Reasons for optimism in Yemen?

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Yemenis have been taking to the voting booths over the last 24 hours to put their seal of approval on the transfer of power from Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.

This wasn’t really an election as such – the ballot only offered the option of voting for Hadi. However, the voter turnout to rubberstamp his succession was high – depending on which estimate you read, ranging anywhere from 50% to 80%. This suggests a good level of support for the agreement, signed by a coalition of opposition groups but thought to be unpopular with protesters due to its giving Saleh blanket immunity for any crimes during the 33 years he spent in power.

President Obama has been largely disappointing – or perhaps as bad as was feared – in the foreign policy realm. His handling of Iraq, especially, was catastrophically bad and while his prosecution of the War on Terror has been admittedly ruthless, I don’t regard that as foreign policy in the conventional sense of the term. However, on Yemen, President Obama has got it right in the following ways:

Aid

The US is prepared to increase aid to Yemen – but making this conditional on the new government reducing corruption, increasing democracy and accountability. Economic assistance for fiscal year 2012 is $50 million (equal to the military assistance), with a similar amount expected in 2013. This money will go towards education, health, governance and economic growth projects.

National security

Getting new President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to pledge his commitment to continued counterterrorism cooperation against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which even if not the most operationally active franchise today (that prize goes to al-Qaeda in Iraq), is still the branch that is most actively working to attack America. This cooperation is likely to consist of continued US training of Yemeni forces, logistical support and surgical drone strikes. John Brennan, a key Obama counterterrorism advisor, has stated that the ‘hardcore members’ of AQAP only number in their ‘dozens’, with several hundred more on the fringes for financial reasons.

Political

The agreement overseen by the US, UN and Gulf Cooperation Council also struck the right note politically. Stressing the need for Hadi to begin negotiations with Houthi rebels in the north and secessionists in the south was a must, rather than opening the door to any possibility of these groups breaking off. It also – rightly – specified that full elections must take place in two years. One of the most challenging areas will be another of the agreement’s requirements – that Yemen restructures its military. Brennan stated that armed forces are personal ‘fiefdoms’ of commanders. US military advisers have suggested centralising the military salary structure to pay troops directly – subsequently preventing division commanders from siphoning this money off for themselves.

The challenge in all this, of course, is implementation. However, Saleh’s removal and having a sensible, workable plan to improve conditions in Yemen is at least a start. Furthermore, Yemen’s Saudi neighbours are on board. It is an intimidating task, but the dire situation in Yemen needs urgently addressing – for both humanitarian and security reasons.

Further reading: Yemen Beyond Saleh: Problems and Prospects for the US and its Allies

HJS



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