WikiLeaks III: Documents May Alienate Yemen From Its Neighbors

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the third in the series.

The WikiLeaks drop of documents concerning ongoing US operations in Yemen offers a fascinating read. In particular, they shed light on interactions between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and General David Petraeus.

The report doesn’t get off to a particularly exciting start, detailing the haggling between the two men over the details of cooperation between Washington and Sanaa.

Saleh agreed to General Patraeus’ proposal to dedicate USD 45 million of 2010 security assistance funds to help establish and train a YSOF aviation regiment, allowing YSOF to focus on al-Qaeda targets and leaving Sa’ada air operations to the Yemeni Air Force. Without giving much detail, Saleh also requested that the U.S. equip and train three new Republican Guard brigades, totaling 9,000 soldiers. “Equipping these brigades would reflect upon our true partnership,” Saleh said. The General urged Saleh to focus first on the YSOF aviation regiment.

Ho-hum.

But things begin to get interesting shortly thereafter. Discussing airstrikes against al-Qaeda elements in his Yemen, Saleh

praised the December 17 and 24 strikes against AQAP but said that “mistakes were made” in the killing of civilians in Abyan. The General responded that the only civilians killed were the wife and two children of an AQAP operative at the site, prompting Saleh to plunge into a lengthy and confusing aside with Deputy Prime Minister Alimi and Minister of Defense Ali regarding the number of terrorists versus civilians killed in the strike. (Comment: Saleh’s conversation on the civilian casualties suggests he has not been well briefed by his advisors on the strike in Abyan, a site that the ROYG has been unable to access to determine with any certainty the level of collateral damage. End Comment.)

They really get going a paragraph later as Saleh promises to cover up American attacks in Yemen by claiming responsibility for the violence himself, and then laughing about it.

President Obama has approved providing U.S. intelligence in support of ROYG ground operations against AQAP targets, General Petraeus informed Saleh. Saleh reacted coolly, however, to the General’s proposal to place USG personnel inside the area of operations armed with real-time, direct feed intelligence from U.S. ISR platforms overhead. “You cannot enter the operations area and you must stay in the joint operations center,” Saleh responded. Any U.S. casualties in strikes against AQAP would harm future efforts, Saleh asserted. Saleh did not have any objection, however, to General Petraeus’ proposal to move away from the use of cruise missiles and instead have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory, “out of sight,” and engage AQAP targets when actionable intelligence became available. Saleh lamented the use of cruise missiles that are “not very accurate” and welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs instead. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just “lied” by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG.

And that’s only the beginning.

Pointing to the ROYG’s problems in combating rampant drug and arms smuggling, Saleh told General Petraeus that U.S. maritime security assistance was insufficient to cover Yemen’s nearly 2,000 km of coastline. “Why not have Italy, Germany, Holland, Japan, Saudi, and the UAE each provide two patrol boats?” Saleh suggested. The General told Saleh that two fully-equipped 87-foot patrol boats destined for the Yemeni Coast Guard were under construction and would arrive in Yemen within a year. Saleh singled out smuggling from Djibouti as particularly troublesome, claiming that the ROYG had recently intercepted four containers of Djibouti-origin TNT. “Tell (Djiboutian President) Ismail Guelleh that I don’t care if he smuggles whiskey into Yemen — provided it’s good whiskey ) but not drugs or weapons,” Saleh joked. Saleh said that smugglers of all stripes are bribing both Saudi and Yemeni border officials.

The WikiLeaks document will not exactly do wonders for Yemen’s relationship with its regional neighbors. Discussing prospects for multilateral cooperation between its Middle Eastern allies, the United States and the European Union (EU),

Saleh told the General that he welcomed PM Gordon Brown’s announcement of the London conference and said that the cooperation on Yemen between the U.S., EU, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE would be benefitial [sp.]. Qatar should not be involved, however, because “they work with Iran.” In this regard, Saleh also identified Qatar as one of those nations working “against Yemen,” along with Iran, Libya, and Eritrea.

All this provides more evidence in support of Issandr El Amrani’s claim that the WikiLeaks scandal is more significant for the Arab world than it is for us here in the United States.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.