Barack Obama photo

Remarks by John O. Brennan Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations

August 08, 2012

"A Comprehensive U.S. Approach to Yemen"

[As Prepared for Delivery]

Thank you, Margaret. And thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for the opportunity to discuss our ongoing efforts to help Yemen meet the aspirations of its citizens and to counter the violent extremism that threatens our shared security. I'm pleased to see so many friends, colleagues and partners—inside and outside of government—who share the Obama Administration's commitment to a Yemen that is more secure, peaceful, and just.

When the subject of Yemen comes up, it's often through the prism of the terrorist threat emanating from within its borders. And for good reason. Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is al-Qa'ida's most active affiliate. It has assassinated Yemeni leaders, murdered Yemeni citizens, kidnapped and killed aid workers, targeted American interests, encouraged attacks in the United States, and attempted repeated attacks against U.S. aviation. Likewise, discussion of Yemeni and American counterterrorism efforts tend to focus almost exclusively on the use of one counterterrorism tool in particular—targeted strikes.

At the White House, we've always taken a broader view—both of Yemen's challenges and U.S. policy. Two months ago, however, a number of experts on Yemen wrote an open letter to President Obama arguing that there is the perception that the United States "is singularly focused on AQAP" to the exclusion of Yemen's broader political, economic, and social ills. Among their recommendations—that U.S. officials publicly convey that the United States is making a sustained commitment to Yemen's political transition, economic development, and stability. It's in that spirit that I join you today—both in my official capacity and as someone who has come to know and admire Yemen and its people over the past three decades.

I want to begin with a snapshot of where Yemen is today. Since assuming office, President Hadi and his administration have made progress toward implementing two key elements of the Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement that ended the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh and provided a roadmap for political transition and reform.

As part of a military reorganization, powerful commanders, including some of the former president's family and supporters, have been dismissed or reassigned, and discussions are underway to bring the military under unified, civilian control. And just two days ago, President Hadi took the important step of issuing a decree that reassigns several brigades from under the command of Saleh's son as well as a leading Saleh rival, Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar.

In addition, to organize the National Dialogue, President Hadi has appointed a committee with representatives from political parties, youth groups, women's organizations, the Southern Movement, and Houthi oppositionists in the north—and that committee met for the first time this week.

On the security front, government forces have achieved important gains against AQAP. Today, AQAP's black flag no longer flies over the city centers of Ja'ar, Lawdar, or Zinjibar. As one resident said after AQAP's departure from these areas in June, "It is like seeing darkness being lifted from our lives after a year." Elsewhere in Yemen, checkpoints are being removed. Businesses are reopening. Public services have resumed in major cities, and public servants are getting paid. The energy infrastructure is slowly but surely being restored, including the Ma'rib pipeline, which supplies half of Yemen's domestic oil.

At the same time, Yemen continues to face extraordinary challenges. Violence remains a tragic reality for many Yemenis. We saw this again in last week's clashes at the Ministry of Interior in Sana'a and in the outrageous suicide attack in Ja'ar on Saturday that killed several dozen innocent Yemenis.

Moreover, Yemen remains one of the poorest countries on earth, and conditions have only been compounded by last year's upheaval. Most Yemenis still lack access to basic services—including electricity and functioning water systems. Unemployment is as high as 40 percent. Chronic poverty is now estimated at 54 percent. Ten million people – nearly half of Yemen's population – go to bed hungry every night. One in ten children does not live to the age of five.

President Obama understands that Yemen's challenges are grave and intertwined. He has insisted that our policy emphasize governance and development as much as security and focus on a clear goal—to facilitate a democratic transition while helping Yemen advance political, economic, and security reforms so it can support its citizens and counter AQAP.

You see our comprehensive approach in the numbers. This year alone, U.S. assistance to Yemen is more than $337 million. Over half this money – $178 million – is for political transition, humanitarian assistance and development. Let me repeat that: more than half of the assistance we provide to Yemen is for political transition, humanitarian assistance, and development. In fact, this is the largest amount of civilian assistance the United States has ever provided to Yemen. So any suggestion that our policy toward Yemen is dominated by our security or counterterrorism efforts is simply not true. Today I want to walk through the key pillars of our approach.

