The ceasefire announced late last week between Yemen’s government and Houthi rebels in the northern part of the country is being greeted here as an important initial step toward stabilizing the Arab world’s poorest country and reversing advances by al-Qaeda’s affiliate there.
Washington wants the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to make the battle against al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which was allegedly behind the aborted bombing of a U.S. commercial airliner Christmas Day, its top security priority. It is providing tens of millions of dollars in training, arms, and other assistance for that purpose.
It is also pushing Saleh to focus more on fighting corruption and promoting economic development, although it is supplying significantly less aid in those areas.
Indeed, the imbalance between U.S. military and non-military aid has been a source of chronic frustration for many specialists here who have long warned that extremism in Yemen cannot be rooted out in the absence of far-reaching political and economic reforms.
"Under currently discussed budget requests, military and security assistance greatly exceeds humanitarian aid," noted Christian Boucek, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who nonetheless described the ceasefire as "very welcome."
"While there is an immediate counterterrorism imperative in Yemen, this planned framework does not adequately address the long-term systemic challenges to Yemeni security and stability. It is not AQAP that will lead to state failure or state collapse in Yemen," he added.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday hailed the still-shaky four-day-old ceasefire during a visit to Qatar, the first stop in a brief Gulf tour that will also feature talks with King Abdullah and other top officials in Saudi Arabia that will reportedly be focused mainly on Iran.
"The United States welcomes the ceasefire in the conflict between the government of Yemen and the Houthi rebels," she said in a statement released by the State Department.
"We understand that a mediation commission representing all parties is monitoring compliance with the terms of the ceasefire and beginning the urgent process of reconciliation and reconstruction needed to bring this conflict to a permanent end," the statement noted.
It added that Washington "remains concerned about the humanitarian situation in the area, including the approximately 250,000 Yemenis displaced by the fighting."
Clinton is likely to bring the same message to her hosts in Riyadh who, at $2 billion a year, constitute Yemen’s top aid donor by far.
Saudi Arabia, which has accused Iran of supporting the Houthis, who belong to a Shia sect called Zaidism, became involved in the fighting last November after rebel forces reportedly crossed the frontier, killed a border guard, and briefly occupied the area.
Despite a fierce three-month counter-offensive, the Houthis killed more than 130 Saudi troops and captured at least five others, one of whom was handed over Monday.
The Houthi rebellion has been widely seen as a costly distraction for Yemen’s government and armed forces that, in Washington’s view, should be more focused on destroying AQAP, which was created last year by the consolidation of separate al-Qaeda affiliates in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Al-Qaeda in Yemen had been largely decimated, with the help of U.S. military and intelligence assistance, between December 2000, when it killed 17 U.S. sailors an attack on the USS Cole anchored off Aden, and 2003.
But following a notorious jailbreak in 2006, it reemerged as a significantly stronger force due to the influx of Saudi recruits and other veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and success in building alliances with some of Yemen’s powerful and conservative Sunni tribes, notably in the southern and eastern parts of the country.
Al-Qaeda has also taken advantage of growing secessionist sentiment in the South, where tensions with the central government have been on the rise for some time.
AQAP’s strength and global ambition were brought home here by the attempted Christmas bombing carried out by a Nigerian national reportedly trained and equipped by the group in Yemen.
Reports that a U.S. Army major had been in contact with a Yemen-based Yemeni-American cleric linked to AQAP before carrying out a shooting spree at a Texas Army base that killed 13 soldiers last November has added to the notion that Yemen has become a top priority in what the George W. Bush administration called the "global war on terrorism."
In fact, Obama, who last month ruled out the use of U.S. forces in any direct combat role in Yemen, had already been steadily increasing security assistance much of it covert to Yemen’s security forces since he took office.
In December, Yemeni forces carried out a series of lethal raids against AQAP targets. They were backed by U.S. intelligence, equipment, and "firepower," a word which many analysts interpreted as meaning drone or cruise-missiles strikes, although Sana’a has strenuously denied that claim, while Washington has refused further comment.
The administration plans to nearly triple security assistance to Yemen, from $67 million last year to $190 million in 2010.
As part of what its top Near East official, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Policy Jeffrey Feltman, earlier this month called a "new, more holistic Yemen policy," the administration is also committed to increasing economic and development assistance.
But that the non-security aid $121 million over the next three years pales in comparison to the counterterrorist budget, particularly given the enormity of the long-term development challenges facing Yemen. These include steadily diminishing oil revenues its main source of foreign exchange and rapidly depleting water supplies.
"It’s easier to do the hard [military] stuff, [but] achieving a balance is key," Michael Doran, a top Gulf expert at the National Security Council under Bush, told a conference on Yemen at the Bipartisan Policy Center earlier this month.
"There’s a tremendous imbalance between the military and the political," he noted, adding that it will likely continue.
"Are we making the same mistake again [in] giving too much support to the security institutions in Yemen?" asked ret. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, who served in top State Department and Pentagon Near East posts under Bush, at the same forum.
(Inter Press Service)