Friday, January 15, 2010

Yemen: Latest U.S. Battleground

Yemen: Latest U.S. Battleground

Stephen Zunes

Foreign Policy in Focus

January 8, 2010


The United States may be on the verge of involvement in

yet another counterinsurgency war which, as in Iraq and

Afghanistan, may make a bad situation even worse. The

attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines

flight by a Nigerian apparently planned in Yemen, the

alleged ties between the perpetrator of the Ft. Hood

massacre to a radical Yemeni cleric, and an ongoing

U.S.-backed Yemeni military offensive against al-Qaeda

have all focused U.S. attention on that country.


Yemen has almost as large a population as Saudi Arabia,

yet lacks much in the way of natural resources.  What

little oil they have is rapidly being depleted. Indeed,

it's one of the poorest countries in the world, with a

per-capita income of less than $600 per year. More than

40 percent of the population is unemployed and the

economic situation has worsened for most Yemenis, as a

result of a U.S.-backed structural adjustment program

imposed by the International Monetary Fund.


The county is desperate for assistance in sustainable

economic development. The vast majority of U.S. aid,

however, has been military. The limited economic

assistance made available has been of dubious

effectiveness and has largely gone through corrupt

government channels.


Al-Qaeda's Rise


The United States has long been concerned about the

presence of al-Qaeda operatives within Yemen's porous

borders, particularly since the recent unification of

the Yemeni and Saudi branches of the terrorist network.

Thousands of Yemenis participated in the U.S.-supported

anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan during the 1980s,

becoming radicalized by the experience and developing

links with Osama bin Laden, a Saudi whose father comes

from a Yemeni family. Various clan and tribal loyalties

to bin Laden's family have led to some support within

Yemen for the exiled al-Qaeda leader, even among those

who do not necessarily support his reactionary

interpretation of Islam or his terrorist tactics.

Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have served as migrant

laborers in neighboring Saudi Arabia. There, exposure to

the hardline Wahhabi interpretation of Islam dominant in

that country combined with widespread repression and

discrimination has led to further radicalization.


In October 2000, al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the U.S.

Navy ship Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17

American sailors. This led to increased cooperation

between U.S. and Yemeni military and intelligence,

including a series of U.S. missile attacks against

suspected al-Qaeda operatives.


Currently, hardcore al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen - many

of whom are foreigners - probably number no more than

200. But they are joined by roughly 2,000 battle-

hardened Yemeni militants who have served time in Iraq

fighting U.S. occupation forces. The swelling of al-

Qaeda's ranks by veterans of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's

Iraqi insurgency has led to the rise of a substantially

larger and more extreme generation of fighters, who have

ended the uneasy truce between Islamic militants and the

Yemeni government.


Opponents of the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of

Iraq correctly predicted that the inevitable insurgency

would create a new generation of radical jihadists,

comparable to the one that emerged following the Soviet

invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Unfortunately,

the Bush administration and its congressional supporters

- including then-senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton

- believed that a U.S. takeover of Iraq was more

important than avoiding the risk of creating of a hotbed

of anti-American terrorism. Ironically, President Obama

is relying on Biden and Clinton - as well as Secretary

of Defense Robert Gates, another supporter of the U.S.

invasion and occupation - to help us get out of this

mess they helped create.


Not a Failed State


Yemen is one of the most complex societies in the world,

and any kind of overreaction by the United States -

particularly one that includes a strong military

component - could be disastrous. Bringing in U.S. forces

or increasing the number of U.S. missile strikes would

likely strengthen the size and radicalization of

extremist elements. Instead of recognizing the strong

and longstanding Yemeni tradition of respecting tribal

autonomy, U.S. officials appear to be misinterpreting

this lack of central government control as evidence of a

"failed state." The U.S. approach has been to impose

central control by force, through a large-scale

counterinsurgency strategy.


Such a military response could result in an ever-wider

insurgency, however. Indeed, such overreach by the

government is what largely prompted the Houthi rebellion

in the northern part of the country, led by adherents of

the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam. The United States has

backed a brutal crackdown by Yemeni and Saudi forces in

the Houthi region, largely accepting exaggerated claims

of Iranian support for the rebellion. There is also a

renewal of secessionist activity in the formerly

independent south. These twin threats are largely

responsible for the delay in the Yemeni government's

response to the growing al-Qaeda presence in their country.


With the United States threatening more direct military

intervention in Yemen to root out al-Qaeda, the Yemeni

government's crackdown may be less a matter of hoping

for something in return for its cooperation than a fear

of what may happen if it does not. The Yemeni government

is in a difficult bind, however. If it doesn't break up

the terrorist cells, the likely U.S. military

intervention would probably result in a greatly expanded

armed resistance. If the government casts too wide a

net, however, it risks tribal rebellion and other civil

unrest for what will be seen as unjustifiable repression

at the behest of a Western power. Either way, it would

likely increase support for extremist elements, which

both the U.S. and Yemeni governments want destroyed.


For this reason, most Western experts on Yemen agree

that increased U.S. intervention carries serious risks.

This would not only result in a widespread armed

backlash within Yemen. Such military intervention by the

United States in yet another Islamic country in the name

of "anti-terrorism" would likely strengthen Islamist

militants elsewhere as well.