First, the United States has been—and will remain—a strong and active supporter of the political transition in Yemen. That's why President Obama called on then-President Saleh to step down shortly after unrest erupted last year. Having consistently advocated for an orderly, peaceful transfer of power—despite claims by some that doing so would jeopardize counterterrorism cooperation—we've worked hard to help sustain the transition, facilitate elections, and promote an inclusive National Dialogue. This past May, President Obama issued an Executive Order authorizing sanctions against those who threaten the transition.

Going forward, we'll continue to push for the timely, effective, and full implementation of the GCC Agreement. During this delicate transition, we call on all Yemenis – especially Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, Hamid al-Ahmar, and Ahmed Ali Saleh– to show that they will put Yemen's national interests ahead of parochial concerns, and abide by the letter and spirit of the GCC Agreement so that Yemen can move toward a more inclusive democracy.

As we support the transition, our comprehensive approach has a second pillar—helping to strengthen governance and the institutions upon which Yemen's long-term progress depends. Despite decades of rule by one man, Yemen has a foundation on which it is building. The country has a tradition of opposition political parties, a vibrant civil society, independent media, and leaders who place the larger national interest above politics, religion, sect, or tribe.

President Hadi is one such leader. This year, I've met with him twice in Yemen and spoken to him numerous times. I've been impressed with his commitment to his nation and his willingness to make difficult decisions to move his country forward, even at great risk to himself. The Yemeni people are very fortunate to have him as their leader.

We are helping strengthen Yemeni government institutions so that they become more responsive, effective, and accountable to the people. We are partnering with ministries to expand essential services, improve efficiency, combat corruption, and enhance transparency. We will support the reform of law enforcement and judicial institutions to strengthen the rule of law.

Beyond government, we're proud to continue our long tradition of helping to strengthen the role of civil society to conduct parliamentary oversight; raise public awareness on electoral reforms and Yemen's transition; empower women; provide leadership and advocacy training; and build the capacity of political parties to engage in peaceful, democratic discourse.

Of course, lasting political and economic progress is impossible so long as half of Yemenis are malnourished and struggling to survive another day. That is why the third pillar of our approach is immediate humanitarian relief. This year, the United States is providing nearly $110 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen, most of it through the UN's Humanitarian Response Plan. This makes the United States the single largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Yemen.

These funds are allowing our UN and NGO partners to provide food and food vouchers, improve sanitation, safe drinking water, and basic health services to help meet other urgent needs. USAID is providing more than $74 million for food security and nutrition programs, enabling UNICEF to rapidly scale up its assistance for starving children. With U.S. support, UNICEF and the World Health Organization completed a large-scale immunization campaign, which may have successfully halted a polio outbreak that began last year.

Yet even with these efforts, so many Yemenis remain in desperate need. We commend the EU for doubling its humanitarian aid to Yemen, and urge other donors to follow suit by contributing more to the UN Humanitarian Response Plan, which is less than 50 percent funded. This will provide critical and life-saving relief to millions of Yemenis.

As we help address immediate humanitarian needs, we're partnering with Yemen in a fourth area—the economic reforms and development necessary for long-term progress. In fact, the $68 million in transition assistance and economic development that we are providing this year includes vital assistance to improve the delivery of basic services, including health, education, and water.

We are helping Yemen address its staggering health gaps by renovating health clinics, providing medical equipment, training midwives and doctors in maternal and child health, and supporting community health education. We are helping to introduce farmers to more productive techniques and provide youth with skills training, job placement, and entrepreneurship programs.

We are helping Yemen rebuild infrastructure and promote micro-finance and small businesses. We are encouraging efforts to stabilize the economy and undertake reforms that will help raise living standards, and promote a more diversified economy. And following Yemen's successes against AQAP in the south, USAID is supporting the Yemeni government's efforts to repair war-torn infrastructure and rehabilitate communities.

For its part, Yemen must have a plan to address unemployment and poverty as well as develop, diversify, and reform its economy – including by combating corruption so that government revenues and donor funds are not diverted to private interests at the expense of the Yemeni people. International donors want to know that their contributions aren't misappropriated and that the projects they fund are part of a comprehensive plan. Providing a vision of where Yemen's leaders plan to take the country will help its friends invest wisely.

