Still, standing on the top of Mount Khanfar, a former militant bastion and, according to soldiers I spoke with, a frequent target of U.S. drone strikes, lording over the city, it was hard to take issue with the scores of joyous soldiers mobbing government dignitaries as they toured the area. But as top military brass admitted, the battle was far from over.
"The battle continues in Shaqra; the battle continues in Shabwa," Yemeni Defense Minister Mohamed Nasser Ali told me as we spoke. The government would announce the fall of the coastal town of Shaqra, the militant's last remaining bastion in Abyan, a few days later. But it was east, to the neighboring province of Shabwa, where many expected the militants to head, taking refuge in the same rugged mountains that are believed to host the bulk of AQAP leadership.
"It's ultimately about sending a message," one Yemeni analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity told me shortly after the battle in Abyan began to heat up earlier this spring, painting the offensive as a result of Hadi's desire to show a decisive break with the past. "And regardless of the long-term effects of the battle in the province, Hadi will manage to send it, even if the message will be written in Yemeni blood rather than ink."
After only a few months, many Yemenis optimistically noted, Hadi had managed to achieve the seemingly impossible, confounding the expectations of those who had dismissed him as an empty suit. But even as some government officials trumpeted al Qaeda's defeat in Abyan, there was little doubt that the group would live to fight another day.
Although the militants -- escaping armed and largely unscathed -- had abandoned the flat, difficult-to-defend terrain of southern Abyan, few doubted their ability to regroup at more secluded hideaways elsewhere. And even with the militants temporarily out of the picture, a return to calm in Abyan seems distant.
Although government officials have hailed the role of the so-called "Popular Committees," groups of armed tribesmen who fought against Ansar al-Sharia on the side of the military, many of the committees' fighters aim openly for the restoration of southern Yemen's independence, while others have been dismissed by some in the governorate as little more than unprincipled mercenaries.
For civilians, any semblance of a return to normalcy seems almost unimaginable. Even before last spring, residents of Abyan were quick to complain of neglect from the central government, and in the wake of the militant's pullout, basic services remain all but absent in much of the province. From what I saw, the destruction of Abyan's economic and social fabric seems near total, and estimates of the financial toll of the past year cross into seven figures.
As cautious optimism fades and if lingering resentments continue to harden, it's not hard to see violence erupting in Abyan yet again -- regardless of al Qaeda's intentions. Pushing the militants out was one thing. Repairing the damage of the past year is quite another.
"Even if we've achieved victory in this battle with weapons," an opposition politician told me upon my return to Sanaa, "we can only win the war through economic progress and real efforts towards development."