So Long, Saleh

Let's be honest: We don't need the Yemeni president to fight al Qaeda.

As the news cameras of the world pan from Tunis to Cairo to Amman, TV anchors breathlessly speculate where the next democracy movement might take off in the Arab world. But the enthusiasm invariably turns to unease when the images jump to footage of chanting, sign-waving demonstrators in Sanaa, capital of the remote country of Yemen. While Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia's Islamist opposition were sidelined local groups, mostly useful as foils to convince the West to continue to send military aid, in Yemen the equation is different: Al Qaeda's most active branch is located there. As a result, few in the West have much enthusiasm for democracy in Sanaa, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his security services have ruled northern Yemen since 1978 and all of Yemen since 1990.

Saleh has made a career out of arguing that he alone can govern a challenging country like Yemen, combat the country's surging branch of al Qaeda, and prevent the place from exploding. In interviews, Saleh uses a metaphor for his job that invariably beguiles Western interviewers: Governing Yemen is "like dancing on the heads of snakes." And the West has bought the notion that Saleh is its ideal snake-dancer -- especially since al Qaeda's Yemen branch began stepping up attacks against the West, including a late 2009 attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner. Writing in the New York Times on Feb. 5, for example, journalist Victoria Clark made the case for Saleh's competency -- in contrast to Yemen's pro-democracy demonstrators: "Mr. Saleh continues to excel at the business of ruling Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, a task which he has often unflatteringly likened to 'dancing on the heads of snakes.'" (Clark is the author of a book on Yemen titled, as you might guess, Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes.)

When it comes to Saleh and his regime, however, Clark -- like many Western observers -- confuses "ruling" with "staying in power." Saleh may be maintaining his own presidency, but he has done little to maintain the well-being of his country, which is collapsing. Saleh has taken the most fertile country in the Arab world -- one that should have had enough oil to pay for decades of economic development -- and turned it into a near desert with personal health statistics worse than in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Saleh and his military-based regime are steering the country into a demographic and political minefield, and it's already far beyond their ken to steer out of it. An overnight transition to democracy may not be the answer; but the continued Saleh rule is the opposite of a solution to Yemen's many problems and only makes it more likely that crises -- security-related, economic, political, or all three -- will strike in the future.

The most immediate problem for Saleh is money. Oil exports, which account for more than 60 percent of government revenues, are forecast by the World Bank to run out in as few as six years. Government revenue from oil has already fallen by about half since 2008, and Western diplomats report Yemeni officials slashing all but non-security items in the budget.

Saleh depends on patronage payments and favors to the country's elites to stay in power. And he has no qualms about totally draining the country's resources to do so, as noted in a 2006 USAID corruption study, which finds, among other things, that only 40 percent of tax revenues ever reach the country's treasury. Social spending takes a hit too: Yemen spends the least on public health of any government in the Middle East, and half of even that meager amount is stolen or otherwise wasted, the World Health Organization estimates.

The government's lack of interest in its people is reflected in some of the worst malnutrition and child mortality statistics in the world. Forty percent of the country's people live below the poverty line, meaning that they can't afford to stay fed. Half of the country's children are stunted from malnutrition. More than in any country I've visited, Yemen's endemic hunger makes it easy to tell the haves from the have-nots: Saleh's top men tend to be burly and barrel-chested, while the Yemeni men I met in the streets of Sanaa overwhelmingly seemed to be my height or shorter (I'm 5 foot, 3 inches tall).

The result of the tough conditions is that Yemenis have resorted to an old survival strategy: having lots of babies. Lots and lots of babies. Already, about three-fourths of the country's people are under 30, according to figures compiled by the U.N. Development Program and the Middle East Youth Initiative, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and the Dubai School of Government. (The Middle East and North Africa currently have the highest percentage of people under 30 in the world; Yemen's rate is even higher than the regional averages.) Even as the youth boom has peaked in most of the region, it's still surging in Yemen. Within about the next 20 years, Yemen's overall population of 23 million is slated to double, according to the U.N. Development Program, and the percentage of young people is slated to grow, according to the U.S.-based nonprofit Population Reference Bureau.

At a time when so many workers will be entering the job market, employment will be scarce. Because Yemen's revenues have gone toward enriching the elite rather than developing the country, at least 90 percent of jobs are in agriculture and herding. But because the government was never interested in the mundane chores of governing, the unregulated drilling of water wells for the highly profitable drug khat, a mildly buzz-inducing leaf that is chewed, has surged. As a result, Yemen is predicted to run out of water in as few as 20 years. Experts warn that this potent mixture will provoke, at a minimum, a food and employment crisis.

