In a group meeting with National Yemen and the other national English-language newspapers in Sana’a, American Ambassador to Yemen Gerald M. Feierstein discussed several issues on the political transition, economic recovery, humanitarian aid, and al-Qaeda threats in the country.
By Fakhri al-Arashi
YOQ. Is it true that Hadi demanded Saleh’s the departure of Salah as condition for extension and is the extension as stated? Is there extension as reports stated or not?
Ambassador: I think that the president has made no secret of the fact that he’s concerned about interference from Ali Abdullah Saleh, but there is no connection between any kind of new term for the president or anything like that with Saleh. The position that we have is that we would like to see the GCC initiative come to its conclusion; it laid out a specific set of steps that would be taken, we think that we are making a good process on completing the steps and at the end of the process off course is an election. And there for we believe the correct way is to have an election the next near, if President had wants to run for new term that would be certainly his right and we will welcome it, but we are not talking about any extension except through a process of election. I hope the election would come on time.
NY Q: You have been known as the strongest person in Yemen leading the change and helping the President Hadi to run the country. How do you respond to such comments made publicly the politicians and normal people in the country?
Ambassador: Well, I thing the first thing and it is something that I have been saying to a lot of people the last few days. The international community was here at a particular moment in 2011, when the country was in a move of political crises, there was a need for dialogue, there was a need for people to try to figure out how to get out of this crisis peacefully. At that time it was difficult for the Yemeni political leaders to come together and negotiate face to face. The international community played an important role with that point in terms of facilitating negation, helping to reach agreements, to find common ground for the country to move forward and I am very proud of the role that several of us got to play an advancing the dialogue and working on what eventually became the GCC initiative. That was excellent and of course we continue to be very involved as facilitators and sponsors of the GCC initiative and trying to ensure that each of the steps is implemented and again we have had a good success I think if you look at the elements of the initiative the election in 2012, the formation of the consensus government, the military and security reorganization, and now the national dialogue, in each of these places, I think we have been able to take the steps that we’re called for, and the initiative. And I’m please that we’ve been supportive of that.
The most important point that have made we helped we facilitated, sometimes we made suggestion we provided technical assistance when that was needed; we provided financial support when that was needed, but every decision that was made was made by the Yemenis never made by foreigners. If people want to say that I or somebody else is behind the scene people like sometimes to fill in the blanks little. But the fact the matter is that from the very beginning until today this process has been made by the Yemenis and decisions have been made by the Yemenis and most of the credit goes to the Yemeni leadership.
NY Q: How do you justify the three statements of drone history in Yemen made by President Hadi, former president and you last month? Why do the three of you appear to correct each other? What is the fact?
Ambassador: I tried to give the answer, the President Hadi made statement, what he said, was that the agreement between the United State and Yemen that allowed for this kind of activity here preceded him, that goes back to the former region. Saleh denied it, and I tried to give views from the US perspective what the correct answer was. But I didn’t try to get involved in it. I didn’t try to answer the question, I asked the question.
NYQ: But when Saleh tries to spread rumors, usually we find you on the second or third day in the Movenpick, saying “Saleh, these aren’t the facts. Here are the facts.”
Ambassador: Well, all I can say is I don’t go out of my way to respond to Ali Abdullah Saleh. If it works out that way and somebody asks me about a comment he’s made and I can provide some information I will do that. Bu t I’m not the fact-checker.
YTQ: Many Yemenis are afraid that the status quo will go on and the elections won’t change anything. Is it fair to say that elections will happen with a balance of powers remaining as they are?
Ambassador: But election is a way for the people to have an opportunity to change the status quo if they want, I think going back a step. One of the things that certainly strike me is that Yemenis when they were constructing the GCC initiative made a smart decision and that was unlike some of the other states in the region: they didn’t go first to elections and then start a process to try to resolve some of the outstanding differences. They decided that they were going to form a structure that would allow them to address some of these issues and then have elections afterwards. I think that because they did that they’ve avoided some of the problems we’ve seen happen elsewhere in the region, where they had an election and then the changes that they promoted lacked legitimacy because they weren’t seen as being inclusive. Here we had the national dialogue that brought in people from all over, and not just from the political parties. It also brought in women, the youth, civil society, the Houthis, Herak, so everybody came into one room, and they have spent the last six months debating the issues, and I think you’ve done a very good job.
A lot of credit is owed to the members of the national dialogue that they have resolved a lot of these issues and even these issues that they’re still working on they’re making progress.
