Talking Yemen: Boucek and Johnsen

Waq al-waq’s multi-media team has recently been busy preparing a new series of what could most accurately be called "sporadic conversations on Yemen," but we have instead elected to call it simply "Talking Yemen." For our first conversation we sat down – virtually, that is – with Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment and the author of the fine paper: Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral.

I sold the idea to Chris as first a small write-up of his paper and then five questions (I actually sent six) and then after I asked some follow-up questions I asked him if we could just publish it as a conversation and he graciously agreed to all my different versions. And so Waq al-waq would like to extend our collective thanks to Chris for his patience and time. (We would send out a Waq al-waq coffee mug, but sadly they are still in the design phase of development.)

(My questions and comments are in regular text and Chris’ are in italics.)

(Gregory Johnsen): I think it is clear from your paper that the US has a number of security concerns in Yemen from the resurgence of AQAP to the future of Guantanamo Bay Detainees to the continued stalemate on the al-Banna and al-Badawi cases, so my question is what should the US make a priority when it comes to counter-terrorism in Yemen?

I think we would both agree that the view of al-Qaeda is much different in San‘a than it does in Washington. There are numerous gradations and subtleties in Yemen’s view that appear to be missing in Washington’s black-and-white view of the problem. So, if this is true and if the US can’t get everything it wants, then what should it push for and when?

(Christopher Boucek): In working on this paper one of the issues that struck me was that Washington’s security and terrorism concerns dominated the US-Yemeni relationship, to the near exclusion of all other issues. As a result, it often seems that all other aspects of the relationship are made second tier issues. Admittedly, was it not for terrorism and security concerns, Yemen would likely not be of much concern to Washington. Nonetheless, making ‘progress’ on counter-terrorism issues the benchmark for all other issues does not best serve American foreign policy or national security interests.

Yemen’s many other challenges are directly linked to the security situation in the country. The deteriorating economic, demographic, and resource situations will contribute to greater instability in the future, and thus issues like economic reform and social welfare need to be addressed.

The United States has sought to build capacity in Yemen—such as with the Coast Guard—and such programs need to be expanded. The Yemeni Coast Guard needs bigger vessels that will allow it to expand its area of operation and deploy for longer periods of time. It also needs more shore facilities, as large portions of the coast are under-guarded now. The border guards complain that despite American needs assessments, they still lack vital equipment. American and international assistance should be directed at improving the police and prison service, and Yemen needs to implement comprehensive counter-terrorism laws.

So is there one particular thing the US should do or prioritize? In other words should it make targeting people like Nasir al-Wahayshi, Qasim al-Raymi or Said al-Shihri a priority – almost like it did with Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2001 and 2002 – or should it focus on getting Yemen to take the fight to al-Qaeda like the embarrassing July 30 Battle of Marib in the aftermath of General Petraeus’ visit to Yemen or should it be working out some sort of trade to get al-Banna or even, and less likely, al-Badawi back to the US?

(CB): I’m a bit hesitant to put one aspect of counter-terrorism above others as I think there needs to be a comprehensive approach. Going after leadership elements (the kill and capture stuff) will always be key, as will degrading and disrupting an organization’s infrastructure, including recruitment, logistics, etc. But those are short-term, immediate actions. Vital, but they need to be married up with other efforts. There also needs to be long-term, sustained programs to address a whole range of social, economic, and political issues. A unified, coherent counter-terrorism policy will need to combine both, along with local capacity building.

Al-Banna and al-Badawi are important for the United States, but I am not very confident that there will be progress on either. I’d like to be surprised, but I’m doubtful.

(GJ): In your paper you discussed the perception that Yemen lacks the educated professionals needed to run certain programs, but in speaking with many Yemeni officials one gets the sense that there is a pool of expatriate Yemeni talent that the government is not taking advantage of: is there any way that you see that the government can somehow utilize this untapped resource?

(CB): The Yemeni government has several programs to encourage expatriate Yemeni nationals to return and participate in public service. It is my understanding that such efforts are showing some results, but that it is often challenging to get expatriates to return to stay. The perception that Yemen lacks capacity to absorb more foreign assistance is very troubling, and is connected to a number of other issues. Progress has also been made in improving the Yemeni education system, and a lot more will be needed. First and foremost—like most everything else in Yemen—it needs more funding.

