Saturday, 29 January 2011

YEMEN: High Stakes in the US War on Terrorism

Global media and political focus is currently on Egypt, more than any other country in North Africa-Middle East region. The world is watching Egypt with anxiety, very intense anxiety on the part of the conservative Arab states, the US, and corporations doing business in the Middle East. President-for-life Mubarak, loyal servant of US interests, accommodating toward Israel and the reactionary Arab states; facilitator and promoter to domestic and foreign millionaires, Mubarak is making it very difficult for Washington's wish to have a smooth transition toward another pro-West regime to succeed the current one.

Given the financial markets reaction and the spike in oil price to Egypt's uprising, the situation is very serious because people with financial and political power are concerned of a wider Middle East social explosion hitting the oil-rich Arab states. US and Western media coverage of the explosive situation from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond has been predictably focused on the question of 'how does this affect the West' and how can the West (mainly US strategic and economic interests) help toward a harmonious resolution that secures continuity of  a pro-West Middle East. Does this mean that the average person engaged in demonstrations in North Africa and Middle East is hitting the streets because of intense anti-Americanism, because they are poor and see no prospect, or are there many complex factors at work from ideological and political to social and economic? 
Although the current uprisings are not directly aimed at the US and they are more about economic hardships, deplorable conditions existed before 2011 as did the same authoritarian regimes. On the other hand, so did the widespread Arab perception of US neo-imperialism. Social unrest throughout the Middle East-North Africa is very much about anti-neo-imperialism and pro-social justice on the part of people who know that the 'war on terrorism' is a pretext used to repress opposition just as they know that their corrupt governments are virtual Western puppets in power to enrich themselves and a small clique of domestic and foreign interests. This much is true for Egypt, as it is for Yemen as it is for most of the region currently engaged in uprisings.

Amid Egypt's upheaval, there is Yemen where al-Qaeda poses a threat, as does a northern Shiite rebellion that al-Qaeda and Sunni Muslims oppose as an Iranian operation, and a south Yemen secessionist movement, thus completing tribalism and religious antagonism. Complicating the general picture of the popular anti-government uprising, al Qaeda has declared holy war on the Houthi-led Shiite rebels: "To our Sunni fellows in northern Yemeni provinces of Saada, Al- Jouf and Amran, we announced jihad against Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite advocates." To add to the absurdity of al-Qaeda fanatics, they went so far as to suggest a Christian-Shiite alliance! "America and Iran became one alliance against the Sunni people..." Adding to al Qaeda's harsh criticism of Shiites who are mainly in the north, the organization's attacks have been mostly in the Sunni south and east where they can more readily recruit among the young!

In the last six years, there have been clashes between Yemeni troops and rebels, largely because tribalism remains a very strong element against a weak central government. Even if the current pro-US government retains the area around the capital Sanaa, the country's fragmentation owing to tribalism and religious divisions is a possibility - this would be a situation like what existed before north-south Yemen unification or perhaps like Afghanistan where Hamid Karzai controls the capital but not much else. Under such scenario, al-Qaeda would be playing a role that could further destabilize Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. In short, the stakes in Yemen could potentially be much greater in geopolitical terms than in Egypt because the Muslim Brotherhood as possible worst case scenario for the US and Saudi Arabia is more acceptable than al-Qaeda having a larger influence in Yemen if the current pro-US collapses and the country is divided geographically, tribally, religiously, and politically.

Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia that spread across North Africa and the Middle East, opposition of more than 10,000 people gathered in Yemen's Sanaa University during the last ten days of January 2011 - continuing to this day 30 January - demanding economic and political reforms and calling for the overthrow of the authoritarian government. While opposition is mainly concentrated in the old 'Southern Yemen' areas, there were several thousand protesters gathered in other parts of the peninsula. The capital Sanaa is the core of social unrest that the government confronted with force as has been the case in Egypt and other Arab countries in the last few days. Yemen's president Ali Abdullah Saleh has used pro-government demonstrators along with security forces to counter the popular opposition, but that tactic designed to show that he still has popular support may run out of steam.

President Saleh blamed Al Jazeera and Qatar officials for inciting unrest, stating that:  "What the channel is doing only serves the Zionist (Israeli) entity and terrorist groups such as al-Qaida as well as the enemies of the Arab seeking to ignite dissent and threatening the future of the next generations." What makes Saleh's stamement interesting is that he is the closest ally that the US and conservative Arab states have in the country's history, although his statement that al Jazeera is both a Zionist and al-Qaeda propaganda tool was intended to rally public support behind the government.

Wikileaks revealed that the Yemeni regime, which has been closely obeying US policy on the 'war on terrorism', has taken credit for attacking allegdly al-Qaeda-linked militants when in reality it was the US that carried out the air raids. President Saleh had in fact given the US an "open door to combat terrorism" and he permitted the US to secretly ship arms to the Saudis for use in Yemen. US politicians and administration officials have argued that Yemen is the country where the US must stop terrorism (naturally, oblivious to the failed war against al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan). Obama doubled US military and 'security assistance' to Yemen, and US military trained the Yemeni security forces to fight terrorism. On 17 December 2009, the US launched two cruise missiles in order to take out 'terrorist targets', but instead killed Yemeni civilians (the numbers vary from 41 to 160). Amnesty International released photos of the incident. There have also been cases of US security forces in Yemen targeting individuals in Yemen, a country with which the US is not at war, thus making such clandestine operations illegal.

Giving the US a free hand in Yemen to do as it wished with its 'war on terrorism', Saleh was free to rule as a virtual monarch, paving the way for a life-long personal rule after which his son would succeed him; all while crushing political freedoms and doing very little to reform the anemic economy that ranks among the poorest in the world. As long as the Yemeni regime gave the US 'open door' policy to combat 'terrorism', Washington was unconcerned that it was backing Saleh's corrupt and tyrannical government - now of course Obama is on the side of the people demanding reform, as long as they do it peacefully and with a modicum of restraint. Unlike Obama, the political opposition al-Islah (Reform) party demands Saleh's removal from office and replacement of his government.

With 40 percent of its population living on less than $2 per day, with illiteracy at 50 percent and unemployment at 35 percent, Yemen is the poorest nation in the Middle East and one of the poorest on earth. Despite some oil revenues (25% of GDP), Yemen suffers severe water shortages, making agricultural development and animal husbandry as well as industrial development very difficult, especially under Ali Abdullah Saleh who has been in power for 32 years and has failed to move the country toward economic modernization. After becoming North Yemen's leader in 1978, Saleh ruled the Republic of Yemen (merging of north and south in 1990). As divided as it is in a nation characterized by tribalism and religious division, Yemeni political and popular opposition, despite negotiations with the government, will probably not accept reforms under the current regime. The opposition is calling for radical changes, but the question is under whose unified leadership in a country with a very weak central government and strong religious and tribal loyalties?

And just in case Yemen falls under a nationalist regime that is not pro-US, or even worse, if Yemen becomes fragmented, does the US then send troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen to combat terrorism in the Arabian peninsula? And what if the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia are next?  What then? Is there an alternative to the proved failed military solution that involves US Special Operations Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency operatives in Yemen engaging in covert operations without full Congressional oversight? Is there a alternative to perpetually backing authoritarian regimes like that of Yemen's Saleh, and using 'war on terrorism' as a pretext? Is US democracy better served when US government is perpetually engaged in the cycle of highly costly (in every sense of the word) military conflicts, including clandestine operations such as those in Yemen that have contributed to the social uprising?

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