So that decision was made, but at the same time, the signatories to the National Dialogue initiative, along with the sponsors and the facilitators which is the international community basically said to the Yemeni people, “we’re going to do this; we’re going to take two years at which point the normal political activity will stop and we’ll work on these issues for two years. Once we have these agreements we’ll go back to a normal democratic, which his elections.
So I think that was a commitment that we made to the Yemeni people, and that we have an obligation to do our best to fulfill the commitment that we made. Hadi, I think has done a good job as the president, but he was still elected in a non competitive consensus they were divine. The government was not elected, it was appointed by the two sides of the national assembly, I’m not sure when the last national assembly vote was, people have different memories, but it’s been a long time, it’s been maybe ten years since you had a national committee election and that’s too long. So I think that it’s time for the people to have an opportunity to give their views. Whom do they want for their leadership? And therefore we believe that we should maintain the agreement that was reached in 2011 and have the election and we’ll see. Now as for who wins or who loses, that’s up for the people to decide. And it is up to the political parties to put forward their best people to get people’s votes.
YPQ: Regarding the politics of Yemen today: Is former president Saleh an obstacle to the NDC? And how does the US plan on dealing with the Houthis?
Ambassador: Well, I think nothing is an obstacle to the NDC if the delegates don’t let anything be an obstacle. And I think that there were certainly groups, there were certain individuals who did not support the National Dialogue and do not want to see it succeed, and yet again at the end of the process…we can see that almost all the issues have been resolved. I’m pretty optimistic that the last remaining issues will be resolved in the next few days. I think the National Dialogue is going to be a success. At each step along the way, we’ve seen groups and individuals who have tried to complicate the process. Organizing the national consensus government we saw it, the presidential election in 2012, we saw it, military and security reorganization, we saw it. Before the National Dialogue Conference we saw obstacles being presented and efforts being made to complicate the NDC. It went forward, now it’s come to its end; we think successfully. Then we’ll move on to the next steps which are constitutional drafting and then the referendum and elections.
There are forces in the country that don’t see that their interests are served by the success of this political transition but as long as the people support, as long as the political parties support as long as we can keep moving forward those forces don’t have much opportunity or much power to really stop it, and that’s true of Ali Abdullah as it’s true of anyone….
In terms of the Houthis, the answer is what we’ve always said. We believe the Houthis have a legitimate role to play in this society. We are pleased that they have participated in the National Dialogue and what we hear is that there is an agreement in the Saada working group on the issues that pertain to Saada. We hope that this is a reflection of their seriousness in pursuing a political path and being part of the national consensus on the way forward as a unified state. And as far as we are concerned, that’s a positive thing and we would support it. If they don’t, then we’re going to have to see. We obviously have been concerned about their use of violence to push their strategy forward and we’ve said we were concerned about the nature of the Houthis relationship with Iran and with Hezbollah, which is something we’ll obviously continue to watch, but we hope that they will make the right decision.
YOQ: Will US policy of UIV and fighting terrorism continue after you leave, and who will replace you?
Ambassador: Our policy in the terms of the fight against violent extremism isn’t based on my presence here or my absence here. It’s our policy; it is the nature of our cooperation with the government of Yemen; it’s the nature of our effort to defeat these groups and so you know if you look at the speech that President Obama made in May that lays out our strategy going forward, and it won’t change and my presence or absence doesn’t affect that. I hope we have a good solid candidate to replace me and I hope that we see that person confirmed in the next few months and hopefully out here sooner rather than later.
NYQ: How does the US monitor funds to Yemen, especially on the humanitarian side?
Ambassador: It’s a big challenge. Most of our assistance goes through UN agencies, so we give a lot to World Food Program or The Refugee Agency so it wouldn’t necessarily be visible as separate US assistance. It’s a big challenge; there’s a very high level of concern about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. I think over the last few years we have been the largest donor and I hope we can sustain that level of support going forward. But one of the things that we’ve talked about with our colleagues in the government is: if you look at the three key elements of the strategy on Yemen, on the political side we all have reason to be satisfied with the progress of the GCC Initiative and the transition on the security side is still facing challenges but our estimate is the situation is better today than it was a couple years ago. The one area where I feel we haven’t accomplished what would have liked is the economic side. And there’s two components there: one is the humanitarian side—many Yemenis continue to face malnutrition and acute malnutrition—and the other is development program investment and infrastructure, job creation and provision of services like health and education to the Yemeni people. These are huge issues and I feel some disappointment we haven’t been able to do more over the last couple years. But it is something we’re going to have to work on harder, especially as we move forward on the political issues. I hope that the new government would make economical issue a number one priority. I think we’ll have a good opportunity to discuss that in New York at the friends meeting, looking at how donor funds are dispersed but also some reform items that we believe would help make the programs more effective, more efficient, and able to contribute to faster growth.
