As a result, Yemen's pro-democracy activists largely blame the U.S. for failing to live up to its rhetoric -- a disillusionment that potentially makes them vulnerable to recruitment by other well-organized forces that are against the existing regime, namely, extremist groups like AQAP and separatist movements. From their perspective, the only real changes in Yemen -- the establishment of a semi-autonomous region by the Houthis and the propagation of sharia law in various cities in southern Yemen by Ansar al-Sharia -- have come through violence. The U.S., meanwhile, has consistently conveyed the message that it is more interested in propping up the Yemeni government than promoting Yemeni democracy. Feierstein criticized a pro-democracy march from Taiz to Sana'a as "provocative" during a Christmas Eve 2011 press conference. Soon afterwards, 13 Yemeni demonstrators were killed by government security forces -- so it's hard to fault many for assuming that the ambassador was preemptively giving a pass to Saleh to target civilians. Some Yemenis were so angry at his remarks that they created an anti-Feierstein Facebook page and demanded his expulsion from the country. (Feierstein never disavowed his statement and the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a did not respond to requests for comment.)
By failing to stand by the democratic values that they espouse, the U.S. has abandoned Yemen's most courageous, and most vulnerable, population: women. Without the vibrant and brave support of women across the country, thousands of whom joined the demonstrators in major cities, President Saleh would likely still be in power. In a country that has seen the continued erosion of individual female liberties over the past few decades, the Arab Spring in Yemen provided women with a voice and a platform to demand their rights as equal human beings. Instead of embracing these amazing individuals, the best examples of real change in the Middle East, the U.S. has chosen instead to ignore them, abrogating its responsibility to provide help to those who need it most and condemning them to a life of repression under AQAP in the South or Saudi-funded salafis in the North.
In contrast, by supporting the youth movement, the U.S. would be more likely to engender goodwill in the electorate, ultimately making it easier for a broad-based, democratically elected government to openly target foreign AQAP members in Yemen. Rather than keeping mum about the well publicized drone program, which has allowed the jihadis in Yemen to manipulate the conversation and report higher levels of civilian casualties (reminiscent of the Pakistani Taliban's successful strategy to demonize the U.S.), Washington could openly negotiate the parameters of U.S. military action on Yemeni soil. There is, of course, some risk in a policy that depends on Yemenis rejecting foreign fighters in their communities, but it is one that would cement a long-term partnership between the two countries.
A true democratic transition, messy and likely to leave an even greater power vacuum, could indeed complicate the CIA's relationship with Yemeni intelligence, a partner it relies on for intelligence to combat AQAP strongholds. Yet the most recent expansion of CIA capabilities compromises its role even further. How will U.S. analysts be able to tell the difference between Yemeni tribes that are plotting against the central government, and AQAP members that are stockpiling weapons (remember, the new framework allows the CIA to target individuals without verifying their identity)? How is the U.S. able to protect itself from taking sides in a civil war when it depends on a self-interested central government for targeting intelligence? It seems the U.S. has not learned anything from its most recent debacle, when U.S.-trained Republican Guards were complicit in targeting civilians in Taiz. (John Brennan, the architect of U.S. counter-terrorism policy and the former CIA station chief in Riyadh, has acknowledged as much, stating that the political turmoil in Yemen had caused U.S.-trained units "to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP.")
In order to mitigate possible fallout, the U.S. would have to develop a broader strategy in Yemen that includes not just a high level counter-terrorism component, but also takes into consideration diplomacy and development goals. Unfortunately, Brennan has outsourced diplomacy and development efforts to Saudi Arabia. On the face of things this might not seem to be such a terrible idea; after all, Saudi Arabia has developed a significant patronage network with the tribes around the country over the past few decades, and is as committed as the U.S. to targeting AQAP (which has been known to target members of the Saudi royal family.) But this is precisely the specious argument that has fueled the growth of the local al-Qaeda franchise and radicalized the Yemeni population. The U.S. has a number of long-term goals in Yemen, all of which are being frustrated by Saudi Arabia's involvement.