some analysts say Washington now must convince the people of Yemen that the United States is not pursuing just its own goals in their country as it works with an unpopular ruler to fight militants.

As the brushfire of popular uprisings simmers in some areas of the Middle East, an already precarious situation in Yemen has become even more unstable.

Analysts say months of anti-government demonstrations have offered al-Qaida an opening in the fragile state torn by tribal allegiances, a rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south.

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama urged his Yemeni counterpart, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to comply with demands to transfer power. But at the same time, Obama acknowledged that Saleh is a "friend" of America.

Without President Saleh's support over the years, analysts say Washington would have had a tough time going after members of the Yemeni-based group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Frederick Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

Kagan says the U.S. government now faces an even tougher sell convincing Yemenis who want political change that a fight against militants is critical to them.

"Al-Qaida is not the number one problem facing the Yemenis these days," explained Kagan. "And we're going to have to work on bringing interest together. And that means we're going to have to do things for the Yemenis that aren't directly related to killing al-Qaida."

For many Yemenis, their biggest concern is poverty, not terrorists bent on attacking the West. Detractors of Saleh have seized on this issue, saying the president overstates the terror threat and his role in fighting it in order to keep the backing of his foreign allies.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Edmund Hull says that the United States must appease the Yemeni public's concerns in order to successfully fight al-Qaida there.

"The whole public diplomacy of counterterrorism is extremely important - how what we do is not seen purely as serving U.S. interests, but serving broader interests," said Hull. "You have to get that right if you're going to have long-term success. And I think those are areas for improvement and areas that we need to be working on."

U.S. officials say Washington's total assistance to Yemen was more than $300 million in 2010's fiscal year. And while Ambassador Hull says this investment is significant, he believes Washington needs to staff more highly trained civilian workers in the country to complement the counterterrorism military side.

U.S. military officials refuse to talk on the record about operations in Yemen, but Yemeni authorities have acknowledged that U.S. drones are flying over their country. Security experts also say U.S. Special Forces and intelligence agents are most likely assisting Yemeni security forces in targeting al-Qaida.

Jeffery Dressler is a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. He specializes in the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dressler says he sees similarities in the U.S. involvement in Yemen with that of the situation in Pakistan.

Both sovereign countries have remote, mountainous regions with fiercely independent groups of people. It is in these areas in Pakistan and Yemen that al-Qaida and other militants are hiding.

Dressler says he foresees Washington's use of unmanned aircraft to remain popular for years to come in these situations.

"It's sort of the option of last resort frankly," Dressler noted. "I mean, they're effective, but they're only effective to a point. They can't eradicate these threats. They can't really prevent these groups from operating. But they can make it more difficult for them to operate."

Several days after U.S. Special Forces shot and killed al-Qaida founder and leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, media reports said the United States launched a missile strike in Yemen targeting a radical U.S.-born cleric with al-Qaida links.

Authorities say Anwar al-Awlaki is a high-ranking member of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The May 5 strike reportedly missed him, but is said to have killed two other suspected al-Qaida militants.

Katherine Zimmerman is an expert with the American Enterprise Institute on al-Qaida and its associated movements in the Gulf of Aden.

Zimmerman says she does not think these so-called successes in killing militants with unmanned aircraft justify relying on them in the fight against extremism.

"Drone strikes don't work," said Zimmerman. "We've seen that in Yemen before where al-Qaida was greatly and severely disabled when the U.S. took out its leadership in [the] early 2000s, but it was able to reemerge and reestablish itself."

Zimmerman says she believes U.S. efforts must focus on helping Yemen enjoy a stable government and economic improvements. Otherwise, it will remain a breeding ground for militancy.

And while Washington says it is reaching out to Yemen's opposition even as it seeks to remove President Saleh - a U.S. ally - from power, analysts say U.S. actions ultimately will speak louder than words for the people of Yemen.