Yemen’s Military-Security Reform: Seeds of New Conflict?
Yemen’s Military-Security Reform: Seeds of New Conflict?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Conflict in Yemen Is More Than a Proxy War
The Conflict in Yemen Is More Than a Proxy War
Report / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Yemen’s Military-Security Reform: Seeds of New Conflict?

Yemen must take further steps to reform its security forces, or longstanding divisions could well undermine its political transition, which entered into a six-month “national dialogue” on 18 March.

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Executive Summary

Ask virtually any Yemeni from across the political spectrum, and he will protest support for a professional military-security apparatus free from family, tribal, party and sectarian influence. Yet, these public assurances do not mean it is easy – far from it. Military-security restructuring is hugely critical to a successful transition, but it also is hugely difficult, because it directly threatens an array of vested interests. Although President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi has taken important first steps, the harder part lies ahead: undoing a legacy of corruption and politicisation; introducing a coherent administrative and command structure, instilling discipline and unified esprit de corps; and continuing to weaken the old elite’s hold without provoking a backlash. All this must be done as the nation faces a redoubtable array of security challenges, including al-Qaeda attacks; sabotage of critical infrastructure; growing armed tribal presence in major cities; Huthi territorial gains in the North; and increasing violence in the South over the issue of separation.

There is a long way to go. Under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the military-security services were virtually immune from civilian oversight and operated largely outside the law. Loyalties flowed to individual commanders, who hailed mostly from the president’s family or tribe. Then, amid the 2011 uprising, those commanders fractured the military in two, with one group (General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar’s) supporting protesters and the other (Saleh’s family) the regime; today, they remain powerful political players who control significant resources and sizeable slices of the economy. However much they claim to support the transition, there is good reason to suspect they will deploy their still formidable resources to sway or even thwart the national dialogue, which began on 18 March 2013 and is scheduled to last six months.

Military-security reform is, in part, about loosening the grip of the now-bifurcated old regime and, in so doing, opening political space for meaningful and effective change through the national dialogue, the cornerstone of the transition process. Hadi has made some inroads. By ordering a personnel and administrative shake-up and then scrapping two controversial military organisations – the Republican Guard, commanded by Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, and the Firqa, led by Ali Mohsen – he clipped his two rivals’ wings and bolstered his own hand. But dangers lurk: implementation is embryonic and will take time; some of Hadi’s appointments smack of his own brand of partisanship; Mohsen’s and Ahmed Ali’s military fates remain unknown; and, by dealing by far the more serious blows to Saleh’s camp, Hadi might unwittingly have disproportionately strengthened Mohsen’s.

Lasting institutional reform must entail more than reshuffling individual positions. Therein lies a second risk, or shortcoming. To date, Hadi’s changes appear to have been driven chiefly – and understandably – by political expediency and the urgent need to remove controversial commanders from their posts without prompting violent resistance. Other festering issues cannot long be ignored, however, such as professionalising the military-security sector; gradually enforcing non-partisan laws governing hiring, firing, retiring and rotating personnel; integrating tribesmen into the security forces without encouraging factionalism; ensuring civilian oversight and decision-making; and, more broadly, elaborating a national security strategy within which the mandate and size of the various military-security branches make sense.

In a larger sense, the key obstacle to meaningful reform remains the absence of an inclusive political pact. It is hard to see major military-security stakeholders relinquishing hard power or fully accepting change that could leave them vulnerable to domestic rivals in any circumstance; it is near impossible to imagine it when distrust runs so high. There are other, related complications: two major constituencies, the primarily northern-based Huthi movement and southern separatists, share profound scepticism toward a restructuring process from which they have been essentially excluded; they are unlikely to support decisions taken without broad agreement on the parameters of a post-Saleh state.

That is where the national dialogue comes in. Only by closely integrating the process of military-security restructuring within the larger effort to produce an inclusive political consensus – a national pact and new constitution – can the two be successful. The challenge is to generate a virtuous cycle in which restructuring and dialogue proceed in tandem and reinforce one another. It is a tricky dance. International actors can and should lend a hand. But Yemenis carry the heavier burden of getting the sequencing and timing right.

Sanaa/Brussels, 4 April 2013

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