Ever shortsighted, however, Saleh has just kept on spending. After protests broke out in Yemen over the last several weeks, the president responded by promising to cut taxes, increase subsidies, and increase salaries. All will only worsen the government's economic crisis. Saleh has already had the presses at the country's central banks churn out newly printed money to keep the government afloat.

But then, Saleh always has billed his strong suit as providing security, not providing public services. And the United States sees its overriding concern in Yemen as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, not infant mortality rates. Formed by the 2009 union of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al Qaeda, the Yemen-based group has since proved the most aggressive branch of the terrorist network in the world. It has attacked Yemen's own security forces and recruited volunteers for repeated attempts on targets of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and others.

Even with al Qaeda in Yemen, however, Saleh and his regime have created the problem, rather than controlled it.

Unlike most Arab governments, Saleh's government welcomed back al Qaeda fighters and other returning jihadists from the Afghan war against the Soviets. Saleh allowed al Qaeda fighters to make their homes in Yemen in what Gregory Johnsen, an expert on al Qaeda in Yemen, calls a "tacit non-aggression pact": Al Qaeda members and leaders could stay in Yemen as long as they didn't attack Yemeni targets, a deal that stuck until the last decade. Saleh's security forces also recruited members of the terrorist group and other jihadists for military campaigns against both northern and southern dissidents in Yemen. He teased U.S. diplomats as late as 2007 with accounts of his latest personal conversations with Jamal al-Badawi, the architect of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

After al Qaeda fighters in Yemen concocted a near-successful plot to blow up a U.S. passenger jet in December 2009, Barack Obama's administration tried to pressure Saleh into cracking down. Saleh's military has since staged splashy raids on a couple of strongholds of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Saleh's government has accepted a doubling of U.S. aid in the name of fighting al Qaeda. But the regime has failed to kill or capture a single al Qaeda leader in the last two years. And WikiLeaked diplomatic cables recount U.S. diplomats sputtering protests after Saleh apparently diverted U.S. military aid intended for the fight against al Qaeda toward his domestic campaign against northern rebels, who have no connection to the terrorist group.

If anything, al Qaeda's surge in Yemen has been a boon for Saleh, bringing in billions of dollars in international aid -- just as oil revenues are running out. Saleh's administration has shown every intention of milking U.S. security worries over al Qaeda for all they are worth. His regime has been quick to amplify Western concerns that any popular challenge to his regime might provide an opening for al Qaeda. In a Feb. 8 interview about the protests in Yemen, CNN asked Yemen Prime Minister Ali Mujawar: "Is there a level of concern here that the more political turmoil there is, the more that a group like al Qaeda could benefit from that?"

"Absolutely," the prime minister answered. "Everything is possible. Honestly, everything is possible."

Saleh has long held power by keeping Yemenis on edge, by keeping allies and rivals uncertain, and by impressing his supporters with the dangers he is keeping at bay. He's doing the same now with the United States and al Qaeda. But it's hard to imagine a country where it's more vital that the United States move to stave off chaos now, by pushing for the kind of broad-based, accountable, and representative political system that would provide true stability.

It would be wise to start right now. Regardless of claims of snake-dancing prowess, Saleh isn't the only man who can govern Yemen, and he's far from the best. The country has technocrats and tribal and business leaders who could prove viable candidates for democratic competition. The United States could condition aid to actual political opening, so that civil and political participation, now co-opted by Saleh's patronage systems, bring forward Yemen's more capable leaders to face the troubles ahead. Because the only certainty about Saleh is that he'll bring Yemen even more.



Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Not that anyone's been watching, but Afghanistan's not getting any better. You'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise, though, if you listened to what Obama and Petraeus are saying.

Over the past two weeks, as the world's attention has been focused on pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt, the tale of woe emanating from Afghanistan has only grown worse. As if right on cue, President Hamid Karzai announced at the recent security conference in Munich that provincial reconstruction teams -- a key element of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy -- are undermining his governing authority and should be winded down by 2014.

But this latest Karzai salvo is the mere tip of the iceberg. Although Gen. David Petraeus and other administration officials have tried to spin recent military gains as a reason for optimism, by President Barack Obama's own criteria for success, the United States is failing badly in Afghanistan.

