The 52% Solution in Yemen

Debate has picked up on what exactly the U.S. strategy in Yemen is all about. John Brennan, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, recently came out to explain the Administration’s policy, which had been accused of focusing narrowly on counterterrorism.

The criticism was especially sharp in a June letter to the president signed by over two dozen foreign policy experts coordinated by the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). They insisted on the need to make it clear to the Yemeni people that the U.S. takes their needs as seriously as it takes its campaign against AQAP. In their words:

. . . removing members of militant groups with targeted strikes is not a sustainable solution and does not address the underlying causes that have propelled such forces to find fertile ground in Yemen . . . The Yemeni people need to know that their country is more than a proxy battleground and that the US long-term commitment to the stability, development, and legitimacy of the country matches the more immediate and urgent commitment to the defeat of AQAP.

The letter went on to insist that the U.S. “clearly articulate” its concern for Yemen’s needs and that it “recalibrate its economic and governance assistance so that it represents a greater proportion of overall assistance compared with military and security assistance.”

This had to be somewhat exasperating for the U.S. State Department. Just two days prior to the letter’s release, USAID Administrator Raj Shah traveled to Yemen, met with Yemeni President Hadi, Foreign Minister al-Qirbi, and announced an additional $53 million in aid to meet the “urgent humanitarian needs” of Yemen. This would raise total non-military assistance to Yemen to over $170 million.

Brennan responded to the argument that the U.S. needed to recalibrate and focused on the numbers. As quoted by an unimpressed Gregory Johnsen, Brennan argued that:

You see our comprehensive approach in the numbers. This year alone, U.S. assistance to Yemen is more than $337 million dollars. Over half this money, $178 million, is for political transition, humanitarian assistance and development. Let me repeat that. More than half of the assistance we provide to Yemen is for political transition, humanitarian assistance, and development. In fact, this is the largest amount of civilian assistance the United States has ever provided to Yemen. So, any suggestion that our policy toward Yemen is dominated by our security and counterterrorism efforts is simply not true.

Johnsen rightly points out that Brennan’s numbers likely do not include the money the U.S. spends on drone strikes and other U.S. military operations in Yemen aside from the $159 million the U.S. provides to the Yemeni military. Adding those numbers to the scale would almost surely tip the counterterrorism vs. non-counterterrorism funding balance.

However, even if the math worked out differently, it’s worth asking what it really means to say that U.S. policy towards Yemen is “dominated” by counterterrorism. Taking Brennan’s argument at face value, what he’s saying is that, so long as more than half of U.S. assistance to Yemen goes to anything other than counterterrorism – in this case the amount is 52% – then there is no basis for the claim that the U.S. is focusing too much on AQAP.

So, should we presume that, if the U.S. government spent 48% of its budget on national defense and counterterrorism, and 52% on all other things, there would be no argument that it had its priorities just a bit mixed up? Probably not. Of course, that comparison is a bit unfair to Brennan and to the Administration. And, yes, it’s easy to criticize them for not having all the answers.

Brennan did note a number of successes in the campaign against AQAP and that the energy infrastructure is “slowly but surely” being restored. He also drew attention to the $110 million in humanitarian assistance, provided through the UN, which is aimed at improving sanitation, nutrition, and providing for other basic needs of the Yemeni people.

Ultimately, we should not get caught up in the numbers game in evaluating U.S. policy towards Yemen. More balance would be great, but balance is not the sole indicator of efficacy. What Americans and Yemenis alike need to know is whether the plan for Yemen is actually working, whether it is working fast enough, or whether perhaps, as Johnsen worries, it is making matters worse.

Of course, it’s hard to know whether we’ll get to where we’re going fast enough. But we do know that the clock is ticking on Yemen’s water crisis and other humanitarian concerns. To that, Brennan suggested, somewhat audaciously, that they need to look into not just providing water to communities, but perhaps building communities along the coast where there was greater access to desalinated water.

That might demand a little more than 52%. Desalination is expensive and energy-intensive. And one can only hope that meeting Yemen’s water challenges won’t require large scale population redistribution.

Whatever the strategy, a clearer picture of Yemen’s progress towards identifiable benchmarks will tell us a lot more about whether the aid numbers are serious and commensurate with the need. If they’re not, we may need to rethink the 52% solution.


Mark Jansson is the Special Projects Director for the Federation of American Scientists and program manager of the International Science Partnership.

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