Posted by: sean | January 7, 2010

Aiding Yemen or aiding Saleh?

Sticking with the theme of Yemen, I was reading Kevin Drum who was commenting on my friend Andrew Exum’s LA Times piece with Richard Fontaine on Yemen, in which they write:

U.S. policy should aim to bring Yemen back from the brink, mitigating the risk to the rest of the peninsula by increasing the country’s domestic stability. This task will not be achieved easily, quickly or inexpensively, and the use of force alone won’t be sufficient. Any effective strategy must combine security assistance with mediation efforts, development, regional engagement and an effective communications approach.

Drum is right to notice, however, that

Even though they say that economic development is important, nearly their entire list is dedicated to military aid of one kind or another. But it’s hard to see what good that will do to help a country with a soaring population, no revenue, and a rapidly dwindling water supply. Frankly, it’s a little hard to see how anything is likely to have much impact on a country with problems that severe. And until those problems are addressed, it’s also hard to see how even the best designed and executed counterterrorism program can have more than a very limited effect.

This point reminded me of an excellent piece in the Post back in 2005 that I came across a couple of years ago before going to Yemen. In it, David Finkel is given full access to the Yemen office of the National Democracy Institute (NDI), which was run by Robin Madrid who had been trying to bolster parliamentary democracy and women’s participation in governance. The story (parts 1, 2 and 3), for which Finkel won a Pulitzer, chronicles Madrid’s efforts to help 25 tribal sheikhs in the provinces of Al-Jawf, Marib and Shabwa develop a local NGO through which they could work to resolve tribal conflicts, which in those areas often escalated into small-scale shooting wars.

You should read the whole article, but to make a long story short, the project failed, not because of tribal conflict or because of a lack of funding, but, according to the article, because  Saleh, the Yemeni president, nixed it. Madrid maintains that it was because the program was misunderstood by the Yemeni government, but the article implies that Saleh understood exactly what was going on, and that in fact, the last thing Saleh, who has been in power for over three decades, wanted was for 25 tribal sheikhs with 25,00 armed men at their disposal in three restive provinces to form a united front, even if it was to curb blood feuds and tribal violence.

These are the provinces that are being discussed when talking about fighting al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and it’s not difficult to understand how in a country like Yemen where the government is worried about challenges to its rule in the north (with Houthis) and the south (with separatists), maintaining some semblance of centralized power might entail keeping the peripheral tribes at each others throats instead of allowing them to form a common front that might challenge the authority of what has shaped up to be a familial kleptocracy in Sana’a.

It’s important, then, to keep in mind what kind of  aid one is proposing to give to Yemen, and to whom. Military aid is a given, but I think there is a realization that not all problems in Yemen and elsewhere are nails, even though Washington possesses an enormous hammer in the way of military might. This means that even in the Pentagon, people are coming to realize that political, cultural and economic issues underpin problems that no one pays attention to until they are manifested through violence.

So back to the question of what kind of aid is to be given, I think it’s important to look back at previous programs, be they economic or democracy-building in nature. The US, along with regional countries that will likely be impacted by the disintegration/explosion of Yemen, should look at what has and has not worked in the past and why. Honest answers to these questions may put Washington and its Gulf allies in an embarrassingly tough spot: what should be done if a substantial part of the country’s problems stem from the regime they’re proposing to aid?

In any case, the experiences of NDI in Yemen might be a good place to start looking in order to answer some of these questions.

P.S. I’ve added a few pictures from my trip to Sana’a last year.



  1. […] point about Saleh using US financial and military aid is somewhat in line with my previous post: Saleh is now trumpeting the presence of al Qa’eda to garner financial and military support from […]

  2. […] over at the Human Province has done produced some great posts on Yemen lately (see here and here). He created a list of fantastic articles on Yemen ; I particularly recommend the articles by Fred […]

  3. […] The Human Province also tackles the issue of aid to […]

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