Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a longtime American ally, is still benefiting from US support, despite tenuous calls for him to step down. But tensions are building as calls for his ouster intensify and as Washington’s concerns drift farther from his own.
In a largely secret war, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command are deeply and aggressively involved on the ground in Yemen, as US airstrikes and drone attacks target alleged militants associated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP). They rely heavily on Saleh’s US-trained counter-terrorism units for intelligence on AQAP – a service Saleh is happy to facilitate, for the right price.
But as massive Arab Spring protests continue to successfully delegitimize the regime, tribal elements are engaged in what could escalate to a civil war. And suddenly Saleh is vying for Washington to focus on crushing opposition fighters seeking to topple him, instead of on AQAP.
Indeed, Saleh has complained that the US airstrikes intensify Yemeni resentment towards his regime and his American allies in Washington. So, as political pressure mounts for the US to support Saleh’s resignation, Saleh is increasingly concerned that the war his American allies are conducting in Yemen is undermining his grip on power.
What would otherwise be a recipe for divorce is actually more like paralysis, since Saleh and his entrenched regime elements are valued allies in Washington’s counter-terrorism war in Yemen. If a political opening arises, the Obama administration knows the covert war and consistent bombing will have to cease, and they will lose a Gulf ally central to American military empire.
But the instability is Yemen is largely US-induced. Support for Saleh has led to more state violence, fomenting anti-regime and anti-American hatreds, which then ends up circularly justifying the covert US war there.
For now, dangerous and counterproductive US support for the regime seems like to continue. “Even as the United States delivers blows against AQAP, it risks being drawn into the government’s brutal southern counterinsurgency in a manner that could strengthen the group,” says counter-terrorism specialist Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Saleh government seeks to perpetuate the war in the south because the fighting will force Washington to choose between reform and counter-terrorism, with the latter likely to win out.”
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