Frederick Kagan and Christopher Harnisch have a useful think piece in the Wall Street Journal today on applying “smart power” in Yemen. Their series of excellent points culminates in the suggestion of Yemen as the venue in which to test a prototype multiagency task force designed to wield all the elements of national power — diplomatic, informational, military, and economic — in the effort to produce stability in Yemen and immunize it against use by al-Qaeda. “Despite years of talk about the need to develop this kind of capability in the State Department or elsewhere in Washington,” they point out, “it does not exist. It must be built now, and quickly.”
Kagan and Harnisch are right that the question of U.S. involvement in Yemen is not whether we will be involved but how. Their case is strong that our effort should be a multiagency one, rather than expanding from its current minimal level on the traditional model of military intervention. But however we organize it, the key to engaging with Yemen is understanding what we are walking into. Yemen’s internal battle is not being fought in a geopolitical vacuum, and our intervention there has the potential to turn very quickly into a proxy confrontation with other regional actors.
Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the most obvious one, along with Iran, which arms the Shia “Houthi” rebels against Yemen’s central government. But an increased level of U.S. effort is likely to draw in other actors, like Somalia’s radical al-Shabaab terror group, which promised last week to send fighters to Yemen in support of the Houthi rebels. This is a legitimate threat; Iran and Eritrea keep al-Shabaab armed, and maritime traffic between Somalia and Yemen is routine and very hard to interdict.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in Yemeni stability, meanwhile, is direct and proprietary. Riyadh is concerned about incursions into its territory, of course, but is equally concerned about Iran — or other outside powers — gaining influence over Yemen. Yemen’s location brings the most significant of suitors to its door: Russia and China are the two top suppliers of arms to the Saleh regime, and at the end of December, both of them capped decades of extensive involvement in Yemen with major financial assistance and cooperation agreements. We are not the only great power proposing to influence events in Yemen with monetary aid and military cooperation; in fact, we’re at the back of the line. Russia was reported a year ago to be planning to re-establish its Cold War–era naval base on Yemen’s Socotra Island and will not remain passive in the face of a U.S. policy adopted on the energetic lines proposed by Kagan and Harnisch.
Yemen is more than a poor, unstable nation that makes a natural hideout for al-Qaeda; it is, due to its location, a geostrategic prize. As the Nigerian airplane bomber demonstrated, we must increase our involvement there. This is an opportunity, not just a regrettable necessity, for both Yemen and us — if we approach it with positive objectives in mind. Succeeding there will inevitably have the effect of sidelining Iran and Russia, and we will need to be prepared for their reactions. We might even be able to achieve a limited partnership with the Russians if we avoid harboring illusions about their objectives. As Kagan and Harnisch suggest, a Yemen intervention looks like a natural fit for a high-level multiagency task force, as opposed to one centered mainly on military or intelligence activities. The “measure of effectiveness” for that task force would be its success in defining U.S. interests proactively rather than reactively, and in preparing us to deal with the interests already being actively asserted by third parties.