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Castles Made of Sand: looking through Yemen & the course of the Long War

Monday, January 18, 2010

 With a failed terrorist attack against the United States during the holiday season of 2009, a man who tried to blow up his underpants succeeded at making Yemen the “breaking story” of every major U.S. media outlet and fattening the wallets of pundits everywhere. The country has been portrayed as a failed state, a terrorist haven, and a fifth front in the war on terrorism. But the truth is never as simple, or as sensational, as the media would have you believe.

The conflict in Yemen is another recent example of the linkages between economic dislocation, endemic poverty, and conflict. As the poorest country in the Arab world, it should be no surprise that Yemen is also a stronghold for anti-Western sentiment and terrorist activity. In its defiance to cast a supporting vote for a UN mandate that gave the U.S. cover to invade Iraq in Gulf War I, the United States cut the entire aid budget for the country. This act has been referred to as “The Yemen Precedent” in diplomatic circles and the effects of that decision are obvious today.

Al Qaeda does operate in the country. But the terrorist organization was operating there prior to 9-11, and after the bombing of the USS Cole, the Yemeni government (with ongoing covert assistance from the U.S. government) has rooted out the majority of terrorist training centers within the country. The government of Yemen has cooperated closely with the U.S. to prosecute counter-terrorism operations since 9-11 and, with the Obama Administration’s public refusal to send troops to the country, there is no “front” being opened there.

The Obama Administration has not expanded the focus of the Long War into the Indian Ocean/ Horn of Africa. Operation Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa has been quietly humming along since 2002, with U.S. and French forces using the tiny state of Djibouti to direct covert operations in Somalia, Yemen, and beyond.

But for the government of Yemen, Al Qaeda is the least of their problems. The lawless, northern region of the country is home to Houthi rebels that have been engaged in fighting against the governments of Yemen and (more recently) Saudi Arabia.

The government of Saudi Arabia views the porous Yemen border as a strategic threat.  Nebulous claims have been made within the Arab world that the Houthi, followers of Shia Islam, are being armed and funded by Iran. Recently, the Houthi have expressed the willingness to go to the negotiating table but these promises have been made, and broken, before.

Consumed by desperate poverty and fractious politics, the blunt instrument of military occupation has only exacerbated social unrest in Yemen and loyal community leaders do not have access to sufficient resources to take the fight to the separatist movement. But there are other weapons that can be used to fight an effective war.

The government of Yemen has recently declared “open war” against Al Qaeda while offering the fig leaf of amnesty to any fighters that lay down their arms. This reflects a nascent trend in counter-terrorism operations in moderate Muslim states; governments are reaching out to militants and offering rehabilitation programming.

This sort of strategy (employed in Pakistan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia) is often employed by states undergoing a democratic transition/ consolidation. Many Islamic states are referenced by the Failed States Index as having the high potential for state collapse. Islamic states, such as Yemen, are undergoing a rapid and painful transformation in response to a global Islamic Reformation. But these states are not collapsing, they are changing. Globalization is a violent process and the fabric of societies are being stretched thin by the pressures of modernization. 

The U.S. should be careful to support attempts at reconciliation in the Muslim world, rather than hold regimes at the barrel of a gun and expect results…the election of Hamas in the Gaza Strip being a good example of what can happen. Clerics in Yemen have vowed jihad if the U.S. escalates military activity in their country.

The Obama Administration has made the wise decision to publicly refuse to send U.S. troops into the country. The Long War can only be fought and won by addressing the socio-economic problems that generate terrorism. Yemen needs a stronger economy, not a stronger military. 

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