Port of Aden has always been a point of contention throughout Yemen's history. The Romans, Ottomans, Ethiopians, and Persians have all controlled the important port city. In 628 AD, Yemen converted to Islam. Yemen was divided between the Imam run Northern portion and the British controlled Southern portion. Egypt, with Russian support as well as Kind Saud of Saudi Arabia and King Hussein of Jordan clashed within Yemen's territory. In May 1990 Pro-Western Yemen and Marxist Arab Republic united after 300 years of separation. The important part of the union is President Ali Abdullah Saleh became the first and only leader of united Yemen.
Ali Abdullah Saleh was President of North Yemen from 1978-1990 and continues to lead Yemen to this day. Saleh is Shia which provides an interesting dynamic with Yemen's recent military campaign against the Shia rebels in the border region of Saada. Ali Abdullah Saleh would be a great ally against Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) if he was a strong leader. It doesn't take one long to find a myriad of online articles espousing the limitations of Ali Abdullah Saleh's power and willingness to be a champion for peace. It is clear that Ali Abdullah Saleh will do just enough to garner the votes needed to remain in power.
Now lets get to the "so whats" of Yemen's importance on our foreign policy. Yemen's weak central government is beacon for multiple groups. Yemen is home to a Somali refugee population that grows by the day. While there is no open source information proving links between AQAP and al Shabaab that I know of, it does not take much imagination to see the benefit for Al Qadea to use the sea route between Yemen and Somaliland.
There is a large Shia rebel population that is attempting to survive on the boarder of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The government of Yemen has clashed with the Houthis Rebels on and off since 2004 and recently launched offensive operations to wipe out the rebel groups three months ago. Saudi Arabia has launched its own offensive operations to push the Houthis Rebels back inside the Yemeni boarder. It will be no surprise to the readers that Iran is supplying the Shia rebels with arms through the African country of Eritrea. The troubling part to us Americans is, King Saud and Ali Abdullah Saleh seem to have no reservations about launching military operations to squash Shia rebels while AQAP is working to build their network seemingly unchallenged.
Now I know that this is probably not a fair assumption that AQAP is unchallenged but it is widely known that AQAP is largely unchallenged south of Saudi Arabia's boarder. Yemen is #18 on the Failed States Index found at foreignpolicy.com or fundforpeace.org. The conditions are ripe for Al Qaeda. The primary source for income in Yemen is a dwindling oil reserve, water will become a flashpoint in the future, and Yemen continues to fail to provide enough stability to deny AQAP the disenfranchised youth they need to grow.
Yemen was not overly helpful during the USS Cole investigation but after Sept 11, Yemen increased their support to us in our war against Islamic extremism. Yemen is used as a hub for counter terror activities in our persistent watch of the Horn of Africa. I believe this is both a blessing and a curse. We need a launching pad like Yemen for our activities in the Horn even with our footprint in Djibouti. I do not think our footprint in Yemen will be utilized as a launch pad for counter AQAP operations due to Ali Abdullah Saleh's desire to retain his power. The local Yemenis won't loose sleep over attacks against al Shabaab but they will become restless if we turn our attention inside the Yemeni boarder.
What to do with Yemen. I do not know what our State Department focus is right now with Yemen. It is clear to me that we need to aggressively fight the conditions we know AQAP needs to thrive. I think we need to create a dependence on American support for the people and the government of Yemen. Without a well publicized dependence, I don't see how we could conduct CT operations targeting AQAP if the locals don't need American economic support.
Final point; we need to keep an eye on Yemen because its location has strategic importance and both Al Qaeda and Iran have interests in Yemen.