YTQ: What happens if February comes and there are no elections? What responsibility does the international community hold?
Ambassador: I don’t want to get hung up on a particular date. We want to see the elections next spring, and I think that on the part of the international community we’ll do everything we can to ensure that the infrastructure is there. For example, we’re working very closely with the government, with SCER on photo registration, and I hope that the new voter registration rules will be finished in time for the elections next year. I think we can do other things to help facilitate, get out the message. We help with some of the advertisements on the elections. People have the info they need, things like that. It’s hard, and I hope that first of all the elections are held so that all this becomes a moot point. Then if there’s other issues we can take a look and see how we can address it and make it work. Otherwise, we’re just prematurely pointing fingers.
YPQ: A question on security: will drones or surveillance planes return to the skies over Sanaa?
Ambassador: Our ability to provide surveillance and reconnaissance: you look at where it’s needed, and I think that we were in Sana’a at a particular moment because there was a threat; I don’t think that as a general practice we work here with drones, but it depends on what the circumstance is.
YOQ: In Yemen, Saudis recently support Houthis, believing that they replace Saleh in furthering their interests in the country, unlike Hadi. Is this consistent with your experience?
Ambassador: No, I haven’t seen anything along those lines. I think there’s always a lot of speculation about what the Saudis are thinking, but I don’t have anything on that.
NYQ: In the last few weeks, news from the president’s office says that Hadi is fed up with Saleh’s political game, and has now threatened to leave the country twice. Would Hadi follow through with this?
Ambassador: I don’t expect to see President Hadi leaving.
NYQ: You have been in the country during Yemen’s hard times, one of the only ambassadors to move freely during Yemen’s security crises. How did you stay safe?
Ambassador: Well, I fortunately have a very good security team! I trust them and so far they’re taken good care of me; we still have four more days. But you have to do your job, and we’re here to do a job, and I’ve been fortunate. Yes, there have been threats but 99.9% of the Yemeni people have been wonderfully welcoming and supportive and friendly and I always think about that. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the people who have their own issues.
YPQ: just received a couple aircraft from the US. Are drones to follow? Does Yemen have the capability to operate the equipment? Are drones to follow?
Ambassador: We don’t want to get into specific systems. I think we will find the right answer for any situation, as these two Cessna are the right answer for Yemen right now.
Regarding Americans in Yemen, we have probably the strongest travel warning in the world here in Yemen….And if they are there, we tell them they should leave. Not everybody listens to us. But yes, there is obviously threat to citizens to foreigners Yes there is a threat not just to US citizens but to foreigners in general.
Clearly these guys—al-Qaeda—have decided that one, kidnapping foreigners is a good way to get funding, and two, that they would like to drive division between the international community and Yemen. They think that it’s in their interest not to have foreigners. So they have launched these series of kidnappings against foreigners and trying to extort money out of them and do these drinks. It’s unfortunate.
We hope that by working with the Yemeni security and military forces we will eliminate al-Qaeda’s ability to do that here, and that really is what the objective is. But for the time being, yes, we’re very concerned about the security of US citizens.
The kidnapping isn’t focused just on foreigners; two days ago, there were several Shabwa attacks on local workers. The problem is abducting your soldiers. You are trying to help with military and security forces.
Now it’s a big issue. We were talking about what was happening in Shabwa the other day and it’s a tragedy and there’s no question that it’s not only military; it’s also security officials, it’s also citizens. I thought you were going to mention that a number of private Yemeni citizens have also been kidnapped for ransom and it’s a terrible thing for their families, too. The main point that we always make is that the #1 victims of al-Qaeda in Yemen are Yemenis, and I think that unfortunately people don’t really want to think of it in those terms or want to take the step to address this.
YTQ:What sort of steps is the US taking to return Yemenis who have been cleared from Guantanamo back to Yemen?
Ambassador: Well, I think where we are—and again the President laid out his strategy during his speech in March of what is his objective in closing Guantanamo. I think that there’s recognition on our part that the president’s ability to
There was a meeting in Rome at the end of August that brought together a number of participants, held by an organization that works on some of these issues. At the meeting, we were there, the Saudis were there, the Yemenis of course. We’re trying to be supportive of some sort of rehabilitative program.
