Monday, January 4, 2010
Yemen, the joke is on you ...
By Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst
Marginalised by regional developments and intimidated by Washington's Cold War and Gulf War victories, two Yemenis - so goes the joke - wondered if their country should declare war on the US, force it to occupy Yemen and care for it.
"But what if we won?" wondered one. "We would have to care for America!"
As the US and Britain prepare for covert war on Yemen, and following on their failures in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan, Yemenis might wonder if the joke is becoming a reality.
Over the last few days, London has called for an international conference on Yemen (after it called for another on Afghanistan) under US-British auspices to see how best to support the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, against al-Qaeda.
From fragile to failed
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Neither wars nor drones
One does not have to be a Yemen expert to tell you that further destabilising Yemen along the lines of Pakistan or Somalia is not sound policy, and that Yemen's proximity to the Gulf and the Horn of Africa does not bode well for regional stability.
But that is exactly what will happen if the US/UK "counterterrorism" policy focuses on providing military support to a three-decade-old government that presides over an unstable and decentralised country.
By offering more military training, arms, naval patrolling, intelligence sharing and possibly shared offensive operations, the West might help prolong and sustain an autocratic regime that faces secessionist movements in the North and South.
Mostly, though, it will aggravate a fragile state of Yemen into a failing state.
Even if estimates are exaggerated (Yemen's interior minister in 2002 put the number of guns at 60 million), Yemeni tribes are better armed than any other in the region and will not surrender their weapons quietly to the central government, especially in light of the declared foreign intrusion into their country's affairs.
But the US military presence, like that of al-Qaeda, is hardly new. In the decade since the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000, Washington has sent special forces into the country, took out suspected "terrorists" and shared in various raids against al-Qaeda targets in the country.
But that is ignored by an ever more influential class of pseudo-experts and self-declared "terrorogists" whose careers revolve around advising the US/UK government on how to advance their interests in the Middle East through force.
They reckon Yemen has been the ignored "forgotten front" of the "war on terror" and advise much more of the same security and military solutions.
They disingenuously ignore the decade of covert American military co-operation and security operations in Yemen that utterly failed, and they dangerously advocate raising the stakes in a country that suffers from any number of tribal, religious, regional, cultural and economic tensions and conflicts that only feed into instability and violence.
Dealing with Yemen must begin with understanding why this country can serve as fertile ground for al-Qaeda and recognising the US' role in it (not to mention the old colonial British rule).
Young Yemenis were first radicalised in Afghanistan, where tens of thousands went to fight the Soviets under the auspices of a CIA covert war there. But the end of the Cold War did not mean the end of the "Arab Afghans", who later formed the core of al-Qaeda, whether in Afghanistan or in their homelands.
Thousands who came back to Yemen and joined local radical religious groups looked on with bitterness and betrayal as half a million US soldiers deployed next door in Saudi Arabia in 1991, the birthplace of the prophet.
The fact that the Yemeni government, as well as popular sentiment, opposed US military action against Iraq only empowered the newly formed radical groups.
Furthermore, Gulf regimes disappointed by Yemen's opposition to the war to liberate Kuwait, sent around a million Yemeni expats home, thus exasperating unemployment levels and reducing foreign remittances by a high margin, and in the process, fertilising the ground for extremism.
But the US role in Afghanistan in the 1980s and its role in the Gulf in the 1990s are only two examples of how US military interference has had major political repercussion in Yemen.
US support for Israel and its occupation of Arab Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian lands, and Washington's intervention in neighbouring Somalia have also led to direct and indirect hostility towards the US.
A soldier and savvy political operator, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was not exactly innocent or idle as international and regional events affected his country.
Although Saleh has made serious attempts to strengthen the state's unity, economy and institutions since taking power in 1978, his main concern has been the stability and primacy of his regime.
In the first of three decades in power, Saleh the military man secured his position in then North Yemen by playing off the tribes, some of which were supported by Saudi Arabia.
In the 1990s, he secured national unity with South Yemen, merging the two into one state, first through political process and establishing partnership, and later by winning the war (1994) against the Southern leaders who tried to secede once again. But most importantly, he achieved unity by solidifying his power and boxing in his potential adversaries by playing off Northern-led Islamists against Socialist secular Southerners.
And over the last decade, Saleh has exploited the US "war on terror" to break his once-empowered Islamist partners turned political adversaries.
Following al-Qaeda's attack against British interests and the USS Cole in 2000, Saleh was reluctant to co-operate overtly with the US administration.
However, after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington (and an attack on a French oil tanker in 2002), Saleh agreed to co-operate with the US on all security fronts after obtaining American assurances that Yemen would not be targeted by the US in the "war on terror" as was Afghanistan and Iraq.
The US put the guru of the Yemeni Islamist movement, Sheikh Abdul Majid Az-Zindani, on its "terrorist watch list", and the Yemeni government put all the religious schools under its supervision.
To no avail
However, none of this helped Saleh secure his regime. Recent clashes in the Northern region of the country with the Houthis led to Saudi military interference on the side of the government and exposed the weakness of the regime.
Likewise, Saleh's inability to reduce the unabated political and security tensions in the South, as socio-economic conditions continued to deteriorate in the rest of the country, has all but exposed and amplified the weakness of his regime and its dependency on foreign economic and military aid.
However, with half of the population illiterate or living under the poverty line and one third unemployed, any attempt at a military solution could only exacerbate an already untenable situation.
Barack Obama, the US president, would be well advised to remember the advice given to his predecessor by General Colin Powell: "If you break it Mr president, you will own it."
Paradoxically, if the US continues to fail successfully in its "war on terror", it is those local autocratic leaders like Saleh who end up caring for its security instead of their own national interests.
The joke is on all of us ...