By James Gundun
He may not be aware of it, but President Barack Obama recently received a letter from Yemen’s Coordinating Council for the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC). One of the leading street coalitions demanding freedom and equality in a country divided by its ruler, the nebulous Ali Abdullah Saleh, CCYRC celebrated America’s Independence Day and wished prosperity on “his excellency” Obama. Yemen’s revolutionaries, CCYRC counseled, seek the same freedom that American revolutionaries fought and died so valiantly for.
“The people of Yemen had really expected that the President, Government and people of the United States will recognize these genuine aspirations of the Yemeni people,” read CCYRC’s letter, dated July 6th. “On the contrary, the White House and concerned Administration departments seem to totally and almost deliberately avoid taking account of the great sacrifices made by the protesting masses of Yemenis.”
The White House and State Department passed the next three days in silence, then Leon Panetta took the stage in Kabul. Telling his audience that al-Qaeda is “on the run” and “close to defeat,” Obama’s new Defense Secretary pointed the Pentagon and CIA’s lasersights directly at Yemen. Given that its revolution is being suppressed in order to escalate military operations in the region, the drone-happy Panetta delivered what amounts to an open declaration of war on Yemen’s people.
“There’s no question when you look at what constitutes the biggest threat in terms of attacks on the United States right now, more of that comes from Yemen and people like Awlaki,” Panetta said. “There are a number of operations that are being conducted not only by the Defense Department, but by my former agency to try to focus on going after those targets. I would say that’s one of our top priorities right now.”
A Lesson in Gradual Escalation
That Panetta issued such a declaration is only exaggerated by the fact America’s war gears are already in motion. Maintaining strict counter-terrorism after al-Qaeda bombed the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor, the Bush administration’s one-dimensional policy helped set the conditions for future destabilization. When al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) directed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a plane over Detroit nine years later, U.S. policy escalated from sustenance aid for Saleh’s regime to widening air-strikes and extra Special Forces and CIA trainers, active since 2002. One week before U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles struck suspected al-Qaeda targets in the southern province of Shabwa, the northern Houthi tribe claimed that U.S. airstrikes targeted their own forces.
Both attacks triggered local protests after slaughtering dozens of civilians, and both were subsequently justified by the Obama administration as striking al-Qaeda operatives. WikiLeaks would later reveal that Washington, in addition to funding Saleh’s campaign against the secessionist Southern Movement, also equipped Yemeni and Saudi security forces to combat the Houthis. The Zaidi Shia sect had been deemed a hassle to Saleh’s cooperation against AQAP and an irritation to neighboring Saudi Arabia. Undaunted by a corrupt, untrustworthy partner and rising anti-Americanism, the White House crafted a new “secret” agreement with Saleh to exchange military cooperation for a billion dollars in aid.
Yet the suppression of Yemen’s revolution blew past all previous levels of foreign exploitation. Once a series of government massacres forced the White House to distance itself from Saleh, the Saudi-influenced Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was deployed in April to manage a power transfer through the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). Its initiative, in CCYRC’s words, “may be regarded as the best legal and political package, which any dictator has ever gotten, enjoying an unprecedented full immunity from legal pursuit for all the crimes inflicted against the Yemeni people.”
Protesters naturally rejected the GCC’s interference as a violation of their revolution, only for Saleh’s ensuing “chaos” to justify continual U.S. military operations through his murderous security apparatus. Drone strikes escalated in June and July, killing a number of civilians in between AQAP and local militants, and construction of a regional hub was duly shortened from two years to eight months.
“Time and again, the United States mistakenly provides the Saleh regime with sophisticated equipment, which your Administration knowingly knows or should know that Saleh and his cronies used and continue to use to clamp down on peaceful protesters in most of the cities of Yemen, or in waging wars against northern and southern protesters against the oppression that has characterized the Saleh regime. The White House policy on Yemen has mistakenly persisted on the assumption that American security concerns can only be dealt with by the Saleh regime.”
Washington’s Politico-military Campaign
On July 4th, one month after Saleh landed in Riyadh to receive medical treatment for assassin-related injuries, U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein promised Yemenis that America stood by them “in their pursuit” of “universal rights.” Unfortunately for Yemenis, U.S. officials have spent most of their time meeting with Saleh’s regime and legitimizing the negligible authority of Vice President Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi. Days earlier millions of protesters rallied against U.S. and Saudi interference, demanding total regime change and a transitional council of their choosing. CCYRC advised shortly thereafter, “The Revolution of Yemen, as may be erroneously perceived by members of your distinguished Administration at times, is not a dispute between a ruling party and a collection of opposition parties and/or some social dignitaries.”
