Yemen has exploded on to the political scene as a central front in the battle against al Qa'eda. Long a stomping ground for al Qa'eda affiliates, the country has witnessed the organisation's revival in the past few years under a new leadership. In response, the Obama administration in Washington appears to be emphatically throwing its weight behind the unpopular Saleh regime in Sana'a. The US president has made it "a priority to strengthen partnership with the Yemeni government", and the US Central Command chief, General David Petraeus, has announced that security assistance to the country will more than double, from $70 million to $150 million.
So for now it seems that Washington and Sana'a have renewed their troubled counter-terrorism cooperation at a time when the Yemeni state is buckling under the weight of multiple, converging socio-economic and political crises. An aggressive counter-terrorism campaign against al Qa'eda in Yemen will certainly answer the US public's demand for immediate action after the failed Christmas bombing of a plane over Detroit; but it risks further destabilising the country, providing recruitment propaganda for al Qa'eda, and ultimately undermining US national security interests. In fact, a narrow counter-terrorism approach will fail to address the underlying causes of instability in Yemen that are supporting al Qa'eda in the first place.
Al Qa'eda is a symptom, not the cause, of instability in Yemen. The organisation finds room to operate in part because of Yemen's chronic poverty, weak central government and expanding pockets of domestic unrest. While the Saleh regime is a necessary partner in the struggle against al Qa'eda, its policies perpetuate the very political and economic conditions that support al Qa'eda expansion. Mr Saleh has repeatedly avoided the political and economic reforms that would address local grievances, salvage the economy and buttress his domestic legitimacy. Endemic corruption, underdevelopment, divide-and-rule politics and the manipulation of regional and sectarian identities for tactical gain are undermining the authority of the central government, both in the northern province of Sadaa, where Mr Saleh has been fighting a domestic insurgency for five years, and in the south where demands for seccession are on the rise. Mr Saleh's mode of rule has also perpetuated tense relations between the regime and tribal factions, providing room for al Qa'eda to align with disgruntled tribal groups.
Though combating al Qa'eda is the US government's priority, it is not Mr Saleh's. He is focused on the narrow target of staying in power, and at the moment that means fighting the Houthi rebellion in the north and the secessionist movement in the south. Some elements of al Qa'eda are perceived as a threat, but not on the level of these rebellions. As such, despite current co-operation, persuading Mr Saleh to sustain an aggressive campaign against al Qa'eda will be difficult for the US.
Yemen's political and economic climate provides fertile ground for al Qa'eda. As such, addressing the challenge will require more than hi-tech satellite imagery, drones and missiles. While capture-and-kill operations are necessary in some cases, they are woefully inadequate in the long term. In addition to neglecting root causes, a strategy based primarily on counter-terrorism could play into al Qa'eda's hands, strengthening its recruitment potential and support base.
Already, US-assisted operations against suspected al Qa'eda operatives have drawn the ire of local tribes fiercely opposed to outside interference, and a wide array of citizens who resent the death of innocent civilians. While in some cases the strikes eliminate al Qa'eda leadership, ultimately the cost is at the narrative level, where al Qa'eda seems to be gaining strength. An al Qa'eda safe haven in Yemen poses a grave threat that must be addressed. It is critical, however, for the Obama administration to avoid pursuing an approach dominated by capture-and-kil. This will not address the root causes of the problem and it could actually aggravate the situation, especially if the US is perceived as actively supporting military actions that kill Yemeni civilians.
Instead, the administration should pursue a policy of multilateral engagement that assists Yemen with counter-terrorism operations while simultaneously encouraging political and economic reform. The US should not act alone, nor should it necessarily lead engagement. The GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, have an interest, the resources and the influence to lead economic reform and investment initiatives. Political reform is tricky and will require skilful diplomatic efforts by the US and European allies. Certainly some Gulf neighbours are well positioned to play a role in assisting with political reconciliation, but gaining their tacit support for broader political reform will be challenging.
While reform may seem like a luxury Yemen cannot afford in the context of spreading instability, it is an essential element in salvaging the viability of the state and protecting regional and international security interests. Fortunately, Yemen has historical precedent for national dialogue, compromise and reconciliation. Opposition leaders and reformers inside the regime are converging on the need for a national dialogue to address issues such as power sharing, decentralisation, development, corruption and institutional reform. With international mediation and support, they may well find a Yemeni solution to Yemen's domestic problems.
The security challenges in Yemen do not present an easy solution, and especially not a military one. Instead, they require a skilful use of diplomatic and development instruments of power in the context of multilateral engagement. While neither politically attractive nor easily quantifiable, this strategy offers the greatest chance of serving long-term security and counter-terrorism priorities. Dr April Longley Alley is a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, and a research associate at the National Defence University in Washington