What do we do about AQAP in Yemen?

Yemen’s descent into revolution may be the most troubling of all the current revolutions.  I’m far more concerned about AQAP developing an expanded safe haven in Yemen than AQ infiltrating other locales such as Libya.

The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) hosted a good panel this past Thursday in response to some insightful polling conducted by Glevum Associates and discussed by Dr. Christopher Swift.  Overall an excellent discussion and the audio is posted at FPRI.  In the meantime, the Glevum poll results for Yemen can be found at the FPRI website.

Here are some of my thoughts after listening to Dr. Swift and the Glevum folks.

  • Yemeni’s aren’t entirely sure why they are angry–  As Andrew Garfield notes in his discussion of the data, Yemeni’s in the provinces polled routinely picked “Other Economic Issues” or “Other Political Issues” as their top grievance (See slide 14).  They aren’t sure why they’re aggravated so the U.S. should hesitate before developing any strategy to alleviate their grievances until a more coherent picture of the problem can be surmised.
  • Awlaki isn’t that popular in Yemen–  While American’s and especially terrorism pundits make such a big fuss about Awlaki, Yemeni’s aren’t decidedly in his camp.  Thus, the U.S. might be able to find allies against Awlaki inside Yemen.
  • Don’t back Saleh- Yemeni’s dislike the U.S. and Saleh.  The U.S. should not get behind Saleh and the wrong side of history.
  • Perceptions of the U.S. are poor, but so what?–  I understand the concern that rural, rebellious Yemeni’s dislike the U.S.  They’ve probably had limited contact with Westerners and there would be no reason for them to be overtly supportive of the U.S.   Likewise, if one polled rural American citizens between West Virginia and Kansas and asked them “What are your perceptions of Yemen?”  do we think those Americans polled would have a positive outlook on Yemeni’s?  Of course not, so my question is, why do we care if they hate us? Are these populations tacitly supporting terrorism against the U.S.? Yes. Are they even aware that AQAP’s foreign operations unit lives among them (maybe a couple dozen guys tops)? Maybe.  I hope U.S. policy doesn’t fixate on making every Yemeni like us.  It’s not critical to eliminating AQAP.

Ultimately, the question is what does the U.S. do in Yemen to continue their pursuit of AQAP?  Multiple rebellions, a civil war, a crumbling dictator, an AQ terrorist group all mixed with economic and environmental issues. Options seem to be generally confined to:

  • Conduct military operations to eliminate AQAP- Persistent presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, limited intervention in Libya and a half dozen other Arab uprisings suggest the U.S. has limited capacity to execute this.  The anti-drone crowd also believes this will only further alienate a rural population that already dislikes the U.S.
  • Sustain the Saleh regime- This seems like a bad idea.  The U.S. works to eliminate Gaddafi and then sustains Saleh.  No way.  Going after AQAP through the Saleh regime limits U.S. options and strengthens AQAP recruitment.
  • Engage rural tribes with soft power- Some have advocated a tribal engagement approach reminiscent of Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.  I don’t think this will work for several reasons: 1) I’m not convinced this approach has truly achieved U.S. objectives in other theaters. 2) Unlike Afghanistan or Iraq, the U.S. does not dominate the area militarily.  Thus, those conducting key leader engagements would be flying into hostile territory on a repeated basis.  The first time one of these field diplomats gets kidnapped; it’s over. 3) Who would the U.S. send to execute this engagement strategy?  I imagine there are less than a dozen Americans qualified to travel to rural areas and engage with locals successfully. They wouldn’t be able to do this for more than a year without needing to rotate. 4) How long would this approach take?  These engagement campaigns take years to make progress.  I’m not sure AQAP will give us years nor do I think the U.S. could sustain a prolonged, rural engagement program in Yemen for years.

I instead think the U.S. should pursue a fourth strategy.  Wait, let the Saleh situation develop and then work through partners to eliminate AQAP.  Currently, Yemen’s situation is too chaotic to appropriately identify a successful soft power program or focused military action.  Utilize drones as a safe haven deterrent, but focus on Saudi Arabia to help find an AQAP solution.  The Saudi’s have an equal or greater incentive to destroy AQAP.  Additionally, the Glevum polling data suggests Yemeni’s are more amenable to Saudi or Arab League intervention than an American intervention.

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