Blasting Al Qaeda in Yemen may be necessary, but what comes next? American policy, and the new Yemeni president, will need to focus on jobs, water and farming – not just security.
Military solution is not enough for a new Yemen
Ali Abdullah Saleh, the ousted strongman of Yemen, had an old chestnut that he would trot out in response to journalists who asked about his nation's level of cooperation with Washington. "We're not your employees," he would bark, as Newsweek reported in 2010. But the rub was that Mr Saleh's Yemen was not only accepting American and Saudi money, but the regime also gained from the continuing instability.
Yemen today is suffering from decades of Mr Saleh's misrule. The question for Sanaa, and the greater Middle East, is whether the new man at the top, President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, has a different plan for Yemen, instead of just consolidating his clique's power and wealth. If he does, the security solution for Yemen must be followed by the hard work of development.
Mr Hadi does appear to be cutting a different path. This week has seen a series of strikes on Al Qaeda bases in the southern Abyan province. On Sunday, government forces attacked Al Qaeda positions, killing an estimated 30 militants; Yemeni war planes killed another 16 fighters in air strikes on Monday. The offensive makes sense - Yemen cannot be surrendered in parts to obscurantist extremists - but at the same time, this is not a war that will be won by attrition.
Foreign interests, particularly the Americans, seem unable to grasp that Yemen's instability is systemic. In many cases, foreign intervention worsens the situation. There is a difference between the US military trainers sent to assist Yemen's armed forces and the drone attacks that are so often blamed for civilian deaths.
Riyadh has a more nuanced approach to its southern neighbour. The recently exposed plot to bomb a passenger jet, which may have involved Al Qaeda bombmaker Ibrahim Al Asiri, shows the security and intelligence component of its strategy. But Saudi Arabia's considerable funding of key leaders in Yemen also needs to be increasingly directed towards long-term development goals.
For Yemenis, it's worth asking, what comes after the drones stop? So far, no one in Washington, or Sanaa, has been willing to address the seeds of militancy such as unemployment and poverty. Without a strategy to deal with the water and agriculture crisis, and the rapidly diminishing oil reserves, it will matter little who controls Abyan province.
Mr Hadi is a new leader, but he is from an old regime. Only time will tell if he is serving the long-term interests of Yemen, which will take more than a US-funded offensive in the south.