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Yesterday, friend-of-the-blog Gregory Johnsen released his new report on Yemen for the Council on Foreign Relations. I am no Yemen specialist, but knowing something about both the broader region and military operations, I was one of the people gathered by the CFR a few months ago to help Greg with his recommendations. I predict Greg's paper will become one of the primary points of reference for U.S. policy-makers working on the region and am always impressed by Greg's work.
One of our research interns here at the Center for a New American Security, Dana Stuster, has been following developments in and U.S. policy toward Yemen quite closely. Dana is also a fan of Greg's work and has some constructive criticism, which is published below.
The commentary (mine included) on the Yemeni uprising has been focused on what is happening, and not necessarily how to proactively address it. There are reasons for this. On account of its continuing counterterrorism cooperation with the Saleh regime, including an increased tempo of drone strikes, its collaboration with Saudi Arabia to deal with the current crisis and its dogged persistence in advocating a dead-end proposal, the United States has limited credibility in Yemen and it is uncertain that it is in a position to sway the Yemeni government or the opposition. And to be fair, analysts have criticized the Gulf Coordination Council proposal for the sham that it is. Constructive criticism, though, has been lacking and I am very glad that Gregory Johnsen, whose blog Waq al-Waq is required reading for anyone serious about Yemen, has started a discussion of how the United States should change its policies with a memo for the Council on Foreign Relations titled “Resetting U.S. Policy Toward Yemen.”
Johnsen rightly identifies that the essential goal must be Saleh leaving office, and that the mechanism for this must include the removal of the commanding officers from the elite military units led by Saleh’s son and nephews that are bolstering the regime. This cannot be stressed enough. Saleh’s son Ahmed, who commands the Republican Guard, has emerged as a more powerful power broker than the Yemeni vice president, Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, who has been delegated the authority to negotiate and sign a transition agreement on Saleh’s behalf. Even if Hadi were to sign, it is unlikely that an agreement could be enforced and legal loopholes abound for Saleh and his family to sidestep their obligations to leave office. In the memo, Johnsen outlines a strategy to remove Ahmed and his cousins from their military positions, which they are using to prevent a political transition.
Johnsen proposes that “The United States should, in conjunction with the GCC, inform Ahmed and his cousins that [U.S. financial assistance for counterterrorism to elite Yemeni military units] as well as GCC funding will be cut off and targeted UN sanctions will be applied if they do not step aside and agree to a military reshuffle and a transition council.” He continues to suggest a three-stage process in which the ultimatum is delivered in private, then in public, and if it has not yielded results, the finances will be cut and the sanctions implemented.
The problem is that the incentive structure assumes that Ahmed and the other commanders care what happens to their forces and Yemen after the implementation of an agreement that will, most likely, result in their early and luxurious retirement to another country. There is no reason to believe this and in fact, the loyalist military’s brinksmanship with protesters and the defected 1st Armored Division in recent weeks, which have risked civil war, demonstrate how little Ahmed and his cousins share the interests of their country and the units under their command. Johnsen’s proposal, as it stands, would amount to another delay in the implementation of a transition. After five months of delays waiting for the GCC deal to move forward and the recent escalation between defected and loyal military forces, I am concerned that time is running too short for that, if it is not too late already.
Cuts to CT funding will not induce Ahmed and his cousins to yield to a transition agreement. What is necessary is removing their base of support while providing positive incentives to push them in the right direction. Johnsen clearly recognizes this. The cut in funding and imposition of sanctions, he observes, will make it difficult for them “to buy the continued loyalty of their troops.” The United States should be working on increasing defections from elite units. Even as the United States delivers its ultimatum – which should be done loudly and in public, to reassure the opposition that the United States is not conspiring to maintain Saleh – it should already be working on cutting funding and imposing sanctions (a funding freeze will be necessary in the event of any transition, until a positive relationship with the incoming leadership can be assured). Throughout, the United States should be using whatever influence it has in Yemen and through its regional allies to whittle away Saleh’s base of support. These efforts should target, wherever possible, towns and tribes with significant representation in the Republican Guards and Central Security Forces. Johnsen has observed that all the major players in the three-way struggle for Sanaa (between Saleh, his defected general and a notable tribal family) belong to the Hashid Tribal Federation. The Hashid is a large association of tribes and is by no means monolithic, as the standoff demonstrates. This should be exploited to draw down Saleh’s most critical base of support.
This will have to be coupled with positive incentives. However unpalatable it will be to the protesters, the United States must be able to offer an alternative to Ahmed: retirement, probably in Saudi Arabia, with personal security and protection from international prosecution. He must be offered a reason to leave, or else he will have no reason not to try his chances of winning a civil war. I’m tempted to express this as a graph, but that just might be from reading this blog for so long – at some point, though, the value of accepting that retirement package will exceed the value of potential success as their forces diminish.
A policy like this will not be easy, and it will largely rely on the connections of U.S. allies in Yemen, especially Saudi Arabia. The Saudis maintain patronage networks to influence Yemeni tribes that would be invaluable to influencing defections from Saleh’s base of support, inside and outside of the loyalist military. I’m not as sure as Johnsen that “there is a growing realization within Riyadh that despite Salih’s return he will never be able to reunite the country.” The fact that he returned at all signifies that they are either considering allowing him to return to office or gross negligence, and say what you will about Saudi Arabia, gross negligence with regard to the governance of neighboring countries is not a Saudi trait. I truly hope they’re working with the United States to assure a transition; it’s time to put this to the test.
The rest of the memo is excellent: both thought-provoking and forward oriented; I’m looking forward to seeing Johnsen’s ideas developed and fleshed out further in the coming days. I just hope the right people are listening.