Change is afoot in Yemen, where a February 10 agreement has divided the southern Gulf state into a six-region federation. The survivability of this arrangement is uncertain, but America’s need to adapt to it is not.
Over the past decade, Washington has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to aid the Yemeni government with counterterrorism and security. On a tactical level, this approach has been successful; with the benefit of American aid, the central government in Sanaa has managed to dilute the operational effectiveness of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the terror franchise’s most potent and deadly offshoots.
But America’s counterterrorism support has relied on a strong central government in Yemen, and has been funneled exclusively through the national capital. Now, as authority is divested and reorganized across the country, the U.S. will need to undergo a rethink in order to prevent al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula from influencing or exploiting the development of new institutions.
Yemen’s reorganization is no surprise. The country has been in transition for years, ever since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and subsequent abdication of power by long-serving president Ali Abdullah Saleh prompted a reconciliation process under a transitional government. Early on, it became clear that to appease the numerous groups, Yemen would grant semi-autonomy to southern Yemen under a federalist system. But disagreements over the details of that plan dragged on for months. Recently, a council appointed by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi agreed to a six-region federation as the basic organizing unit for the Yemeni state, although this arrangement remains hotly contested. Whatever comes next, Yemen’s regions are bound to hold increased authority.
Is Washington ready? For several years now, the U.S. government has leveraged strong connections and relationships with the central government in Yemen’s north to conduct its counterterrorism operations. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's power base, however, is located in southern Yemen, a region that was independent until 1990 and scarred by a civil war against the former Northern Yemen in 1994. Separatist sentiments still run high in these areas, and Northern soldiers have policed the south ever since. Public opinion in the south is anything but unified, but as the south becomes increasingly responsible for governing its own affairs, there is no guarantee it will continue to support the central government’s counterterrorism agenda.
To be sure, some continuity is to be expected. The national Yemeni Special Security Forces and those of the Yemeni Ministry of the Interior will continue to work with the U.S. to implement countrywide, counterinsurgency strategies. But the central government’s ability to coordinate intelligence and operations with regional security or policing forces may be diminished, depending on local politics.
The United States might find itself similarly hamstrung. Much of the security funding for Yemen originates from Section 1206 and Section 1207 of the National Defense Authorization Act. Under the first of these provisions, the Pentagon is allowed – with State Department oversight – to support foreign military forces in counterterrorism operations. It does not, however, permit collaboration with semi-autonomous regions within states. Fortunately, Section 1207, known as the “Global Security Contingency Fund,” allows the State Department to direct Defense Department funds to a wider range of institutions. The new policy for fiscal year 2014 smartly allows the funds to be allocated to regional governments — a move that could prove critical in maintaining pressure on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula as regional actors step into positions of greater localized authority.
Such mechanisms are more
important than ever, providing interim security assistance during Yemen’s
political evolution, and providing resources for the battle against al-Qaida.
The situation on the ground in Yemen is clearly changing. If it hopes to
maintain its pressure on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, America’s approach will need to as well.