Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan spoke December 17 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on U.S. policy towards Yemen. Carnegie is an appropriate place, as it has done a good deal of first-rate work on the many challenges Yemen faces.
Brennan outlined what he termed a policy of “cooperation and engagement” with what the Romans called “Arabia felix.” The contrast with the 21st century is dramatic: Yemen today faces at least two internal insurgencies (Southern and Houthi in the North), an influx of Al Qaeda from Saudi Arabia, poverty, hunger, demographic growth, economic stagnation, a dramatic water shortage, a sharp decline in oil production and widespread addiction to the narcotic Qat. A more perfect storm of drivers of conflict and state fragility is hard to find anywhere else on earth, except across the Bab el Mandeb in Somalia. That might just be the direction in which Yemen is headed.
Brennan outlined a “comprehensive” approach, one that relies not only on military force directed against Al Qaeda (about which he said little) but also on national dialogue, governance reform, rule of law, transparency, accountability and cooperation with Yemen’s rich neighbors. He even got educational reform and World Trade Organization accession into the recipe.
This was so “correct” that it almost seemed unfair when a questioner asked whether even the rapidly increasing funding for civilian assistance to Yemen was anywhere near adequate (the assistance is now something like $120 million per year for non-security programs). No one asked whether the comprehensive approach and a counterterrorism campaign are compatible with each other (the comprehensive approach is more commonly thought to be an appropriate counterpart to a counterinsurgency campaign, which the U.S. doesn’t want to do in Yemen). Nor did anyone ask whether President Saleh, who controls nothing more than the capital Sanaa, is sufficiently legitimate an authority for us to support.
Someone did ask whether Brennan thought it possible the Saleh government could not find an Al Qaeda operative who was recently interviewed by Asharq al Awsat inside Yemen. The answer, that tribes not the government control the provinces, was not comforting.
I was also discomforted by Brennan’s description of Al Qaeda as only cowardly thugs who kill innocents and hide in caves. I’ve got no brief for Al Qaeda, and Brennan’s description is accurate as far as it goes, but it does nothing to explain why so many people in tribal Yemen (and elsewhere) are willing to support them and why we are having so much difficulty finding and killing them. Until we understand our enemies as well as we understand our friends, we are not going to succeed. I trust that Brennan’s disdain was calculated for his U.S. audience and that in the intelligence community there is a deeper understanding of what is going on, but it was not on display at Carnegie Friday.