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Political Unrest In Yemen A Blow To U.S. Counterrorism Efforts

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We turn now to Yemen, where the U.S. has closed down its embassy and evacuated its personnel after a rebel group took over the government last week. The separatist tribal group called the Houthis have galvanized public support in Yemen with a stridently anti-American agenda. Yemen has been a crucial ally for the U.S. in the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based there. To talk more about the implications of these recent events, we're joined by the former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Ambassador.

STEPHEN SECHE: My pleasure, Rachel.

MARTIN: The previous government of Yemen was a close collaborator with the U.S., particularly on the fight against al-Qaida. What kind of blow is this to U.S. foreign policy in the region?

SECHE: I think it's got to be seen as a serious blow, certainly to our cooperation and our counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, in particular against a very lethal franchise of al-Qaida - that is the AQAP group, which already has tried to conduct two attacks against the United States. So what we've lost now is kind of our eyes and ears on the ground. And we have to try to re-create to some extent our ability to liaise directly and personally with people who are in a position to provide some of the important intelligence. Clearly, it's much more difficult when you're doing it from a long distance.

MARTIN: The leader of the Houthis, and ostensibly the new leader of Yemen, has said recently in an interview with The New York Times that he'd like to have normal relationships with the United States. So does that mean the U.S. jumped the gun by closing the embassy?

SECHE: I think we've seen a lot of very encouraging and reasonable rhetoric from the Houthi leadership. I'm not sure we've seen the actions that support that. They come in with a very high-minded rhetoric about reformist intentions and ending corruption. And then what we see is basically they strong-armed their way into government. They dissolved parliament. They impose restrictions on free expression and demonstrations by the public, which is quite unhappy about what they're seeing. So it's fine for them to say they want to have good relations with the U.S. or with Saudi Arabia or with whomever, but I think - let's look and see what they do in the meantime and make sure that their behavior really supports that kind of assertion.

MARTIN: You were the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010. When you were there, did you see signs that the long-standing tribal conflict could erupt in this way?

SECHE: Honestly, Rachel, I am surprised. I didn't have the sense at the time in 2010, even as I left, that the Houthis had this kind of expansionist agenda. It seemed to me then that they wanted to carve out a good niche for themselves in the North and their traditional territory. And they were also moving, at that point, into some other neighboring areas, but it didn't seem to me - and I don't think to most analysts - to be something that would have any national ambitions or a claim to having the range of government. And I think they may have even actually resisted as best they could taking over the government. They - for a long time when they actually controlled the capital, since September, they allowed President Hadi and the cabinet to maintain their positions because I think they saw it was much easier to be controlling the levers of power without actually having the responsibilities of making difficult decisions and having the responsibility for doing the reforms and the things that people expect the government to do for you.

MARTIN: The White House today said that Pentagon personnel are still on the ground in Yemen to carry out counterterrorism efforts. Does that mean that the military relationship in Yemen and the diplomatic one are happening on different tracks? Are they separate?

SECHE: Well, I think that there's usually an involvement by the ambassador, certainly, in both, and that doesn't mean the entire embassy's involved in the counterterrorism track. Now that he has left the country with his staff, it's going to be a more difficult. He'll do it from here, and I presume that's where he's going to end up. But I also think that what we've seen now is a determination on the part of the White House and the administration not to lose the traction we've gained in the fight against al-Qaida. And I hope there are sufficient people involved on the Yemeni side to give us the information we need and the ability to track people as they move about the country and understand what exactly the nature of the threat is as it develops.

MARTIN: Stephen Seche - he was the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010. Thanks so much for talking with us.

SECHE: My pleasure, Rachel. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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