A Comprehensive Approach to Yemen

On Friday, U.S. officials participated in a meeting of the Friends of Yemen in New York, marking an important occasion to coordinate international support for Yemen. The meeting also provides a good opportunity to discuss the United States’ comprehensive approach to assist Yemen. 

Much of the press attention about U.S. efforts regarding Yemen has focused on efforts to combat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  There is no doubt AQAP is a serious threat to Yemen, the United States, and our allies.  This was vividly demonstrated by the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on December 25, 2009, as well as by AQAP attacks in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In response to this threat, in the past year the Yemeni government has conducted operations that have helped disrupt AQAP’s operations, but AQAP remains dangerous.  AQAP has conducted retaliatory attacks against Yemeni forces, and continues to plot additional attacks against the United States.  The United States strongly supports the Yemeni government’s efforts, and is providing it security assistance to increase its capacity to counter the AQAP threat.  The United States has also designated AQAP and its leaders as terrorists domestically and through the United Nations in order to prevent their travel and restrict their access to the international financial system.  At the same time, the United States and our international partners are strengthening international air travel security in order to prevent future attacks by AQAP or other terrorists.  

However, support for operations against AQAP is only one piece of the United State’s strategy for Yemen.  As many commentators have noted, these efforts alone are insufficient to eliminate AQAP’s threat, because they do not address the environment that allows AQAP to exist. Nor are they sufficient to achieve our broader goal, which President Obama has defined as a unified, stable, democratic and prosperous Yemen.  Indeed, Yemen faces a staggering array of challenges that contribute to instability, including: internal conflicts; growing water scarcity; pervasive poverty; lack of access to education for a population that is growing rapidly; high unemployment with a “youth bulge” (43% of the country’s population is under 14 years of age); inadequate government and health services; corruption; and the approaching economic transition from oil being its primary export to being a net import.  These issues are challenges on their own, but they are also being exploited by AQAP.

Recognizing the seriousness of these challenges, the Obama Administration initiated a review of its Yemen policy in the spring of 2009. The result was a comprehensive strategy to address the root causes of instability, and improve governance and the livelihoods of the Yemeni people. As a result, the United States has greatly expanded its economic and humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people, to approximately $110 million over the past 12 months up from $14.3 million two years before.   This includes funds for:

  • $67 million for the United States Agency for International Devleopment (USAID) to work in partnership with communities to directly address local needs.  This includes health, education, and water projects; mobile health and veterinary clinics; and support for increasing the capacity of local governments to deliver essential services.  (Click here for more detail on USAID’s strategy and programsand their successes)
  •  $42.5 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemenis displaced by the conflict in northern Yemen, as well as to refugees in the south. 
  • more than $2.3 million in grants from the Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative to local Yemeni organizations to support an inclusive democratic process. 

The United States is also working diplomatically to support: economic and governance development and reform; an inclusive and democratic political process, including free and fair parliamentary elections in 2011; the rule of law and the protection of human rights; an open, vibrant civil society and freedom of the press; the delivery of education, health and other essential services, and the continuation of the ceasefire in the north of Yemen. This work has involved not only U.S. Embassy Sana’a, but senior officials from the White House, the Departments of State and Treasury, USAID, and others.  We are being joined in these efforts by Jim McVerry, recently named to fill the Department of State’s newly-created Senior Coordinator for Yemen position, and Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, who will take up his position in the next few days.

Fortunately, we are not alone in prioritizing assistance to Yemen.  We are coordinating both our diplomatic and assistance efforts with our international partners – including countries from the region and abroad, and the Gulf Coordination Council, European Union, United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank.  We are coordinating both our diplomatic and assistance efforts with them.  The Friends of Yemen is a key component of the international community’s efforts.  Launched by Secretary Hillary Clinton and her international counterparts in London in January of this year, the two dozen member countries and international organizations are focusing on assisting Yemen in implementing important reforms to support its development and stability through the efforts of its Working Groups on Economy & Governance and Justice & the Rule of Law.    Friday’s meeting in New York endorsed important Yemeni political, development steps, and anti-corruption steps.  The meeting also recognized the international community’s efforts to improve assistance delivery, support the ceasefire in the north, and steps to improve employment opportunities for Yemenis.

This will not be quick or easy.  Yemen faces difficult challenges, and assistance Yemen will be a sustained project for the international community.  The Yemeni people and the international community are both confronted by real threats from AQAP, and it may take years to decisively defeat it. However, we believe that the future belongs to those who build, not to those who are focused on destruction.  And the United States stands with the people of Yemen as they seek to build a more positive future and reject AQAP’s efforts to kill innocent men, women, and children.  As President Obama recently wrote, “We are also committed to helping Yemen achieve a future that builds upon the extraordinary talents of its people and the richness of its history…I am convinced that the people of Yemen can do more than overcome the threats that they face – they can build a future of greater peace and opportunity for their children.” The United States’ comprehensive approach aims to assist Yemen in realizing that future. 

Aaron W. Jost is the Director for Arabian Peninsula Affairs for the National Security Council at the White House

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