The outbreak of Arab Spring in late 2010, coupled with the Obama administration’s rapid withdrawal from the Middle East replicated on a large scale what Democrats accused president George Bush of doing: destabilizing the existing regimes. But while Bush was held responsible for toppling Saddam Hussein, the subsequent events which rocked Egypt, Libya, Syria and provided an opening through which Iran extended its influence into Iraq and Lebanon, replicated instability on a region-wide scale.
With press attention focused on Egypt and Syria, Yemen was largely ignored by the media despite the fact that the administration regarded “al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) … the greatest direct threat to the United States”. Yet despite its importance, the sense that it was “all quiet on the Yemen front” prevailed because of the administration’s repeated claim that Yemen was its shining example of smart counterinsurgency.
As late as March of 2015, long after the recognized Yemeni government had been toppled and American advisers had been driven from the scene, Josh Earnest continued to insist “that Yemen did serve as a template for the kind of strategy that we would employ and have employed to mitigate the threat from extremists around the world.” But in fact, Yemen was disintegrating.
- The Arab Spring threw American counter-terrorism policy in Yemen into crisis. That policy had relied on the exchange of military, economic, and counter-terrorism assistance for cooperation from the Yemeni government in the fight against AQAP. When challenged by popular protest, the Saleh regime predictably focused its resources on protecting the Yemeni state rather than on pursuing al Qaeda, and the U.S. withheld assistance for fear that it would be used to oppress the Yemeni people.
- AQAP has exploited the ongoing instability in Yemen and established sanctuaries from Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia to the southern coastline. A local militant group linked with AQAP has secured territory in the south and implemented shari’a rule in areas under its control.
After it disntegrated it actually got worse. Yemen became a battlefield between the two major contenders for Islamic supremacy, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now it became a vortex pulling in superheated air from all the surrounds feeding the fires that were already burning within.
To review: We have Sunni and Shia (a Shia sect, to be sure, but nonetheless backed by Tehran) in the Yemeni capital. To the east, where the country’s main gas pipeline runs, rebel tribes are engaged in a campaign of sabotage to extort political and financial concessions from the central government. Further east, in the energy heartland, local grievances over money and governance have meant freedom of movement for AQAP. And finally, there’s the south, once independent, where secessionists are gaining ground again and…you got it…making room for AQAP.
In short, the trouble in Yemen is not simply sectarian woe in Sana’a, and the challenge for the United States is not merely in ensuring that we have a partner in the Yemeni capital. The trouble is with what President Barack Obama memorably labeled “the Yemen model.” At this point, it’s not just that the model itself — partnership with local government to defeat al Qaeda and associated movements — is in trouble; it’s that the entire nation of Yemen may well cease to exist as we know it. And doubling down on the notion that all that matters is the presidential palace in Sana’a is mindless.
John Kerry, perhaps disbelieving Josh Earnest’s assurances about templates, is desperately trying to glue the remaining pieces together again into some facsimile of a state. How far he will succeed remains to be seen.