As Yemen's Election Brings New President, U.S. Must Refocus its Foreign Aid and Counterterrorism Strategy


Yemen’s election on February 21 confirmed Abed Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, the only candidate, as the new president of Yemen. In backing the Gulf Cooperation Council transition plan, the United States sought a short-term solution to enact regime change. Now the hard work begins and the United States must refocus its efforts in Yemen on long-run results.

With the political crisis of the past year dividing Yemen’s military, the United States saw ushering out Saleh as the quickest route to ending the stalemate, demilitarizing the capital, and freeing the military to return to combating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). With Hadi officially in office and contentious parliamentary elections not scheduled to take place for at least another year, the GCC plan has largely met this near-term goal. However, much in Yemen’s future remains uncertain.

While the GCC plan glossed over the issue of endemic government corruption by negotiating immunity for Saleh and his administration, a Yemeni grassroots movement sometimes called the “parallel revolution” is striving for more systemic reform. Characterized by a series of strikes aiming to dislodge corrupt leaders from state instructions, the movement has acutely impacted sections of the military: Members of the Yemen Air Force are currently on strike and the editor of a newspaper affiliated with Ministry of Defense has been ousted.

Meanwhile, a diverse secessionist movement is gaining momentum in former South Yemen while militants associated with the Houthi movement continue to wield autonomy north of the capital. Members of both groups called for boycotting the election.

If nothing else, post-election reform in Yemen certainly will not prove quick or predictable. The sooner U.S. officials move away from short-term thinking to refocus their efforts on Yemen’s long-term future, the better positioned they will be for further transition ahead.

One area in need of rethinking is development assistance. The U.S. needs to move away from quick-hit “stability” programs to focus on long-run economic development. Given Yemen’s diverse challenges, the United States cannot expect to achieve meaningful gains in stability by overly focusing on programs targeting Yemen’s tribal regions. These development dollars would be best spent laying the groundwork for sustainable economic development with a greater concentration on urban centers.

Long-run rethinking of U.S. counter terror strategy is also needed but solutions are far more difficult to identify. U.S. airstrikes remain the most reliable means of targeting AQAP members in the near term, but overreliance on them is unsustainable if the U.S. wants to maintain a positive relationship with Yemen for years to come. The negative impact of collateral civilian damage and hitting misidentified targets can quickly undermine U.S. foreign assistance and public diplomacy efforts.

As Hadi becomes Yemen’s official president, the country can begin addressing big picture issues. The United States can help by shifting from policies based on expedience to policies based on maximizing the long-run impact of foreign assistance and carefully weighing the long-term consequences of current counter terror practices.

Photo Credit: Sallam