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The Changing US Tune on Yemen
Over the weekend of April 2–3 in Yemen, the death toll of anti-government protesters continued to rise as security forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh reportedly shot dead twelve people and injured hundreds of others in the southern city of Taiz. Amid the violence, news broke late Sunday night that the Obama administration has quietly begun to withdraw its support for Saleh’s regime. Over the past two months of violence in Yemen, the United States has continued to back Saleh despite his violent response to widespread nonviolent protests against his regime.
Citing US and Yemeni officials, the New York Times reports: “The United States, which long supported Yemen’s president, even in the face of recent widespread protests, has now quietly shifted positions and has concluded that he is unlikely to bring about the required reforms and must be eased out of office.” The report adds, “For Washington, the key to his departure would be arranging a transfer of power that would enable the counterterrorism operation in Yemen to continue.”
The US counterterrorism operation in Yemen was launched under the Bush administration and then greatly expanded by President Obama, as I reported last week in my article “The Dangerous US Game in Yemen.” The US military presence, composed of special forces troops who not only conduct counterterrorism training for Yemeni forces but engage in their own unilateral “kinetic” actions against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have operated with great freedom in the country with President Saleh’s blessing.
The current negotiations in Yemen between the Saleh government and a bloc of opposition forces, known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), center around a proposal to temporarily hand power to Saleh’s vice president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. According to the JMP’s five-point plan released over the weekend, Hadi would then preside over a restructuring of Yemen’s security and military forces, including a purge of Saleh’s relatives. A transitional council would also be formed and parliamentary and presidential elections would eventually take place.
Washington’s counterterrorism campaign in Yemen, which is responsible for the deaths of dozens of civilians, may encounter vocal popular opposition if democratization proceeds. A March 2011 Glevum Stability Assessment found that an “overwhelming majority of Yemenis disapprove of President Saleh’s cooperation with the U.S.,” with only four percent approving strongly or somewhat of the cooperation. Meanwhile, the study found that 96 percent of Yemenis believe the “West is at war against Islam” and a majority view AQAP’s violence as “self-defense.” However, the overwhelming majority of Yemenis, according to the study, do not view AQAP as the “true defender of Islam.”
“It is unfortunate that the Obama administration’s policy only began ‘to shift in the past week.’ Saleh’s demise has been self-evident for much longer than that, and consistent US refusals to see that and the resulting dithering and calls for negotiations (asking protesters to give up the only leverage they have) has only put US security interests more at risk,” observed Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen, adding: “We should be clear, both scenarios—Saleh leaving or staying—are potentially dangerous for US national security, which is one of the reasons the Obama administration is so hesitant to withdraw its support from Saleh.”
Note: Read Jeremy Scahill’s in-depth cover story on “The Dangerous US Game in Yemen.”