With president gone, Yemen seeks to remake military

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 16, 2012 

SANAA, Yemen — Nearly a month after a referendum-like election formally ended former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's three decades in power, attention is focusing on how to remake the nation's military, which was the backbone of the former president's rule.

Restructuring the military has been a key demand of the anti-government demonstrators who began rallying for Saleh's ouster more than a year ago. They characterized the military as a disorderly cesspool of corruption organized primarily to safeguard Saleh's hold on power rather than to secure Yemen.

The issue has gained greater urgency during the months since, as a number of military leaders, including the powerful Gen. Ali Mohsen, a former Saleh ally, broke with the government. Since then, the Yemeni army has been divided into often combative halves.

Opposition leaders are watching warily as Saleh's replacement, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, takes the first tentative steps to reform an institution in which Saleh's relatives still lead key units.

The deal that set up Saleh's departure from the presidency gave Hadi the responsibility of revamping the military, and he's already made some changes, most notably appointing a new commander in Yemen's southern region, where government forces have battled al Qaida-linked militants for months.

Still, many Yemenis openly question whether Hadi, a longtime Saleh ally with little power base of his own, will be able to assert his authority over the heavily armed military leaders.

Others, including some opposition politicians, have raised the question of foreign interference, citing a widespread rumor that the U.S. government, once a staunch Saleh backer, will be asked to aid the restructuring process.

The French newspaper Le Figaro reported two weeks ago that European nations and the United States had split up responsibilities for assisting Yemen's transition, with the United States drawing the military portfolio. Some top opposition politicians accept that as fact, saying they've heard from well-connected diplomats, though the British ambassador has denied that any such division of responsibility has taken place.

Despite the perception that Hadi is weak, he has some advantages that may help him revamp the military, analysts say.

For one, he's seen as a consensus figure, with support from the international community, Yemen's major political parties and the country's top military leaders. With that kind of backing, resistance to Hadi's efforts — or an effort to overthrow him — almost certainly will be seen as an attack on Yemen itself, drawing a harsh response.

But Hadi must move to establish that he's firmly in control.

"Reform of the military requires certain prerequisites: Chiefly, Hadi needs to assert his authority as commander in chief," said Abdulghani al Iryani, a political analyst who heads the Democratic Awakening Movement, a pro-democracy Yemeni political action committee. "If he does so and prudently deals with the military, he can get them to disengage from the political situation."

And while balancing the competing military and political factions may take time, Hadi must move quickly, analysts said. The nation, which has lived through 12 months of political turmoil, is impatient for results. Leading youth activists and some opposition politicians already have said they'll refuse to engage in political dialogue unless military reform takes place.

The military itself is showing signs of stress. A mutiny has wracked the air force for nearly three months, and there have been demonstrations demanding change among members of other military branches as well.

Even if many Yemenis say they understand the reasoning behind a more gradual transition, they're quick to note that, absent substantive military reform, any changes are likely to be rendered aesthetic at best.

"From the beginning, our focus has been changing the military," said Khaled al Dhubhani, a middle-aged mechanical engineer and politically independent activist. "If the military doesn't change, its hard to imagine that much else will."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Le Monde was the French newspaper that reported that the United States and Europe had divvied up responsibilities for helping Hadi's reform efforts. The paper was Le Figaro.

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