There’s going to be another meeting in the next few weeks. We’ve had regular engagement with the government of Yemen; they have an interagency group that they’ve set up that is looking at all of these issues and they’re trying to develop a rehabilitation program…..Of course, one of the things that’s important for us is that the rehabilitation program shouldn’t be aimed only at Guantanamo. It should also be bout individuals who are engaged in these violent extremist groups in Yemen. So that we would also see some effort made to pull some of these people who were operating here away from these groups. We’ll continue to work on it, and we would like to see it move forward, and then we can start looking at individuals who may be appropriate for transfer back to Yemen and back into this program.
Is the US currently funding any programs?
Ambassador: Well, we haven’t gotten to that point yet. I mean there’s not a program there yet that we can be involved in.
YPQ:The US continues to pour money into counterterrorism efforts. Many have said this was an act of desperation. How does this play into US policy that we’re winning the war on terror?
Ambassador: Well on the first point, it was and still is our assessment that al-Qaeda is a weaker organization today than it was one or two years ago. I think that we’ve had some success in reducing the leadership structures of the group. But it’s never been our position that al-Qaeda is defeated or that they don’t continue to have the capability of threatening here or globally. I think that we need to continue to put the pressure on. Part of it is also aimed at enhancing Yemeni capabilities so that we don’t have to rely on the drone program. We would be able to use other ways of going at the problem and Yemenis would be able to take on the challenge more on their own rather than depending on us. That’s the direction we’re pushing in.
In terms of the argument, I‘ve got to say that although we’ve looked, there really is not any objective evidence to support the allegations. People support various anecdotes that Mohamed’s brother got killed and then Mohamed joined al-Qaeda. Well, maybe. Maybe Mohamed did. But that’s not a very wide analysis, and the analysis that we’ve done doesn’t bear out the claim.
YOQ: You said that al-Qaeda is weaker than it was two years ago; does this mean that Saleh wasn’t serious in fighting it if it’s weaker after he’s left?
Ambassador: I think that what happened in 2010 or especially 2011, you saw al-Qaeda being able to take advantage of the political conflict in Sana’a and gain a certain amount of momentum, going into Abyan and taking over Zinjibar and Ja’ar and presenting itself as a group that really had momentum, they were seizing territory, they were creating Islamic emirates. That of course was turned back in 2012 by the Yemeni military and these popular committees. I think that since then they have not again really tried to take on territory. Maybe in small places, but really their ambition is much less now in Yemen. They have not tried seriously to mount an attack in the west for several years now.
There are a number of things we look at that suggest they don’t have the capability they had in 2011. I think that a lot of it has to do with the stronger cooperation and coordination between the US and Yemen. I think that part of it has to do with the efforts of the Yemeni military and security forces that have had some success in the south in eliminating
Some of it has to do with the weakness of Al-Shbab, though we’re not looking at the weakness of al-Shabab in Nairobi.
But also Al Shbab is a weaker organization; some people are interested in going and fighting the jihad in Syria as opposed to coming here. There are a bunch of things going on here, and overall give us reason o believe that it’s not the organization that it was. But having said that, we don’t want to leave the impression that it isn’t still a serious threat—it is. We saw it in early August, we saw it the other day in Shabwa. We’re not going to suggest that they still don’t have some capability to threaten Yemen and the world.
YOQ: Isn’t it that one of Saleh’s game after gaining power?
Ambassador: Well, I’ve heard people say that it’s all Ali Abudllah Saleh, I’ve heard people say it’s Ali Mohsen, I’ve heard people say it’s us. Different people have their own theories. We just think it’s al-Qaeda.
So it’s not the political powers trying to affect the ground? There’s no support there?
This a hard question—could there be some person who is associated with a political leader who also has some relationship with al-Qaeda? Sure, it’s possible but do we see that any political unit is supporting any assistance to al-Qaeda? No.
NYQ: All the international community and powers agreed to save Yemen. Why Yemen? Why not Egypt or Libya?
Ambassador: Because we like you guys. You’re nicer than those guys. [Laughter] I think that in fact the international community was able to come together. The five permanent member states of the UN as well as the GCC and that was an important element in why we were able to work effectively as a team to assist Yemen. I think part of it is that both sides, the unite party and the opposition came to the UN for support, and that made it easier for people to respond positively. I think that the fact that historically Yemen was not an area of competition between the west and the east and therefore there was no sense on the part of the international community that Yemen was kind of “their partner” or “their associate” so there wasn’t conflict or competition among the international community. I think the GCC has played a good role on this]. S o there are a number of different factors, but it definitely is correct that we were able to achieve a very high level of coordination among the internationals so that we were able to really speak with one voice.