26 Mar 13. Coordinated by the Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy
Dear President Obama:
With a new national security team now in place, this is an opportune moment to reevaluate US policy toward Yemen. US strategic interests must balance a number of complex priorities: stability in the Arabian Peninsula, the disruption of terrorist networks, secure waterways and access to oil, prevention of a humanitarian crisis, and genuine support for Yemen’s transition to democracy. As these challenges evolve, the US must emphasize the importance of Yemen as a stable, secure, and sustainable partner. Addressing long-term threats to US security—and not focusing primarily on acute, short-term threats—means that we must prioritize the humanitarian, economic, and political development of the Yemeni people. How we achieve that deserves far more discussion and debate.
We congratulate your administration, the US Embassy in Sana’a, the Department of State and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on efforts to focus on long-term development and humanitarian needs and to shift funding allocations accordingly. Despite fiscal constraints, the US government has leveraged significant resources to support the implementation of the transition agreement and the National Dialogue process. USAID and other agencies are helping internally displaced persons and the country’s most vulnerable populations. We can be proud that the United States is the single largest contributor of humanitarian aid to Yemen. We also recognize and appreciate the efforts of many US officials to address the recommendations that many in this group advanced in a June 2012 letter.
These positive developments, however, are considerably hampered by the chronic and pervasive perception both here and in Yemen that the United States pursues its security interests with little regard to the strategy’s impact on Yemen itself. The perception that the United States is singularly focused on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a symptom of this problem. Yemenis understand that AQAP is a threat to both Yemenis and Americans, and most recognize the need to confront those who plan and pledge to attack the United States. However, the current approach to combating these threats is proving itself counterproductive and in need of urgent reevaluation.
The United States is right to invest in enhancing the capacity and operational effectiveness of Yemen’s armed forces. We have worked to provide training and technical assistance to Yemeni security forces for the purpose of combating extremism. President Hadi’s decision to restructure the security forces will help the government respond to domestic threats, and US support for a Yemeni-led process to implement this reorganization with a unified, centralized command structure will enhance the effectiveness of security forces. This will ultimately enhance their capability to provide security to Yemeni citizens and disrupt terrorist networks throughout the country.
However, the increased reliance on drones undermines our long-term interest in a stable, secure, and sustainable partner in Yemen. A growing body of research indicates that civilian casualties and material damage from drone strikes discredit the central government and engender resentment towards the United States. Where drone strikes have hit civilians, news reports and first-hand accounts increasingly indicate that affected families and villages are demonstrating and chanting against the Yemeni and US government. This creates fertile ground for new recruits and sympathizers who might provide safe haven or direct support to AQAP and its local affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia. The collateral damage produced by drone strikes, along with the political cost of alienating Yemenis, reduces the political space within which we can cooperate with and help strengthen the Yemeni government.
By embracing the ex