See a slide show on the turmoil in Yemen
On June 1, the White House dispatched John Brennan, President Barack Obama's counterterrorism aide, to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to discuss options to address the worsening situation in Yemen.
Brennan's mission is welcome: U.S. diplomacy is essential for effective counterterrorism, as was also the case in the aftermath of 9/11, when I was sent as ambassador to Yemen. His challenge will be to bring together forces inside Yemen, regional pressure, and more robust U.S. and international efforts to nudge out President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country in various forms since 1978.
U.S. counterterrorism officials, including Brennan, have rightly described al Qaeda's regional affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the most dangerous node in the group's global network. Since its formation in January 2009, AQAP has sought to find chinks in U.S. defenses through the use of "stealth" terrorists like Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and innovative tactics like last fall's printer bombs on cargo planes.
Those plots were foiled, but largely due to efforts outside Yemen. The unfortunate truth is that, even before the current turmoil, counterterrorism efforts inside Yemen have been largely ineffective. It's not because we don't know how to do the job: From 2001-2004, a broad U.S.-Yemeni strategy linking security to development eliminated al Qaeda's leadership and most of its cadres. Neglect at the end of George W. Bush's administration and poor execution of the Obama administration's reinvigorated strategy allowed AQAP's leadership to reconstitute the organization and operate with relative impunity.
Since the onset of the Yemeni revolution in February, a bad situation has deteriorated rapidly. Focused above all on preserving his power, Saleh has pulled government forces back from the periphery, ceding vast operating space to AQAP in Yemen's remote areas, including Marib, al-Jawf, Shabwa, and Abyan. Yemen's premier counterterrorism unit, the Interior Ministry's Central Security Force, commanded by the president's nephew Yahya, has been dedicated, at least on occasions, to protecting the regime, as has long been the case for the special operation forces under his son Ahmed Saleh.
Whether Saleh has sought to exploit the very real threat of al Qaeda is subject to debate. Some reports suggest that security forces in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, recently acquiesced in the town's takeover by Islamist militants. Saleh may have intended the single public incident of Yemeni-U.S. cooperation since the protests began -- the Predator drone strike that eliminated two midlevel al Qaeda operatives on May 5 -- as evidence of his continued relevance to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. If so, it's not working: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's thinly veiled rebuke to Saleh on May 22 after he reneged on signing a deal orchestrated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Yemeni president's subsequent bitter rejection of outside pressure indicate the old partnership has run its course.
So what now? Is Yemen doomed to chaos and civil war? Although the risks are real and the trends negative, Yemen's current problems do not defy solution. However, a diplomatic strategy to move beyond the current impasse should be broader than the GCC efforts to date. It should focus on both sticks and carrots and coordinate Yemeni, regional, and international efforts.