Yemen's president warns of a civil war 'worse than Afghanistan'

Yemen's President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi warned in an interview Saturday that his country, still reeling from the popular uprising that ousted his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, risks a descent into a civil war "worse than Afghanistan" should an upcoming months-long national dialogue fail to resolve the Arab Gulf state's deep political and societal rifts.

In the interview, conducted through his translator and arranged and also conducted by top editors and reporters from the Washington Post, Hadi praised what he described as "excellent" counterterrorism cooperation with the United States and confirmed that he personally signs off on all drone strikes conducted by his American ally.

Repeating the public comments he made Friday at Washington's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Hadi, dressed in a blue suit and fingering a set of glass prayer beads, marveled at the precision of drone technology, describing it as "more advanced than the human brain." He said that Yemen and its primary counterterrorism partners -- the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Oman -- were taking steps to avoid past "mistakes," an apparent allusion to airstrikes that in some cases have killed Yemeni civilians.

He described visiting the jointly run center where the drone strikes are conducted and said that one could see the operations unfolding "step by step."

Hadi said that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had reached the "beginning of the end" of its campaign a terror, a surge that saw the ambitious local branch of the global terrorist group take advantage of last year's security vacuum to seize major areas of Abyan and Shabwa provinces.

The Yemeni military recently drove AQAP out of its strongholds in the towns of Jaar and Zinjibar, but thousands of refugees remain in the port city of Aden, many of them living in schools because their homes have been destroyed, Hadi said.

"The first victims of al Qaeda are the Yemenis," he said, noting the security situation's impact on the country's oil and tourism sectors.

He acknowledged that reconstruction efforts were proceeding slowly in the retaken areas, but vowed that al Qaeda would not be allowed to return. Many of the group's foreign fighters had fled to African countries such as Mali and Mauritania, he said, or to the mountains.

Hadi received fresh pledges of roughly $1.5 billion in financial assistance during this week's "Friends of Yemen" meeting in New York, bringing the total promised international funds to nearly $8 billion. But it's not clear how much of that money will be available for reconstruction, or how soon.

Hadi's interview came on the heels of meetings with top U.S. officials, including White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, Vice President Joe Biden, Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, and - briefly -- the president, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy said. He also planned to meet with Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

In the roughly 45-minute interview, Hadi offered few details about how he would confront what he described as a triple crisis facing Yemen -- economic, security, and political -- but seemed especially seized by the national dialogue, set to begin in November, and by the country's endemic employment crisis.

Six hundred thousand Yemeni university graduates have been waiting for a job for 10 years, he said.

The civil war that could result from the dialogue's failure, he warned, would endanger navigation routes in the Gulf of Aden and therefore pose a threat to regional and global security.

He also said that Yemen was facing "three undeclared wars" conducted by al Qaeda, pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and Houthi rebels in the north, and that Iran was supporting these adversaries "indirectly," but did not offer details of that support.


Did candidate Obama call world leaders in 2008?

Friday ushered in a surreal new chapter in the duel between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney over how to approach relations with Israel and Iran's nuclear program, as both candidates hopped on phone calls with Benjamin Netanyahu a day after the Israeli prime minister delivered a fiery U.N. address on red lines for Iran in New York.

During Obama's conversation with Netanyahu (see photo above), the White House announced, "the two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." Romney told reporters that while he and the Israeli leader spoke about red lines in a subsequent chat, they did not delve into the "kind of detail" that "would define precisely where that red line would be."

The bizarre episode raises the question: Is it normal for presidential candidates to insert themselves into global events by dialing up heads of state? In fact, Obama did pretty much the same thing -- multiple times, no less -- as a candidate during the 2008 campaign.

Obama, like Romney, embarked on a foreign trip as a candidate, meeting face-to-face with leaders such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (headline: "Obama Talks Tough About Iran During Visit to Israel"). But he also placed several phone calls.

In January 2008, for example, Obama reached out to the two leaders at the center of a bitterly disputed election in Kenya, his father's homeland. "What I urged was that all the leaders there, regardless of their position on the election, tell their supporters to stand down," Obama explained at the time. The Bush-era State Department, which coordinated the calls with Obama, praised the effort. "Any time you have a person of stature ... who is pushing for a peaceful, political resolution, that's a positive thing," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Then, after hostilities erupted between Georgia and Russia in August 2008, both Obama and Republican challenger John McCain phoned Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, while condemning Russia for violating Georgia's sovereignty. In fact, the candidates called Saakashvili so frequently -- the Georgian leader said he heard from them "pretty often" -- that it became a bit of a contest; when pressed by Fox News, Saakashvili conceded that McCain had called first but that Obama was "very supportive." In September, the prime minister requested a call with Obama to thank him for mentioning Georgia in his convention speech.

The campaign-trail diplomacy didn't stop at phone calls. McCain sent two of his allies in the Senate -- Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) -- to Georgia at the height of the conflict, while Joe Biden, then a leading contender to be Obama's running mate, made the trip himself.

Perhaps that's the lesson: We'll know this is getting out of hand when Romney dispatches campaign surrogates to Jerusalem.

The White House