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Yemen's President Embraces US Drones

November 02, 2012

by David Arnold

Following the protests of Yemen’s Arab Spring, its Gulf neighbors brokered a deal to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years in the presidential palace. Saleh was replaced in February by Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, his vice president of the past 13 years.

Mr. Hadi’s task is formidable. He needs to rebuild the central government, unite the nation's fractious tribes, lead a project to rewrite the constitution, hold new national elections and kick-start the country's economy. He’s been at it for eight months and he has about 16 months left to finish the job before holding a new national election.

Since Hadi took office in February, he has surprised many of his skeptics with a few bold security moves. Even so, he is still far from rescuing Yemen from political and economic failure.

Whether or not he succeeds, Yemen can boast one distinction among its neighbors: it has gotten rid of its dictator through negotiations and avoided the months of the bloodshed experienced by Libya and Syria.

Even in the best of times, Yemen has been a troubled nation, one with political and tribal divisions that is loosely held together by patronage. Its government has been known for nepotism and corruption and is threatened by secessionist movements and a forbidding terrain where terrorists have found safe havens.

“It’s very easy to be pessimistic about Yemen because it is a country beset by many problems,” says Leslie Campbell, the Middle East and North Africa regional director for the National Democratic Institute. “But what makes me optimistic is that it is one of the only countries in the world that has embarked on a negotiated solution to its problems.”

Hadi moves to secure Yemen

And Hadi has addressed two major security issues. The first was to restructure the military and to remove Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed, as commander of the Republican Guard and its special forces. The effort ended in a stalemate when Ahmed’s officers threatened a public protest.

“He (Hadi) had been fairly successful but he hasn’t taken the major step that everybody knows he has to take,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University and author of book, “The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia,” to be published soon.

Hadi also chose to partner with the United States to defeat Ansar al-Shariah, the Yemeni version of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and embraced the U.S. anti-terrorism effort that combined Yemeni ground assaults with U.S. Aerial drone attacks.

“With U.S. air support and missile strikes, they pushed al Qaida out,” Johnsen said.

The U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, told a VOA reporter recently “… Al Qaida was able to control territory, when they established what they called 'Islamic emirates' in some of the major population centers in the south and in Zinjibar and Jaar.

"They seemed to be on the move,” Feierstein said. “The momentum was with them and it was very difficult for the government to push back.” But now, Feierstein said, al-Qaida remains a threat, but is no longer able to control territory in Yemen.

Hadi’s domestic political risk

In his public enthusiasm for the U.S. military strikes, Hadi has taken responsibility for some of the more than 35 aerial assassination missions carried out by Predator and Reaper drones. Johnsen argues, however, that the drones may eventually present a risk for Hadi, Yemen and the U.S. government.

“… The drone strikes are dependent upon intelligence on the ground,” Johnsen said, “and that intelligence is far from perfect, which means that the drone strikes sometimes kill the wrong people.

“This is a serious problem within Yemen,” Johnsen adds, “… the vast majority of the members of al Qaida are Yemenis themselves, which means that … unlike, say, al Qaida in Afghanistan, where they were Arabs within a non-Arab country. Here you have Yemeni members of al-Qaida within Yemen itself.”

Leslie Campbell of the National Democratic Institute agrees.

“Yemenis have mixed opinions about the strikes against the terrorists,” Campbell said. “Most (Yemenis) say,'We don’t want the extremists here.' They complain about the drone strikes, but that they are not always accurate. An increase in these types of assassinations could cause a big backlash.”

The National Dialogue mandate

Experts agree that Hadi needs to strengthen the central government and get Yemen’s rival tribes to agree some form of governing consensus. But there is disagreement about how successful Hadi has been in this effort.

Open conflict among Yemen's political factions and rival tribes may be on the wane, but Johnsen says the country still is a fragmented society.

“What I saw when I was just in Yemen is that Yemen has essentially become a country of factions,” Johnsen said. “Hadi just doesn’t have the power to bring them all back into the Sana’a orbit.”

Even if all Hadi's plans are successful, Yemen’s future remains uncertain as it faces 2014 national elections mandated by the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative.

Even out of office, former president Saleh remains a major force in the country. There are rumors that Saleh's son, Ahmed, could be a candidate to run for office.

Campbell and Johnsen worry about that and blame the GCC for the clause in the initiative that offered Saleh – and by extension, family members – immunity from prosecution for their possible roles in the deaths of a large number of the Arab Spring demonstrators in 2011.

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