Yemen Strategic Exercise

Written by Frederick Kagan


The United States has not developed a coherent strategic approach toward Yemen despite the presence in that country of an aggressive and entrenched al Qaeda affiliate that has already attempted to conduct attacks on American soil. In spite of the obvious need to formulate a strategy incorporating many policy instruments to address the enormous political, social, economic, and resource challenges in Yemen, both the Bush and Obama Administrations confined their efforts almost entirely to enhancing the counter-terrorism capacity of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and, until May 2010, the use of drone strikes against high-value targets. There have been no indications that that approach was likely to succeed, and now it seems destined to be swept aside as the Arab Spring arrives in Sana’a.

Hadramawt, Yemen. (Photo by the Tenant. Available at Flickr.)


The initial reactions of the Obama administration appear to be natural—but doomed. The Administration is understandably unwilling to involve itself in a collapsing Arab state with a population the size of Iraq’s that has the highest birth-rate in the region and massive drug addiction, whose oil and water resources are projected to dry up within the decade. It seems to have been working quietly and behind-the-scenes, probably with Saudi Arabia and possibly other Gulf States, to manage a reasonably smooth transition of power in which Saleh leaves but the relatives in command of Yemen’s U.S.-supported counter-terrorism forces remain. The likelihood that this approach will succeed is negligible. Not only is Yemen unlikely to see a smooth transition to a stable new regime, but its new leaders are singularly unlikely to see pursuing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on America’s behalf as a high priority for some time. However much we all prefer to wish our Yemen problem away, we cannot.

The Critical Threats Project at AEI has therefore launched the Yemen Strategic Planning Exercise to explore likely scenarios of regime-transition and state-collapse in Yemen and the possible American responses to those scenarios. Because of the rapid evolution of events in Yemen, this exercise will take a different form from previous such undertakings at AEI. The CTP team, led in this effort by Research Analyst and Gulf of Aden Team Lead Katherine Zimmerman, will post estimates for three transition/collapse scenarios as they are completed over the next few weeks. It will then turn to the consideration of American policy options in response to these scenarios.

We seek and welcome input on both topics—the scenario estimates and U.S. policy options. Please address comments, questions, or feedback to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

The current structure of the exercise is below, but changing events in Yemen may cause revisions in scenarios or in the pace, and even structure, of the exercise.



Objective: Evaluate threats to U.S. interests and possible American policy responses in various scenarios following the departure from power of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.


Methods: Exercise conducted in two phases. First, develop a series of intelligence estimates for three possible scenarios. Second, consider American policy options in response to the most likely and most dangerous scenarios.

Phase I:

Questions for scenario 1:

Questions for scenario 2:

Questions for scenario 3:

Questions for all scenarios:



Estimates for scenario 1, updated April 11, 2011

Estimates for scenario 2, forthcoming

Estimates for scenario 3, forthcoming

"Source: Critical Threats Project

Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar in defense and security policy studies at AEI. As the author of the 2007 report Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq, he is one of the intellectual architects of the successful "surge" strategy in Iraq. For a complete list of publications by Frederick Kagan, please visit http://www.aei.org/kagan.

The Critical Threats Project (CTP) provides the public and policymakers with comprehensive, unique, and objective tracking and analysis of the primary national security challenges faced by the United States. CTP is a project of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), a private, nonpartisan, not-for-profit institution that is dedicated to research and education on issues of government, politics, economics, and social welfare based in Washington, D.C.

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