Can Obama Ignore Anti-AQAP Protests?

By James Gundun – Washington, D.C.

It’s a contest that no revolutionary wants to enter: most ignored. Although Western backing hasn’t generated decisive victory for Libyans or Syrians, these revolutionaries would presumably pass on swapping with their Bahraini and Yemeni peers. The dual-core of Saudi Arabia’s counterrevolution exemplifies America’s double-standard towards manipulable regimes, and Yemenis understand this much about Washington’s relationship with the murderous Ali Abdullah Saleh. However their realization doesn’t fully alleviate the pains of international isolation, especially after largely peaceful demonstrations defied Western notions of extremism.

Yemenis have been left to wonder what could possibly attract international support if not six months of bloodshed. Soon the question will shift to how long the Obama administration can ignore demonstrations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Ideally President Barack Obama and his national security team would have no need to ignore Yemenis, but within the ugly world of geopolitics, the White House has too many reasons to shun their revolution. Rooted in training and funding for Saleh’s personal security forces, Washington pumped low-level economic aid into his corrupt regime in a vain effort to balance one-sided militarism. Crowning three decades of misrule, widespread economic shortages and misappropriated counter-terrorism units finally pushed Yemenis into revolution mode, disrupting Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the CIA’s escalation in their country.

Labeled an inconvenience, revolution against Saleh was immediately flagged as “against U.S. interests” and green-lit for a controlled transition. This policy fuels a negative cycle whereby anti-American sentiment is exploited to justify unilateral or “joint” military operations: drone strikes, a network of Special Forces and CIA “trainers,” and a flotilla parked off Yemen’s southern coast. Last month, during one of several admissions that support for Saleh’s regime is ongoing, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “It’s obviously a dangerous and uncertain situation, but we continue to work with elements there to try to develop counterterrorism."

In searching for measures to preserve semi-obedient “elements,” the Obama administration went beyond orchestrating a favorable power transfer through the Saudi-backed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which would leave a shell of the current regime in power. Mimicking daily power outages in Yemen, one of Saleh’s many stall tactics, the administration cut the lights on Yemen’s revolution. Only after March 18th’s sniper massacre in Sana’a, when at least 50 protesters were gunned down by Saleh’s security units, did Obama condemn Yemen’s sweeping violence. 92 days have elapsed since he mentioned Yemen – a single line in his “Moment of Opportunity” – and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last grazed over the revolution in early June.

The administration in general remains silent on vicious human rights abuses committed by U.S.-trained security forces, now considered war crimes by Yemenis. At one point in Taiz’s Change Square, the Republican Guard’s gasoline-filled water cannons rolled over tents and torched protesters in their sleep. Neither the White House nor State Department has issued a reaction to any transitional council, months of bombardment against anti-government tribes or a government-induced humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile Panetta has accordingly filled the White House and State Department’s vacuum, keen to protect the Pentagon’s investments by hyping AQAP and ignoring Ali Saleh.

Tasking U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein with the daily grunt work of mingling with Saleh’s regime, counter-terrorism chief John Brennan has assumed the role of Obama’s leading diplomat. Brennan is supposedly close to both Saleh and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a toxic mix to Yemenis.

Washington’s response to their revolution (and the refusal to break with Riyadh) has infuriated some protesters, confused many more and given rise to the belief that no Western support is forthcoming. Although many rightfully declare that a revolution can only be achieved by the people, revolutions historically receive external assistance. Yemenis also deserve U.S. support after their mistreatment; unlike Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Washington played a direct role in empowering Saleh’s regime. This complicity has rendered U.S. cooperation and UN sanctions a fool’s hope, except Yemenis haven’t given up trying to attract President Obama’s support.

They just needed time to organize and probe the depths of Western misconceptions.

Last week in Taiz, one of several revolutionary epicenters, a group of activists hosted a symposium entitled, “Our Revolution Against Terrorism.” The first of many planned events against AQAP, the gathering rebuked perceptions of unchecked extremism and pledged to combat terrorism after Saleh’s regime falls into the dustbin of history. A “rejection of al-Qaeda and terrorism” march is tentatively planned and more demonstrations will follow if all goes according to schedule.

“Saleh is willing to do anything to stay in power,” explains Dr. Abdulkani Alguneid, a leading Taiz activist who gave a seminar on Saleh’s relationship with AQAP and Saudi Arabia. “He sold Yemen’s image as an al-Qaeda sanctuary, to the wealthiest oil country and to a superpower. Yemen’s revolution is all about civil society and civil state. Both Saleh and al-Qaeda have no place in such a habitat.”

The process admittedly struggled to come online due to a vast divergence in Yemeni and American mindsets. Many peaceful Yemenis don’t think twice in associating AQAP with Saleh, whereas Americans generally consider Yemen as a backwards breeding land for terrorists. Although the country has become a hotbed of anti-Americanism and some fighters made the journey to Afghanistan or Iraq, Yemen’s revolutionaries want nothing to do with terrorism. Believing it was planted in their country, they point to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas bombing in 2009 – to a Nigerian finally attracting the U.S. public’s attention – and to the Saudi legion that formed AQAP’s old guard, many released from Guant

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