Two weeks ago, the Friends of Yemen—a group of governments and international institutions formed in 2010 to fund and assist Yemen’s development—met in New York on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly. In statement after statement, foreign ministers and their deputies praised Yemen’s president, ‘Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, for guiding his nation through the first phase of the post-revolution transition plan, crafted in mid-2011 by the Gulf Cooperation Council and supported by the UN and USA. Nearly every statement gave President Hadi credit for preserving Yemen’s unity and “averting civil war.”
Meanwhile, back in Yemen, at least 13 people were killed in firefights over several days when adherents of the so-called Huthi movement and Islah party members clashed in ‘Amran Governorate, just north of the capital, Sanʻa. In the two weeks since then, fatal armed clashes have also occurred in the countryside near Sanʻa between tribesmen from Bani Hushaysh and Khawlan al-Tiyal; Islahi militias attacked members of the ruling GPC party in al-Jawf; bombs have exploded in al-Qatn, Hadhramawt; security forces have kidnapped activists in ‘Aden; al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has beheaded alleged spies in Ma’rib and attacked local militia members in Abyan; and unidentified gunmen have carried out assassinations in the capital.
These days it is very hard to tell which outbreaks of violence have explicitly political inflections, or exactly which faction or party is behind a given incident. But it is clear that people all over Yemen—faction leaders and ordinary citizens alike—remain prepared for conflict. That a full-scale civil war of the kind envisioned by observers in late 2011—pitting rival branches of the Yemeni military against one another—hasn’t happened yet is no assurance that war has been averted.
Smaller conflicts did occur both during the 2011 revolution and since: battles between then-President Ali Abdullah Salih’s forces and Hashid tribal fighters in May and June of 2011 laid waste to a huge swath of northern Sanʻa, while firefights between General Ali Muhsin’s 1st Armored Division and Salih’s Central Security Forces and Republican Guard left streets near Sanʻa’s Change Square in ruin. And what should we call President Hadi’s massive offensive against AQAP/Ansar al-Shariʻah in Abyan, if not war?
Likewise, the international community’s lauding of Yemeni “unity” seems somewhat detached from reality. AQAP governed three different towns in southern Yemen for the better part of a year. The Huthis have controlled Sa’dah Governorate and parts of al-Jawf and Hajjah for longer than that (not to mention the fact that the Huthis’ influence in Sanʻa has vastly increased). The central government is unable to prevent saboteurs in Ma’rib from destroying critical electricity infrastructure, again and again; and in Abyan, President Hadi relies on local militias with no love for the state to keep AQAP at bay. The leadership of the Southern Movement (al-Hirak) has publicly pledged itself to the goal of independence for South Arabia and refused to take any part in the National Dialogue process, which has been lauded by the Friends of Yemen, but mocked by most Yemenis. It is hard to know what word best describes the current state of affairs in Yemen, but “unity” is not it.
To put it simply, the country discussed at the Friends of Yemen meeting in New York on September 27 is not the same one 25 million Yemenis wake up to each morning, nor the one most Yemeni politicians are dealing with right now. While in the Imaginary Republic of Yemen, the National Dialogue and military restructuring processes are proceeding apace, and the peaceful transition is well on its way to delivering a fully functional democratic state to the imaginary people, in the real world these processes mainly exist as sticks with which various parties and factions hit each other.
The problem is not that the international community is not engaged; they certainly are, to an extent. U.S. diplomats are advising President Hadi on military affairs and conducting counterterrorism efforts, French and German teams are helping to draft a new constitution, and the Friends of Yemen as a whole have pledged billions of dollars to various stabilization programs. The real problem is that most of this engagement is irrelevant to the reality facing the Yemeni people.
An excerpt from the American deputy secretary of state’s statement illustrates the Friends of Yemen’s perspective. In his statement, Deputy Secretary Burns congratulated President Hadi for his “determined leadership,” which “has enabled Yemen to remain faithful to the process and milestones described in the Gulf Cooperation Council-led political transition initiative.” Burns urged Hadi to “immediately move forward with the National Dialogue, and through it, lay the groundwork for a constitutional review and revision in 2013, subsequent constitutional referendum, and then elections in February 2014.”
This checklist diplomacy is out of touch with messy reality, and is ultimately unproductive. In fact, under the guidance of its “Friends,” Yemen could complete each of the items listed above without changing a single aspect of the situation on the ground.
The military restructuring process offers an example of the weakness of this approach. American officials have heaped praise on President Hadi for issuing a series of decrees replacing and reshuffling command-level officers throughout Yemen’s military and security forces. Perhaps the boldest set of decisions created a new Presidential Protection Force out of units of the Republican Guard and 1st Armored Division.
However, Yemen’s minister of defense noted just a week before the Friends of Yemen meeting that the force was operating at 90% below its intended strength in terms of manpower and materiel (incidentally, the minister of defense has survived seven attempts on his life in less than a year). These military restructuring efforts are generally cited as Hadi’s greatest successes so far, and a sign of his willingness to make tough decisions against entrenched political foes.
But the evidence suggests that congratulations are premature. The president can make all the changes he wants, and check off every goal on the military restructuring checklist; if the resulting forces are all as pitifully unsuccessful as the Presidential Protection units, all of these decrees will have been a waste of time.
What Yemen needs is not a checklist or a roadmap, but real international engagement based on the very real crises impeding progress toward stability and security. Examples from outside the realm of the Friends of Yemen demonstrate that the international community can play a positive role. For instance, UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Jamal ben Omar, has been instrumental (though quietly so) in helping President Hadi remove members of the Salih clan from certain military commands, and UN agencies and foreign NGOs are helping to address Yemen’s devastating humanitarian crises, which underlie so much of the country’s instability.
By spending their energy and funds on a series of decontextualized technical requirements, the Friends of Yemen are missing an opportunity to help Yemenis bring about the real changes the country needs, and abdicating their responsibilities toward the Yemeni people. Instead of fetishizing the doomed National Dialogue, Yemen’s supporters could be engaging with revolutionary activists and facilitating a real, grass-roots discussion of pressing political and social issues.
Instead of pouring billions into a system with insufficient accountability and absorptive capacity, the Friends of Yemen could choose to fund the UN’s humanitarian response plan, which is currently languishing for want of $300 million, while the Friends have pledged 20 times as much for largely superficial efforts. And instead of pressuring President Hadi to focus on their interests and agendas, the Friends could help him negotiate with recalcitrant factions and punish those, like the former president and his supporters, who foment instability and stand in the way of progress.
Despite the danger of war and countless other hardships, Yemen has never had a better opportunity for positive change than it does during this transitional period. The international community should help the Yemeni people and their leaders to seize this opportunity, rather than forcing them to squander it.
*Will Picard is the executive director of the Yemen Peace Project, a US-based organization dedicated to increasing understanding between Yemenis and Americans.