Back in December 2009, when Obama announced his plans for escalation in Afghanistan, he identified three key elements of the mission: militarily breaking the Taliban's momentum and increasing Afghanistan's capacity to secure itself independently; helping the Afghan government take advantage of improved security to improve governance; and finally, forging a strong partnership between the United States and Pakistan.

On nearly all these fronts the U.S. mission is showing very little progress. The military repeatedly claims it is regaining the momentum from Taliban insurgents. And though it appears the Taliban have been weakened by an uptick in U.S. military engagement, the facts also suggest a more complicated reality. According to the well-respected Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), 2010 was the most violent year of the war. The organization claims the evidence is "indisputable" that security conditions in the country are worsening. Only four provinces, according to ANSO are considered to have "low insecurity," and across Afghanistan civilian casualties are up -- as is U.S. and NATO loss of life. Indeed, there were more than 1,430 insurgent incidents in January 2011, an 80 percent increase over the same period last year.

But even if one accepts Petraeus's claims that America has "got our teeth in the enemy's jugular now," the rest of the story is more uniformly negative. Improvements in Afghanistan's security forces are sketchy at best. A new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction describes a devastating tale of "poor planning" and weak management that is undermining ambitious U.S. training goals for Afghan security forces. Training of the Afghan police isn't much better. A recent survey of police mentoring in Afghanistan concluded that "corruption among the Afghan police was effectively universal," and even by NATO's own data, attrition rates for the Afghan police, though improved, are still above 50 percent.

How about the aforementioned Hamid Karzai? Here again the story is not good. Karzai finally begrudgingly agreed last month to seat the newly elected Afghan parliament -- four months after a fraud-scarred election. But he did so only after "intense pressure" from the international community. Hopes that Karzai would move "in a new direction," as Obama said at West Point, have not materialized -- and economic and political corruption, as well as poor governance, remains a fundamental part of life in Afghanistan. With Karzai's government showing such little improvement, relations between Kabul and the U.S. government have become increasingly frayed.

Across the border in Pakistan, things aren't much better. The United States has just this week suspended all high-level dialogue with Pakistan over the continued detainment of an U.S. diplomat, Raymond Davis, who is being held in violation of his diplomatic immunity by Pakistani authorities. It's indicative of the cloud of suspicion that continues to darken U.S.-Pakistan relations.

Indeed, last month there were reports that Washington plans to offer Islamabad a new set of inducements to remove the Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. But nine years of enticements from the Obama and Bush administrations have failed to convince Islamabad to abandon the Taliban as a strategic ally -- and there is little reason to believe that a new offering of American baubles and assurances will soften Pakistani intransigence.

These tales of unmet strategic objectives represent a fundamental failure of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Yet this has not stopped U.S. policymakers from continuing to make grandiose claims of progress.

In Obama's recent State of the Union address, he said that the fight is being "taken" to the enemy, words that dovetailed with those of his commanding general in Afghanistan, whose recent assessment to troops claimed the mission in Afghanistan is making "impressive progress" and has inflicted "enormous losses" on Taliban fighters.

The statements by Obama and Petraeus are now typical fare from the U.S. government: They offer glowing optimism about recent military gains, but make no mention of the larger strategic obstacles that imperil success in Afghanistan.

However, without tangible improvement in creating a capable and effective Afghan security force; without a competent and legitimate central government able to provide good governance to its people; without a choking-off of the supply of arms and fighters from across the border in Pakistan, the tactical gains being made by U.S. troops cannot be sustained and, quite simply, the war in Afghanistan cannot be won.

All the elements of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan -- political, diplomatic, and military -- must be working if the effort is to be successful, not just the latter. But instead of recognizing these failures and shifting course, there is abiding resistance to any change among policymakers. Proposals to begin the process of political reconciliation with the Taliban are pushed aside because on the ground, after all, the insurgents are back on their heels. So why negotiate?

But this mindset creates a misleading sense of optimism that precludes any serious examination of the current strategy. That myopia was evident in the strategic review released last December by the White House -- a document that, at best, deserves to be called a whitewash.

Long overdue in Afghanistan is a sobering recognition by political and military leaders that the current U.S. and NATO strategy is failing, has little chance of success, and must be reformulated immediately. That is the public discussion that needs to be taking place. But none of that will happen so long as the U.S. president and his military commanders ignore the many signs that America is losing the war in Afghanistan -- choosing instead to focus their public rhetoric solely on rosy assessments of military progress.

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