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U.S. Withdrawal from Yemen: The Counterterrorism Implications

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The United States has now evacuated the bulk of its military and diplomatic personnel from Yemen, leaving behind only a small number of Special Forces and CIA personnel, plus some military vehicles and equipment that Yemeni rebel forces immediately appropriated. The US withdrawal, mirrored by Britain and France, comes as Shiite Houthi militants seize and consolidate power, after ousting the US-allied government of President Hadi, which had long engaged with the United States for counterterrorism purposes.

Strikingly, less than six months ago, President Obama had cited Yemen (albeit controversially to some) as a success story to the extent that it represented a model for US counterterrorism efforts, undertaken in partnership with host countries to build indigenous capacity to fight violent extremism, globally. But that was then. As UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon noted yesterday, “Yemen is collapsing before our eyes.” This rapid disintegration was sparked by the growing strength of the Houthis, who many believe to be supported by Iran.

Though Yemen is a predominantly Sunni country, it is a Shiite faction that now has its hands on the levers of power in this fractious country. Notably, Houthi forces bear animosity to both al Qaeda and the United States. The local al Qaeda branch, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, has shown itself to be an especially dangerous manifestation of al Qaeda, with advanced bomb-making skills and a demonstrated persistence to use its deadly wares to target both the United States homeland and US interests overseas.

UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar has told the Security Council that “instability in Yemen is creating conditions for al Qaeda’s re-emergence.” Against all of this background, US counterterrorism efforts concentrated on Yemen become all the more important. On this point, US officials have stated that these efforts will continue and are in fact “ongoing.” Houthi forces, for their part, have not yet closed the door on the possibility of continuing cooperation with the US in this regard.

The current situation in Yemen is also concerning for countries in the region. Neighboring (Sunni-dominated) Saudi Arabia is perturbed by the power shift to the Shiite Houthi faction in Yemen; all the more so because its backer may be Saudi Arabia’s longstanding rival, Iran, which has also recently managed to “consolidate…its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.” Sunni Egypt is working closely with Saudi Arabia on military contingency planning, including possible disruptions to oil shipments.

Also, in Europe, following the reportedly AQAP-connected terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris last month, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy announced that the EU planned to launch new counterterrorism projects with a number of countries including Yemen. How exactly this may work remains to be seen. On the US side, however, White House Press Secretary has emphasized (though not with reference to these EU plans) that success has been achieved in terms of “`applying significant pressure to the AQAP leadership that’s operating in Yemen’ ”—notwithstanding Yemen’s many problems and weak state.

In a piece published at the end of January, P.J. Crowley wrote: “The Obama administration…needs to find out what the Houthis and the Iranians want in Yemen and what they can live with.” Crowley argues further that the US approach to Yemen “has become far too tactical. Drones have a role to play, but the secret to success in Yemen is ultimately better governance and economic growth.” Whether or not you agree, it is truly important for the US to “get Yemen right.” This is so in part because the Houthis’ ascendancy has significantly benefited AQAP, including by drawing local tribes with grievances towards the Houthis, into AQ’s fold. Having largely withdrawn US eyes and ears from Yemen, however, it will be all the more difficult to achieve US counterterrorism objectives there. It will also be challenging to support the Houthis’ efforts in this regard, to the extent that they are willing to partner with the US on that count.


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