The Failing of Yemen

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has deemed that “[t]he instability in Yemen is a threat to regional stability and even global stability.”  British PM Gordan Brown is setting up a global conference on Yemen for later this month.  Senator Joe Lieberman has declared that the next US war will be in Yemen.  Clearly, since Christmas we have all realized how the instability in Yemen will be the downfall of civilization as we know it.  The problem is that in the rush to react to the failed bombing of Christmas many people have gotten the country completely wrong.  While Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is certainly a threat to the west and must be monitored, it is probably more of a threat of the staying power of the Yemeni government.

Misunderstanding Yemen

Simon Tisdall of the Guardian talks as though President Obama will soon send in troops to colonize Yemen:

It’s unclear as yet what level of increased intervention in Yemen Barack Obama is contemplating – but that there will be heightened US involvement there for the foreseeable future is beyond doubt. Trouble is, Yemen cannot be treated in isolation. Obama’s bid to secure southern Arabia under his banner risks a destabilisation of the wider region akin to what ensued after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

He then goes on to point out that the Houthi rebellion in the north of the country is sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah.  He continues:

Jousting with Iran over Yemen will not assist the arguably more important western objective of securing a nuclear deal with Tehran…Despite Republican barbs about supposed weakness, Obama may yet opt for a low-profile, partly covert approach. But the decision is balanced on a knife’s edge. As matters stand, it would not take much to trigger muscular American intervention and with it, a new desert storm.

This would be a good point if the Houthi rebellion or the fact that it is supported by Iran had anything to do with the AQAP presence in Yemen.  Yemen is an incredibly complex country with many threats to its stability.  Unfortunately, Mr. Tisdall is not the only one to throw blanket conclusions over the separate issues in the poor Arab country.  While Yemen does not have “the sectarian divisions of Iraq, [they do not have] the war lords of Afghanistan and they don’t have the clan violence of Somalia,” Yemen is full of divisions and to confound these divisions is to disregard the reality of Yemen.

A Divided Country

Michael Collins Dunn does a great job of dissecting the divisions in the country.  First there is the Houthi rebellion.  It is not, as some point out, a Sunni-Zaydi split.  The Houthis are Zaydis and the majority of Yemen in Sunni, but President Saleh is a Zaydi and many Zaydis have no problem with the republic (Zaydism is a sect of Shia Muslims).  It is the Houthis rebelling against the government.  Second, reminiscent of the Yemeni civil war in the 1990’s there is the split between the north and south of the country.  The conflicts in the south concern secession of the former Marxist PDRY from the north.  Again this is a portion of the country fighting the Yemeni government.  Thirdly, the Yemeni people are wary of Saudi Arabia to the north, particularly after Saudi forces bombed targets in Yemen in November.  Distrust of Saudi Arabia finds its origins in the 1930’s .  Finally, AQAP is found throughout the mountains country.  Many parts of the country are beyond government control and are home to AQAP.

To recap, Yemen has three main divisions: the Houthi rebellion, the North-South divide and AQAP (as well as distrust of Saudi Arabia).  It is imperative that these divisions are looked at as separate conflicts, though they all pose a threat to the central Yemeni government.  While only AQAP poses a threat to the west, all three are serious concerns for Yemen.

These complicated divisions within the country, as well as commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq and the probable Arab and/or Muslim backlash negates any possibility of American intervention in the country.  Yemeni MP Shawqi al-Qadhi has warned against the dangers of an American military intervention and the White House has recently ruled out sending troops to Yemen.  This is good as the American military would probably increase Yemini support for AQAP and create an even greater threat to the Yemeni regime.  America is content to work with President Saleh and continue to fund Yemeni efforts against AQAP.  The actual stability of Saleh’s regime is questionable though.

A Corrupt Partner

Saleh has been in charge of the country since 1978 when he took control of North Yemen in a military coup (technically he was President of North Yemen until 1990 and then President of United Yemen after unification), making him one of the longest tenured Arab rules.  In addition to favoring nepotism in the country that is only considered ‘partly free’ by Freedom House (the Yemeni daily, Al Ayyam, which has no political affiliation, but is based in the south, was recently shut down while protestors were shot at by the Yemeni military), Saleh runs one of the most corrupt governments in the world, scoring 141st of 180 countries on Transparency International’s 2008 CPI score.  Yemen is also very poor; it ranks 175th of 229 states in terms of GDP per capita and unemployment is around 35% and 45% for the under age 17 group.

All of these startling statistics point to a country with serious and deep internal problems that are not easily fixed.  Unfortunately, to combat AQAP, the United States does not have any other choice besides supporting Saleh’s somewhat nasty regime.  This seems to be yet another example of America embracing some uncomfortable bedfellows.

What Now

Achieving success in the conflict against AQAP is walking on a razor’s edge.  The United States must effectively prop up Saleh’s regime in the face of three internal, anti-governmental movements.  If the Houthi rebellion succeeds in damaging the Saleh regime or if the southern secessionist movement succeeds, America will have an even weaker partner to fight AQAP.  If Yemen descends into a chaotic failed state, and this is possible, the fight against AQAP becomes nearly impossible.  While propping up the current government (Barbara Bodine, the US ambassador to Yemen in the 90s, thinks the best way to prop the government is to help cement the civil services that provide services; I agree), the United States must stay out of the country as much as possible.  Any increased US presence in Yemen has the double effect of strengthening AQAP while hurting the legitimacy of the Saleh regime.

The Obama Administration must keep its head while dealing with AQAP in Yemen.  A misstep here or there and the country could go the way of Somalia with an ineffective central government while rebel forces reign.  Obama seems to understand this and has thus far been working hard to keep the situation in Yemen under control.  As I wrote earlier, the reemergence of Yemen in the international media is doing very little to help the country and making the balancing act there more difficult.  Yet, as Bodine notes, AQAP in Yemen is a divided organization with weaknesses that can be exploited.  While AQAP is certainly a real threat, the United States needs to pay particular attention that Saleh’s regime does not collapse under the pressure of attacks from the Houthis, the secessionist movement or, now, AQAP.

Photos from the photo essay ‘Daily Life in Yemen‘ by Sandy Choi on Foreign Policy.  There are many other beautiful shots of Yemen and I highly suggest taking a look.   James Estrin has another photo essay entitled ‘On Assignment: Yemen, with Nuance‘ for the New York Times.

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