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Yemen: More at Stake than Just Funding July 22, 2010

Posted by Rebecca Williams in Analysis.
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Congress is set to authorize the Department of Defense (DoD) to spend up to $75 million to provide equipment and training to Yemen’s counterterrorism forces, housed in the Ministry of the Interior. This is at odds with current policy, which focuses the Pentagon on military-to-military cooperation rather than on military assistance to foreign police.   But in the Yemen case, US lawmakers are trying to support counterterrorism work being handled by the interior ministry and avoid the country’s corrupt and crony-laden defense ministry.

In this tightly defined, specific context, Congress is making the most of a complicated situation.  The risk, however, is that it will create a precedent for exemptions elsewhere. The American firewall between foreign military and police is rooted in a powerful tradition that separates those roles and missions. Mixing military and police roles violates a basic rule of law principle that we espouse in our foreign assistance.

The complication is that many foreign countries have constabulary forces, paramilitary units that fuse the U.S. concepts of military and policing tasks.  In Yemen, paramilitary police forces run the security checkpoints on Yemen’s highways and also conduct surveillance on likely terrorist targets. They do both carrying AK-47s.

Allowing DOD to train and equip the Yemeni Interior Ministry’s Counterterrorism Unit may be the most immediate way to strike against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but there are significant drawbacks to doing so.  If U.S. lawmakers decide to go forward with this legislation, they should do so in full view of all the pros and cons.

The congressional language targets the right group for accomplishing counterterrorism goals, as defined by the United States.  Yemen’s Central Security Forces and the Counterterrorism Unit within it have this mandate, are better capable in dealing with the Al-Qaeda threat in Yemen than the Ministry of Defense, and have demonstrated a greater capacity to absorb and use foreign assistance.

The proposed authority would also provide the kind of equipment needed to professionalize Yemen’s counterterrorism forces and address some identified deficiencies, including training standards that are too low.  These forces also lack needed transport and communications to operate in Yemen’s rugged terrain, complicating counterterrorism operations.

DOD-funded training and equipment could help the Central Security Forces in all of these respects to better combat terrorism. The downside to funding, however, is significant.

Yemen does not have the resources to maintain the helicopters, trucks, and other such equipment that the U.S. plans to provide. Lacking ongoing U.S. aid, this equipment could simply rust out and fall unused on the side of the road.  Long-term assistance to overcome this challenge is limited, moreover, since Congress currently intends to authorize DoD assistance for just one year.

Another risk is that Yemen’s Ministry of Interior has a much broader mandate than just going after Al-Qaeda.  Domestic stability is its assignment, and the Houthi insurgency in the north and the secessionist movements in the South also fall within its purview.   If provided, U.S. helicopters and radios almost certainly will be used in this broader context.  In fact, a January 2010 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report recommended that legislation include enforceable restrictions on US-provided equipment, including better end-use motoring.

No one should be fooled into thinking that this security assistance will eradicate terrorism coming out of Yemen.  No amount of surveillance and reconnaissance systems can fix the fact that the Yemeni people face extreme challenges, including crippling poverty, pervasive unemployment, and huge population growth.

This legislation also is tiptoeing around a larger domestic issue over which federal department should be providing foreign and security assistance. Traditionally, the U.S. government supports foreign militaries and police through programs and initiatives planned and budgeted by the Department of State. Over the last decade, however, DOD’s role in the planning, budgeting, and implementation of foreign and security assistance programs have increased, giving way to concern about the militarization of US foreign policy.  Congress is right to move forward, but sooner or later this broader issue of who’s in charge will need to be addressed.

All this adds up to a daunting set of issues for Congress to consider.  If Congress decides to move forward its must do so with these issues in mind.

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