Our $300 Million Failure in Yemen

Two years ago, as Yemen faced an acute humanitarian crisis stemming from an on-going civil war, the United States more than doubled a military assistance package for Yemen, from $67 million to $150 million.  Some parts of the American security establishment wanted even more for Yemen — $1.5 billion. In all, the United States has invested $300 million over the past five years to boost Yemen’s armed forces.

Meanwhile, for lack of funding for an emergency humanitarian appeal, the World Food Program was forced to cut rations for children displaced by conflict.

There was plenty of money to create violence, but not so much for people displaced by it.

The military aid package, though, was to help the United States target al Qaeda. After all, the December 25 2009 underpants bomber received his training in Yemen.  Implicit in this cooperative arrangement with the United States was the understanding that these weapons would be used to target al Qaeda and not President Saleh’s internal political rivals.

Well, we know that Yemeni security forces have already turned their guns on their own people. And today, thanks to this report in the New York Times, we learn that Yemen’s cooperation against al Qaeda has all but ceased.

In the political tumult surrounding Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, many Yemeni troops have abandoned their posts or have been summoned to the capital, Sana, to help support the tottering government, the officials said. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s affiliate, has stepped in to fill this power vacuum, and Yemeni security forces have come under increased attacks in recent weeks.

A small but steadily growing stream of Qaeda fighters and lower-level commanders from other parts of the world, including Pakistan, are making their way to Yemen to join the fight there, although American intelligence officials are divided on whether the political crisis in Yemen is drawing more insurgents than would be traveling there under normal conditions.

So, to recap: A five year, $300 million of American investment in President Saleh’s security forces is yielding the United States no tangible support in the fight against Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, those security forces are shooting their own people.

In a time of budget austerity here in Washington, DC maybe it’s time to take a hard look at these sorts of arrangements, no?