This brings me to the final pillar of our comprehensive approach to Yemen—improving security, and combating the threat of AQAP. Put simply, Yemen cannot succeed—politically, economically, socially—so long as the cancerous growth that is AQAP remains. Ultimately, the long-term battle against AQAP in Yemen must be fought and won by Yemenis. To their great credit, President Hadi and his government—including Defense Minister Ali, Chief of Army Staff General Ashwaal, and Interior Minister Qahtan—have made combating AQAP a top priority and have forced AQAP out of their strongholds in southern Yemen.

So long as AQAP seeks to implement its murderous agenda, we will be a close partner with Yemen in meeting this common threat. And just as our approach to Yemen is multi-dimensional, our counterterrorism approach involves many different tools—diplomatic, intelligence, military, homeland security, law enforcement, and justice.

With our Yemeni and international partners, we have put unprecedented pressure on AQAP. Recruits seeking to travel to Yemen have been disrupted. Operatives deployed from Yemen have been detained. Plots have been thwarted. And key AQAP leaders who have targeted U.S. and Yemeni interests have met their demise, including Anwar al-Aulaqi, AQAP's chief of external operations.

Of course, attention has often focused on one counterterrorism tool in particular—targeted strikes, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.

In June, the Obama Administration declassified the fact that in Yemen our joint efforts have resulted in direct action against AQAP operatives and senior leaders.

This spring, I addressed the subject of targeted strikes at length and why such strikes are legal, ethical, wise, and highly effective. Today, I'd simply say that all our CT efforts in Yemen are conducted in concert with the Yemeni government. When direct action is taken, every effort is made to avoid civilian casualties. And contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP. In fact, we see the opposite. Our Yemeni partners are more eager to work with us. Yemeni citizens who have been freed from the hellish grip of AQAP are more eager, not less, to work with the Yemeni government. In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem; they're part of the solution.

Even as we partner against the immediate threat posed by AQAP, we're helping Yemen build its capacity to provide for its own security. We are spearheading the international effort to help reform and restructure Yemen's military into a professional, unified force under civilian control. In fact, of the $159 million in security assistance we are providing to Yemen this year, almost all of it is for training and equipment to build capacity. We are empowering the Yemenis with the tools they need to conduct precise, intelligence-driven operations to locate operatives and disrupt plots and the training they need to ensure counterterrorism operations are conducted lawfully in a manner that respects human rights and makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties.

Finally, I'd note that our approach to Yemen is reinforced by broad support from the international community. Throughout the last year, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the G-10, the Friends of Yemen, the United Nations, and the diplomatic community in Sana'a have come together to push for a peaceful resolution of the crisis and to facilitate a successful transition.

The international community has threatened UN sanctions against those who would undermine the transition, provided humanitarian relief, and offered assistance for the National Dialogue and electoral reform. International partners—including the UK, Germany, China, Russia, India, the EU, and the UAE—have pledged aid. Saudi Arabia offered $3.25 billion, on top of the significant fuel grants it gave Yemen to offset the losses caused by attacks on oil infrastructure. As such, close coordination with our international partners will be critical in the years ahead.

These are the pillars of our comprehensive approach to Yemen: supporting the transition, strengthening governance and institutions, providing humanitarian relief, encouraging economic reform and development, and improving security and combating AQAP. Taken together, our efforts send an unmistakable message to the Yemeni people—the United States is committed to your success. We share the vision that guides so many Yemenis; a Yemen where all of its citizens – Shi'a and Sunni, northerner and southerner, man and woman, rural villager and city dweller, old and young – have a government that is democratic, responsive, and just.

We are under no illusions. Given the tremendous challenges that Yemen continues to face, progress toward such a future will take many years. Yet if we've learned anything in the past two years, it's that we should not underestimate the will of the Yemeni people. Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in front of them, hundreds of thousands of men and women took to the streets and engaged in political and social movements for the first time in their lives—and in so doing helped pave the way for change that just a few years ago would have seemed unimaginable.

That Yemen did not devolve into an all-out civil war is a testament to the courage, determination, and resilience of the Yemeni people. It showed that Yemen's future need not be determined by violence. The people of Yemen have a very long and hard road ahead of them. But they've shown that they are willing to make the journey, even with all the risks it entails. As they go forward in pursuit of the security, prosperity, and dignity they deserve, they will continue to have a partner in the United States of America. Thank you very much.

Barack Obama, Remarks by John O. Brennan Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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