As if to soften Panetta’s blow the following week, John Brennan also met with Saleh in Riyadh and urged him to sign the GCC’s initiative – Yemen’s "way forward,” as U.S. officials call it. Contrary to mainstream reporting on the Western front, the White House’s counter-terror chief sanctioned Saleh’s regime with his every move. Deploying a military official (twice) to do a civilian’s job is inherently contradictory, although U.S. policy is viewed primarily through the security lens. Brennan’s visit was also heavily manipulated by Saleh’s regime, which triggered al-Qaeda’s alarm and warned the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties’ (JMP) against further “escalation.” Washington’s inaction has emboldened Saleh to continue overseeing Yemen from his Saudi refuge, but Brennan went so far as to inform the opposition that their nemesis would “return soon.”
"It is has been three months since the ambassador’s promise and Saleh is still in power," said one youth representative, who met with Feierstein in April and asked to remain anonymous. "The US is stabbing the youth in the back and the youth will not forget this US stance."
Panetta confidently declared that, with “more work,” al-Qaeda can be brought to the brink of strategic defeat, and eliminating the 20 leaders remaining on the Pentagon’s hit-list would deal a severe blow. However new leadership always emerges and al-Qaeda’s ideology will survive if U.S. foreign policy fails to correct itself, particularly in regards to the Arab Spring. Current U.S. strategy will never succeed in Yemen; backing Saleh’s regime has forfeited all spheres – political, economic, social – to preserve military influence. Despite America’s omnipotent appearance, some hundred CIA and Special Forces trainers (still increasing in number), a fleet of drones and a heavy naval presence in the Gulf of Aden mark the extent of U.S. influence.
As usual Washington has created the anti-American hostility that it fears on the ground, and intelligence gathering will suffer as a result. Except Yemen’s operations are reportedly shifting deeper into the CIA’s shadows, around Congressional red-tape, in order to keep its campaign off grid. A war-weary and debt-laden Congress supports "cheaper" counter-terror operations anyway, and provides no oversight to an immoral, illogical and illegal war. While al-Qaeda is America’s alleged target, the group has only flourished as Yemen’s people suffer.
CCYRC lamented, “The United States Government continues to draw up its foreign policy on Yemen with a blind eye towards all these violations of human rights and the horrendously extreme corruption that characterized the Saleh regime.”
Yemen’s Real “Way Forward”
Calling for honest support of Yemen’s revolutionaries underestimates the meltdown of U.S. policy in their country. America must first end its naked war of aggression against the Yemeni people; supporting their revolution becomes a secondary condition. Lifelines to Saleh’s entire regime must be severed and, instead of telling the opposition to prepare for his return, the Obama administration must assist in Saleh and his family’s detention. Termination of the GCC’s initiative must follow. Already a knot of demands, time-lines and expectations, Saleh and his GPC officials are pushing for new “dialogue” that would adhere to “the constitution,” codewords for more political stalling. A fresh agreement must be drafted to transition through Yemen’s revolution, one written by and favorable to the pro-democracy movement.
“To put it bluntly,” says CCYRC, “the Yemeni protesters are against all interferences and interventions in Yemeni domestic political affairs… We call on Saudi Arabia and the United States not to intervene in the affairs of Yemen and the abortion of popular revolution… as we condemn and strongly condemn all their positions recent efforts to dilute the demands of the rebels… and prevent the establishment of a democratic system based on justice, freedom and equality.”
After affirming a revolutionary transitional council, Washington must back away from military and financial aid, two strings with lengthy expectations attached. Speaking to Obama on behalf of every protester, CCYRC “assures you that it is a paramount goal of the Revolution work towards eliminating all facets of terrorism and all terrorist activity in Yemen.” Many Yemenis believe that Saleh exaggerated AQAP’s presence, that his regime is the main source of terrorism and that, once removed, al-Qaeda will pose less of a threat than it already does. The Obama administration cannot expect to defeat AQAP using Saleh’s old method.
Costly counterinsurgency is out post-bin Laden and cheaper, faster counter-terrorism is in under Panetta. Neither, though, will succeed in Yemen without popular support – support that cannot emerge until its revolutionaries free their country from tyranny and foreign interference.
– James Gundun is a U.S. spokesman for Yemen’s Coordinating Council for the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC). His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy.