Protesters in Yemen, along with key tribal and religious leaders, have spent months in the streets calling for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and for new elections.
The Obama administration and Pentagon officials are expressing fears that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula may take advantage of the current power vacuum to increase its influence. But some Yemen watchers say that while Saleh recovers in a Saudi hospital from wounds suffered during an attack on his palace, the U.S. is missing an opportunity to foster a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
The ongoing turmoil and uncertainty over Yemen's political future has fueled U.S. government concerns that Islamist militants will continue to exploit the power vacuum to expand the areas where they can train, plot and grow. Jihadists with alleged links to al-Qaida have already overrun parts of several towns in the south, including most of the coastal city of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.
"The big worry from my perspective is an ungoverned country that would allow al-Qaida to thrive," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently on PBS' The Charlie Rose Show.
"They have a very clever, very difficult al-Qaida cell there. It's well-led. They're good at what they do. They're very dangerous. They seek international terror; seek and support; executing the kind of operations that have been stopped," he said. "So Yemen is a great worry."
U.S. Policy Too Focused On Security?
The Associated Press reports that the Yemen crisis has prompted the CIA and U.S. Special Forces to refocus attention on the country and accelerate plans to build a secret, remote base in the Persian Gulf region to strike at terror cells in Yemen and possibly elsewhere with unmanned drones.
But some Yemen watchers think the U.S. is too singularly focused on security in the country.
"We have a Saudi policy and we have an al-Qaida policy. We don't really have a Yemen policy," said Sheila Carapico, a Yemen expert who teaches at the American University in Cairo. "I'd like to see us working the civilian side as well as the military and the CIA side."
Carapico calls the jihadist threat exaggerated and worries that the current U.S. policy may only fuel jihadist migration to Yemen and undermine long-term U.S. interests in the country.
"If you're a disgruntled jihadist in Pakistan or Somalia or elsewhere, you really might decide to go to Yemen and their numbers appear, by all accounts, to have increased during the period of the protests," Carapico said. "Most Yemenis have no patience with al-Qaida or with the jihadist fringe. But there is a way of wielding too much American force which can create sympathy where none existed before.
"And we certainly haven't lifted a finger to kind of further a diplomatic, negotiated outcome."
Deference To Saudi Diplomacy
Carapico says the irony is that Yemen's grassroots uprising — which is arguably one of the most broad and diverse among the Arab Spring revolts — risks being undermined by U.S. diplomatic deference to the oil-rich Saudi monarchy and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Neither has a track record of supporting genuine political reform, let alone democratic change. The GCC recently backed the use of Saudi troops to help Bahrain's Sunni monarchy crush an uprising of Shiite citizens calling for greater political freedoms.
The U.S. has supported the Saudi-dominated GCC's proposal for Yemen that would see Saleh step aside in exchange for immunity from prosecution, including for corruption and the bloody crackdown on protesters. So far, the GCC's diplomatic efforts have failed. Saleh and his family snubbed the GCC's offer three times.
"The Saudis don't like to be told 'no' by a client. I think they are tired of Saleh," Carapico said. "But a key unanswered question is, do they really have a favorite candidate among the other top contenders?"
With the crisis dragging on, some now see an opening for more muscular U.S. diplomacy that, so far, has not materialized.
Professor Mark Katz at George Mason University says a good start would be a forceful U.S. call for new free and fair elections in Yemen.
"But we're not doing anything like this," Katz said. "[The U.S. administration] don't seem to have any contact or any plan as to who to work with or even suggesting a plan for a transition."
The U.S. must do more to help solve Yemen's larger political problems, he argues, or risk continuing to play into the Saleh family's worn-out argument about security.
"He has long said, 'You need me or else al-Qaida will be powerful.' Whereas the truth is, in order to weaken al-Qaida, we need to move on from Saleh to someone who would be more acceptable to the Yemeni population," Katz said.
Saleh's return from Saudi Arabia, if it ever happens, would likely spark more violent clashes between Saleh loyalists and members of powerful al-Ahmar family, which heads the Hashid confederation. Caught in the middle are Yemen's pro-democracy demonstrators, some of whom say neither faction represents their aspirations. And those demonstrators have heard little of substance from the West to bolster their risky push for change.
Battle Of The Sons
While Saleh recovers in a Saudi hospital, he has tried to install his sons Ahmed and Khaled in the seats of power. On Monday, tens of thousands took to the streets of the capital, Sanaa, demanding the sons — both military commanders — step aside and leave the country.
But it's not at all clear if the politically ambitious and powerful sons of the late Sheikh Abdullah ibn Husayn al-Ahmar are seen as any more legitimate and acceptable to street protesters than Saleh's largely discredited sons.
Since Abdullah al-Ahmar's death in 2007, his sons Sadeq and Hamid have assumed control of the dominant Hashid tribal confederation. Both have been touted as possible successors to Saleh.
But Carapico of the American University in Cairo is skeptical they can present themselves as champions of change.
"Hamid al-Ahmar the politician talks about democracy and thinks of himself as a leader of the street protests," she said. " But it's clear that the pro-democracy movement does not look to him as a leader or as one with strong democratic or social justice aspirations for the masses of the Yemenis."