(GJ): In your section "Ways to Help" you discuss the need to for Saudi Arabia and other GCC states to take "greater action" to help Yemen, but many – myself included – would argue that Saudi Arabia is already taking a great deal of action, but that it often is not productive action? Is this your understanding as well, and if so how can the US and other Western countries influence Saudi Arabia to take productive action? Especially if one takes it as a given that Saudi Arabia is just as concerned about a successful Yemen as it is a failed one.

(CB): If steps are not taken soon, Yemen’s problems will very quickly affect regional states, especially Saudi Arabia. It is true that the Saudis are very concerned and very active in Yemen—albeit not always in a completely organized or comprehensive manner. Saudi policy (policies?) toward Yemen have not always been clearly articulated, and the multitude of relevant players in Saudi Arabia has at times lead to contradictory actions. The Saudis have enduring national security interests in Yemen, and I would argue that Riyadh and the GCC need to all come together on how best to approach a deteriorating situation in Yemen. There needs to be longer-range planning on how Yemen and the GCC will interact. As with the United States, I believe it will be issues of security and terrorism that drive Saudi policy on Yemen. That is, fears of instability will push Gulf states to act.

(GJ): Is it possible for the GCC countries to speak with one voice on Yemen, particularly given some of the historical animosity between Saudi Arabia and other countries? I am reminded off the failed Qatari peace settlement in Sa‘dah. I agree that what you suggest is ideal, but I’m not sure it is possible.

(CB): Very true, getting the GCC to all be headed in one direction on Yemen will be a difficult task. This would be complicated by not just inter-GCC relations, but also by bilateral Yemeni relations with other Gulf states. You’re right that it would be ideal to have the GCC come to a consensus on this. Because the GCC will be collectively affected by Yemen’s future, it will be important for them to be a part of the discussions going forward.

(GJ): One often hears Yemeni officials speak of joining the GCC, and you point out steps that the GCC could take along this road, but in your opinion – given the diverse and different interests of the GCC members – is Yemen’s joining the GCC anything more than a desperate dream?

(CB): Great question—Yemeni officials seem to be very keen on joining the GCC. I’m not sure how that would ultimately play out. However, right now I am skeptical that Yemen would join as a full and equal member. I can more readily envision some kind of a ‘junior’ relationship in which Yemen has some benefits (such as on economic issues), but not equal status. Some Gulf states have real concerns about Yemen, including corruption, unemployment, prevalence of small arms, population growth, etc. There are things that Yemen needs and wants, including more formalized trade and labor movement arrangements. Part of any future relationship will need to take into consideration the costs of inaction on issues related to Yemeni stability. Those costs to the GCC will be too great if no action is taken.

(GJ): I had a conversation with a British official recently and he suggested that while everyone knows that the costs of a failed Yemen to the GCC and the international community would be great no one could really given an accurate picture of what failure would look like and because no one was able to do this the real and potential costs are not understood. My question, then, is: in the absence of a convincing narrative of what Yemen looks like in the future – my magic 8-ball is far from infallible – is there a way to convince the GCC to act as a unified bloc when it comes to Yemen, and if so which country (or individual) is shaping such a policy?

(CB): This is a very important point, and one that I think has really frustrated policy planning with regards to Yemen. There is near unanimity in what the international community wants to avoid—state failure or collapse—but no one really knows what event or events will trigger it. As a result, it is extremely difficult to devise or implement policies to avoid what has-yet-to-be-identified. I think you correctly noted that there is not much conceptual understanding of what a worse case scenario would look like. I guess that is the ‘ask again later’ response from the magic 8-ball.

I think what will push the GCC is terrorism and security fears, and I think we’ve seen some of the discussions going that way. It seems that the Saudis recognize this, and I would not be surprised to see some of the other Gulf states move in this direction as well. Certainly the attempted assassination of Prince Mohammed last month strengthened Saudi perceptions. I don’t think you would see any movement until there is a perception in the Gulf states that it is in their interest to act, and I would expect in the future to see Washington, London, and others encouraging the GCC to take greater steps on Yemen.

(GJ): You seem to suggest that the international community should help mediate the southern crises, but is there really a role for countries like the US, the UK, Japan or others to play here besides the type of the statements supporting unity that the US has already given? I think this is particularly pressing given US counter-terrorism concerns in the country. But even if you still believe that there is a role to play, with whom should the international community speak? The "southern movement" is so fractured that no one person or group seems to be able to speak on its behalf, despite the attempts of many to do so.

(CB): You’ve hit on a key point. Implementation will be difficult to be sure. The statements of support are important. One possibility could be for the international community to support (financially and otherwise) greater service provision, not just in the south, but throughout the country. How this can be accomplished without also expanding grievances against Sana will be tricky. The Yemeni government could be encouraged to address and accommodate some of the issues driving the unrest, for instance by increasing investment, expanding opportunities, and curbing excesses. Sana can and will need to be supported and encouraged on such efforts.

(GJ): Doesn’t curbing excess work against the regime in San‘a, at least if one views the regime as a patronage-based system that is intent on its own survival? I would argue that the regime uses the goodies of the state to maintain its own survival particularly among its clients in the military and security services. So how can one convince the regime to take steps such as you outlined above, which the regime has traditionally seen as being against its own long-term interests?

(CB): The provision of goodies will have to continue, no doubt. In fact, the number of people receiving the goodies should probably be expanded. I guess when I was thinking of excesses, I wasn’t thinking so much of patronage, as I was of the local antagonisms and inequities that often come along with it. Part of the dilemma seems to be that short-time interests are often misidentified as long-term interests, and the two do not always overlap. The absence of durable and enduring state institutions directly contributes to this, and this is an area where the international community should be focusing.

(GJ): Given the confusing and fragmented information coming out of the war in Sa‘dah – the Huthis have been linked to everyone from al-Qaeda to Iran and from Libya to Hezbullah while the government is allegedly utilizing Iraqi officers and receiving support from Saudi Arabia – what is the US to make of the conflict? I think this is particularly acute given the widespread belief in Yemen that the US has – and is believed to be still – providing intelligence assistance to the Yemeni government as a way of looking for favors when it comes to al-Qaeda in the country. Is there any role for the international community here?

(CB): As you rightly noted, one of the most troubling aspects about the fighting in Saada is how difficult it is to get accurate information. This complicates everything. Moreover, the scale of the humanitarian impact is massive, and the often indiscriminate nature of the fighting worsens the situation. Over the course of the conflict, the Yemeni government has sought to link its actions to a number of other issues, and the recent uptick in press accounts discussing the war as sort of proxy conflict has been disturbing. I’d argue that viewing the conflict this way does not help. Straight away the international community should press for greater access for humanitarian and relief organizations, coupled with urging all parties to suspend fighting.

(GJ): I believe there is a worry among some, particularly in the US, that pressing San‘a too hard on Sa‘dah will lead to less cooperation on al-Qaeda and other security issues that are important to the US, so silence is believed to be the best option because we need Yemen’s help on other issues. Is there any way to get Yemen to scale back in Sa‘dah while still inducing its support against al-Qaeda?

(CB): Part of this could be broadening the scope of the discussions. I completely agree that it will be important for Washington and others to recognize the issues that are important to the Yemeni government—like Saada and the south. As you’ve noted before those are existential issues for the regime. It seems this has in part contributed to some of the friction between Washington and Sana; at times communicating past each other. The international community needs to engage Yemen on multiple issues—not just traditional security issues—many of which are critical to the stability of the state and future regional security. I would argue that taking action on economic, social, education, and other issues would decrease some of the destabilizing factors challenging the country.

Saada is going to be a very difficult policy issue to navigate, no doubt about it. In part because the conflict has gone on for so long, and it has been viewed as a distraction from the other issues that the US and others would like to see the Yemeni government focusing on. In the end, war in Saada does not advance the goal of improving stability and security in Yemen. I don’t think there is an entirely kinetic solution to what’s going on, at least not long term. There are other tools that can be used, and if the Yemeni government does not currently have the means to do so, the international community can and should assist.

(GJ): Many thanks for your time and thoughtful answers. The readers of Waq al-waq appreciate it.

(CB): Many thanks for a great discussion and the opportunity to talk about these issues. I’m a great fan of Waq al-Waq, and I really appreciate all the comments about the new paper. Keep up the excellent work of raising the bar on all things Yemen.

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