Given the coverage of Yemen since the Christmas Day underwear bombing attempt, one could be forgiven for believing that Yemen is suddenly in the fore US security concerns, or that Yemen has just suddenly become unstable. The truth is, however, that Yemen has posed a significant security challenge to the United States for well over a decade—if not longer.
Aside from being the hiding place for the now infamous American-born Imam al-Alawi, Yemen was the sight of one of the earliest US predator strikes after 9/11. Yemen is also where the USS Cole was bombed in 2000.
More troubling, though, is that Yemen is fundamentally unstable. Just twenty years ago Yemen was still two separate states. Shortly after unification in 1990, civil war broke out and Yemen has remained—to greater or lesser extent—at war with itself since.
Despite significant US aid to Yemen over the last decade, the country has only become less stable. Despite covert US action against Al-Qaeda in Yemen, the country has only seen growth of that organization. The government of Yemen is waging a war against Houthi rebels in the north of the country, while Al-Qaeda is camped in the southern part of the country. Saudi Arabia has reportedly bombed Houthi rebel positions inside Yemen and there are unconfirmed reports that Saudi soldiers have crossed the border. Yemen is in a bad way and it’s getting worse.
So, what’s to be done? Clearly, Yemen is not a place to deploy US troops. Putting more US soldiers on the Arabian peninsula would only outrage the Muslim world. Further, it is unclear that US soldiers supporting President Saleh, an autocrat, would actually improve his position (and thereby our security)—to say nothing of American standing and moral authority. Nor is it clear that greater expenditures in foreign aid will improve
What is clear, though, is that instability remains a threat to US national security. Weak governments, unable to control their territory, and vulnerable, impoverished populations, provide ample opportunity for transnational organization to gestate. Al-Qaeda has demonstrated its willingness to take advantage of these opportunities: in Taliban-era Afghanistan, in the tribal region of Pakistan, and in Yemen. It is quite likely that even if the United States manages to oust or severely weaken Al-Qaeda in Yemen, that additional affiliates will grow and strengthen in the other nether-reaches of the planet—a likely environment sits just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen in Somalia. US national security must focus both on confronting Al-Qaeda—through military or law enforcement means, as the situation dictates—and on confronting the ungoverned portions of the Earth. The United States should support those indigenous entities that manage to develop into putative States and governments—entities whose writ and legitimacy are frequently stronger than the recognized governments they stand in contradistinction to. US decision maker must become savvier and more sophisticated; they should not be easily convinced by regional powers that some putative State is really a front for Al-Qaeda when that regional power is pursuing its own ends.