Yemen: Capacity, Collapse, and Doughnuts

Yemen: Capacity, Collapse, and Doughnuts

by Todd Dahmann

“Capacity building” is a buzzword that has come to mean almost nothing in the U.S. military-industrial complex. It can be loosely defined as trying to make partner nations “good enough” so that U.S. blood, treasure, and resources do not have to be fully committed to a foreign country for an indefinite period of time. Unfortunately, capacity building usually has a nebulously defined end state and an obscure means by which to benchmark it. An emphasis on “capacity building,” along with “defense of the homeland” and other vague concepts, has robbed U.S. policymakers of real discussion of sound strategy development and implementation in failed states.

Sana’a is a testing ground for U.S. capacity building experimentation. To be fair, making Yemen “good enough” was never going to be easy. Even before the recent Houthi revolt, Yemen’s list of problems was challenging to the whole-of-government approach: illegal African immigration, drying aquifers leave the country waterless by 2020, khat addiction, al-Qaeda safe havens, child marriage, malnutrition, constant tribal conflict, and a regime that refused to give up power. For an aid worker, Sana’a has no lack of issues to tackle.

U.S. policy efforts in Yemen have always been hard to focus, but the Arab Spring has only made it worse. When a coup occurs, as it did for former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in April of 2011, the U.S. embassy is cleared of non-essential personnel. Military aid, which during times of minimal turmoil can take upwards of three years from request to being in the end-user’s hands, is turned off indefinitely. If you are a part of the State Department or U.S. Agency for International Development, you are relegated to telephone democracy because few meetings are considered “essential” enough for anyone but the ambassador to leave the compound.

Yemen will remain a hotbed for conflict for the foreseeable future. Because of the deteriorating security situation in Sana’a, most Western embassies have closed. The barebones American staff is currently conducting policy triage at the Yemen Affairs Unit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Being one country away from the action is less than ideal, but perhaps now, while the embassy is in exile, is the perfect time to look at this complex problem with a fresh set of eyes. Fortuitously, Somalia offers a recent example of capacity building amid collapse.

Somalia is a country similar to Yemen in many respects. Both societies revolve around a clan or tribal structure, have been infiltrated by groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, have weak central governments, and have been deemed a “failed state” by the Fund for Peace. Both were not so threatening to the American homeland as to require direct military intervention, but still too dangerous to ignore.

The silver lining concluded from several studies, however, is that when Somalia was without a central government, it actuallyscored higher on 14 of 18 key development indicators, such as life expectancy and infant mortality. Without a corrupt government prevailing over Somali lives, Xeer, Somalian customary tribal law, provided the stability for economic growth. Under clan leadership taxes were considerably lower, trade restrictions were relaxed, and extreme poverty plummeted. Even on the security front, criminal behavior was atoned for by the clans, which would pay compensation for gross wrongdoing of individual members. Necessity is the mother of invention, and this is never truer than in failed states.

Americans in Sana’a in recent years caught glimpses of Yemeni solutions to Yemeni problems. When brownouts occurred, people cooked on their roofs over coals. When there was a traffic accident, the eldest tribesman on the street determined who was at fault. When there was no precedent for delicious pastries in the city, a Lebanese entrepreneur who used to own a Dunkin Donuts in the U.S. opened a House of Donuts catering to foreign tastes.

So what can be done when we aren’t in Sana’a?

First, the U.S. has to maintain an even-handed approach in dealing with Saudi-Yemeni relations. The Saudi-led bombing campaign against the Houthis within Yemen is a positive sign for growing regional autonomy and less demand for direct U.S. assistance. However, the Gulf Cooperation Council will eventually have to address the haphazard bombing that has killed over4,500 Yemeni civilians. When it does, the U.S. must listen to both sides equally so as to not undermine its authority and enable speedy restitution for all parties; something that might be easier done from Jeddah.

Second, let market systems that have sprung from state failure continue to develop. Westerners have a tendency to inject massive one-off installments of aid into a foreign economy, creating artificial floors that never stabilize. Small, gradated injections of assistance for government institutions are needed, but leave the private sector alone. We need more Houses of Donuts in failed states.

Lastly, the U.S. must find new incentives other than military aid for Yemen. Yemen’s Ministry of Defense has been rewarded handsomely in military equipment for fighting al-Qaeda, and because of that there is less incentive to completely eradicate the group. This type of military assistance has been complicit in incentivizing counterterrorism funding that actually tolerates low levels of terrorism. The military cannot be the only element of national power in the counterterrorism toolkit. The hand of diplomacy must also be extended for meaningful conversations involving the Houthis to develop real alternatives to fighting. Three years ago, the U.S. asked Yemeni officials to allow the Houthis to be invited to the National Dialogue; we would do well to take our own advice now.

Image Courtesy of the Author

About the Author

Major Todd Dahmann is a Master of Arts candidate at the Fletcher School. He was the Director of Operations at the Special Operations Command Central- Forward Yemen in 2012 when the American embassy was attacked during the post-Benghazi outbreaks across the Middle East. Upon graduation in May, he will return as an Army Attaché to the Yemen Assistance Unit in Jeddah.

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