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Spreading Democracy in Yemen

From Jeremy Scahill:

By late 2011, the United States had largely withdrawn its military assets from Yemen, including Special Operations forces, leaving much of the coordination for Yemen ops to the US forces stationed in the East African nation of Djibouti, where the United States has a large military base. The US-backed Yemeni Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) and Republican Guard forces no longer operated under the tutelage and direction of their US sponsors. CTU commanders told me in January that they don’t even have ammunition for their US-supplied M4 assault rifles. As battles raged at the premier front line in Abyan in late December/early January, Yahya Saleh, the US-backed head of the CTU, was nowhere to be found in Yemen. When I visited a CTU training base outside Sanaa, his men claimed not to know where he was. Senior Yemeni officials also said they had no idea where he was—other than that he was out of the country. They said they did not know when he would return. Eventually, in mid-January, Yahya posted pictures of himself online, hanging out in Havana with the family of Che Guevara.

Rather than fighting AQAP, these US-backed units—created and funded with the explicit intent to be used only for counterterrorism operations—redeployed to Sanaa to protect the collapsing regime from its own people. The US-supported units exist “mostly for the defense of the regime,” says Iryani. “In the fighting in Abyan, the counterterrorism forces have not been deployed in any effective way. They are still here in the palace [in Sanaa], protecting the palace. That’s how it is.” President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, acknowledged late last year that the “political tumult” has caused the US-trained units “to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP.”

The Obama administration was very slow to agitate for Saleh’s departure from power, in large part because of counterterrorism concerns. On January 28, Saleh arrived in New York, ostensibly for medical treatment, eliciting charges from his opponents that the United States was protecting him from the wrath of his people. For years, Saleh allowed the United States to regularly strike against AQAP in Yemen, and US Special Operations forces built up the specialized units, run by Saleh’s family members, that were widely seen as US surrogates. Saleh’s government actively conspired with US officials to cover up the US role in Yemen, at times publicly taking credit for US bombings. Even as demonstrations grew against the Saleh regime, US officials praised his government’s cooperation. “I can say today the counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure,” Brennan declared in September.

But US counterterrorism policy is extremely unpopular in Yemen. Whether a new government would continue the same type of counterterrorism relationship Saleh had with Washington is very much in question....

... By last summer, the Obama administration had begun construction on a secret air base on the Arabian peninsula, closer than its base in Djibouti, that could serve as a launching pad for expanded drone strikes in Yemen. The September drone strike that killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly launched from that new base, which analysts suspect is either in Saudi Arabia or Oman, both of which border Yemen. While the United States is largely absent on the ground now in Yemen, it continues coordination with Yemeni intelligence on counterterrorism operations. In late January the United States carried out a series of airstrikes in Abyan, and, according to Sumali, US forces conducted at least two other strikes around Zinjibar that “targeted Al Qaeda leaders who are on the US terrorist black list,” though he adds, “I did not coordinate directly in these attacks.” According to Sumali, US helicopters have—on several occasions—flown in supplies for the 25th Mechanized. The Americans have also provided real-time intelligence, obtained by drones, to Yemeni forces in Abyan. “It has been an active partnership. The Americans help primarily with logistics and intelligence,” Sumali says. “Then we pound the positions with artillery or airstrikes.” ...

... The October drone strike that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes. “I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,” says Jamal, the Yemeni journalist. The strikes “have recruited thousands.” Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, “which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.” Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused. “People certainly resent these [US] interventions,” Qirbi, the foreign minister and a close Saleh ally, concedes. ...


...The United States “funds the Political Security and the National Security [forces], which spend money traveling here and there, in Sanaa or in the US, with their family. All the tribes get is airstrikes against us.” He adds that counterterrorism “has become like an investment” for the US-backed units. “If they fight seriously, the funds will stop. They prolonged the conflict with Al Qaeda to receive more funds” from the United States.

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