Cold War Pawn


As with previous U.S. military interventions, most

Americans have little understanding of the targeted

country or its history.


Yemen was divided for most of the 20th century. South

Yemen, which received its independence from Great

Britain in 1967 after years of armed anti-colonial

resistance, resulted from a merger between the British

colony of Aden and the British protectorate of South

Arabia. Declaring itself the People's Democratic

Republic of Yemen, it became the Arab world's only

Marxist-Leninist state and developed close ties with the

Soviet Union. As many as 300,000 South Yemenis fled to

the north in the years following independence.


North Yemen, independent since the collapse of the

Ottoman Empire in 1918, became embroiled in a bloody

civil war during the 1960s between Saudi-backed royalist

forces and Egyptian-backed republican forces. The

republican forces eventually triumphed, though political

instability, military coups, assassinations, and

periodic armed uprisings continued.


In both countries, ancient tribal and modern ideological

divisions have made control of these disparate armed

forces virtually impossible. Major segments of the

national armies would periodically disintegrate, with

soldiers bringing their weapons home with them.

Lawlessness and chaos have been common for decades, with

tribes regularly shifting loyalties in both their

internal feuds and their alliances with their

governments. Many tribes have been in a permanent state

of war for years, and almost every male adolescent and

adult routinely carries a rifle.


In 1979, in one of the more absurd episodes of the Cold

War, a minor upsurge in fighting along the former border

led to a major U.S. military mobilization in response to

what the Carter administration called a Soviet-sponsored

act of international aggression. In March of that year,

South Yemeni forces, in support of some North Yemeni

guerrillas, shelled some North Yemeni government

positions. In response, Carter ordered the aircraft

carrier Constellation and a flotilla of warships to the

Arabian Sea as a show of force. Bypassing congressional

approval, the administration rushed nearly $499 million

worth of modern weaponry to North Yemen, including 64

M-60 tanks, 70 armored personnel carriers, and 12 F-5E

aircraft. Included were an estimated 400 American

advisers and 80 Taiwanese pilots for the sophisticated

warplanes that no Yemeni knew how to fly.


This gross overreaction to a local conflict led to

widespread international criticism. Indeed, the Soviets

were apparently unaware of the border clashes and the

fighting died down within a couple of weeks.

Development groups were particularly critical of this

U.S. attempt to send such expensive high-tech weaponry

to a country with some of the highest rates of infant

mortality, chronic disease, and illiteracy in the world.


The communist regime in South Yemen collapsed in the

1980s, when rival factions of the Politburo and Central

Committee killed each other and their supporters by the

thousands. With the southern leadership decimated, the

two countries merged in May 1990. The newly united

country's democratic constitution gave Yemen one of the

most genuinely representative governments in the region.


Later in 1990, when serving as a non-permanent member of

the UN Security Council, Yemen voted against the U.S.-

led effort to authorize the use of force against Iraq to

drive its occupation forces from Kuwait. A U.S.

representative was overheard declaring to the Yemeni

ambassador, "That was the most expensive 'no' vote you

ever cast." The United States immediately withdrew $70

million in foreign aid to Yemen while dramatically

increasing aid to neighboring dictatorships that

supported the U.S.-led war effort. Over the next several

years, apparently upset with the dangerous precedent of

a democratic Arab neighbor, the U.S.-backed regime in

Saudi Arabia engaged in a series of attacks against

Yemen along its disputed border.


Renewed Violence and Repression


In 1994, ideological and regional clan-based rivalries

led to a brief civil war, with the south temporarily

seceding and the government mobilizing some of the

jihadist veterans of the Afghan war to fight the leftist rebellion.


After crushing the southern secessionists, the

government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh became

increasingly authoritarian. U.S. support resumed and aid

increased. Unlike most U.S. allies in the region, direct

elections for the president and parliament have

continued, but they have hardly been free or fair. Saleh

officially received an unlikely 94 percent of the vote

in the 1999 election. And in the most recently election,

in 2006, government and police were openly pushing for

Saleh's re-election amid widespread allegations of voter

intimidation, ballot-rigging, vote-buying, and

registration fraud. Just two days before the vote, Saleh

announced the arrest on "terrorism" charges a campaign

official of his leading opponent. Since that time, human

rights abuses and political repression - including

unprecedented attacks on independent media - have

increased dramatically.


Obama was elected president as the candidate who

promised change, including a shift away from the foreign

policy that had led to such disastrous policies in Iraq

and elsewhere. In Yemen, his administration appears to

be pursuing the same short-sighted tactics as its

predecessors: support of a repressive and autocratic

regime, pursuit of military solutions to complex social

and political conflicts, and reliance on failed

counterinsurgency doctrines.


Al-Qaeda in Yemen represents a genuine threat. However,

any military action should be Yemeni-led and targeted

only at the most dangerous terrorist cells. We must also

press the Yemeni government to become more democratic

and less corrupt, in order to gain the support needed to

suppress dangerous armed elements. In the long term, the

United States should significantly increase desperately

needed development aid for the poorest rural communities

that have served as havens for radical Islamists. Such a

strategy would be far more effective than drone attacks,

arms transfers, and counterinsurgency.



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