Barack Obama’s foreign-policy advisers must be hoping that Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is ready to pull a rabbit out of his mashadda. If Obama is determined to close Guantanamo when he takes office, he’ll have to strike a deal with Saleh over repatriation conditions for dozens of Yemeni men who are currently stuck in diplomatic limbo.
More than 100 Yemenis have been detained at Guantanamo since January 2002, and they now constitute the largest national population group remaining at the camp. Only 14 Yemenis (including the body of one detainee who committed suicide) have been flown home. At least 11 other Yemenis have been officially approved for release, and there are many more who are unlikely ever to face trial.
President Obama could simply put the Yemenis on the next flight home, according to Appeal for Justice’s legal director, David Remes. “If we want them to go home, we’ll have to leave it to Yemen to decide what to do with them when they get there,” says Remes, who represents 16 Yemeni clients in Guantanamo. However, the U.S. government has been reluctant to turn the Yemeni detainees over to a country that seems unable or unwilling to control terrorism within its own borders.
Yemen is a weak, incomplete state on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a sham democracy where the tribes are heavily armed and power is brokered through personal ties and patronage payments. Twenty million Arabs inhabit one of the poorest nations on earth—a country of kickbacks and corruption, with a highly factionalized elite and a head of state who belongs to the longest-serving world-leaders club.
President Saleh has survived three decades at the top by striking deals with tribal proxies, but his divide-and-rule strategy has turned crisis management into a permanent condition. “Saleh is dealing with an on-again, off-again civil war in the north, economic and political unrest in the south, and al-Qaida in between,” says Remes.
Violent jihad has been increasing since 2003, when 26 prominent terrorist suspects escaped from a high-security Yemeni prison by tunnelling their way into the bathroom of a local mosque. Central courts have limited reach, so President Saleh favors surrender-and-release deals, in which terrorist suspects-turned-informers are set free on a promise of good behavior. On Nov. 8, Yemen’s appeal court halved the 10-year jail term of convicted militant Jaber al-Banna, a U.S.-Yemeni citizen who earned a place on the FBI’s “most wanted” list for providing material support to a terrorist organization.
Yemen’s terrorist circus could be described as farcical if the consequences weren’t so tragic. In 1998, four Western tourists were taken hostage by an Islamist group and killed in a bungled rescue raid by Yemeni security forces. In October 2000, 17 U.S. soldiers died in Aden harbor when the USS Cole was bombed during a refueling stop.
As operating conditions become more difficult in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s jihadist networks appear to be growing. Eight Europeans and four Yemeni drivers have been killed in ambushes on tourist convoys during the last 18 months. In September 2008, twin car bombs exploded outside the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, killing six attackers, a Yemeni guard, and 10 bystanders.
Washington is demanding a monitoring system for the Guantanamo returnees and insisting on a rehabilitation plan, according to several U.S. human rights attorneys involved in the Yemeni cases. “From what I understand, the State Department would even agree to pay, but the Yemenis have yet to offer a satisfactory program,” says one attorney. “I’m told that U.S. officials laughed out loud when they saw one page of bullet points, which the Yemenis submitted as an action plan.”
If the United States has been demanding too much and Yemen has been offering too little, how will President Obama break the deadlock? Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the impasse stems from the weak central authority in Yemen and the Bush administration’s narrow focus on security. Obama’s National Security Council should place a higher priority on “whole of government” engagement with fragile states, such as Yemen, that are incubators for organized crime and terrorism.
“The Bush administration had the right insight. The U.S. and the international community are today threatened less by rivalry among great powers (though it is not entirely absent) than by the spill-over consequences of states that lack effective governance structures,” says Patrick, who co-wrote the Index of State Weakness in the Developing World with Obama foreign-policy adviser Susan Rice. “But we now need to recognize that traditional instruments of military power are of limited utility in correcting institutional shortcomings.” Patrick says it’s time to elevate development as a core pillar within the U.S. foreign-policy structure, alongside diplomacy and defense.
World Bank officials and British diplomats have been trying to prod Yemeni ministers along a path of root-and-branch reform for the last few years. Billion-dollar pledges from the British government and Yemen’s Arab neighbors have created an incentive for Yemeni officials to master the acronyms that dominate discourse on international development. But elite corruption has put the brakes on genuine progress, and the Bush administration’s Millennium Challenge program in Yemen was suspended in 2007.
Obama’s new secretary of state may sponsor fresh diplomatic initiatives to kick-start Yemen’s flagging reform efforts, but she or he will struggle to finance any additional cash giveaways until the U.S. economy recovers. In the meantime, Obama needs an immediate solution to the Guantanamo problem.
With a rapidly growing population, falling water tables, and dwindling oil reserves, Yemen is teetering on the brink of failure. State collapse would create an ungoverned space on the Saudi Arabian border. Piracy and smuggling in the Gulf of Aden would escalate—with implications for the security of shipping routes and the transit of oil through the Suez Canal to Europe and North America.
Let’s hope Obama’s foreign-policy advisers have a good contingency plan, because President Saleh is unlikely to conjure a solution off the top of his head.