The Paradox of Yemen

Since Christmas day and the now infamous ‘underwear bomber’ of Detroit, a lot has been made of Yemen and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  While it is a good thing that people are aware of the threats in Yemen, it is a shame that the attention has become so intense.  For many reasons, chiefly surrounding the internal instability of the country, Yemen has become the home of a resurgent Al-Qaeda – something that, unlike the American public’s interest in Yemen, has been occurring for the better part of a decade.  Although the government has been working extensively with the government of Yemen against the expansion of AQAP for some time now, the Christmas Day bombing attempt has been the catalyst responsible for shooting the poorest Arab nation into the spotlight.  Unfortunately, an exclamation point on American activity in Yemen is exactly what can empower AQAP and undermine US efforts there.

Before Christmas, American intelligence and the government collaborated on an attack on AQAP.  While in the news, American and Yemeni officials strove to give all credit to Yemen and to keep American involvement seemingly at a minimum.  With the US already heavily involved in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would benefit the US to seem to be more of a cheerleader than a star player:

Reluctance among administration officials to comment on whether American forces had launched missiles into Yemen appeared to reflect a desire to make clear that the Yemeni government was in the lead in counterterrorism operations within its borders. There is a great reluctance among leaders of many Muslim nations to have any cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism operations made known. American officials said some of the strikes against suspected terrorist camps in Yemen earlier in the week were carried out solely by local forces.

A view that is also held in Yemen :

Dr. al-Qirbi also told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen are being carried out by the Yemeni armed forces, and there is intelligence coordination between Yemen and a number of countries, whether this is Saudi Arabia or the US or other countries in the region, because this coordination is important in the process of monitoring and pursuing these elements. There is [also] support to train and equip troops to combat terrorism in Yemen, but in the end the forces that took part in the confrontation and struck these terrorist elements were the Yemeni forces.”

However, since Christmas, more emphasis has been placed on America’s involvement in yet another Arab country.  ‘US Widens Terror War’ was written in the New York Times while Al-Arabiya wrote that “US Starts Anti-Terror Campaign in Yemen,” preceded by the line “Al-Qaeda wing in Yemen says will avenge US raids.”  Meanwhile, the Shabab rebel group in Somalia has publicly pledged support for AQAP and typical meetings between the US and Yemen have just become high-profile.  British PM Gordan Brown has very publicly put Yemen at the top of the agenda for an international meeting in London later this month and editorial are promoting more US action in the Arab country.  The attack has also been used in the US to criticize the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison – an act that would require sending nearly 90 prisoners back to Yemen.

It wasn’t long ago that the US administration was working with the troubled Yemeni government in the shadows of Afghanistan, Iraq and domestic US issues.  As Marc Lynch points out, all of the anger and enthusiasm in the West demanding action in Yemen (Joe Lieberman helpfully points to Yemen as the next US war) is unhelpful:

In fact, this risks becoming a classic case of massive overreaction playing right into the hands of a terrorist group.  The Obama administration, which actually has been working on the Yemen issue all year, now risks falling right back into the classic catalog of Bush-era conceptual and practical mistakes as it scrambles for a response.  To get Yemen right will require getting the complicated terrain of Yemeni and Gulf politics right — not just looking for some kind of military intervention or an influx of foreign aid in order to be seen to have “done something”,

Yemen is a very fragile country fighting a separatist movement in the south and an Iranian backed rebel movement in the north.  The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh – already unstable – can’t afford to appear as a puppet of the United States.  For the aims of the West – the weakening or eradication of AQAP – the United States and Yemen must walk a fine line that balances the internal instability of Yemen with the corruption of Saleh.  Relying on the Saudis is not an option and a blanket reliance on aid to Saleh’s government would be misguided.  To effectively combat AQAP in Yemen, the US must be attentive to the true situation on the ground in Yemen and work extensively with Saleh in order to keep attention away from the conflict.

Lynch ends his opinion by saying that the Obama administration must not stray from its course and overreact to the recent attempted attack on Detroit.  This is certainly true.  With such emphasis, correctly or incorrectly, placed on Afghanistan and Iraq, the Nobel Peace Prize winning president can ill-afford any unnecessary attention focused on Yemen.  I would add that an effective Yemeni action plan for Yemen would best be kept silent; that is, US involvement in Yemen is hampered by the general knowledge of US involvement in Yemen.  Already calls for a strong US reaction have strengthened AQAP, internationalized the conflict there and brought other actors to the aid of AQAP.

Thus, while the Christmas Day underwear bomber did not succeed in bringing down his target, he was able to focus the public eye on Yemen, an eye that has thus far been looking elsewhere.  If continued, the attention the world is now focusing on Yemen could prove to be prolong and intensify the conflict there.

Photo from Biyokulule

Update: A good article in Asharq Alawsat noting the differences between Yemen on the one hand and Afghanistan and Iraq on the other.

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