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Letter From Yemen: How to Undermine al-Qaida | Commentary

For many in Congress, Yemen evokes a predominantly negative image, one characterized by al-Qaida. Recent targeting of German and Russian nationals in Sana’a doesn’t help. Preparing for my recent trip there, I was warned about kidnapping. While kidnapping of foreigners is not uncommon, my time in Yemen offers a more positive perspective.

Americans could be very comfortable in Yemen if they don’t burn credit accrued in 2011 among Sana’a’s politicos. The U.S. supported, albeit imperfectly, a Gulf Cooperation Council initiative that helped bring Yemen out of revolution and toward a democratically elected government. Amid anti-American sentiment among revolutionary youth, the U.S. supported a process by which Yemen’s major political and tribal parties came to the table for a national dialogue, setting Yemen on a course for a new constitution and presidential and parliamentary elections.

Yet, as the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights reiterated last year, what is burning America’s credit are indiscriminate drone strikes. Congress’ counterpart in Yemen, that country’s parliament, has consistently condemned the use of drones and has recommended prohibition. The consensus on Sana’a streets is that drones have yielded no positive results and have created more sympathy, not less, for al-Qaida. Now, the subsequent tit-for-tat is spiraling out of control, and April’s massive U.S. drone strike in Yemen, against people who have yet to be identified because “signature” drone strikes don’t require identification, is exemplary of the excessive nature of these killings.

Drone availability has made it easy for Washington to ignore the root causes of conflict in Yemen: lack of justice and rule of law (half of the country lacks basic policing mechanisms), marginalization and lack of political representation, abuse of government authority, and pervasive poverty. One study suggests 75 percent of Yemen’s local conflicts are over water and land. Water is now a national security issue because the country will be out of it within most Yemenis’ lifetime. If America can help address this, we have the potential to prevent violence.

Congressional action to help Yemen politically and economically is, therefore, critical. Their government is broke. And with an unofficial unemployment rate as high as 60 percent, the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy in the Arab world, and with more than half the population living in food insecurity, without clean water or sanitation, Yemen needs help now.

If Congress wants to stabilize Yemen so that al-Qaida’s foothold weakens, a different tack must be taken. What surfaced in my meetings with Yemeni sheikhs and tribal leaders, parliamentarians, government officials, civil society and media is that — in addition to good governance and tackling corruption — a basic development agenda is a must. Congressional pressure on the former and support for the latter would help rebuild trust in the U.S. and reinforce faith in Yemen’s government (weaker now than it was in 2011).

Good governance and development agendas can run concurrently. But America must lead by example when routing out corruption in Yemen. The stories of foreign donors wasting millions on unrealized projects are too common. There’s work to be done among international actors as much as local ones.

A chunk of the local corruption is in the oil and gas sectors (the majority of government revenues) with elites buying energy at the country’s cheaper subsidized rate and selling it on the gray market for at least twice as much. Consequently, a democratization of energy supplies, using renewable energy specifically, would do this country and its people good. Harnessing solar power could undermine existing energy geopolitics (blackouts are common due to affordability, accessibility and political ploys) while building sustainable local economies. Potential is vast: Yemen has one of the world’s highest solar yields.

Yemen needs a lifeline. This country is resilient and hardworking and Congress should seize this opportunity to partner with Yemen as equals. Not in a way that advantages some, but in way that supports a national agenda of good governance that is decentralized yet federalized, with political representation and participation at every level, incorporating traditional models of transitional justice and reconciliation.

This is the necessary prerequisite for preventing further extremism. If Congress is serious about tackling violence in Yemen, no amount of drone strikes will help. The only way forward is the road less traveled, and less funded – that of long-term, sustainable, development-oriented solutions. Yemen deserves nothing less.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.