Nabeel Khoury writes: I recall the good old days in Yemen from 2004 to 2007—that is, relatively speaking. I was then the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, which pretty much enjoyed the run of the country, except for the northern region of Saada, which the government of Ali Abdallah Saleh denied us permission to visit due to the then ongoing war there. To be sure, coordination with local authorities were required, but I was able to obtain permission to go hiking in the gorgeous mountain regions around and south of Sanaa. On occasion, I was also able to travel unescorted to remote villages and actually spend the weekend. On one occasion, driving with a British friend in my personal vehicle, we stopped at an odd looking little place just off the road with a sign that said “Youth Sports Club.” On the first floor (literally) all conceivable brands of alcohol; on the second floor, all conceivable types of weapons. The shopkeeper quipped, “If you don’t see it, ask me; I’ll know where to get it for you!”
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) certainly existed then, although it had not yet acquired the name and notoriety that it now enjoys. It was a rare occasion, in those days, that U.S. forces or equipment were needed to directly go after an AQ operative.
So what happened, between 2007 when I left Yemen and 2013? The United States sent back home a few Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, the Iraq war ended and Yemeni foreign fighters returned home, and Osama Ben Laden was killed. Meanwhile the U.S. policy of using drones to track and kill AQAP elements went into full gear.
If we assess U.S. policy in Yemen from a security standpoint first, we would have to conclude that it has certainly not brought more security to the American diplomats in Yemen. Sanaa is now classified as an unaccompanied post, meaning it is too dangerous for diplomats to bring families with them. Further, diplomats who, until recently, tended to live on the economy, in villas and apartment buildings in the middle of downtown Sanaa, were first moved to a well guarded hotel near the Embassy compound in 2011, and consequently into crowded quarters on the compound itself. American diplomats wishing to go outside embassy walls to meet with Yemenis, now have to have heavy security escorts and are discouraged from all but essential meetings impossible to conduct on the compound itself. [Continue reading…]