By Adam Levine
With Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreeing to step aside, a key relationship for the United States in its efforts to fight terrorism is now up in the air. But many expert observers believe that America's interests will be served even without Saleh involved.
The country, with its widely ungoverned tribal areas, has allowed for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, to flourish. U.S. officials consider the group to be the most significant al Qaeda threat against the United States now that much of the leadership of al Qaeda in Pakistan has been decimated.
The Yemeni terror group still poses a major threat even with the killing of Yemen-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike along with Samir Khan, the one-time North Carolina resident who used his knowledge of computers to help produce a glossy, Western-style magazine called Inspire that touted the edicts of AQAP.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said after al-Awlaki was killed that AQAP still has the ability to make improvised explosive devices, and it would be only "somewhat more difficult" for the group to find operatives to bring those devices into the United States on airplanes.
Because of that threat, the American approach to Yemen is largely a "narcissistic" one, says former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine. She now teaches at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
"The narcissistic way of looking at Yemen is to say 'I am interested in you only so much as you can help me,'" Bodine explained.
With Saleh stepping down, there is an opportunity to reorient the relationship from a "near mono-thematic concentration on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and start working with Yemenis on fundamental challenges," Bodine said in a phone interview.
However, Saleh's departure does not alleviate the critical issue regarding terror in Yemen, even if a new government proves to be more interested in solving the problem, noted Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"It doesn't solve the incompetence problem in Yemen. The underlying problem that there is no way to make the economy work," Alterman said. "There is no industry, diminishing agriculture and your water is running out. That doesn't change."
There is no denying the counterterrorism relationship is a crucial one. Saleh was a critical part of that, cooperating with the United States and allowing both drones and special forces to operate in the country.
A Pentagon spokesman stressed this week that the United States has preserved that relationship through the unrest and expressed confidence it can continue beyond Saleh.
"Our shared interest with the Yemeni government in fighting terrorism, particularly defeating AQAP, goes beyond specific individuals," Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said Wednesday.
American foreign policy tends to overpersonalize regimes and believe all the fortunes of the relationship "reside in one man," Bodine said. "It is a chronic problem."
She said the counterterrorism cooperation went beyond Saleh.
"Certainly he was the president and he set the tone, but the counterterrorism was supported and rested on the cooperation of other officials," Bodine said.
Saleh's departure could benefit U.S. efforts because Saleh kept Yemen "in something of a state of crisis," Alterman noted.
"Saleh has perfected the art of presiding over a crisis and profiting from it," Alterman said in an interview, noting that under Saleh, AQAP has been able to operate in tribal regions. He said Saleh learned that when the terror issue diminished, U.S. interest in helping the country did too.
But a new government may not be much different than the old one, which could be a boon for the U.S. counterterrorism efforts but not for necessarily for allowing democratic reform, said Reva Bhalla, a Yemen analyst at Stratfor.
"It's a tough battle to push the mantra of democratic transition versus security interests," Bhalla said. "You don't want those investments to go out the window."
"There is no way" that Saleh would have signed the agreement to hand over power "without confidence and assurance that the regime will stay in the family" in some sense, she said.
Critical to that is maintaining a hold on the security apparatus, which the United States has spent millions of dollars to help build in an effort to win over Yemen cooperation.
"There is a mutual interest to maintain that," Bhalla said. She noted that Saleh's security forces have been active as of late in carrying out operations in and around the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
But not all those who remain running the government are necessarily Saleh acolytes, Princeton professor Bodine said.
A very good number in ministerial and security posts "were not necessarily cronies of Saleh." They are tecnhocrats and professionals who were "working for the only game in town" for the 33 years Saleh was in power, Bodine observed.
But Saleh was not alone in the commitment to fight terrorists.
"The desire to go after al Qaeda and others is not something that was solely Saleh and a few people," Bodine said.
For the United States, the desire to fight militants is key as Yemen is becoming "more of a problem, not less of one," Alterman said.
"It's an ungoverned space next to Somalia," he said. "Piracy, terrorism, weapon smuggling, any number of bad things can happen in Yemen."